Monday, February 28, 2011

Blending Philosophy With Reality

It was 73o, I saw both robins and mocking birds, the first buds are on the trees and shrubs and we had another thunder storm. The chickens gave us four eggs again today. The sow Isabella slimed my leg while I was cleaning out her water pan. We had to move hay again. The oxen sensed that it was a work day and met me at the gate all ready to work. Joe thinks George checks the depth of hay in the rings and knows when we are going to work them. William moved into position to take the yoke without being told and later got on the chain when he was told without prompting. Spring is battering on the door. We are talking about gardens and starting to plan.

The real issue is not what we are going to plant, or where. The question is how we make sustainable living a lifestyle. We have to factor in shelter, transportation, food storage, and clothing and provide food. We need sources of information and enough money to give us some maneuverability and acquire capital items needed to transform the farmstead. This is a tall order. Some things are obvious. The house is inefficient: Too much wasted space, poor insulation and a site that is someday going to get wiped out by a flood. We want to build a more survivable house up-hill where it will get more solar energy and pick up more wind. We have steadily reduced our use of the car and truck to about a single trip to town a week, bunching errands or simply staying home. Maria has almost single handedly reduced our electrical consumption to a quarter to an eighth (depending on the season) of our previous level. We have our sins, however. We are addicted to our computers and Netflix. Still these can eventually be supported by electricity we can produce ourselves.

Our plan is to move steadily toward a largely self sufficient sustainable lifestyle: Growing what we can, using draft animals where we can, making whatever we can do ourselves, bartering, trading or selling those skills we have to provide the capital needed to keep the place going. We believe that this course will fit with the changes we see in the environment and economic situation. We are not survivalists in the Y2K form, but it would seem to be provident to design a life that will not collapse if gas at the pump does hit $15 a gallon. We spend a lot of time here talking about the philosophy of living responsibly. At this time of year, the reality of carving this lifestyle out a hollow in southern Kentucky rears its ugly head and we are faced with making it work.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Sorry, we've been gone for a week.  A person wrote us and said that they had a hard time contacting us.  I had wanted this Blog to be an exchange of information on animal handling, sustainable farming and green living.  If people cannot reach us, that defeats the purpose.  So, we can be contacted at or go on "facebook" look up Gerry Barker and you'll see the picture of me with oxen.  Any way I can help people with draft animals and sustainable farming I will be glad to try.  We really need to network to get anything changed.  

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Since we specialize in preserving traditional skills like building log cabins with nothing but axes, working draft animals, spinning, and a host of others, people are often surprised that we advocate and use modern technology. It can not be an either/or situation.

Let me explain this, I believe the world environmental and energy situation is becoming so critical that we have to put all our intellect and effort into creating a stable, sustainable culture on this planet. We cannot afford the luxury of dwelling on the past. Sustainable farming has the potential of squeezing out more food value per square inch than any corporate farm, but to do this, we need to blend every bit of skill and technology that we have. We have to be careful, some of the modern is dangerous, certainly the herbicides and insecticides of modern agriculture have been linked to the alarming increase in cancer in our population. But traditional methods led to soil erosion, deforestation, air pollution, disease, malnutrition, and inordinate occupational hazards.

Creating a sustainable farmstead requires designing a livable pattern of agriculture, energy, personal health, and nutrition. It may be comfortable to occupy spacious quarters, but heating the airspace in winter may require more work than can be sustained. Do we concentrate on feeding ourselves? Or raise a surplus that can be bartered for items we cannot produce on the farm? Or start evaluating and eliminating what we think we must have/do/make? We have to seek a balance. There are skills that we will need such as blacksmithing, coopering, tanning, harness making, and medicine that we can learn, but may take too much time and thus not be effective.

When I am at an historic event, it may the best answer to have a wooden wheeled Virginia wagon, but for every day use, a steel wheeled cart may serve my farm better. If we are going to survive, we have to be practical, not romantic. We have to pick the most survivable tool.
In writing about survival on the Overmountain frontier, I have said a number of times that it was not the tools that came from the East on the packhorse that enabled the frontiersmen to survive, it was the tools that came in their heads. If a plow breaks during spring plowing, life cannot go on hold until a new one is bought or the broken plow repaired. The farmer needs to be able to repair it himself or make a substitute. This is where the frontiersman had it all over us. He came out knowing he had to be self sufficient. We were raised in a culture of mutual support (even if that support has to be paid for).

