Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Family Farm

Although I was technically raised in Tacoma, my grandparents on my mother's side had a small dairy farm in Eatonville, southeast of town. It was where the farming bug bit me so hard, I've never recovered.

As a kid, I'd spend every possible day, hour and minute on that farm. I remember packing my suitcase the night before the last day of school. Classes were usually let out at noon, and by that evening I was in the barn milking the cows. Usually in August my mother would drag me back into town, kicking and screaming for a day of school shopping. I'd get done with the evening milking, go back to Tacoma, shop the next day, and if all went well, was back on the farm that night. I wouldn't come home until the night before the first day of school at the end of summer.

The fall of my senior year at Lincoln High in Tacoma my grandfather got sick and ended up in the hospital. I don't think I was home for a week when I had to move back out to take care of the cows. It was great. I'd get up around 4:30 AM and do the morning milking, then catch a ride into school with a teacher that happened to live only 5 miles or so from the farm. After school I'd ride back out with him and do the evening chores, homework then go to bed. That lasted about 6 weeks and I loved every minute of it.

During the school year, most of the vacations were spent at the farm, and any week-end I could find a way out of town. I was definitely a farm boy stuck in the city.

These days, not much happens out at the farm. My folks still live there, but we all know those days are numbered. They quit milking cows 15 years or so ago, and just a few months back, Dad shipped off the last five beefers he was keeping. For the first time in over 100 years there aren't any bovines on the place.

The farm is too small for it to support any significant commercial operation. The fields flood each year, which in one respect is good, it can never be subdivided and developed. On the other hand, for me, a berry grower, the land won't support the kind of farming I've settled into.

Eventually the farm will be sold to a local land trust. They are going to let it slowly go back to nature. I have no real issue with that. Our family will see that land come full circle, from my great-grandfather clearing it, to my dad farming it to the very end.

Such is the way.

Anyways...I was scanning a few of the shots I took out at the family farm over the years. Here's a few:

Grandpa wheeling a load of manure up the ramp

Mowing oat hay. Grandpa on the tractor, Dad on the mower

Dad tedding grass hay

Me riding the mower and getting splattered with grease from the spinning pitman

Dad milking

A young me, milking

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Back in the Day

I went high school in Tacoma, Washington during hte late 60's and early 70's. No rural, small classes where you knew everyone, FFA, 4-H clubbing for me. At Lincoln High there were over 650 kids in my class alone. We all found our group of 15-20 buddies, had nodding acquaintances with maybe 50 more and beyond that you had no clue who the rest of those kids were.

In my senior year, I began taking my camera to school everyday. That actually took a little effort considering my camera was an old Yashica twin lens box camera, but she took good photos. Most of the shots were of girls in short skirts and hot pants, and my buddies just being, well, my buddies. Most of the shots went no further than a click of the shutter release and a session developing the film. Very few of the resulting negatives were ever printed.

Stuffed into sleeves those old negatives went long forgotten. I'd stumble across a strip or two now and again when searching for another shot, but they would quickly become buried in my ever increasing, totally uncatalogued landslide of railroad and farm images. And then I bought a scanner....

I've rediscovered these old images. Photos that have never seen the light of day have been brought to life through the wonder of the digital world. More than once a negative is scanned, the image pops up on this very screen, I lean forward for a closer look and then utter a "well I'll be damned."

But photos are meant to be shared, are they not? And, armed with these old images, I've been slowly, very slowly, tracking down some whose faces you see below. It's been fun. These days all the old high school insecurities, the cliques, everything that made high school a traumatic experience for us all have long since faded. These days, all who I've contacted are glad to know we are still alive.

So here's a quick look at us...back in the day.

(Photographer's self portrait)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Defiance with Dignity

While traveling a Montana back road I spotted this one lone railroad telegraph pole. There was a time in the not so distant past these poles were as much a part of the railroad infrastructure as the ties and rails themselves. Tall, tight grained poles with their bottoms treated with creosote lined the right of ways. On their stretched out arms were glass insulators all of which supported the multiple wires required to keep a railroad running. Miles of poles and wires connected the smallest station in the middle of nowhere to the largest metropolis mountain ranges away. There was a degree of dignity associated with those poles and wire. They were as important to a railroad as the trains themselves.

Like so much of what was a part of past operations, modern systems of communications and train control have taken away the need for the pole lines. The majority of the poles have been chopped down, the miles and miles of copper wire long since salvaged. Even the string line of small town stations, once linked by those wires have long ago vanished from the landscape. And yet, out in the nothingness of Montana stands this one solitary pole.

