10 05 27 Spring on the Farm - Eric Rempel

Last Monday I joined the “Spring on the Farm” celebrations at MHV. The celebration was combined with an antique tractor show. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Viewing the antique tractors I found myself reflecting on the changes that have occurred in the Southeast as a result of cheap oil. One of the tractors I remember well was the Allis-Chalmers Model B. Wikipedia reports this as one of the most loved tractors of its time, known for its versatility and adaptability. It had all of 17 HP, and switching to a Model B was a huge step for most farmers. For a farmer to purchase a model B meant he was replacing the four horse team that had been the mainstay of most farms in this area.  Usually the equipment used with the four horse team could easily be converted for use with the Model B.

Early sales literature for the Allis Chalmers B was devoted to convincing the farmer that the new B required less work to maintain than horses. Governments of the day also supplied statistics proving that the new B cost less to both buy and operate than horses. I remember it: horses need to be fed all winter, even when they are idle. A tractor only needs fuel when it is being used.

Then, as now, tractor fuel was cheap. Pumping the oil out of the ground cost very little because the oil deposits used at the time were very accessible. The cost of refining and transporting the oil was also not high, so it made huge economic sense, both for farmers to switch from horses to the Model B, as well as for governments to promote this switch.

Prior to the Model B, farmers were remarkably resilient. The resources they needed were pretty much all on the farm. In particular, the horses they used for power were fed locally grown hay. Disruptions thousands of miles away hardly affected them. But the Model B changed all of that! Since the introduction of the tractor, farmers have become totally dependent on oil moved thousands of miles and coming out of the ground or from under the sea. And remarkably, this dependency on oil has served us well. Cheap oil has allowed us to acquire most of the things we surround ourselves with. When one thinks of all the ways that the supply of cheap oil could have been disrupted, but has not, it truly is remarkable.

Today farmers are not dependent on a 17 HP tractors – no they have become dependent on 300 HP tractors. What recourse will they have if fuel becomes unavailable or the fuel price increases exponentially? What recourse will we, who depend on them for our food, have?

There is increased reason to believe that the era of cheap oil is ending. As it ends, farmers will need to find different power sources. Were they still dependent on a Model B, this may have been fairly easy. But they are not.

Join us as we seek a path to greater resiliency.