Just celebrated my 70th birthday last month. We attach great importance to decades only because of the calculations of some forgotten Byzantine astrologer, not because there is any cosmic significance to the decimal system. Still, these birthdays with zeroes pop up like the zeroes on the truck odometer and prompt us to reflect on who we are and what’s left to do.
I agree with my old friend on the North Channel who told me recently that “I still like living on the farm but I find the work between the meals is starting to lose its appeal.” I replied that this is a natural phase and not to be resisted. An old farmer is supposed to convert all his decades of experience into important new labour-saving ideas.
Limping old guys have been the inspiration behind many of the lasting innovations in agriculture. Jethro Tull dispensed a lifetime of terrible advice about pulverizing soil and burning stubble before he finally came up with his mechanical seed drill. All his goofy ideas were redeemed by that one brilliant inspiration and it is for the seed drill we remember him.
So, there is still time for me to do something useful. I think of this while at my workbench with a bladeless fan to cool me. Sir James Dyson came up with this idea at age 64, long after he had invented his famous vacuum cleaner. It was a young Swiss guy who dreamed up the idea of the ‘smart’ robotic vacuum, a far more dangerous contraption that still cannot be trusted. A cousin of mine left one of these things running in the living room without explaining it to his dog, who suffered from a nervous disposition. The dog had a fit, which prompted a very bad case of diarrhea, and the smart vacuum was not intelligent enough to distinguish between dust and dung. We are left to imagine what sort of disaster my cousin returned to that evening.
Good ideas are generally safer when they come from old guys, although human progress does owe a debt to young people who suffer from high energy and low risk perception. Many of humanity’s great leaps forward owe their origin to a series of bar bets and a scientific method which goes roughly: “If we did x, why can’t we do y? Here, hold my beer and watch this…”
Which reminds me of a few episodes in my early years of failed attempts to automate basic agricultural tasks, like halter-breaking a horse. Virgil Reid had a young trotting horse he was trying to bring along and he found it an exhausting task to jog in front of it while it learned to lead. He had a neighbour, Andy Huxtable, with some spare time. So Andy drove Virgil’s pickup down the concession road while Virgil sat in the passenger seat with the halter rope looped around his wrist and the horse trotted along beside them. This was a great system until the horse suddenly got tired of this nonsense and sat down on its haunches. Virgil went out the window like that little guy ejected from James Bond’s Aston Martin, catching Andy in mid-sentence. “Snap another cap off a Red Cap will ya…Virgil?”
This was before the days when farmers went to hospitals for anything less than catastrophic misadventure. Virgil had a funny twist to his neck and shoulder for a long time after that, but he lived to do many more stupid things. Before long I noticed that racetracks had installed automatic horse walkers around the perimeter of the track, and I always wondered if Virgil had been the inspiration for this invention.
The first self-driving tractor known to man came to grief in 1969 while I was forking manure off the wagon it was pulling through an irrigated hay field in the Murray River district of Australia. The young dairy farmer I was working for had discovered if you pointed the tractor diagonally across the ridges in the field, they would bump one front wheel of the tractor every few yards just enough to turn it in a wide circle and bring it back to the barn while he forked the manure off the back. Corrections were sometimes required. The system worked brilliantly until he entrusted it to a young Canadian who encountered a poisonous spider the size of a Buick in the manure and abandoned his post. We both watched the tractor as it solemnly plodded into an irrigation pond and disappeared. To the man’s credit, he shrugged off the mishap as a normal factor in the R&D process and I was allowed to keep my job.
His son still calls me on my birthday every year.