Still strong and straight, its arms outstretched true to form I saw the dignity that pole once had was still there. But there was something else as well. With that dignity I saw a hint of defiance. Where all others had fallen, this one pole, somehow, someway has defied the onslaught of the modern world and remains in place along the old Northern Pacific mainline.

There is a degree of dignity in that pole's defiance. Defiance with dignity..maybe the world has stripped the pole of its original purpose, but it has not taken its dignity.

Our dignity...maybe like that pole, it's one of the few things we still can control. Maybe we too should against all odds try and defiantly hold to our own sense of dignity.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Montana May

With no cucumbers this year, I decided the time I'd normally be putting those seeds in the ground would be beter spent in Montana. So long about Memorial Day Janice and I made a quick run over to Bozeman to check in on eldest son. This really wasn't a railfanning trip, but with the early morning hours mine to spend...I thought it only right to spend them along the MRL and Bozeman Hill. So here's a little sampling of what I saw.

The morning local drops downgrade towards Bozeman at Trail Creek. With still pletny of snow and sudden warm temps, the creeks were really roaring.

No trip is complete without some early morning glint on the eastside of Bozeman Hill. Here a westbound pops into view....

With a 3-set of ACe's shoving on the rear.

With the advent of DPU's on the "heavies" (grain and coal) the Livingston Helper is now cut-in as opposed to the old system of pushing on the rear. Rather than cut on the fly at the summit, (Muir) the helpers now make the trip all the way to Bozeman where they are cut out. In a predawn scene, a westbound coal train, with a 3 set cut-in ACe helper a a 2 set DP on the rear rolls into Bozeman.

Cutitng helpers into the DP trains requires extra switching in Livingston. A westbound coal train has split its train east of the yard. While the head-end pulls the upper cut clear of the road crossing, a 3-set ACe helper moves onto the main where it will pull the lower cut of cars west to rejoin the train. The coupling complete, the switchman double checks the connections.

Loaded and cocked, the manned cut-in helpers and the two rear DPU's each wait for the command from the head-end engineer to continue west.

A sign of better days in for the shops at Livingston.

A little predawn action: eastbound grain MT's slip downgrade as the sun just begins to kiss the hills in the background.

It wasn't all trains by any stretch of the imagination. A day spent at Yellowstone allowed for some nice images of the park still under a fair mantle of snow.

So once again, the Big Skies did not disappoint.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Spring Sampler

A few BTW's before the good stuff. In our family the saying was always "pudding". This dates back to the pre-Jello Instant Pudding days when Mom would cook pudding over the stove. It was never a guarantee. If she did it right, the mixture would cool and "set-up" into pudding. If done wrong, it would just stay a soupy mess and Mom would be pissed. So you see, the proof whether or not it was done right was in the "pudding". We're farm folk...not golfers.

Here's another old saying that is coming true..."womb to tomb". I'm combining a barley crop that I planted last spring. I'm filling a truck that I take each morning to my main employer, Conway Feed where I off load the grain. I then go inside the mill and turn that barley into cow feed which I pellet. About mid morning I hit the road to gather in grain orders...orders for feed that I made and will be delivered to those customers. Feed containing that barley. Womb to tomb...I'm really getting sick to seeing that barley!

Anyways...time for some train photos. If you look a few posts back, you'll see some shots taken during this past winter up on Stevens Pass. Here's a few taken this spring during the thaw.

Morning starts with the usual clouds hanging over Cowboy Mountain and a westbound "Z" popping out of the Cascade Tunnel.

Damaged goods left over from the snow battles; the ladder from one of the East Scenic signal masts, the the crossing sign at Merritt.

Here's two of an eastbound stack train. First we see it topping the pass at Berne, and then topping the final little climb out of the Merritt basin.

This was definitely the winter that would not go away. Westbound contains bask in the spring sun as they thread the "slot" west of Merritt with a two set DPU helper. A few miles up the hill....the same train is nearly invisible behind the thick flakes of a late spring snow squall.

The final shot of a good day is of the conductor of our westbound stacker giving eastbound grain MT's a roll-by down at Skykomish.

