Frustrated by Machines, Encouraged by People

Whirr. Whurrrrr. Whhh. I could tell the tractor wasn’t going to start, and I knew that my day would now be spent with ratchets and sockets and multimeters. A simple run out back to feed the cattle wouldn’t be simple.

We had freezing rain followed by a zero degree night, and I thought I had prepared. Before the ice storm, I covered the seat and dashboard with a tarp to keep the worst of the ice off the controls. And I parked the tractor near the house so I could plug in the block heater. But the tractor had other plans for me.

Broken fuel hose.

The cold weather killed the battery, so I had to buy a new one. Even getting the battery out was a struggle as the wind-driven freezing rain had blown in at an unusual angle and locked the hood latch in place. After working past these obstacles and replacing the battery, I had strong cranking but I couldn’t get the tractor to pump fuel. While inspecting the fuel pump, a hose cracked apart and showered me in diesel. And then after fixing that, I found a wiring fault, in which a safety relay under the dashboard had worked itself loose. Each problem seemed like it would only give way to another problem, each one requiring another walk to the garage to bring out more tools, and a separate trip to the auto parts store. Suddenly a whole day was used up and the cattle still hadn’t been fed.

Dashboard disemboweled in the hunt for gremlins.

The situation reminded me of the importance of farming in a neighborhood of farmers. I needed to bring those bales out to the cattle, and my machine wasn’t working. I’m always reluctant to call in help, but eventually I realized that I was running out of daylight. I wasn’t going to mechanic my way through this in time.

I was able to borrow a tractor from a neighbor to do the day’s feeding. His machine also needed some coaxing to start, but it got the job done. Again and again I’m reminded that none of us can do everything on our own. In all aspects of farming, a substantial agricultural community is essential.

Borrowed tractor gets the job done.

Over the years, we’ve swapped tractors and trucks and tools all up and down our neighborhood. Tractor attachments, trailers, wagons, crates, and corral panels end up on everyone else’s farms from time to time. It’s the farming equivalent of stopping at the neighbor’s to ask for that cup of flour needed to finish a recipe.

It’s a pleasant feeling to know that each of us fits into a community, to know that there’s a generous neighbor just down the road. I’ve been both the benefactor and the beneficiary of this kind of neighborly sharing. It is special because it creates a place and a role for various people.

I believe one of the biggest losses when farming shifts to the corporate scale is that the personal connections suffer. There’s an inevitable loss of the social glue.

These reminders of the importance of connection serve to draw my attention back toward the bigger things that matter, and even help to temper the momentary frustrations while I’m struggling to get a broken tractor running again. Whatever happens as our family’s farm continues to develop, I want to find ways that support more connections.

6 thoughts on “Frustrated by Machines, Encouraged by People”

    1. Thanks Matthew. I’ve always appreciated the way you’ve shared storytelling-oriented posts on your farm blog too. Some of your stories from years back, like your last-minute turkey processing marathon or the story about you and your dad trying to corral a jumpy cow are particularly memorable.

  1. I can’t wait to order some food from you and support the local farm effort. Please don’t ever forget us little people and we will never forsake you and yours…peace bro!

  2. Did you do all of this work outside!? What is your secret of doing low intensity work in the cold without fingers freezing?

    1. Yes, everything happens outside. We don’t have equipment sheds or barns.
      To quote the movie Lawrence of Arabia, “the trick is not minding that it hurts.” That’s a bit pompous, but to some extent that’s part of the secret.
      It seems that as the season progresses, I become more accustomed to working in colder temperatures. But I’m not immune to the cold and eventually I need to head inside and stand by the wood stove, warming my fingers and toes and thawing the icicles in my beard.
      Generally, I try to save projects for the more pleasant months and limit my outdoor work in the winter to necessities.

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