Diesel Won’t Be Easily Replaced On The Farm

  I was out at the cabin, trying to trim the reeds and weeds along the water, when I came across a stark reminder of how good we have it […]
Published on August 7, 2023

 

I was out at the cabin, trying to trim the reeds and weeds along the water, when I came across a stark reminder of how good we have it because of fossil fuels.

I was using the electric whipper snipper when the reel head decided to disassemble itself. But I still had a lot of weeds that needed to be cut.

So I went into the shed and dug out the old scythe Uncle Larry, the previous owner, put in there some time in the preceding 40 years. That scythe likely dates back to the 1930s, making it somewhere around 90 years old. A blacksmith hand-made that scythe.

I took a palm sander to it and put a usable edge on it.

My late grandfather, Harry Zinchuk, showed me how to use a scythe some 30 years ago, when I was around 18. I think he used one when he was 18, around 1935, twisting right to left. My technique was awful, my tool old and probably too dull. But I was able cut down about 40 square feet of reeds in a few sweat soaked minutes.

And with each stroke, I kept wondering how entire teams of men would go into the fields, slicing down crops entirely by hand. It would take days for them to do 160 acres.

It made me think of farming today. A few years ago I was hired to video and photograph a year on the farm for Jason and Sherrill LeBlanc of Estevan. They had their then 14-year-old daughter driving a mammoth Case combine, and doing so well. I wonder how much more productive one girl driving a combine was compared to teams of men with scythes, then stookers (a person who bends over and picks up the loose wheat that had been cut down), then threshing crews.

That same farm now continuously crops over 100 quarters (16,000 acres) of land, harvesting with a crew of around 20 people. They usually accomplish all of that in just a few weeks.

My grandfather worked on those threshing crews, from sun up to sun down. Lard sandwiches were his fuel. Hay fed the horses. How much more efficient are diesel combines now?

For some real-world explanations of this, I strongly encourage reading some of the books by Vaclav Smil, the University of Manitoba distinguished professor emeritus whose prolific writings on energy are a true wake-up call. Last summer I got through How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going. Other titles of his I hope to get through are Energy and Civilization: A History, Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure and Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses. The general thrust is how mankind’s mastery of energy supplies have allowed us to live the lives we currently enjoy.

Some people seem to think we can easily replace diesel with electric when it comes to farm equipment. One of those people is Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson. I was present when he was in Kipling, Saskatchewan, on June 29, to announced $50 million for a wind power project. A local reporter asked him about electric tractors.

Focussing on cost of operations for farmers with regards to the Clean Fuel Regulations, the reporter noted, “That’s going to make life harder for them because, you know, the bottom line is there is no such thing in Saskatchewan right now as an [electric] tractor. You know, it’s just not feasible. And so, as they’re making this transition, what sort of investment is the federal government prepared to get to that?”

Wilkinson replied, “I think the first thing that you said about it’s just not feasible, people would have said exactly the same thing about an electric vehicle 10 years ago, and they would have said the same thing about an electric pickup truck. And now those are available to buy them. There are companies that are working on large scale equipment, including equipment for farming, that will be electric on a go-forward basis. So those kinds of solutions are actually driven by regulations like this. But what I would say is, and I do say, that this will create jobs and economic opportunity, including in the agricultural sector, because you use canola, and soy, and often agricultural residuals to make the products that are going to be driven by this whole thing. So, there are benefits associated with it.”

Electric tractors, eh? Just how large batteries will they require? Will they be the size of an air seeder tank, and pulled behind like a coal tender from locomotives of old? Do you need two, with someone towing one out to the field after charging, to allow continual operations?

Because that’s what farmers do these days. Jason’s seeding crew has their turnarounds to fuel, service, and refill the seeder with seed and fertilizer down to 18 minutes. They run shifts around the clock, many miles from home. And they have two mammoth Case 620 Quadtrac tractors doing so, plus an older tractor pulling a land roller, as well as two sprayers. Where and when are they supposed to charge up? How long will that take their equipment out of operation?

Are they just supposed to find the nearest power pole and hook up some big booster cables?

Farming requires enormous amounts of energy – a lot more than a lard sandwich or EV charger. And diesel is the answer, and will be for a long time to come. Sorry, Mr. Minister. Electric tractors won’t be cutting it anytime soon.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor and owner of Pipeline Online, and occasional contributor to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@pipelineonline.ca.

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