Stay tuned..next up are the results of a quickie spring trip to Bozeman.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

No Different than the Ancients

I think we have all seen the images of third world people harvesting wheat. Bundles, or even just loose stocks of grain are brought in from the field, usually by hand. The cut plants are spread out on the ground where some local form of domesticated four legged animal is tethered to a crude home build swivel and walks on top of the grain in an endless circle. As the animal passes by, a person with a wood rake pulls away the straw. Next, women with large shallow baskets scoop up what remains and toss it into the air, catching the heavier grain and allowing the lighter chaff to blow away. It is an ongoing process, more grain stocks are thrown under the hooves of the animal, more straw is raked away, more of the separated heads are tossed in the air and caught.

This is one of the earliest documented agricultural process, the harvesting of wheat.

What is absolutely amazing is that the modern day giants of farm equipment, the combine is nothing more than a mechanical version of that same process. The mechanics have improved, yes, but the theory, the actual how it gets done has not changed in thousands of years.

A combine got its name simply because that is just what is does, it "combines" all of those ancient process I just described into one mobile machine.

On the front, the header, with its tell tale turning reel cuts the grain stock and feeds it into the machine, just like the native men hauling bundles from their field. The stocks, straw and grain head are then fed into a rotor surrounded by a concave. The spinning rotor rubs the material against the bars of the concave causing the grain heads to separate from the straw and the actual kernels to pop out from the protective chaff. High capacity, but it is no different than a mule or ox walking across the grain endless times.

Falling from the rotor and concave, the longer straw is shook loose as it and the kernels "walk across" the first of two screens. Like a man raking away the long stocks. All the while, a powerful fan is blowing air across these screens, causing the lighter straw and chaff to exit out the back of the machine and the heavier grain to fall through the oscillating screens. This is exact same theory as women with woven baskets "winnowing" the wheat in the hot afternoon breeze. Finally, the cleaned grain is elevated to a holding tank at the top of the machine where it is periodically augured into trucks. Just as the women empty their baskets of the precious grain.

We think we are so smart and advanced. In a combine, there are no new ideas.

I've been doing some custom wheat cutting over the past two weeks. The whole time I kept thinking, what I'm doing is etched in stone in Egypt and in caves here in the US. I'm no different than the ancients.

The proof is in the pudding. A landowner inspects a load of wheat I just combined to make sure the ancient principles are being closely followed.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ground Zero

It was on the cover of this month's National Geographic. They call it where the food chain begins. I call it ground zero...soil/plant/water.

The last three weeks are the toughest weeks for me. In a word, "irrigation". The food chain starts with soil, plants and water. During the dry weeks of late July and August, I supply the water.

It is tough work for an old man. Every evening after putting in my day at the feed mill, I'd head out to the berry field to change lines. 65 lengths of 40' pipe had to be moved each evening. It's the job I love to hate, or better yet, hate myself because deep down inside, I love doing it.

Step one was to strip down to my jeans. I pity the poor folks out on Highway 20, seeing an old man, shirtless moving pipe. Not the best of visuals!

Step two was getting the mainline changed for the next set. On one end of the field I would pull off two lengths of 4" main and hook in the 4" to 3" reducing elbow to which the actual sprinkler pipes would be connected. I was running two lines, so midway down the main, I would have to pull the line apart, remove a 4" "T" with a 4-3 reducer, move it down two lengths and hook it back in.

With the mainline back together, I was ready for the real work. One by one, each 40' sprinkler pipe had to be detached. Like a tight rope artist, I would find the balance point and then carry the pipe across 16 rows of berries, making sure the sprinkler head remained upright, not dragging in the dirt or ripping through the strawberry plants, then in one smooth move, latch it into the preceding pipe, lay it down in the row and pull it tight. Never breaking stride, I'd be walking back across the 16 rows of berries angling towards the next pipe. Two lines, each about 1/4 mile long were moved in around 2 hours. (You will note, no mention is made of a helper..this is a solo mission.)

When each line is laid, I walk its length, making sure the latches are properly secured. Nothing pisses me off more than to blow a line just as they come up to pressure due to a pipe I didn't get latched correctly.

The lines ready to go it's time to start the pump. We have a 6 cylinder Chevy on a two wheeled trailer. It is direct driven to the pump, also on the trailer. Our water source is a shallow well, pulling the water up only about 40'. With a pipe wrench I unscrew the primer, stuff a funnel in the pipe and fill the pump and throat with water until it boils over the top of the funnel. Quickly I pull off the funnel and thread the cap back on. Pulling out the choke and setting the throttle I press the button that overrides the "Murphy switch" and fire up the motor. Water flies out of the pump packing, telling she is primed. Carefully I open the main valve, being careful not to loose prime. Life giving water starts filling the lines.