I am not a nuclear physicist nor a plant biologist. But, there are things I can do to contribute to the solution to the energy depletion and environmental crises that are facing us. And, I will do them. I am experimenting with methods to find those that work and can be replicated by others. I am training myself to live a sustainable life. Even if I am imperfect, I can and do teach others what I have found out. This largely takes the form of working livestock, but that seems to be what I am best at.

At this stage, I think the biggest contribution that all of us involved in the sustainable lifestyle can do is be a loud example. When we can live well without compromising our principals, it encourages other to try. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I get discouraged when I see the excessive consumption surrounding me. As people speed by in their SUVs, I know that they are using one third more gas than they would if they were driving conservatively. I pick up a vegetable and realize it is something we grow here, but this one came from the Philippines. Our local electrical co-op brags about burning coal they get from mountain top removal and collaterally all the good that does for Kentucky. The list is endless, and I cannot fight them all. I can be an example.

The Frontiersmen crossed the Appalachians in small groups, families and often alone. What they were doing was illegal (the Proclamation of 1763). They fought Indians and often outlaws. They were dragged into the Revolution by events, not ideology. We are very much in the same situation. Those of us fighting to make a difference face politicians owned by the corporations that created this mess. Certainly they are not going to support anything that might adversely influence corporate profits. We live among a populace that has been raised to expect the comforts and ease of cheap oil. They don’t want to see it change. Demagogues manipulate them to think that we can return to the status of the victors of World War II and the economy of the 1950s. We meet resistance at every turn, we are isolated and alone. That is what it means to be a frontiersman. But, the frontiersman of 1775 was the truly modern man of his time. If there is a future, historians will look back and see those of us fighting for responsible living the same way.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Single Ox

I have been intending to post this for quite some time and keep forgetting. I wrote this in response to a question on oxen for micro farms.

The single ox may be the most economically sound answer for the person working five acres or so. There are a number of advantages to the single, the biggest is simplicity. When we have had a single, I have always been pleased with the fact that I could hitch it to a cart in seconds. Put the animal between the shafts, put the yoke on the ox, hook the shafts to the yoke, slide the bow in place and pin it, and walk away. Next, the single oxen I have known have bonded far more quickly and strongly to the driver. This makes for a much more tractable animal. Small breeds, Dexter/Kerry, Devon, Jersey, or Guernsey are easy keepers; eating a fraction of the feed and forage of a horse or mule. A small ox does fine for the plowing, harrowing, cultivating, carrying, and wood hauling that is common on small acreage. My former ox, Chip, did not have to be driven, he would just follow me on command as I worked, with a cartload of tools, chainsaw, etc. A final advantage is the maneuverability. A single ox can get places no other animal but a donkey can and has a turning radius with a cart that is only the length of the shafts. I hearken back to the book Cattle Behavior and Welfare, an ox is a large specialized goat. I have bogged horses down in deep snow, a ox actually swam through the drifts with the load.

There are three good harness methods for a single ox. The traditional single yoke works well, a variation is to have a back strap take the weight of the shafts and cart off the animal‘s neck.. We make our single yokes from a bent tree branch. A breast harness with a simple back strap is easy to make, and quick to put on. The third is to use a harness similar to a horse or mule harness. This is effective and provides the best protection to the animal, but takes longer to put on and is more expensive.

There are more people interested in sustainable living today. As energy depletion and environmental issues have more effect on our lives, we are going to have to couple older skills with modern science. I do not want to see us return to the callous abuse of animals that existed two hundred years ago. We know much more about them now. There were good animal handlers then and we all should be good animal handlers now. I love oxen. I would hate to influence people to go out and get an ox and have the animal starved or beaten. A single ox is a member of the family. They are intelligent and extremely loyal. They learn what their jobs are and will be glad to perform them if treated considerately. This morning, my boys complained because I did not yoke them up for work. That is because they have come to expect work to be rewarding. I know George is working for the attention. He will pass food for a good scratching. Chip would too. If you want to try a single ox, you can get the same reaction.

