Coyote Run Farm

Lessons Learned - It's a Material World

1. Minerals in the field

You might think of a field as being a chunk of land that just sits there. But minerals go in and out at an astonishing rate.

For starters, a field has to be made safe for the machinery. Every place in the world that is cold enough to have winter freezing and thawing of the ground experiences an unending migration of rocks to the surface. Southern Ontario in particular is blessed with deep soils full of various sized stones from the glaciers of the last Ice Age. This is great if you want to build a stone wall or foundation, not so much if you want to grow crops.

To start with, you beg, borrow or rent a stone rake. A stone rake is essentially a large and wide fork that attaches to the front of a tractor. You just drive along until it gets full of rocks and then dump them somewhere. Then you move them again because you put them in a bad spot. Most years after that, there aren't enough stones to bother getting a rake. So mostly you end up prying them out with your hands when you stumble across one and tossing them to the edge of the field. Annoying and tedious, but then you wanted to be a farmer.

Then there's gravel -- also known as small stones and sand. Sand -- also known as exceptionally tiny stones. All of which is mostly made of silica (SiO2). But that isn't important here and the editor should be chastised for leaving it in. Ice Ages have a habit of making lots of gravel. Most crops don't grow terribly well in gravel. Most weeds do. Too bad there isn't a market for weeds.

You could open a gravel pit, if you can clear all the regulatory hurdles. But then you're no longer a farmer; You'd actually be making good money.

Finally, we have minerals in living things. They consume and excrete various minerals in their little molecular factories. Amazing stuff really, when a few starter cells with detailed instructions in their DNA can convert several pounds of dirt into a juicy red tomato one molecule at a time, in just a few months.

Of course, what goes in, comes out. Fertilizer (artificial or manure) goes into the field. Plants come out. Repeat each year. When not fixing equipment, that's pretty much what farming actually consists of -- going around in circles.

2. What is it with concrete?

Mix limestone, clay, and gypsum, then add water. What do you get? Cement of course! Something the Romans invented. Better yet, you add some of that gravel you've got lying around and you get ... concrete. A wonderful building material when used in compression.

It has been widely commented that communist states seem to love shabby concrete -- huge, de-humanising amounts of it. And since the dispirited workers never mix it right and cheat on the materials, everything built with it starts to decay and crumble within the year.

For apparently unrelated reasons farmers also have an infatuation with concrete that goes beyond economics, only they mix it really well and throw in tons of scrap steel to reinforce it beyond any practical need. Woe unto the person who needs to remove it. That would be Brent, who got to spend quality time with the jackhammer.

Brent using a jackhammer
Concrete, all the way down

Concrete makes great material for workshop and garage floors as well as foundations, but please try to limit yourself to those applications. And whatever you do, please don't reinforce it with an antique metal wagon wheel. Pity the person who comes after you.

3. Machinery

What fun are elements such iron and carbon until you smelt them into steel with which to manufacture motorized instruments of fear and confusion? Oh yes, you can make them useful too.

At first we used a wheelbarrow and an assortment of hand-tools for all the heavy jobs. Heck, we didn't even have a pickup-truck.

Now you can't really be said to be running a farm until you own a pickup, so in fairly short order we traded in the ... um ... station wagon  and got a shiny red pickup-truck. Since no one wanted to scuff up the nice new truck, we ended up using a beat up but rugged old lawn tractor built a few decades previous.

Mostly this meant attaching the wheelbarrow to it. And ropes. And chains. And improvised wood and metal contraptions. Amazingly, nobody got hurt.

You wouldn't think a little garden tractor could help pull down a barn, but you'd be wrong. You wouldn't think a little garden tractor could go mud-flat racing. You'd be right.  *ahem*  Moving along....

Once we had taken several years in which to completely incapacitate ourselves, we finally felt we were justified in purchasing a tractor. That, and we'd smashed in the solid steel frame of the garden tractor trying to get it started one day. That happens, right? You see Brent thought it just needed some primitive cranking by means of pushing it along while working the ignition. So we took it inside the partially collapsed south barn (now an outside pad) which had the longest run of smooth concrete on the property. Brent worked all the controls while I got behind and pushed to get us going as fast as we could. This old beast was a solid piece of gear with no plastic parts. I put my head down as I strained to push as hard as I could. Brent was sufficiently pre-occupied with working all the levers, stops and pedals that he neglected the steering for just a few moments too long.

We were going at a really good clip when we hit the support post. The garden tractor stopped instantly with a violent shudder slightly to the right. My arms did an admirable job of absorbing the impact so that I didn't get hurt much when I crashed into the back of the tractor. Obeying the law of inertia, Brent flew forward out of the seat. Somehow all of his body parts went clear over the steering wheel in a forward somersault landing a good six feet in front of the suddenly motionless tractor with half of the shorn key still in his hand. The blade of the key was still in the ignition. Some sixth sense had caused me to look up at the last second and I managed to shout "Are you alright?" before Brent had actually hit the ground.

Maybe they should put seat-belts in garden tractors after all.

One of our contraptions
First, we needed more weight to keep the spikes in the ground
Then we needed more power.

With the little-lawn-tractor-that-could in the shop getting repaired, we realised that it was time to get the proper equipment for the job. So we had to fork over the big bucks to get a twenty-year old John Deere. We've never regretted that. Tractors are tough and serviceable machines that can be kept going indefinitely and hold their value. They are, however, a little less entertaining.

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