Sunday, December 15, 2013

Things I Think I've Learned This Week

The words one says - mean something.
The things one does - really affects real people.
I am not defined by my answers to Facebook quizzes.
You can not know me by what I like or dislike.
"We will never have goats again! Even if they are free!" does not mean what I think it means.
One can wear out his welcome.
Running out into the world shouting "This is me take it or leave it" is noble but rarely effective.
"Be all things to all men" has a great deal of Biblical Wisdom about it.
The things I could do, what I could be but for the lack of a single-minded purpose.
To speak well and to comprehend is accomplished, simply, by swallowing one's pride and surrounding himself with people who speak well and think well. Even if those people are in a book, on TV, or on a DVD.
From behind a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.
There is nobility, courage, and heroism in the world that is not measured by how much one owns, how much one owes, or how much one is liked.
There are few quiet places in the world - but seek them out, spend some time within them - one will be better able to help someone else after the rest.
Pride sucks.
Negativity is so...negative.
Grabbing hold of and keeping one's IS-ness is harder than it sounds.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hobbit Breakfast

Hot Black Coffee, Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice. Hot Buttered Grilled Toast, Scrambled mix of free range chicken and duck eggs, Applewood smoked bacon, potatoes and onions fried in bacon grease, mushrooms and a grilled tomato.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Boyd's Megarant Concerning Healthcare Reform Part 3 - LEAN

Toyota: Reputation for building high quality, long lasting, inexpensive automobiles.
Cadillac: Reputation for building high quality, long lasting expensive automobiles.

Two car makers, two very different philosophies on how to build a car.

Toyota is widely considered as the originator of the LEAN manufacturing process. Though upstart car makers like Saturn adopted the same principles before GM (the maker of Cadillac) bought them out and ruined them. The Toyota model looks like this.

One car built at a time. Every line worker has the power to stop the assembly line if they see something wrong or something doesn't meet a certain specification for quality. One car is built. When it rolls off the line it goes through one more quality assurance check and then is ready for shipment. This is called, in the vernacular, Single Piece Flow. Do one thing at a time, one product at a time, excellently every time.

What ruined Saturn? GM ruined Saturn and it basically boils down to their American philosophy of manufacturing. Every Cadillac built that leaves the assembly line goes to one of two staging areas; Minor Problems or Major Problems. In these staging areas, defects in the manufactured automobiles is corrected by a team of troubleshooters prior to being delivered to the dealer showrooms. This is called, in the vernacular, Batch Flow.

The result? Two high quality cars, one more expensive, not just because of the name on the badge, but because of the process taken to create them. One, Toyota, very efficient. The other, Cadillac, quite inefficient.

And now for health care... there are two very different kinds of hospitals out there - not to over simplify the problem, but every hospital can be categorized into one of these two manufacturing processes. Single Piece Flow (LEAN) or Batch Flow (the anti-LEAN). There are many at various odd stages between the two but really, our hospitals are efficient or not. If you've worked in or been the victim (benefactor?) of a hospital you probably have a pretty good idea of what I mean.

The Toyota model of LEAN manufacturing has been introduced into our health care industry in the United States. It started in the laboratories. I will now describe the processes in the Laboratory of two very different hospitals - the LEAN and the anti-LEAN.

Hospital A - Blood is drawn from a patient in their room by a Phlebotomist. The test tube is placed in a rack the technician carries around from room to room, floor to floor, until the rack is full and it is turned into the Lab for processing. The lab takes this rack of test tubes and collects them until the gather enough together to place into their mega standalone chemistry analyzers. This entire collection of test tubes filled with blood are all analyzed simultaneously ( or nearly so) and the results are all logged at once. The results are then delivered back to the units from which the blood was drawn and the logged in the medical record - generally manually and all at once. This is BATCH flow. The draw back? The first patient to have their blood drawn has had to wait an hour for their results. The last patient to give blood has waited, perhaps, 30 minutes or less. The Lab shows a turn around time of 10 minutes because it took 10 minutes to run the racks of collected blood. This "lost time" phenomenon is a hallmark of all BATCHING systems. If the analyzer breaks, ALL samples are delayed or lost.

Hospital B - Blood is drawn from a patient in their room by a Phlebotomist. This sample is delivered to the Laboratory within minutes of it being drawn. The barcoded tube is placed in the analyzer immediately and within minutes the results are returned to the doctor electronically and the medical record is updated automatically. The true turn around time for this blood sample is 15 minutes or less. The phlebotomist, meanwhile, has drawn blood from the next patient, the sample sent, analyzed, and results returned in minutes. The result? Every patient has the same quick turnaround experience.  If the analyzer breaks, only ONE sample is delayed or lost while the Lab reverts to their backup process.

This gives you the background for understanding how the LEAN manufacturing process is being introduced, at a cost of several hundred thousands of dollars per year paid to vendors or consultants who offer the analysis, LEAN training, and then get the heck out of dodge. Then it is up to the hospital to spend many more thousands on new Single Piece Flow analyzers, software and computers to crunch data, space renovations, and in some cases the addition of staff to monitor LEAN Processes going forward.

LEAN Basics- All LEAN programs can be boiled down to these basic tenets.

1) Eliminate Waste
2) Standardize Work
3) Single Piece Flow
4) Process Monitoring
5) On the Fly Corrections

1) Eliminate Waste - This is as simple as it sounds and yet much harder than one may suppose. This really means not having more supplies, tools, parts, etc. on hand than you need for a specified period of time. It also means the death of the souls of your packrats who save everything "in case I need it some day." The key to this tenet of LEAN is that one can not be concerned about "someday"; one is only concerned with now. Someday is taken care of in the next section.

2) Standard Work - this simply means that no matter who is doing the work, the work is always done the same way; tools are always where they are supposed to be; supplies are always stocked; supply reorders are always done at the same regular intervals; documentation is always kept uniformly. This way whomever is completing the task knows where things are, when to reorder supplies, and how to do the job.

3) Single Piece Flow - this is vital to LEAN processes. Take care of one thing at a time. In spite of our culture's insistence - or ability - to multitask, taking care of one customer at a time makes the customer feel special and allows the server to concentrate on just them. Taking one test tube at a time, within reason, makes turnaround time consistent for all customers. Repairing one machine at a time, does the same thing for a customer waiting for their machine and allows the technician to focus on this one thing, increasing thoroughness and efficiency, clear work spaces, all tools readily available; no searching through tool kits to find the ones needed for multiple jobs, etc.

4) Process Monitoring- during LEAN assessment, consultants will stage video cameras around the area being assessed, allow a few days for staff to forget the cameras are rolling, and then record a normal business day. From this comes the concept of "Move the Damn Box". During at least one video session it was noticed that staff were like ants in a disturbed anthill, walking all over the place, sometimes miles of cumulative distance in the period of a day. Sometimes these miles are logged inside one room. It is all done in short bursts of frenzied activity. During one of these sessions an equipment operator kept tripping over a box that had been "stored" in a walkway on the floor. When the video was reviewed, the consultant apologized, in advance, to the operator and then asked, "Why don't you just move the damn box!?!" Monitoring the process to make sure it is as efficient as it was first created eliminates what is called "behavior creep" - lapsing back into lazy, sometimes dangerous behaviors over time.  If something isn't working making adjustments.

5) On the Fly Corrections - comes out of constantly monitoring the processes  and being flexible enough to make common sense adjustments to keep things efficiently running. This is kind of like performing a daily (hourly?) tune up of one's car.

