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County Agent Guy

Blackout blues

March 15, 2019
By Jerry Nelson - Columnist , Farm News

"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," goes the old Joni Mitchell tune. This is true for numerous things such as your car keys, the TV remote and your short-term memory.

Something that everyone misses when it's gone is electricity. Without electrical power, I would be forced to write with our ancient Remington manual typewriter. Its keys require so much force to impress letters upon paper that my fingers would soon become seriously muscled. They would be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the phalangeal world. I wouldn't be able to go anywhere without being accosted by people who need help opening their pickle jars.

There are many other reasons why I would miss electricity. The main one is that it's really hard to surf the internet in the dark.

We have become so dependent on an uninterrupted supply of electricity that we are powerless when the lights go out. We scramble for a flashlight, cursing the darkness and the fact that our big toe was still somehow able to find a table leg amidst that impenetrable blackness.

Ice storms can throw a deep chill into the power grid. An extended outage might be inconvenient for you, but it's an unmitigated disaster for dairy farmers. The lactation locomotive cannot be stopped; those bossies need to be milked no matter what. Imagine trying to "hold it" for an entire day and you get an idea of how the cows feel.

When I was a teenager, a winter storm deprived our dairy farm of electricity for three long days. Milking 35 cows may not sound like an overly daunting task until you think about doing it by hand. Each cow has four spigots, so you take that times 35 and...well, algebra isn't my strongest suit, but you see where I'm going.

It didn't bother our parents all that much when we lost power. They were born before the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, so living without electricity was familiar territory. Kerosene lamps were brought out of storage and glass chimneys were dusted off. Our farmhouse wasn't as luminous as the Vegas Strip, but it was good enough for us. Under different circumstances it might have even been seen as romantic.

Milking time was an "all hands on deck" proposition, meaning that all hands would be needed if we wanted to get the cows milked before the end of the century. My seven siblings and I dutifully reported to our stanchion barn and began the hand-powered milk extraction process.

We soon began to feel the strain in our arms. Were we to make a habit of milking cows by hand, we would quickly develop Popeye-like forearm muscles. Which is great if you're a guy, not so much if you're a teenaged girl.

At some point, Dad muttered something about the car and left the barn. We thought that the idea of milking all those cows with all those kids had caused him to bolt, but no. A few minutes later, our family's 1959 Chevrolet Impala was idling beside the barn.

The Chevy's previous owner had installed a stall cock on its intake manifold. We attached a garden hose to the stall cock and used the engine's vacuum to operate our Surge milking machines. It was a total eclipse of the animal and the automotive.

Like most teenaged boys, I believed that more was better, so I goosed the Impala's throttle. The vacuum level promptly plummeted to zero, the opposite of the desired effect. This would prove to be a valuable allegory for many things in life.

We milked the cows for three days with the Impala. It got so that the cows would begin to let their milk down whenever they heard the car's starter.

A crew of linemen finally arrived to resuspend the downed lines and end our powerless ordeal. We were so happy to see the coverall-clad repairmen, we could have kissed them. I think one of my sisters actually did.

Power outages are rare, yet a person should always be prepared. My wife and I have often thought about installing a standby generator. But if we had, the thing would have run perhaps 30 minutes during the past five years.

We were recently petting our cat, Sparkles, when we noticed that her fur produces approximately as much static electricity as a small thunderstorm. This gave me an idea.

The next time the lights go out, I'll simply rub Sparkles against the fuse box and our electric power will return immediately. I wish I'd thought of this during that three-day blackout. Because we had only one Impala, but a lot of barn cats.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

 
 

 

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