Sunday, May 19, 2013
Since we are a human-powered farm, I thought it might be interesting to consider what that means in relation to other tractor- and horse-powered farm operations.
So I checked Wikipedia to get an idea of what human power is compared to a standard measurement like horsepower. It turns out that a "healthy human can produce 1.2 horsepower briefly and can sustain 0.1 horsepower indefinitely."
That means that our four apprentices, plus me, can turn out between 0.5 hp all day long or 5 hp in rapid bursts during the day. Pretty impressive.
Tasks such as harvesting, weeding, transplanting and bug removal can be done at 0.1 hp, while wheel hoeing, digging out sod with a pick mattock, shoveling manure and scything hay might require 0.5 to 1.2 hp in relatively short bursts.
Humans don't require fossil fuels like tractors do or the intensive care of work horses. A 100 hp tractor wastes about 75 percent of its fuel in excess heat. Horses need complex and expensive harnesses, lots of hay and grain, and many hours of attention each day. Plus, there's all that manure.
Humans make much better use of their fuel -- which is mostly food from the garden. They don't need to be ridden or followed behind. The thought of riding around on a noisy, fume-spewing tractor all day makes my kiester numb, just as the idea of looking at a horse's rear end all day makes my eyes water.
Humans are dexterous -- able to do things that horses and tractors can't even conceive of. Their hands, equipped with opposable thumbs, can plant seedlings, eradicate weeds, pick out harmful bugs and bring in the harvest. Humans weigh a lot less than a horse or a tractor, so they don't cause as much soil compaction in the garden. And they easily can be trained to walk on the paths, not on the growing beds.
Humans can be put to work with relatively cheap tools. Our basic garden tool, the wheel hoe, cost about $350. Tractors -- used ones -- go upwards of $25,000, and they need an array of expensive attachments before they are useful at all.
Humans can be housed simply -- in houses -- and don't need a special garage, shed or barn. Nor do they require fencing or manure removal like work horses. They also live longer -- and can work for about 60 solid years in a normal lifetime. Horses and tractors have maybe 20-25 work years in their lifetime.
Humans also can work on their own or in groups. They can communicate in complex ways, including telling jokes and funny stories while working together in the garden, as well as listening to or giving instruction.
Human labor is also vastly underutilized in this country. A couple of years ago at the Common Ground Fair, in Unity, I saw a demonstration of human-powered logging: One man, then two men wearing simple harnesses hauled good-sized logs over flat ground. The double hitch was the most interesting part since it did involve a third human giving out instructions like, "OK, Bubba, pull more to the right" and "Billy Bob, come on, heayah!"
Farm work using hand tools is as good as going to a health club when it comes to getting in shape. After a couple of months in the field, workers will have six-pack abs, a steely back and bulging biceps. Forget the Stairmaster and the free weights.
Besides being a great way to get in shape, human power is also the wave of the future, according to John Michael Greer in his 2011 book, "The Wealth of Nature." Greer writes about the new economic world we are entering where fossil fuels are scarce and expensive -- and we have no readily available replacements.
In the twilight of the age of cheap energy, the most abundant energy source remaining throughout the world will be human labor, and as other resources become more costly, the price of labor -- and the wages that can be earned by it -- will drop accordingly.
The agriculture of the future, like agriculture in any thickly populated society with few energy resources, will thus use land intensively rather than extensively, rely on human labor with hand tools rather than more energy intensive methods, and produce bulk vegetable crops and relatively modest amounts of animal protein
The economies of the future will make use of human labor, rather than any of the currently fashionable mechanical or electronic technologies, as their principal means of getting things done.
The wave of the past is meeting the wave of the future!
Denis Thoet owns and manages Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. www.longmeadowfarmmaine.com.