The modern health care institution has become so layered with bureaucracy, inefficient process layers designed to correct inefficiencies in other layers, that LEAN is no longer a concept, though EVERYONE I've ever trained in these concepts ALWAYS says something like "that's just common sense! I naturally think like this. Why are you wasting my time training me on something that's just common sense?". Unfortunately they say these things as they are returning to their desk, piled high with stacks of papers and folders, to work on 3 different devices disassembled on their workstations. It sounds simple. It is. But training healthcare workers in these simple principles costs health care facilities hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

LEAN is good. LEAN should be implemented in health care - all departments from housekeeping, clinical engineering, facilities maintenance, nursing, administration, dental clinics to ICUS and Open Heart rooms. Any attempt at health care reform that does not mandate efficiencies, like LEAN, to be implemented is putting a bandaid on a sucking chest wound.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Boyd's MegaRant Concerning Healthcare Reform - Part 2 - The Consultants

The consultant for a hospital for which I was working, briefly, introduced himself as an expert in Evidence Based Medicine. The $10,000 in fees, plus travel and lodging expenses the hospital paid, I should guess, made him the happiest of all men. In exchange for this handsome sum he was to provide us department directors a two day seminar, which will provide us with tools we can use to promote a "new paradigm in the management of patient care to meet the challenges of the Affordable Care Act." Sadly, or not unexpectedly, there was not a physician or front line nurse in the room.

This "new paradigm" is summed up like this: Hospitals must learn to use the evidence they see before them to diagnose and treat disease and injury.  Ahem, wait, were we NOT doing this? If not, what are we doing?
 This evidence should include feedback from the patient, the patient's family, the technology we use to measure anatomical processes, the electrical signals from the heart, displayed as an EKG; the microscopy used in automatic urinalysis that shows the chemical make up of what leaves the kidneys;  the sodium and potassium levels in the NaK pump within our cells; the black and white (and more frequently) color images from various xray scans which show the internal workings and health of our structures and organs. All too often, the gentlemen said, physicians rely on things akin to trouble shooting charts to determine diagnoses and treatments. They use it like this:

The patient has a rash, a headache, no fever. Look up rash, headache, no fever follow the column over, okay she must have this. Now look up the disease, she MUST have, and prescribe one of these medicines. Have a nice day! (I have yet to run across a physician I've used that actually says Have a Nice Day after he gets done prodding you and making up illnesses for you, so consider this poetic license to show the the doctor's thought process has concluded and you no longer occupy an iota of memory space in his brain.)

Then there's the docs who make frequent use of WebMD and Google (or Bing) to diagnose and treat you.

Another disturbing trend in healthcare is the number of specialty physicians. There is a prevalent myth amongst many of us, that the best thing for us when we think we have something wrong with us is to see a specialist. Here's the deal. A dermatological specialist, has a basic education in general physiology, which may, or may not, be sufficient to begin with, but has spent the last 3 to 4 years learning, in specialty, about the skin. He then diagnosis what is wrong with your skin. He also prescribes therapy based only on his special knowledge of the skin and what his books tell him to prescribe for your current problem. Unless you find the rare "holisic" thinking specialist - holistic as I use it here means "taking in the whole" body and all of its processes and functions and how it affects the skin - this doctor will not even pursue, based on other evidence, what may be causing the skin to be in the condition it is in. For instance, he may treat just the skin, but ignore, because of ignorance, or because he doesn't really care, how one's digestion, diet, lifestyle, or body chemistry is manifesting itself in the boils, fungus, blotches, or acne displayed by one's skin. If you doubt, think about a time you've had a particularly difficult to get rid of condition, when you've been from specialist to specialist and they all run the same tests, get the same results, and frequently prescribe the same medicines in larger and stronger doses. If you've been through this, you are the victim of what I call Specialist-Troubleshooting Guide Medicine. Now the juxtaposition. Evidenced based medicine will take into account other evidences that may be leading to your condition. We should be worried. First of all, because this happens much too frequently. And secondly because hospitals, are spending your deductibles and the 20% you still owe on your last hospital visit to train their staff on something they describe as the new thing in medicine. Evidenced based medicine.

Wasted on All the Wrong People

It has occurred to me, on more than one occasion, that sometimes, good things are wasted on all the wrong people.

"Youth is wasted on all the wrong people", said the old guy on the front porch, as George Bailey hesitates to kiss Mary in the hydrangea bushes in It's a Wonderful Life.

Tornadoes and hurricanes occur with unheard of ferocity, at least in my life time. Once lush, fertile farm land has, in these days, become dry, hardpan, cracked, surfaces of clay that extend feet into the earth. High winds topple century old oak trees killed by drought. This hard clay of earth, now holds no water, even if it comes hurling from the sky. Inches, nay, feet of water pounding, compacting the already hard-rock soil, runs off carrying things with it, into our low places. The timing is all wrong too. When once we counted on a bounty of Spring rains prior to the blast furnace of the western Arkansas summers, and then bountiful fall rains to replenish the soil for the winter greens and soon to come spring asparagus, we now get a deluge in late March or early April, and then nothing until November.

But that is not all. Climate change, or whatever you want to call it, also wastes the bounty we do receive on all the wrong people. Not only does the cool weather finally come up to a month later than it did at the turn of the millennium, the heat comes later and is more intense. Stretches of drought and 100 degree days, make the long hot summer that much longer and that much hotter, and the farmers like me that much grouchier. It makes us wonder why we do what we do...

As I left the office building in downtown Little Rock, where I am attending some training, the clouds rolled in, the thunder boomed lowly, and the lightning cracked. By the time I finished my taco to head back to class it had come a deluge. "I wish it would stop raining. Everyday this week its rained right at lunch time and I get soaked on my way back to the office", one fellow diner bellowed - not using her inside voice at all.

It was then that it occurred to me that this rain, this bounty from heaven has been wasted on this ignorant urbanite. Farmers in 91 counties in Arkansas would give, their whatevers, for an afternoon rain shower for a week. While I am taking city water from the reservoir to water my garden, the Big City is taking rain that should be falling on my garden, collecting it in gutters and drains connected to underground pipes and dumping these gallons of life sustaining liquid, now mixed with city-filth, into the Arkansas River.

This rain today and like the rain of the past week has been wasted - on all the wrong people.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Lost Art of Writing, Communication ShortFalls, and the Disappearance of the Semi-Colon

 Here is an actual email I received at work today. See the bolded line below. I am pretty sure this is not what the salesman meant to say. I wonder if he were hand writing this note if he would have made the same mistake?

From: [Name and Company Redacted]
Sent: Thursday, July 18, 2013 3:14 PM
To: Hutchins, Boyd M
Subject: Re: [Name Redacted] Email

Perfect. Thanks for your help with this. If I can help with anything do hesitate to call. 
[Name Redacted]
Regional Vice President
Mississippi  Region
[Company Name Redacted]
Cell - xxx-xxx-xxxx

On Jul 18, 2013, at 2:40 PM, "Hutchins, Boyd M"  wrote:
Okay – UPS should be picking up the loaner this afternoon.

Tracking number xx xxx xxx xx xxxx xxxx

Boyd M. Hutchins, CBET, BMET iii
Clinical Engineering

I started writing at least 1 handwritten note or letter per week. Sometimes I just hand deliver it to the recipient, other times I send them through the mail. I have yet to receive a hand written response to any of them. I have received some verbal "Thank Yous" the next time I meet them, but that's it. Actually, one lady I sent a note to actually lauded the fact that I took the time to hand write the note, the quality of my penmanship,  and that it is rare for anyone to hand write a note anymore. She was impressed! She communicated this to me via email, stating, she wished she had more time to hand write a note but thought email would be quicker.