Bit by bit I open up the throttle and main valve as the lines fill. As the sun sets lower, the temptation is to really let her rip and get the lines up and going. It is a temptation I quickly squash. Too much pressure too quick will cause a major hammer that will blow out the end plugs on one or both of my lines producing a very muddy ordeal.

Patience pays. Within 10 minutes water is sputtering out of all 65 sprinkler heads. That's when I give her the gas and open up the main valve. With the lines up to pressure, I take one more walk down each line making sure the sprinkler heads are standing upright. This requires a bit of timing and a willingness to get wet. If a sprinkler pipe is laying a bit on one side, there will not be even coverage. Waiting for the head to turn away from me, I swoop in and immediately grab the interrupter so as not to get too much spray in the face. Stopping the spinning of the head, I can then straighten the pipe, letting go of the interrupter only after I have directed the nozzle away from me and am a couple of steps into my escape. The only issue is, the sprinklers on either side of me are merrily coming around on their circle routes, wetting me down.

Hooked in one of my belt loops on my jeans is a piece of wire..sure sign of a man working hand lines. Any sprinkler that might be plugged gets the wire treatment. Using the same technique as straightening a line, I swoop in on the the offending sprinkler head. With wire in hand, I ream out the plugged nozzle, always getting a good face full of cold water when the combo of my jill poking wire and the pressure behind the blockage breaks it loose and sends it flying out somewhere into the field.

The lines up and running, I double check the pump, set the pressure shut-off and call it good. I'll be back out around midnight or so to check on things before turning in for the night. And so it goes for 3 weeks or more.

There is nothing that I know of that matches the feeling I get watching the sun set behind the veils of water produced by 65 irrigation nozzles. I complain. I tell folks how irrigation is a complete pain in the ass. I even talk about how I can't wait for the day when I finally admit I'm too old to be packing pipes across a field.

That's all bullshit.

Deep down inside I take a real pride in setting a straight line. I like the idea that at 55 I can still do a 1/2 mile line change start to finish, by myself in a little over two hours.

This is ground zero...where our food starts. It begins with soil, plants and someone willing to put in the effort to make sure the life giving water gets delivered.

Yeah, it's a pride thing.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Game's On

It's been a long while since I've posted, and for good reason. It has been a lousy spring here in the Pacific Northwest, cold and wet. It has been, without a doubt, the most challenging spring I've ever farmed. Just about the time I'd get the water drained from the berry field and the ground starting to dry, another deluge would blow through, pounding the soil with rain and sending the temperatures 15 degrees or more below normal. In a year where diesel was going through the roof, I just didn't need a season where I had to keep the tractors running to keep the berries from rotting.

Still, you have to keep at it. Up and down the rows, inching along with any number of combos of sweeps, Lewiston hoes, shanks, you name it, I drug it along the rows wringing out the soggy ground. So far, we've hit the plants twice with spray, keeping the mildew at bay. No, we definitely do not farm "organically". I want a paying crop.

Safe on high hills thankfully, the plants did not give up. The blossoms popped, the berries formed. A good 2 - 3 weeks later than usual, but the berries did come.

It is the World Poker Tour, but for real. With the crop coming, our money on the table, the processors began their yearly two step. A few underhanded moves, sorry attempts at price fixing were found out. Never did we directly accuse anyone of such things...that's not how the game is played. Still, we made sure THEY knew, WE knew. As the berries formed up and began to show red, a low ball offer was made. We said nothing. I just kept tilling the rows, fluffing up the ground to warm it up and bring the crop on.

The sun finally came out this past week and shades of green and white began to glow redder by the day. The processors kept their cards close to the table waiting for the flop. It came last week when the Oregon growers settled for $.57/pound, a few cents under last year. (Too bad our costs aren't a few cents under last year!) We knew we were holding a good hand, the fruit was developing nicely. Hard work kept the green rot away. The berries began to shape up beautifully. Although our local processor maintained their poker faces, their actions gave them away. I kept seeing their fieldmen driving by looking over the field. For being uninterested, they were obviously very interested.

This week they finally made an offer on our crop. A fair offer, the same as Oregon. The big question was dockage. We hammered that out tonight. They could not argue our quality, we definitely could argue their dockage rate. We went all in and called them at the big table. They cut their normal dockage in half...we settled.

Berry farming is not for the weak of heart...

I think back to this winter, and the hours spent on the #2 shovel keeping the water off the field. Then there were the sore back hours spent pulling weeds, the hours of monotony going back and forth up down those rows in first gear. It's all part of this game, this version of the World Poker Tour.

