Sunday, April 8, 2012

Big O, little o... (Part II)

At the very end of Judah's existence as a kingdom, when its defensive and diplomatic stratagems were all played out, the prophet Jeremiah hoisted the yoke of an ox to his shoulders and walked the streets of Jerusalem, in a dramatic enactment of Judah's future. People were appauled.

I think about this story as I contemplate yoking oxen to work our fields. The very idea is an affront to the narrative of progress.

The official court prophet Hananiah grabbed the yoke from Jeremiah's hunched shoulders and angrily broke its bars. Jeremiah's "word from the Lord" predicted a future of servitude under the Babylonian Empire. Hananiah's "word from the Lord" insisted that any such humbling would be brief; that Judah's manifest destiny was to carry on the Davidic line in an unbroken trajectory of growth and success. Servitude could never define the throne of David. It was unthinkable that the Lord could let a son of David - his Annointed One - suffer the humiliation predicted by Jeremiah. History (and Jesus) showed Jeremiah the true prophet.

Gas prices went up by 8 cents a liter this week. Already there are those arguing that this jolt to the economy is artificial and uncalled for. It is the result of market "speculation." Suddenly, rankled Americans are borrowing arguments from the despised socialists: these out of control gas prices need to be legislated down. A few lone voices in the wilderness offend us with a more blunt assessment: Oil is finite; so oil-eating cultures must be also. We cannot make cheap again what we are busily making scarce.

Back to the oxen, then. Here's what I've learned:

When compared with horses, there are a number of reasons why oxen have historically been the traction animal of choice for small-holders. Cattle offer the triple benefits of milk, muscle and meat. Of these, milk and muscle power improve the livelihoods of poor farmers far more than meat. I remember reading a sociology paper that argued that this was the root of beef-eating taboos in India. In a hungry year, an Indian peasant might be tempted to slaughter his cattle to feed his family the rich protein walking around in his bare fields. But the short-term gain is far outweighed by the long-term supply of milk protein and work-energy offered by a dairy-traction animal.

Another advantage is that an ox yoke is a simpler and cheaper device than horse harness. Harness is tricky to make: lots of precise measurements and lots of stress points that need excellent fastenings. A yoke is basically a (carefully shaped) thick wooden beam with an iron loop or two. A lot of the simplification is possible because an ox has horns. These prevent the yoke from slipping forward over the head of the animal when braking or walking downhill.

But the biggest selling point for me is that the typical fear response of oxen is opposite that of horses. Horses tend to bolt, oxen tend to balk.  Picture a stampeding herd of wild mustangs fleeing their predators, then picture a group of musk oxen circling tight around their young and holding formation against nipping, harassing wolves. Scared oxen stand still.

As a novice teamster and father of  two girls I want to involve in my farm adventures, I would much rather deal with an animal that is occasionally difficult to get moving than an animal that one day takes off with me, with sharp and heavy field equipment clattering menacingly behind.

As for breeds, I am learning about "dual" and "triple purpose" cattle. Cows, like everything else in the industrial economy, have become single-purposed specialists. Holsteins put everything in their body into milk; Angus put on meaty pounds, quickly.

For oxen, the ideal is a mix: animals with the easy handling of a dairy animal, but the bulk of some of the beefier cattle. I am learning about old breeds: Milking Shorthorns, Dexters, Brown Swiss and Gelbvieh - breeds more befitting an ancient, energy-constrained, small-farming future.

I should acknowledge somewhere soon here that I could not be contemplating this transition to a more ancient normal on my own. What I am learning about oxen, I am learning with the help of friends. I have the strange privilege to have as friends two graduates of the Tillers International ox-farming school, Russ Dyck and Bernard Cook. And here at Ploughshares, I have Matthew as a co-conspirator on oxen. Everytime I make a phone call or read something new, Matthew matches me stride for stride with his own research and enthusiasm. Alone, I would not have the hutzpah to try this. But together...we seem to be, as the saying goes, equally yoked. Together, we might pull this off.

There's a pair of Shorthorn-Brown Swiss calves expected in Vita, that, if they're both male, and if another regular buyer opts out, could be ours for $75 a piece.

Why do we want to farm like peasants? You might say, I suppose, that we are actually coming to believe in a kingdom wherein the meek inherit the earth. In the land of progress, this is heresy, we know. Please don't be angry with us.

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