I watched as my 11-year-old son tightens down a sheepshank knot on a sled loaded with firewood. The two-year-old team of oxen stand ready to move forward up a 14% grade on a 1/4 mile trek toward home and the wood pile. Five feet of snow has fallen over the remaining part of February into the first week of March. A sled trail of packed snow reaches from the circular turn around of our log landing area out towards our home. This packed trail of snow facilitates the easy transfer of cut firewood to its final destination via our homemade sled. The load now readied, my son commands the oxen to move forward, and they start out at a trot. He runs alongside the sled and then hops on as the team puts their heads down and slows their pace leaning heavily into the yoke. After 100 yards the hill levels a bit, and he stops them for a short rest to catch their breath.
The day before I had felled and limbed up several dead standing trees. I had then cut logs 10 to 16 feet in length. My son, carrying his axe, had waded through the snow with a logging chain in the other hand to hook up the logs in preparation for my arrival with the ox team. Then he checked the logs over for any remaining limbs and cut them off while the team and I crossed through a creek a rod (16.7 feet) wide and weaved our way through mature timber. We moved the last short distance up a 35% hill through shallower snow still reaching at times up to the oxen’s chests.
As we reached the first log, I spun the oxen 180 degrees in place. My son then ran the other end of the logging chain through the yoke’s iron ring and attached the grab hook onto the appropriate link. With a verbal command the team moved forward down the hill following in the trail they had made coming up. They hesitated briefly at the icy water’s edge, then quickly plunged in while I stood off to one side and waited for them to cross. I followed by leaping onto a fallen log with my caulked boots, ran along it, and sprang over the remaining distance to the far bank. Trotting along behind the chained log, I followed as the oxen pulled it to the landing area to join the other logs they had skidded out earlier in the day. I stopped the team with a verbal command, backed them up, and hooked the log. The chain was left to drag behind the oxen as they trotted along behind me following the skid trail to repeat the same process a log length further up the hill.
Hardly two months earlier we had started out on this endeavor not ever having trained a team of oxen armed only with the knowledge of others’ experiences contained within a book.
Why would one resort to such an unconventional method of procuring firewood? I suggest that if necessity is the mother of invention, then surely economics drive eccentricity. Allow me to share how this concept has unfolded in our lives over the past decade.
After six years of marriage our first child was born in the spring of 2008. We were living in central Montana on a small half-section (320 acre) ranch comprised of sagebrush and dry land hay on the years in which it happened to rain. We had bought and sold small groups of bred cows, would calve them out, and later sell the cow-calf pairs again at a modest profit. My wife and I owned a farrier business along with several other small businesses. We worked hard and lived well until the 2008 recession hit. It affected each of our businesses, and we lost about 2/3 of our gross income which reduced our net income for household expenses by 50%. The birth of our next two sons within three years created yet another catalyst for ingenuity. Clearly, drastic financial changes were needed in our familial situation to maintain a balanced budget.
A Ranching Economy
Cattle, equipment, and the associated debt were greatly reduced or eliminated. The cattle which remained were fed by pitchfork through the winter. Usually a horse stood saddled and tied by the hitching rail during the day, ready for immediate use as the day’s workload evolved. Labor in the form of working cattle and building fence for the neighbors was exchanged for either additional pasture or Montana’s alternate currency– packaged grass-fed beef. Farrier work was traded out to keep my trucks running, etc. Instead of routine monthly trips to large box stores for high quantities of packaged food products and raw ingredients which my wife used for baking and cooking, a couple of milk cows, chickens, and a flourishing garden kept us well fed. She manufactured the butter, cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese, etc for the ingredients necessary to create healthy, high-calorie meals to feed an active family. The integration of dairy cows onto your land has the potential power to account for 90% of the calories needed to sustain a family. For us, trips to the grocery store now became an optional choice.
We didn’t have any extra money, but we stayed fully “employed” and content throughout that time. Over the years, we had grown up hearing stories from an older generation of hardy people from the high country.
“A depression,” they’d laugh. “Why… we were in a constant state of depression. We didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but our family ate well, and we were happy.” They were proud of their iron gripped handshakes adamantly attesting that the origin of their firm grip came from hand milking cows as children. And now as my wife and I worked side by side milking our cows, we felt blessed by God to live so well during those years as many others lost significant amounts of wealth represented by numbers on a computer screen.
Moving On To Idaho
Eventually for us the combination of drought, the inability to obtain long term land leases for our cattle, and further growth in our family led us to move back west to the state of Idaho where the grass was literally greener. Diverse land resources were more abundant, extended family was located nearer to us, and the home-schooling community was vigorously blossoming with young growing families like ours. We brought along with us the lessons we had learned as we sought to refine and improve the historical model of a productive small family farm.
Meanwhile, my work situation now took me long distances away from my home and family. I found myself trying to straddle holding onto a specialized trade with a fruitful career away from home, and finding the time to be a part of educating my children and working to establish our improved family-farming model.
I soon realized that time and money are not equal. Money, in fact, was an inferior compensation for the missed time that I needed to train my sons and spend with my wife. When an appropriate amount of time is invested into training your children in a correct work environment, they will become assets and not liabilities to your family and society.
So with time and experience my goals changed from empire building to becoming a family builder. After my mental re-alignment, the solution became easier to target.
Dollars Versus Sweat
If during times of prosperity the division of labor (specialized trade) develops to meet an increased demand for products, it then follows that during less “prosperous” times in regions with depressed local economies, it becomes necessary for a person to possess a variety of skill sets to fully realize one’s labor potential nearer to home.
