January 29, 2020

How to Be Efficient. Or Not.

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

I’m nothing if not inefficient.

Knowing that drives me crazy.  (A very short trip.)

There’s so much to do around here that making two trips when one would do, restarting the tractor that I’ve just put away or dragging out the extension cord ― a third time ― after having just recoiled and hung it up is a surefire way to set me off.

I start grumbling over what a mess I made out of that.

Yeah.  I do a lot of grumbling.

Because I can’t seem to think of everything.  I plan for maximum efficiency but reality keeps raising its ugly head.  What can I say?  I’m a farmer.  My ideas of the way things should go and how they actually turn out are at odds more often than not.

Perhaps an example would help.

The January gales blew a large, dead poplar tree over into our field.  I wish I could say this was a rare event.  Unfortunately, it happens all the time.  In this case, the wood wasn’t worth saving.  It was rotten to the core and frozen solid.  It hardly seemed worthwhile to dig out the chainsaw, chaps, gas and oil and all that paraphernalia for something I couldn’t use.  I just wanted the tree out of the way.  I eyed the blowdown and imagined that the bucket loader could push it into the woods without much trouble.

I looked around the field.

There was a pile of birch, already cut into stove length down by the brook.  I stockpiled it there earlier when the fields were still too wet to allow their hauling.  “Ah, ha,” I exclaimed, a rudimentary plan forming.  “I’ll push the blowdown out of the way, collect the firewood and be done in no time.”

As a plan it looked so simple.  So efficient.  The ground was frozen.  It was an icy day.  The tractor wouldn’t sink in.  Couldn’t.  Plus, there wasn’t any snow to mention so that wouldn’t slow me down.

The diesel tractor even started.  I should have known something was wrong at once.

I opened the barn and moved another tractor while it idled.  It’s always a mistake to push a diesel engine before it warms.  Sure, I’ve got fuel conditioner in the tank but why chance it?  Changing fuel filters in freezing weather simply because you’ve been impatient and gelled the fuel is no fun, none at all.  Nothing is colder on your fingers than evaporating diesel fuel at 5 degrees.

Finally I headed out over the frosted fields, chains clanking.  A north wind blew the exhaust away.  The weather cap clattered.  Dried, yellow hay stalks rimed with ice scraped one another as those 38-inch tires crunched forward.

Diesel tractors don’t like the cold.  The controls respond very slowly.  Hydraulic fluid becomes much more viscous.  Ten weight oil turns into 50 weight.  The simplest operations take twice as long.  My curses and my breath disappeared with the exhaust as I waited for the machine to respond.

It all took so much time.

I really thrashed that blowdown.

I’m sure I scared it to within an inch of its life.  (OK.  I admit it.  It was dead before I got there.)  I made a mess of it, too.  Broken branches were everywhere by the time I was done.  But that tree wasn’t just frozen solid, it was frozen solid to the field.  My poor shivering tractor hadn’t the weight or power to break it free ― even with a running start.  I all but knocked myself out of the seat trying.

I wrestled with it far longer than I should have before accepting that I couldn’t budge it.  It was dark by the time I gave up and headed for that pile of stove wood.  Once I arrived there, it was clear there was far more than could fit in one bucket load.

I grumbled realizing that I’d run out of time that afternoon.  That I’d have to put the tractors away, feed and water the stock, shut up the barn, stoke the kitchen stove, shower and start dinner.  That I’d have to come back another day for the rest of the stove wood, not to mention hauling out the crawler and the chainsaw, cleaning up that blowdown and picking up all the broken branches now scattered around and about, too.

In truth, I’d made work trying to save it.

I drove back to the barn shivering along with the tractor having struggled all afternoon for one bucket load of stove wood.  That might not sound so bad until you realize that the stove wood was already cut.  I only had to load it.  I shook my head ruefully just thinking about it.

I’m nothing if not inefficient.