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Is our future our past?

Chock
At ten months, Chock the ox is already earning his keep around the farm. Photo: Steven French Family.

If there's one thing most post peak oil commentators have given too little consideration to it's how goods will be moved and how farms will function in our scary and fast approaching future.

Sure there's the fraternity that talk about bicycles and walking and they're on the right track, particularly if you're lucky or wise enough to reside in a city or village.

However a means of energy or transport that doesn’t involve some form of technical reliance such as electric cars, high speed rail, nuclear power, wind turbines, solar panels or waver power, seems to be strangely missing from the dialogue. Certainly low-tech conveyances such as barges and sailing ships occasionally get a mention, and rightly so. But when the blindingly obvious is mentioned eyes often glaze over.

Horsepower

The one thing that's almost always overlooked is using animals for transport and farm work.

Pretty much until the early 1900s it was animal power that kept civilization going. Yet today, a little over a half century since many rural people still used animal power, using animals to produce actual horsepower seems unimaginable.

Yet, a snapshot of 1900 could be a view of our future.

Back to the future

I'm lucky enough to live on the island of Tasmania, one of the seven states of Australia.

Much of Tasmania is highly fertile and we have a great climate. Although Tasmania may seem remote, our farmers have always been as keen to modernize in ways akin to our farming cousins in the US. The widespread adoption of tractors for farming happened here around the time of World War II.

But the time that I really want to focus on is the 1930s, when my parents were growing up and most farmers still relied on horses. The maternal side of my family farmed only a couple of miles away. Both families’ lifestyles and farming methods were similar and would have been typical of almost everyone who worked the land in those days. They had:

  • No electricity
  • No telephone
  • No internal combustion engine on the property

My dad’s parents did have a car but my mother’s family never drove. Nan and Grandpa never had a driver's license even though they farmed another property a fifteen minute bike ride away.

A good living

The point is that they enjoyed a good standard of living, certainly by the standards of the 1930s but also, I suspect, by today’s standards. There was a vibrant social life centered around the little township of Whitemore, with several sporting teams and social functions usually held two or three nights a week. These people were not country yokels by any means. They were articulate and well traveled. Their farms were highly productive. And they used virtually no petroleum.

Yes, they had a little kerosene for their lanterns, and maybe grease and oil were used to lubricate moving parts on the horse-drawn equipment. But their use of petroleum was pretty much nonexistent compared with today.

There was a train-line not too far away and the children rode their bikes to the station to catch a steam-train to high school, a 45 minute trip. Nowadays the local children catch a bus for a one hour trip to their nearest high school. Much of the farm produce was delivered to the railway station by wagon where it was transported to markets.

Their water supply was pumped from the well thanks to a windmill and a hand pump.

Man and beast alone

Paddocks were plowed, worked and sown with horses. At harvest time horses pulled binders which tied the crops into sheaves. The sheaves were later forked onto horse drawn wagons and made into huge stacks not too far from the farmyard. During early winter a wood-fired traction engine (steam-engine) pulled a drum from farm to farm. A drum is a huge threshing machine which took 15 men to operate. It was belt-driven from the traction engine's flywheel and it threshed the grain from the straw. These drums were still working around Tasmanian into the 1950s. They can still be seen in operation at some of our historic farming field days.

The point that I'm belaboring and repeating is that these farms used almost no petroleum, were highly productive, and farming families and laborers enjoyed a good standard of living.

Could we return to this style of living and farming? The answer is yes, but with some not-insurmountable difficulties.

Ramping up to face the effects of peak oil

First the number of heavy horses required would take decades to breed up. Also there are very few people around with the ability to work heavy horses. It's a skill that I suspect not everyone has the ability to acquire. An ill trained or poorly driven horse is dangerous and it can take years to learn the skill necessary to work a horse properly.

The answer is oxen (we call them bullocks here in Australia). There's no shortage of cattle and they are much more placid and easier to train than horses. Also their harness requirements are minimal and they are easy to feed and maintain. The only downside is that oxen are slower than the horse but hey, that’s not so bad, is it?

Up until the mid 1800s all animal power on farms was supplied pretty much by oxen, although the farmer may have had a light horse for riding or to pull a cart. In most American Western movies and TV shows horses are pulling the covered wagons that made up the wagon trains. In actuality, these covered wagons were mainly drawn by oxen. Possibly a slower but certainly a more sensible option, ox could pretty much live off the land they were passing through and didn’t suffer from many off the health issues of the horse.

Could oxen save the day? Quite possibly. Cuban President Raul Castro recently called for ox to be used as beasts of burden as a way for the economically strapped communist country to ramp up food production while conserving energy.

Ramping up food production – conserving energy – a cash strapped economy – falling oil supply? Sounds familiar? How long before a leader of the western world pleads for a solution to the same problems? Or have they already but are looking in the wrong direction?

--Steven French for Transition Voice

Steven French is a photographer, writer and farmer who lives with four generations of his family on their farm in Tasmania. He's Federal President of the Ryeland Sheep Breeders Association of Australia and also breeds Berkshire pigs and Light Sussex chooks. The family grows their own vegetables, fruit and berries, keeps bees and eats home-grown meat and dairy products. Steven has worked draft horses and is currently training an ox. His 2010 book, Hand Made in Tasmania, was on the state’s best-seller list for several weeks.

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