I am saddened by the discontinuation of the semi colon in the English Language. This curious punctuation mark  was in its heyday a prominent addition to almost any descriptive paragraph; now one must click options, insert symbol, scroll through the other antiquated symbols on the list, click add, and then 'X' out of the options back to the screen on one's phone where one types their abbreviated text message. Fortunately the semicolon still holds a place on the computer keyboard, just below the colon on the key. I believe it is one of the least used keys on my computer because it is the cleanest. The semi-colon key is the anchor of proper typing technique. Index finger on the 'J'; middle on the 'K'; ring on the 'L'; pinky on the ';'. And this is still a testament to the semicolon's endurance as a grammatical device, but it in no way approaches the glory of its former days, as its use in a two page paragraph by Hugo or Dumas, or IN THE WORD OF GOD!

For those grammatical connoisseurs who still relish the use of this altruistic punctuation mark; I salute you! For those who have never used a semi-colon; or used it improperly; below is the definition of the semi-colon, what it is used for, and, perhaps for the first time for you, a semi-colon actually used in a sentence. Though I have used no less than 5 times already.

NOUN: the punctuation mark (;) used to indicate a major division in a sentence where a more distinct separation is felt between clauses or it
on a list than is indicated by a comma, as between the two clauses of a compound sentence.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

I Had A Feeling - Deep Down In My Gut

Shamrock and Thistle Farm, 5:30 AM
Somewhere in the middle of Blast Furnace, Arkansas

Up early is the only way during this time of year. Work until 10:00 AM. This is when the too-close Sun breaks the top of the trees lining the eastern border of the property and begins to try the resolve of those humans and animals still living, or mostly living.

I was able to plant 60 feet of green beans in our slowly-being-renovated garden. I meant to take some pictures to post but as the sun cleared the trees, the batteries overheated; chemicals raised in increasing amounts of agitation, boiled over, rendering the electronic device obsolete. It occurs to me that, back in the day, when picture taken relied on mechanics, optics, and the inverse square law, batteries were not required. The chores were done and some staging for some night time projects completed, I surveyed the farm just to check up on some things. The cross garden is coming into shape and the tomato plant located there, which had given us our first tomato of the year, picked too soon as it always is, had turned two more smaller fruit that had turned a deep salmon color and felt soft to the squeeze. I almost picked them - almost, but remembering the tartness of the first I decided, against something in my belly telling me to go ahead, to give them one more hot day to ripen fully. I went inside, got some things in the house accomplished, a big breakfast gulleted, the nap time she comes and goes, and then, the time being fulfilled, I go outside to pick our tomatoes which should be very ripe and ready to eat.

Apparently something got to it before I did. An eyewitness described a Female, Black and White barred, rose come, slightly pink legs leaving the scene while they were closing the gate of the garden. A warrant was issued for the apprehension of the alleged perpetrator. It will be served tonight. A trial will be commenced. Due to the egregious nature of the crime, the proceedings will be without a jury and I will be the judge. The hen will get a fair trial, then I will incarcerate her in solitary confinement for a period no less than 3 days. If this hen doesn't lay 2 eggs during the 3 day sentence, she will be executed at dawn on the fourth day...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Boyd's MegaRant Concerning Healthcare Reform - Part 1

How many carts does one department need? I walked into our parts room one day to retrieve our magnificient, 24v Craftsman, cordless drill with the laser sight and "work piece" LED lighting system, and chuckless auto-power bit grip (this will show up again on my list later, and began the long and tedious process of moving various odd carts, portable storage bins, and hydraulic lifts out of the way to get to the back corner wherein our most glorious drill is propped, prominently, on the gray painted altar we fashioned for her and realized that, these carts, storage bins, and hydraulic lifts are always right there, impeding the fulfillment of my immediate need for the exalted drill. I mean, how many carts do we really need? I ventured a thought, which died a quick death, like so many clay pigeons at a skeet range. I thought, perhaps, that these carts and things were always here because my coworkers put them back here after they are used. But, knowing Clinical Engineers the way I do, I realized that they NEVER put tools back where they got them after they are done with the job. Here is the sad, sad truth. A cart is made to have wheels. A cart without wheels is generally referred to as a...wait for it...a table. So, a cart still possessing its natural gift of wheels, that never moves, is being prevented from fulfilling its destiny. The cart, in effect, is performing the job of a table. And like 90% of Americans, according to Max Lucado, the cart, possessive of its wheels, is in the wrong job; as many of us, possessing certain talents, skills, and dreams, are disappointingly so, in the wrong job.

I had to clean water-boogers out of an incubator in the Lab one day. Let me explain. The Blood Bank freezes platelets collected during blood drives and such, for use in patient care. The platelets are frozen to extend their life to keep them viable for use in the human body. There are many uses for this portion of our blood, too many to mention here. Now, in the old days, Pre Y2K, platelets, prior to being used in the human body, were removed from the freezer and placed on a table (without wheels) upon a bed of paper towels to thaw to room temperature which, in a hospital, is usually kept at right around 73 degrees F. When they reached room temperature, measured by seeing that the bag is completely thawed, they were delivered to the unit performing the infusion therapy, where the bag is placed into what is called a blood warmer, a calibrated machine which heats the contents to body temperature, a precise 98.6 F. This process was effective for decades. This process had few fail points. Paper towels don't fail. Room temperature doesn't fail and unless room temperature gets above our body's natural temperature, it never will. But if it does, the last thing on the lab tech's mind will be the platelets on his counter. He'll most likely ignore the rapidly thawing bags and be on the phone calling the facility maintenance department to fix the air-conditioning. Alas, as my good friend and coworker says, "Progress has gone on for far too long." Now we have incubators for platelets. Bags are placed in an insulated box, equipped with heaters and airconditioners to "regulate" the thawing process. Thawing too fast? Turn on the air. Thawing too slow? Turn on the heat. Sounds great right? But wait, there's more. The incubator has temperature monitors that send electrical signals to a box inside the incubator which translate those signals into binary information a computer can understand. Why? Because there is a computer sitting next to the incubators - a $2600 medical grade computer, which takes the binary code, inserts into special proprietary software to graph the thawing process, write reports, and send the reports through the hospital network to the Technical Chief sitting in his office, the insurmountable distance of 10 feet away from the incubator. Additionally, because the thawing process is made more linear by agitating the platelets, an optional "shaker" cabinet can be purchased, and was in this case, which sits inside the incubator and gently, at the soothing rate of 60 oscillations per minute, shakes the bags back and forth. Of course, the computer controls this rate of shake, based on the thawing curve, speeding it up if the linearity gets out of whack, slowing it down too, of course. This shaker, in order to operate, has a CAT-5 network cable connected to a network port, which then links, as well, to this computer. All of this technology, and I had to clean water-boogers out of the incubators drain. Because it is equipped with A/C, there is an evaporator installed as well, outside the incubator, crudely bolted onto the back. When condensation collects, the water fills a pan inside the incubator and is supposed to drain to the outside and fill the evaporator. When this process occurs, the computer, you may have guessed it, signals the evaporator to turn on. It sounds fancier than it really is. The evaporator is a box, open on the top, in which resides a heater coil, that boils the water so it, well, evaporates. Remember the old way I described? Condensation would also occur with the room temperature method of thawing platelets, which was remedied, not by a computer, and miles of network cabling, but by simply taking one of those paper towels and wiping off the bag. With this new-fangled technology, the water tends to grow algae - water, heat, closed places, trays open to heated air, and city water tends to grow things I call water boogers. I have to clean these growths out of these drains twice a year on both machines to keep the evaporated pans from over flowing into the incubator's electronics cabinet which is conveniently located in the bottom of the incubator.  To make matters worse, the lab is so congested with technology like our incubator and many other things too wonderful to tell, I have to go to my parts room to retrieve the hydraulic lift cart (a cart with wheels and a hydraulic cylinder used to lift the deck of the cart to counter-top level so I don't have to lift a heavy instrument, I can just slide it onto the cart) to remove the incubator from the lab, and roll it 1.2 miles down hallways which make up this little city that is our hospital, to our shop and my workbench. The resident engineer who clocks in at 7:30 AM, assumes his position at his bench closest to the front door, legs extended, leaning back in his chair, both arms raised and resting, criss-crossed upon his head shouts - it seems this is his function - "Whatcha gonna work on Boyd?"
"A $25,856 paper towel," I grumble.