So now is the easy part; waiting another week or so for the Mother Nature to finish her work so we can turn the pickers loose on the field. The poker game is over...now the fun game's on!

BTW....as I'm typing this there is juice from bright red Puget Reliance dripping off my chin and there is whipped cream and crumbs of a fresh baked Bisquick shortcake hanging from my moustache.

Tomorrow morining I'll be up a 4:30 to personally pick the first flats destined for a steakhouse in Montana..a little pet project of mine.

Oh yeah...the game's on....

No more California crap. It's great to have REAL strawberries.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Battle Weary Soldiers

When locomotive 10217A emerged from General Electric’s shops in Erie, Pennsylvania, men from the United States were preparing to march through the streets of their hometowns, bound for Europe to fight “Kaiser Bill”. The world hoped it would be “the war to end all wars”. The year was 1916. Over the next year, as the bloody stalemate continued in the trenches of France and “no man’s land”, additional sets of G.E. box cab electrics were built and delivered to the then Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, or simply, the Milwaukee Road. Among them were 10109A, the 10102A, and 10209A.

As soldiers went east to the battle fronts “over there” the GE Box Cabs headed west to the theaters of the Rocky Mountains and Cascades. Grinding through the wind and snow of winter, humidity and heat of summer, these electric motors lugged across the divides of the west the supplies that supported the men suffering in the muddy trenches to the east, across the Atlantic. At times the men themselves were carried off to battle with power provided by “white coal”.

When the soldiers returned home in 1919, victorious, their tour of duty fulfilled, the box cabs had hardly begun theirs. Sadly, the lessons learned from that vicious war did not prevent yet another global conflict. Even with a quarter of a century of service behind them and suffering from the constraints of two bankruptcy’s the electric units of the Milwaukee once again found themselves joining in a new battle, transporting yet another generation of men off to another world war. Renumbered and reconfigured, the battle tested units faithfully answered the call and carried the men and machines needed to meet and defeat enemies on two fronts separated by the North American continent.

Despite having fought yet another war, this time in Korea, to an uneasy political resolution a third generation of men found themselves being taken to the killing fields. This time in a country called Viet Nam. Still the motors of the Milwaukee rolled on. Weary from the strain of constant warfare with the mountains of the west, they were now being helped with their chores by the legions of new diesel/electrics. Over sixty years of frontline service had diminished their ranks. Of a battalion that once boasted 90 units, by 1971, less than 20 remained. Combined in odd matchings to make up for those gone, motors 10109A, 10102A and 10209A eventually became the E 39 A,C, and D. Completing the four unit set was the former 10217A, now sporting E 47A on her number board. Still, whenever the pantographs of these survivors were raised and the controllers notched out, the motors knew that duty had again called and they responded just as they did 60 years prior.

Two generations had gone to war and returned battle hardened when the E 47A posed for her photograph, basking in the warm September sun at Tideflats Yard in 1970. A third generation was enduring the same horrors as the previous two when six months later, these motors made their way westward through the snows of a familiar battlefield, the line over Snoqualmie Pass. Dressed in their fatigues, carrying no metals honoring their heroics, possessing no citations for their devotion to service, the weary soldiers simply carried out their duties.

After sixty six years, three generations, two world wars and two “policing actions”, peace finally came to the 10109A, to the 10102A, to the 10209A and the 10217A. The longest day on the western front, the Coast electrification, came in November of 1972.On that day rest came for the class of locomotive known to the Milwaukee Road as the EF-5’s, having been finally relieved of their command. It came nearly 63 years to the day that marked the end of the “war to end all wars”, the day we now know as Veteran’s Day.

Weary soldiers, veterans all too familiar with warfare, they are gone now. Their fields of honor have been long removed from the landscape, defiled to the point of becoming simple hiking trails. Yet just as the ghosts of the soldiers who gave to their last measure linger above the soil of distant lands, their exploits becoming a part of our history, so too remain the spirits of the warriors of the Milwaukee Road. Caught up in the wind that sweeps across the irrigated fields of Othello and the Royal Slope, the souls of the box cabs are carried across the Columbia River and across the barren sage brush of the Saddle Mountains. Lifted high into the clouds that shroud the Cascades they pass over towns with names like Cle Elum, Hyak and Cedar Falls. They finish their journey along the protected waters of Puget Sound only to make a crisp about face and return. They are sentries, forever keeping their watch over the land they served. They are battle weary soldiers destined never to die.