An example of this from a real world scenario is: I am building a barn roof and need sixteen 4″x10″ rafters 20′ long. Solution #1: The barn rafters cost “X” dollars each at the lumberyard and this price will cost me “Y” hours of labor 250 miles away from my home and family. Or Solution #2: I can pick up an axe and several splitting wedges, go cut down three ponderosa pines that are spaced too closely together in my wood lot, and hew out my rafters in “Z” hours at home while my children watch, learn, and participate. Does #2 Solution sound like a foolish theory? Well, it isn’t. The young father with whom I related this example to was looking thoughtfully up at the hand hewn rafters in my barn. He was amazed by the numbers as they worked through his mind. It’s safe to say the unspoken thought occurred to him that he could likely make better wages at home by the money he would save in employing an axe than by working overtime to pay for a similar building material.
This particular barn’s building materials had been accumulated by thinning out a few acres of an overgrown woodlot to improve its future health and productive capability. Eighty percent of the building materials had been shaped by an axe. I had never before hewn a round log into a square beam with a broadaxe. However, I was willing to learn how to do it to keep more of my labor at home.
The feeling of accomplishment and the peace of mind gained by creating this home employment opportunity near my family was indescribable. The expression on my wife’s face as she gazed at the first hewn beam for her dairy barn was priceless. Eccentric? Perhaps.
With a dispassionate glance toward the future, we can project that our medium of exchange will continue to devalue at a faster rate than wages will rise. This will lead to a slow or fast degradation of purchasing power. Your ability to purchase your own excess labor by at least partial employment at home is a hedge against the erosion of your overall future purchasing power. It logically follows that attention should be given to the development of an agrarian-based lifestyle while maintaining a specialized trade which can be contracted out at a rate and quantity which benefits your family’s best interest.
So back to the oxen. What led to their replacement by the end of the 19th century? Were they unproductive and inefficient?
No, it appears that as prosperity and the availability of abundant natural resources increased, so did the demand for a faster rate of movement to transport goods over longer distances. The family milk cow, prior to the industrial revolution, fed most of the animals and humans on the farm and raised the steers for future oxen which could later be turned into beef when fully mature. Localized markets within a few miles of these small farms consumed the surplus in trade for specialized goods which the farms could not produce for themselves. This highly productive regional pattern allowed for the division of labor in a community. Specialized and diverse farming operations could now invest surplus capital into raising and training the horse which would later pay for itself by moving products several times faster than a team of oxen. This meant products could be transported longer distances to new markets farther away. Later, steam power and then the internal combustion engine would replace the horse to speed up this process to a much greater degree. Other breeds of cattle were now introduced which produced more beef in a shorter amount of time. The single dairy cow which initially served the farm in beef, dairy, and transportation needs was now replaced by three distinct specialized operations.
Protectionist policies were developed due to a changing national perception that tended toward centralist ideology. Large corporations sprang up and were enabled to flood distant communities with a high volume of low-cost goods displacing local craftsmen’s small market share for the benefit of the consumer. The monopolistic favors granted to large corporations by the central government gave them a type of headright to control vast amounts of natural resources and transportation industries. The changes introduced by central planners began to re-define America and the American dream. The early vision of an agrarian America by men such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had mutated into a continued pattern of the consolidation of small farms producing diverse commodities, into mega farms utilizing mono cropping practices. The small farmer’s descendents relinquished their land heritage and immigrated to a suburban lifestyle. The American dream had transitioned from a model of land ownership to a model based upon career income potential, consumerism, and debt.
But wait! This eventuality begs these questions: Now that man has efficiently generated the harvest and consumption of resources to unsustainable levels, will future generations be able to justify the further purchase of speed that technology companies will try and market to them? How many hours of labor away from home and family will it cost to purchase high-technology, time-saving marvels? Who is it that really gains from the increased productivity of a time-saving device? Could it be that current and future economic conditions will once again create a demand for the small family farm with the benevolent milk cow and hard-working ox? Is it better to be dependent upon simple or complex systems? The answers to these questions may help us to identify how low-technology, “eccentric” solutions re-implemented today can promote establishing an environment for growing healthy families into the future.
Small Family Farms
We believe that healthy families are the foundation of society. The compacts (agreements) which they form to preserve the general welfare of the people through a representative government should allow the decision making process for a region’s best interest to start at the family level working upward through county and state governments. These ideas were recognized long ago by wise men who voiced fears of a consolidation of the individual States into one central government which would rule from the top down. Fortunately, during this time period, the wise men’s advice was heeded and a bill of rights was incorporated into our federal constitution which sought to protect against centralization. But despite these measures, the later transition of a federative republican form of government into a centralized republican system of government advanced the growth of corporate servitude. This inferior model inadvertently destroyed healthy families, small farms, and the trades within their local communities. The re-emergence of the small family farm and individual access to land resources are paramount to the development of healthy families and communities which can alleviate today’s financial imbalances.
Our family is continuing to search out these “eccentric” solutions due to economic necessity. We have had to change our philosophical approach to continue towards this end. Are you willing to take an unconventional route to discover a fulfilling way to live that encourages a healthy family dynamic? This way of life is within reach of all those who are willing to put forth the effort to attain it. It could be as simple as starting out with a tent on 10 acres of land. Develop your agrarian lifestyle to become a productive source of food and income for your family. Your mind is the only limit to the creative possibilities that abound. There is a large void which still exists to be filled by future small farm families with innovative ideas. Do not underestimate the value of relational contact for a successful future. Your neighbors and community have the greatest potential impact on your enterprise. For those interested in more information detailing our eccentric solutions, search out our web site.
In conclusion, we’d like to thank SurvivalBlog for its support of core principles that run parallel to those which we espouse. Thank you for creating a venue to share ideas–ideas hammered and tempered to be fit solutions for the future.