The 5ft Tape Measure was broken. To make an accurate x-ray, to eliminate any magnification of the image, the distance between the source of the xray and the film must be maintained at an optimal 40 inches. This is called the Source to Image Distance (SID). In the old days, x-ray machines had a built in measuring tape that the technologist, once the patient was positioned on the table, would draw down the tape while adjusting the tube, as read on this measuring device, to the required distance. Then, technology took a step in the right direction - that is, technology attempted to become more precise while eliminating the possibility of human error - by installing detents in the tube crane that snapped the tube at 40" from the film with an audible click and electric brake. The technologist no longer had to worry about getting the SID to exactly 40". Starting, perhaps, right after Y2K, technology made a wild leap forward (?) and here is what happened. The xray machine we needed to fix had a tape measure mounted to the side of the tube assembly to measure the SID. The tape, after many uses, snapped in two. A Clinical Engineer working at the hospital placed an order for a new tape measure from the manufacturer, thinking this was a special tape measure as there were no markings to indicate that it was an off the shelf brand. The company informed the engineer that the SID Calibration Assembly (tape measure) would cost $753.12. After the engineer said a few choice words to the manufacturer he decided to disassemble the xray tube house to see if he could identify this measuring tape and find it somewhere else. When he got it off the machine he turned it over and saw the word STANLEY in its familiar black and yellow logo on the side - the side that was hidden during mounting. The engineer went to Home Depot to find a new one, found the same model and length, and bought it for $4.98. Problem solved right? Not so fast my friends. The manufacturer had machined little rectangular holes along the length of their STANLEY tape measure and installed sensors to count how many holes passed by, and then using a computer to calculate the distance, a signal would be sent to the tube crane to turn on the brake. Understand that these holes were punched into the tape, obliterating the markings one finds on a normal tape measure. For this advancement in "technology" your health care plan deductible barely pays for this one part.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Sometimes Dreams...

Corinth Mississippi, Airport East of Town on State Highway 72

Summer 1996


The distance from the squadron of Air National Guard C-130 gunships overhead to the wide brown eyes of the 6 year old below must have been insurmountable to him as he gazed into the sunlit sky. Round and round they circled. As the little boy held the hand of his father with his small right hand he shaded his face from the sun with his left. As the planes circled, his head followed them slowly. The rumble as they passed by parallel with the runway shook them both and the dozens of other spectators who had assembled for the free air show. Round and round they went as they broke formation and aligned themselves nose to tail for the final approach.

“Looks like they’re going to land,” his Dad said to him. The child was mute, awestruck, standing there in his shorts and tank top, tiny water bottle strapped to his fanny-pack.

The gunships made their approach from the north flying lower and lower, one pass, from right to left and then another. Lower and lower they went until the spectators could read their tail numbers. Slowly the rear door of the planes opened simultaneously, and they circled one more time. Doors now fully opened, they made their sweeping right hand turn and lined up with the runway again. In a single line and in order from the front aircraft to the last men started falling out of the doors. One after the other falling into the air. And then like popcorn the little dots exploded into white clouds as the chutes opened.

The Dad looked down at his son, still speechless, mouth and eyes opened wide. The inexpressible joy that is regularly seen on the face of the young and only rarely on the old lit up the father’s heart as one by one the men dangling from the white cloud of chutes dropped silently to a low spot in the ground across the runway from the crowd.

There was a moment of silence as the planes flew off into the southern horizon and the little boy looked up at his father and then back to the empty runway and then back again as if to ask in that wordless way children can do, “What’s next?”

Suddenly the boy jumped as loud pops sounded, startling the crowd back into the moment. Smoke rose from the trench in red, white, and blue colors filling the sky and the runway. Nothing but smoke could be seen the runway had disappeared into this patriotic cloud. They stared into this cloud and eventually detected movement as the Airborne Rangers snuck silently, slowly through the smoke, weapons at the ready. As they emerged, in full gear, they formed ranks with precise half left and half right turns until the entire squadron had cleared the cloud slowly dissipating into the hot Mississippi air.

From the ranks the four squad leaders quick-timed to the front and in unison, shouted:


“We Are Army Rangers! Attack Dogs for Democracy!”

The Dad teared up a little bit. The little boy looked up at him and said, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
Sometimes dreams come to pass...sometimes they are not what you expected. They are dreams fulfilled nonetheless...
 Aaron serving on the color guard for the exit of General Petraeus in Afghanistan. (before all the scandal)

Aaron in his Class As

Thursday, July 4, 2013

VietCong Grass, Miniature Roses, and PBA Backsliding

 Wow! There is Oregano in there! It took almost two hours to pull the Vietcong grass out of this 12 SqFt patch of Oregano. I found several dozens of Dutch Iris Bulb we had planted 5 years ago that had never been thinned. They are being moved to another area in the garden tonight. The VC grass was quite the challenge. I call it Vietcong grass because its roots burrow deep into the earth and criss cross in a network of interconnecting tunnels. And just when you think you have won, you look back and ask why did I spend so much time and energy reclaiming such a tiny patch of real estate. And then you realize that you didn't win - it's more like a tie. Eventually it will be back and you'll have to do it all over again.
 These are miniature roses that Martha Stewart says aren't worth the trouble to transplant. These are the kinds of roses you give to  someone else as gifts. You'll see them in grocery stores from time to time. Ostensibly, there purpose is to die shortly after the holiday for which you bought them is over, becoming root bound, if they are not root bound already when you bought them. To transplant these we used a technique described by Michael Pollan in his book Second Nature a Gardener's Education. Digging the hole twice as large as you think it needs to be, filling it with water, removing the plant, not so gently from the pot it was in, and then tossing it, again not so gently into the hole, covering with rich loose soil, and then watering again. Here Patt has mulched with leaves after removing VC grass. Through out the spring they have bloomed at least twice. Patt has dead-headed them in the hopes of more flowers in a couple of weeks.

 The gargantuan plan behind and to the left of the sunflower speaks to the fertility of our soil in the cross garden. A whole lotta plant but not a whole lot of tomatoes just yet. This variety is the Carbon tomato which will be a deep purplish, almost black color when they are ripe. The cross garden used to be part of the back yard, tree stumps, VC grass, and rocks. Now, after years of amending the soil with organic matter, digging, and planting, it has become the most fertile patch of land on the farm.

The sunflowers, as a side note, were planted by the many species of birds that feed from a nearby bird feeder.

After a week of mowing with a push mower and weed-eating the  thigh high grass and weeds that are goats are incapable of keeping up with we now have a clear path from the house to the barn. There's Disle, my truck off to the right. I told Patt that we are now officially Arkansas Rednecks in that we have 4 vehicles, only one of the running the way it should, and I just mowed around my farm truck, because, Disle won't start.

Farming Makes You Stupid Addendum - The Muscadines

One of the smartest men I know, Lester, was relating a conversation he had with his good buddy Ry one Saturday afternoon concerning his struggles with keeping weeds out of his Muscadine  beds.

"Ry, I've tried everything. Can't get a lawn mower in between the plants. A hoe goes too deep and it cuts some of the roots; the weed-eater slices up the trunk of the vines, or I end up clipping some of them off. Don't want to spray weed killer because if I put too much or get too close it deadens the plant," bemoans Lester, "you've got muscadine vines, what do you do?"

In one of those eternal moments where actions communicate more fully than words ever could, Ry gets down on one knee next to one of the vines and within 10 seconds has pulled every weed from around the plant, by hand.

The fact that Lester let everyone know this happened is a testament to his humility and to his understanding that modernity, while sometimes extremely nice in its convenience, is not always the best way of doing things.