I want to say one more thing about responsibility. An ox will kill himself for you. Be careful what you ask them to do.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why Oxen

I have worked horses, mules and oxen and have come to believe that oxen are the most efficient for a number of reasons. First, the low start-up cost of cattle, a Holstein calf still sells for about $50. Second, a pair of steers can begin earning their keep at about six months old and well cared for they can work for about twenty years. Next, they are extremely easy keepers, thriving on grasses and browse that horses and mules would starve on. With four stomachs, cattle process food much better than horses or mules. The equipment, a wooden yoke with bows costs less than harnesses for horses and mules and it takes a fraction of the time to hitch them up or work. Mine have always been patient, willing workers strong enough for any of the jobs you want a draft animal to do. They train easily and retain their training well. I am impressed by their pure efficiency, there is no wasted motion with nervousness or bickering. The draw back is that they are slow, and most of us walk beside them instead of riding the equipment. However, for sustainable farming I think the ox is the perfect partner.


Since I have had two requests for help training or managing cattle in the past week, I thought I would make a serious attempt to record what the morning feeding is like. Food seems to be a big issue with cattle and their owners. I went down to the far pasture a little after seven this morning. I know all the oxen saw me and James and Charlie waited for me at the gate. As I got to the gate, James gave the begging groan and raised his head (in a submission signal). When I got through the gate, Charlie bobbed his head up and down twice, a more demonstrative submission signal. I had a bucket in my hand with feed. James and Charlie took off for the feed pans by their own route. William met me on the way to the line of feed pans and gave a bob of the head, then followed me at a respectful distance. George started for the end pan. I got to the pans, and put a scoop in each one. Charles and James stood back until food was in their pan then approached. William went after the third pan. George was now with me and bobbed his head. When I put food in his pan, he lifted my free hand with his nose. I paused and scratched him.
Now, some of the things that I think are going on. James loves attention, but is very food oriented. However, he defers to Charlie. Charlie eats first, unless George is in that sort of a mood. William is on the bottom of the pecking order. He does not interfere with me or challenge the other boys. George is so secure that he does not mind eating last, no one will drive him out of his food, but he gets his cut of “Daddy” attention off the top. Somehow, George has used me to secure his position as the herd boss.
Every once in a while someone will get a wild hair and bother another animal. Usually Charlie trying to find out if he can push George out of his position of authority. If I see it I am careful. I do not want to interfere with their herd dynamics, but when an animal is with me, they are in my protection. I will go after an animal that touches another while they are with me. This happens once a year or so.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How Cattle Work

I needed to move a couple of logs this morning.  The larger was 34" at the base, 22" at the small end and about twenty feet long.  The last flood had washed it downstream onto a neighbor's land.  The oxen came in just fine, I yoked them and we took off.  I carried a cant hook.  I let let them drag the logging chain.  The first log was beside the creek.  The creek has a short, steep bank.  We have had a very wet winter, the ground is muddy and the oxen were sinking about six inches on each step.  The approach was through some blackberry brambles, too narrow for me to walk beside them so I followed and gave the commands from behind.
To get the boys hooked up to the log, I had the lead yoke go straight up to the log, "Whoa" then had them "Pivot haw" (pivot left) with Charles and William at "Whoa".  I moved them a little bit forward then had the second yoke come up to the log and do the same thing.  This gave me plenty of room to put the chain on the log.  William moved while I was hooking up the chain and stepped across the chain.  I corrected him for it and straightened things out.  All hooked up, I could not walk beside the team again so I got out of the way and told the boys "Haw up."  George took over and they started up the bank.  William balked when he got to the steep part of the bank and the whole team stopped.  I yelled at him and Charlie reached over and poked him with a horn.  In his defense, he was sinking a foot deep in the slop of the bank.  I went back down by the trailing pair and gave "Up" again.  They pulled it up just fine.  The hard part of the pull was when the log dug into the dirt at the top of the bank.  It scooped out a foot deep notch.  William did not balk at that, but he was on level ground by that time.
They had to thread their way through some cedars and more blackberries.  I just followed along behind.  George took  them back to our place just fine.  You can  tell from the picture that I am way behind the team.  George made all the turns.  Charlie did not follow as well as I like.  I hollered "Whoa" at our little parking area.  They all backed up one step on command.  I unhooked the chain.  I gave George and James a "Pivot gee" with Charles and William at "Whoa", then had the second yoke "Follow".  It worked perfectly.  The next log was smaller, and the team did better. 
The one other occurrence was that when I unyoked at the end of the work, Charlie went after William and roughed him up a bit.  William ran off.  Charlie did not follow.  I suspect that Charlie was upset at William's mistakes, but there is no way of knowing.  The team is so good that I forget that William has been with us less than a year.  He is four years old and the others are eight.  Not working for a few days is tougher on him.