This is another illustration of how our dependence on machinery to do our farming for us has made us dumber. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I've been mowing and weed-eating all week - since another friend of mine fixed my Craftsman Lawnmower in exchange for two loaves of Patt's bread, and I finally figured out how to load string in the weed-eater.

I preach and preach on this blog to NOT use fossil fuels - or at least I encourage others to do as we have done and eliminate them wherever possible - in their small scale farming. From time to time, however, we find ourselves falling behind for various odd reasons and the only way to catch up is to crank up a gas powered machine. I guess that is the difference. In our case we use it only when necessary. In Lester's case, the machine has just always been there and, in a way, the machine trains us to use it to the point we sometimes forget the great joy and simplicity of simply stooping over and pulling the weed.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It's Okay - I'm From Arkansas

I was standing out on the front porch the other evening.

Smoking a cigarette.

In my boxer shorts.


When a shiny Cadillac pulled up along side the road. The electric windows powered down revealing a well decorated blue haired lady.

"You should be ashamed of your self! We shouldn't have to look at that! Don't you have a bathroom?!?"

I shook it, flexed at the knees like we men always do and stowed it away again. I took a long draw from the smoke, blew out a puffy cloud.

"Naw! I ain't got a bathroom! But it's okay. I'm from Arkansas

Pig Tractor Part 3

 After only three weeks on this patch, the pigs had tilled it all up, we moved them to the next area and we planted tomatoes and Mississippi Silver Crowder peas, mulching heavily with old hay the morning after our rainstorm described in "Struck By Lightning". Between the rows of peas on the right I have a bed prepared for a planting of garlic come October.

 After only two weeks (the pigs are now HOGS and becoming more efficient at pulling up the weeds) the second patch of garden space has been cleared. Now its our turn to lay out the beds and plant with something that will add nitrogen to the soil and something that will loosen it a little.

 Here are Squeal and Grunt in their final paddock in our garden area. This over grown area has already been obliterated by their tough jowls and muscular snouts. The picture was taken after only two days on the patch. Next up for them - they will do the same in our pasture areas where we will throw down grass and clover seed for the rest of the year.

This, in an unrelated note, is our asparagus bed (three 30 foot rows) all "ferned out". It has finally been weeded and mulched. Nothing else to do here until the first heavy frost kills the ferns. Then we snip them off at ground level, fertilize the area, lay down a heavy blanket of leaves, and then place the ferns on top to hold it all in place. Then, God willing, by the time the Irises bloom out next spring we will be up to our ears in asparagus!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

It's Okay - I'm From Arkansas

I had the idea for a series of very short stories I would call "It's Okay. I'm from Arkansas" a few years ago on an ill-fated "family reunion" we "good" Hutchinses held in Branson Missouri. There were 12 of us on the trip. Mom, Dad, my sister,  Patt and me, and our three boys, and my brother and sister in law and their two lovely daughters. After a weekend of shopping and a "Hee Haw" type musical show, it was left up to us (Patt and I) to decide where to eat one last time before heading home.

We decided on an Irish Pub located around the Promenade there in Branson, much to the chagrin of my mother and sister. I checked with my brother to make sure it was okay if Patt and I ordered a pint of Guiness. He said he didn't mind. I was worried that our drinking a beer would cause an uncomfortable situation with he and his daughters. It did uncomfortable situation with my sister and mother was, of course, inevitable. "What are you drinking?" they asked. "Root beer", I said.

We had all finished eating our meals. Every plate was still half full. Mine because I ordered too much, my sisters and mother's because they would not admit they liked it even if they did. The waitress came out to present the check and asked if we would like "To Go" boxes for our left overs. Mom and Sis said "no" because we were going to be driving 6 hours home.

Patt and I said yes. But since no one else wants their left overs, we would take them all. "Just bring out a garbage bag. We'll fill it up to feed the pigs when we get home." The waitress smiled and said "Sure!"

I glanced down the table  at Mom and Sis to be met with looks of incredulous disgust - shock really. I looked at them and said in my most reassuring, sarcastic laden tone:

"It's okay. We're from Arkansas!"

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Struck By Lightning

I started writing "Hot and Dry and Humid" in my farm journal (which I hope to turn into Boyd's New Arkansas Farmer's Almanac someday), what seems like a year ago. Progress on the farm has been occurring in fits and starts, go out, work a little until I just start feeling a little dizzy, then back inside for a rest. Hot and Dry and Humid. Every day. Eventually I stopped writing it out and opted for just the acronym, "HDH". Once I tired of this exercise I start just making the "ditto" marks, then, this being too much to bear, day after long hot day, the entries are blank. So I really can't tell the last time we got any significant rain.

Today I worked a few projects until the heat got too bearable - 9AM Arkansas Time, then I reverted back the strategy of keeping the projects short and doable, so I could run back inside, shirt soaked, in front of a fan, reading my favorite book of all time until I fall into a catnap, then back outside for another little project.

The last project I started, out of desperation, was to set up a sprinkler in the portion of the garden where our tomatoes and cow peas are planted. My hope, in addition to watering the plants, was to soften the ground which has become hard and cracked, so I could do some easy weeding early tomorrow morning.

I performed my annual ritual of soaking my self with the sprinkler until I could get the range and direction set to only water what I needed watered and then did the evening chores. Hark! What do I hear? Is that the rumble of what we used to call thunder? And the flashing on the horizon? Could that be, what was it we called those bright flashes that immediately preceded this thunder. Lightning, that's it. No rain though, just the preamble. Kind of like a movie trailer that promises a laughing in the aisles comedy but fails to deliver once your in the middle of it.

The air did cool down a bit and the breeze picked up making it tolerable, at least, to be outside. So I decided to help Patt weed the strawberries in the Cross Garden. started to rain! Rain! Glorious Rain!

I continued weeding. Patt called the dogs and ran in the house. I thought she would have asked me to come in the house with her saying something like, "You'll get hit by lightning". To which I would have replied, "Then I will die doing something I like to do...or I'll survive and be one of those savants that can read people's minds..."

When she returned, wearing her straw hat and work gloves, I smiled inside. You know, like the feeling you get when you know that everything is going to be okay? By the time she got back out to the garden my white woven cotton work shirt was soaked through. I was dead sexy! Kind of like Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy coming up out of the lake sexy. Funny that Patt did not mention it.

Any way, we got the strawberries, rosemary, and thyme beds weeded. I ran to the barn to turn the sprinkler off while Patt went inside. The cool air refreshed me as I entered. Patt showed me the radar of West Arkansas out of Russelville. There was one storm on the screen. A small one, directly over our farm.

I told Patt that what happened made all the heat worth it. She said, "well I wouldn't go that far."

Now a nice dinner of beef in a wine reduction and swiss chard with raisins and pine nuts.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Migraine Management

It starts out with a vague tingling all over my scalp which causes me to tense up my shoulders and neck. No matter how much water I drink I remain thirsty. Nausea makes its appearance. Eating a snack helps for a few minutes; fluorescent lights begin to blink - I can see the waves of photons flashing on and off giving me a sense of vertigo. I try to relax my shoulders, neck, and back, but the relief is for only as long as I can concentrate on doing so. Before I know it, I am tensed back up. My face becomes flushed and the tingling that started on my scalp begins to make my hair hurt - I know this is strange, but it is so. I start to feel dehydrated and feverish, ache-y, almost flu like. Now I feel as though a giant is standing behind me and he has placed  his big paw, fingers spread on top of my skull and he is pressing down and squeezing my brain. Bright lights intensify the general discomfort I am feeling. Smells pleasant and otherwise turn my stomach. I long for an inert environment, no smells, no lights, no heat, no noise. Now, when I have to bend over, read, or look down, the membrane between my skull and brain begins to throb. Before days end, and with still an hour's drive to get home, the throbbing is constant, the nausea is ever-present and intensifying; the air conditioner is on high, the vents directed right at my bright red face, but I can still feel the hot blood coursing through my skin. This is my migraine headache.

Here's how I fix it.

Supply List:

Damp, not dripping clean wash cloth.
2 Excedrin Migraine tablets
Ice cold glass (not plastic) of water
Oscillating fan
3 Pillows
Dark Room
Pleasant smelling (to you), natural essential oil like peppermint, lavender, or rosemary.
Loose fitting clothes

Step 1 - soak the wash cloth in cold tap water, wring it out so it is very damp but not dripping wet. Throw it in the freezer.

Step 2 - take the Excedrin tablets drinking the entire glass of ice cold water.

Migraines are generally accompanied by a feeling of fever. One can sometimes not cool down, the face is flushed and hot, one can sweat. 

Step 3 - Take a "quick-as-cold-as-you-can-stand-it" shower. Don't use soap, the aroma can make the headache worse.

Dry off so you are not dripping wet but leave your skin a little damp.

 Step 4 -Put on your pajamas or whatever loose fitting clothes you are comfortable in.

Tight fitting clothes increase the discomfort and exacerbate the stress you are feeling.

Step 5- Stack the pillows on your bed so you will be comfortably reclined. And set up a fan in such a way that it will gentle blow air across you as you lie down.

Step 6 - Get the wash cloth out of the freezer, go to the bedroom, close the door, turn out the lights, lie down, take a brief sniff of the oil (I like peppermint or lavender),  place the wash cloth over your face.

Make sure it is quiet and you are comfortable and able to relax shoulder and neck muscles. Lying on your back, I have found, is best.

Concentrate on relaxing and breathing. Consciously refrain from grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw.

Follow this breathing pattern.

Deep breath in for 4 seconds, hold it for just a moment.
Exhale for 8 seconds. (I usually just count the throbs of my temples to keep time). Hold for a second.
Count 1.
Repeat this.
Count 2 and so on.

Counting and breathing keeps your mind off your crappy day, how bad you feel, and any stresses that may creep into your mind that may cause you to tense up again.

I have found that I will drift off to sleep within about 5 minutes and if I don't have anything to do, and the family is willing, I will sleep all night. But, if I do need to get back up to take care of things during the evening, I usually am able to and I wake up refreshed and pain-free.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Operation Pig Tractor Part Two

 The above picture shows what the garden looks like after two years of our being away from the farm. Tired of hand digging in the heat we decided to put our pigs to good use, now that they are large enough to keep inside cattle panels.

 After 7 days locked into a patch of the garden, the above picture demonstrates the thoroughness and efficiency of the pig as a tractor. The large clumps of grass still standing have actually been rooted up so they are easily lifted out of the ground. They are simply waiting to wither up and die. Most of the grass was eaten by the hogs but that which remained was collected and tossed into the walk way as seen below.

 Now we have a bare patch of garden to set rows in and a mulched walkway. By simply flip-flopping the fence, we easily created a new section of garden for them to work in. They were turned out into this new patch this morning and wasted no time in eating down the tall grass and digging the clumps out by the roots.
This next patch is a bit larger and more overgrown than the previous one, but I suspect in about two weeks we will have another bare patch ready to plant. We will then repeat the process further down the garden. By mid summer we should have a weeded, tilled, and fertilized garden plot.

Tonight we will be planting cow-peas in this first patch, tomorrow we will plant tomatoes. In the next patch, once it is ready, we may plant our fall crops such as butternut squash and pumpkins.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Time is Out of Joint...

Time is out of joint, Oh Cursed Spite! That I was born to put it right. - King Hamlet of Denmark

Today was like....

...Nailing a raw egg to the wall.
...Trying to dribble a football.
...Trying to put an over-stuffed pillow into a sandwich bag.
...Untangling a box of coat hangers.
... shoving a wet noodle up a wildcat's butt.
... watching a streaming video on a dial-up modem.
...pushing a square rock up hill
...being stuck in rush hour traffic when you have to pee.
...herding house flies.
.... stepping on bubblegum dropped right by the car door.
...locking your keys in the house
...getting paged as you walk in the house
...Dan Akroyd in a santa claus suit in the rain
...and then, my sister-in-law stopped by with my nieces for a tour of the farm, my wife made me dinner, the asparagus got weeded and mulched -Finally!, the sun started going down, the air conditioner is off, the Razorbacks beat LSU, my list for Saturday is long but doable, Patt's making smoked pork chops for breakfast, and all is becoming right again.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Snake-Thief (or That's where all the eggs are going!)

Over the last several weeks our egg production has gone down, from about 36 eggs to 24 eggs to 19 or fewer out of a flock of 45 chickens. At first we blamed the dog. That's where the phrase - "Egg Suckin' Dog" comes from. And we have found the dogs carting an egg or two around in their mouths from time to time.

Today, about 4:30 PM I went down the hill to do the evening chores, which includes collecting eggs. Patt was busy putting the sheep and goats back in the barn in preparation for the culmination of Operation Pig Tractor, while I went to the coop to collect, what I hoped would be, a large harvest of eggs to sell out our local market (Conway Locally Grown) or to friends at work or our friends here in Perryville.

I stepped up into the coop and found a surprise. A large black snake had just crawled in before me and slithered its way into a nesting box full of eggs. Just coiled up in the box and started swallowing eggs, one by one, like it belonged there. I called for Patt, she brought my gloves and I reached into the nesting box, bravely I might add, and grabbing the reptile just behind the head pulled it out of the box.

It measured 5 and a half feet and as I was handling in and eventually carrying it to a far corner of the pasture to be set free, I accidentally crushed no less than 5 eggs it had swallowed and which were making its way down its belly.

This snake, we believe, is the same Black Rat Snake Patt rescued from our well back in 2006 when it was no more than 3 feet long. We've seen it several times on the property over the years and don't want to kill it because it does beneficial things in addition to stealing eggs. It's kind of our pet snake...

You Can't! Farm Widsom from Shamrock and Thistle Farm

Amid all the chatter one hears in the media, from teachers and coaches and parents, who say silly things like, "You can do anything - If you set your mind to it." Here are some things you can't do. Sorry to burst your bubble.

You can't reason with a goat.
You can't herd a chicken.
You can't milk a rabbit.
You can't kill bermuda grass.
You can't keep a set of wrenches complete and intact after the first time you use them.

Operation Pig Tractor

Since moving back to the farm in February, Patt and I have been debating, with either of us waffling from PBA to OSA (Petroleum Based Agriculture and Old Solar Agriculture) off and on. We land on the OSA side when the weather is cool, the rain is regular, and we aren't coming down with some kind of disease from some of the city folk we have to mingle with from time to time. (Just kidding city folk!) We are tempted by the PBA when the weather is hot, dry, the ground is compacted, and through some series of events, the weeds grow thicker and taller, and faster than we can pull them out.

Today we put our emergency response plan into place today. Facing 90 degree weather and high humidity for the next week or so and a garden that is out of control -

We went to Defcon 4 and put Operation Pig Tractor into play.

The first stage of Pig Tractor starts with a single tpost marking one corner of the new bed space. It is set about 2 feet away from our asparagus beds- this was by design as you will see. eventually this 2 ft gap will be heavily mulched and become a walkway between our established beds and our new asparagus bed which will be planted next spring.

Step two involved releasing our pigs, Squeal and Grunt, into our corner pasture where they have been in a semi-mobile pen, which is the subject of a prior post. The following video shows their reaction to this new freedom.

They both were running around all crazy like Jon Pinette at a Chinese Buffet.

Once their mobile pen was dismantled we moved it into the garden. The key here is to protect the beds we already have established while routing the pigs around them into their new pen.

These were protected by a chute we built.

This routed them between the asparagus bed along the future walk way. They entered through a gap we left in the pen. Once inside we closed the gap with a small piece of scrap cattle panel to make a gate.

Here are Squeal and Grunt in their new temporary home - a 32x50 foot rectangle that will be mowed, tilled, and fertilized, by them and then laid out in at least 3 50 foot rows and planted in tomatoes and cow peas by us. This fall, when the weather cools off again, I'll dig three new asparagus beds to be ready for planting in the Spring of 2014 - if ever we live that long.

This is OSA. Old Solar Agriculture. The slow way. The hard way, yes, but no petroleum was used in the construction of the pen or in the mowing, tilling, or planting that will come. When this spot is completely rooted up, we will open the back corner of the pen to allow them access to the back half of our over-grown garden which will be fenced off from the planted portion, by swinging the panels into place.

Now, getting the pigs into the pen was not uneventful. Once the pen was built and the chute put into place, we still had to get them from bottom corner pasture into the garden. Ronny and I planned it out to the minute detail. Patt would keep their attention with a bucket of feed and attempt to lure them into the garden gate and the opening of the chute, while Ronny and I with an intricate moving wall of cattle panels, gates, and hay bales would keep them from escaping into the large pasture. On this 90 degree day, we did not want to chase pigs. As it turns out, the pigs did escape, but eventually, after Ronny and I stopped panicking, the pigs found Patt with the feed and we slowly coaxed them into the chute by calmly standing in their way if the went the wrong direction, not pressing them too closely, and, in essence, convincing the pigs that going into the chute was their idea, and it was a good one.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Farming Makes You Stupid (PBA versus OSA)

I probably need to make two distinctions prior in order to set up the following study of how farming relates to intelligence and to minimize any offenses that may be taken.

For the balance of this article I will refer to two very different kinds of farming. The first type is what I will call Old Solar Agriculture (OSA). This description was originally coined, I think, by Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and poet. It is the slow, local way to farm. Little or no petroleum is used in production or product delivery. Soil is amended through the work of animals and human hands. Grasses are converted by the animals into manures which are composted, locally, and spread with a shovel or the occasional use of a tractor of some sort. Weeds are pulled by hand tools; pests are controlled with beneficial insects or by hand. The manures and weeding renovate the soil which is warmed by the sun and watered by the rain, freshly fallen, or captured in barrels. The sun, the rain, the animals, and the farmer’s hands are the major players in growing nutrients the slow way, the renewable way, the least impactful way. Product delivery is local, minimizing the petroleum used in transporting to local markets to an old farm truck or even a new SUV. Minimal food miles is the key. Food travelling thirty miles once or twice a week uses less petroleum and has a lower impact on the earth than food travelling across the country or around the world daily. This is OSA – Old Solar Agriculture.
The other kind of farming I will refer to is modern, Petroleum Based Agriculture (PBA). This kind of farming is the diametric opposite of OSA. The “success” of this kind of agriculture is dependent on fossil fuels to till, plant, spray, fertilize, harvest, and deliver nutrients to a much wider customer base across a state, country or continent. I’ve heard it said, that 90% of all asparagus sold in the US comes from South America. Food miles pile up, fuels are burned to plant, harvest, refrigerate, and deliver produce, impacting our planet by using up fuels we are creating now and affecting the environment through its exhaust. This is large scale, petroleum/machine based agriculture that is performed with minimal or no input from people and animals. This is PBA – Petroleum Based Agriculture.

The second distinction is more grammatical in nature. I use the word Stupid a lot in the article to follow. The way I use it must not be mistaken for an insult. The word is used more directionally than an actual state of intelligence. When I placed the title “Farming Makes You Stupid” I had two agendas that I feel, to be fair to you, I need to disclose. First, the controversial title is designed to pique interest, cause discussion, and perhaps, in some cases, insult. The second is to demonstrate how, since the introduction of petroleum based agriculture as early as World War I, has reversed the course of human “common sense”. I will attempt to flesh this out as I proceed. The main thesis being, By Relying on Machinery and Fossil Fuels for Nutrient Production, farmers have lost knowledge, once gained by trial and error and common sense, and found a dependence on science that seems to work to get food to the customer. As more and more machines take the place of humans on the farm, more and more humans leave to be consumers, who do not need to think about or figure out how to get food on their table. With fewer humans and animals doing the work, those humans left to running the machines no longer “think” about farming – they think solely on the machines. And, I think, this applies to other areas of life. As the physical and mental requirements have changed, especially in this 21st century, we have not had to “think” about what to do to achieve a desired result, and then physically do it. We are, in some ways, losing eternal knowledge and, as a result, we are getting stupider. I will now try to illustrate specific examples of how “Farming Makes You Stupid”.
Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met were those I talked with during our time in Nebraska. Nebraska is mostly rural; mostly agricultural. In my experience, farmers had always had the most “common sense”, or better yet, “wisdom”. Taking what they knew about nature, seeing what needed to be done to achieve a certain goal or yield, and physically, with their hands, making it happen.
My grandfather, Alva M. Ober, was quite the renaissance man. A farmer, famous for his Suffolk sheep operation in Champaign County Ohio, winner of countless Champion, Grand Champion, and Showmanship ribbons from the county fair, an auctioneer, singer of bluegrass tunes on the local radio station (Here Rattler Here was his favorite tune to whistle while working), a big name in the county; truly one of the best known of farmers in the area. Throughout the short time I knew him he remade himself, learned new things, and excelled in both. He left the sheep business one day and decided to take his International 444 tractor equipped with a box grater, and fashioned an large oval in one of his alfalfa fields. Round and round he went until a fully formed, banked, horse racing track was created. I helped him build a horse barn at one end of the track – a barn built by hand with just a few helpers. When joining boards, he pried and bent, by hand every warped plank into shape and then single handedly, without the use of an air-compressed nail gun; just a hammer and nails, attached them into place. If a gap appeared from a warped plank that did not set into place, there was no talk of caulking, foam filled insulation, or patches. The board was removed and then tossed aside for a new one, or the reshaping, by hand, was tried again.
He had three ponds in the field behind his house, stocked with fish. It was here that I learned how to talk to the fish. He would cast a line and leave the bail open on the reel as he walked around the small pond, gently tugging at the line to give him enough slack to make the circuit, and every single time, he had a crappie or perch on the hook by the time he got back round to me, standing on the bank amazed.
He started raising quail one year. He must have had over 100 baby chicks in an incubator he built himself, by hand, with hand saw, triangle square, and the ever-present hammer and nails.
“Are you going to eat them?” I asked.
“Eat them!? Eat my babies? I’m going to turn them loose in the field out back.” He exclaimed.
Sure enough, when they were big enough to fend for themselves, he turned them loose into the field behind the house where his fish ponds were located. At the time, this field had an orchard, tall grass, and a checkerboard planting of young pines no more that a foot tall. Pines that he planted himself, by hand, digging every hole with a shovel and pick. Now that field is a large pine forest. I now know that upon entering the race horse phase of his life, he decided to return the unused portion of his land to the wild.
Grandpa eventually became quite a big name in the Sulky Racing community in central Ohio. When his horse barn burned down due to the misbehavior of a crack-head cousin of mine, he rebuilt it, by hand, hammer and nail. Grandpa died in a Columbus Ohio hospital after getting kicked in the chest by one of his race horses. The kick didn’t end his life. The technology laden hospital did. Grandpa’s farm was the closest thing I’ve known to Old Solar Agriculture though he would not have described it thus. To him, there was only one way – the old way; the slow way.
One day I brought algebra homework to his house. I was spending the weekend to help him on some new thing he was trying on his farm. I showed him my math problem – one of those lengthy word problems loaded with misdirection and red-herrings. I had trouble figuring it out, writing the equation, and showing my work. I also had trouble getting the right answer. I let Grandpa read the question. Almost immediately after he read it through he said about 7 and a half miles. I looked in the answer key and sure enough, he had it right. When I asked him to help me write the equation he said,
“Well, I don’t about that, but the answer is seven and a half miles.”
My algebra teacher would most likely have labeled Grandpa as an uneducated man even though he did get the right answer because he could not write the equation out or explain how he got to the answer. But tell me this, who is smarter, the man who can calculate an answer to a geometry problem in his head, or the man that knows how to use the protractor to calculate an angle, and then needs to use it?
Perhaps that question is not fair. How about this then? What if the man could take a picture on a digital camera, plug it into his computer, open up a software application, and ask the computer to calculate the angle? And then compare him to the man who can look at it and figure it out with a tape measure, a pencil, and the back of an old envelope? When the power goes out who is better equipped to handle the situation, figure it out, make it happen?
In this last case, a machine would improve efficiency, productivity, and precision, perhaps. However, is not something lost? If the modern man has the machine make the calculations and draw the plans, does he not lose an ancient knowledge? Does not this loss of ancient knowledge, according to our definition, make modern man more stupid than his predecessor? If you doubt, just try to pay attention to the next cashier that can’t count change. Why? Because the cash register now tells them how much to return to you. Ask the middle 30 something engineer to calculate Power (P=IE [Power=Current x Voltage]) and see him pull out a calculator.
Here is some ancient knowledge my Grandfather imparted to me (though he could not tell me why these things were so).
Plant Marigolds around your garden. When asked why, he simply stated, “The plants do better”. The fact that he did not know, or could not describe why he did this every year should not impugn his intelligence. My knowing that this works and not doing it; makes me stupid. Science will tell you that the Marigold emits a strong odor that insects hate. A border of marigolds around a garden, simply put, keeps the bugs away. This is OSA – Old Solar Agriculture. Modern man, perhaps, ignorant of this simple fact that marigolds makes “the plants do better” will use pesticides to quickly eradicate ALL bugs, not just the ones that eat the flesh of one’s collards. This, because that ancient knowledge is lost, is PBA – Petroleum Based Agriculture. In this example, PBA stops short in its ignorance. Pesticide to rid the garden of bugs fails to consider the long term effects to the ecology of the garden. In the long term, our dependence on petroleum – modern farming – has made us more stupid…
Let’s move on then to Nebraska. Recent figures show that 89% of Nebraska’s cities have a population under 3,000. Many hundreds have populations under 1,000, while urban growth, in Lincoln and Omaha, has increased exponentially. The kids are leaving the farms. And as farms become larger, flatter, more mechanized, fewer hands are needed to work it. I began thinking about the subject of farm-stupidity two years ago when we lived in Omaha and I was asked by a lady who had lived on a farm her whole life, “You mean ducks lay eggs just like chickens?”
“Yes, yes they do.”
It’s not her fault but it is striking how this thing I am calling ancient knowledge or ancient wisdom is disappearing.
We now reside in a mostly rural state. But in a part of that state where “small”, non-mechanized farms are the norm. In the delta, mechanization of cotton and rice has killed small towns and ancient wisdom. Case in point, the rice farmer, who during a radio interview, was proudly expounded his “new” theory of soil renovation. Instead of burning the stubble after harvest, he read somewhere that he could till the stalks under every year. This will add depth and nutrient to the soil and cut down on his need for artificial fertilizers. I applaud the farmer for going “Old Solar” but what is concerning is his belief that this is some new-fangled scientific method for soil renovation. In the mountain country, a lack of industrial employment as caused a caravan of commuters that make their way into the big cities of the northwest or Little Rock and these two urban centers are also growing, mostly because of large scale agriculture and health care employment opportunities.

When I told one person that we were raising hogs on pasture, I was ridiculed for my belief that hogs eat grass. “They eat corn”, he said. Again, this is evidence of a lost knowledge because industrial scale, petroleum based agriculture dictates that hogs should be penned up and fed “fast” high calorie grains rather than the “slow” solar based grass. Indeed, the growth rate of a grass fed hog is much slower than that of a grain fed one. But the striking thing about this person’s comment is his unwavering dogma that hogs “can’t eat grass”. You may be asking, “How did you know that hogs can eat grass?” The answer is simple. I saw a picture in a pre-WWII book on raising hogs for market and there were grainy, black and white pictures of hogs- boar, sow, and piglets free ranging a pasture. So we tried it one year and guess what? Hogs eat grass. They also till the pasture they are in removing buttercups, dock, unbury rocks and other undesirables, like grubs, Bermuda roots. We fashioned a moveable hog pen system using 6 hog panels and some shallowly planted t-posts so we can move small piglets around on grass until they are large enough to be let loose. After they clear a patch we throw down grass seed – the kind of grass we want – into the newly tilled, weeded, and fertilized 256 sq. ft. area.
Seed packet myths are my final example in this discussion of how modern agriculture – petroleum based agriculture – makes one stupid. The myth of the seed packet is not hard to find, simply flip the packet over and it is detailed, briefly in the planting instructions section of the packet.
A typical packet may contain instructions like this.
Seed every 3” in rows 18” apart at a depth of ½” in well drained soil. When plants are established, thin to 6” apart.
My grandfather never read a seed packet in his life, buying mostly bulk seeds from his local co-op. If he were planting lima beans, he prepared his rows spaced just enough for him to walk down at first. He drug a hoe down the row to make a trench, of a more or less, consistent depth. He would, then, by hand, drop seeds somewhat consistently along the trench and then drag the hoe along one side of it until all the seeds were covered with soil. He would then, using the flat side of the hoe, tamp the row down and then water it well. When the plants were established and leafing out, there was barely, if any, room to walk between the rows. He rarely had to water or weed because the “crowded” plants would mulch themselves, not allowing weeds to sprout up to the sun in between the rows. He always realized a bountiful harvest and all without herbicides, fertilizers, or weeding.
Let us now discuss the seed packet instructions.
18” between rows is a condition of planting these seeds according to the instructions. These widely spaced rows allow sun to reach the soil and whatever weed seeds are lodged there. The weeds sprout and are in direct competition with the lima bean plants. Why the wide spacing? This 18” space between rows is to allow for the width of tractor wheels and tillers between the lines of plants. There is no way my grandfather could have driven a tractor between his rows or even run a tiller without destroying his newly established plants. Now because the rows have to be so far apart, it allows the weeds to get established inducing the temptation to use petroleum based methods for weed control.
Fact is, with well draining, high nutrient soil, one can crowd some crops together (thinning should be done with some root crops, though I have had success transplanting crops like beets, carrots, and turnips, spreading them out along the rows). The abundance of closely laid leaves shades the ground beneath the plant, reduces the evaporation of moisture from the soil, and due to the design of most vegetable plants, rain water runs down funnel-shaped leaves to the base of the plant making watering a simple process. With the shade provided by the plant itself, the amount of water needed to feed its root system is reduced.
Farmer’s tied to a modern petroleum based agriculture look at me like I am potty when I over crowd, mulch with hay, or hand till rows in my 5,000 square foot garden. To them, I appear to be the stupid one. I leave off with this. In 13 years of gardening the same spot we have not had a pH imbalance and have only tilled the plot, with tractor and plow only about a half a dozen times.
To sum up this theory of OSA vs PBA (Old Solar Agriculture vs. Petroleum Based Agriculture) I can only state, without equivocation, that the reliance on chemicals, fuels, machines, and techniques developed to accommodate these petroleum based inputs, has eroded an ancient knowledge the human race has spent millennia discovering about nature in all its glory and brutality. We have, because of our reductionist based intelligence, in fact, become more stupid.