This week, my job at the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre lead me to a sun-dappled afternoon in the unlikely company of farmers.
I say “unlikely” not because I have anything at all against farmers, but because, like a majority of technology nerds, I have for most of my life been an agriculturally ignorant urbanite.
As a boy in the Yukon in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, I grew up in an environment where few people, if anybody, grew anything other than wild rhubarb in their weed lots.
I can still remember when our neighbour, Laurent Cyr, for some reason started gardening, and came to our house with a bag full of home-grown pea pods.
I was struck by the pea pods because, until then, I had only ever seen peas coming out of a can, and I had always assumed that, because they were round like berries, they grew on bushes like berries, too.
Since those more innocent and ignorant days, I have developed a little more knowledge about what plants and farmers do, but only marginally so.
This week, for instance, I learned for the first time that potato skins do not adhere to the meal of the plant while the potato is still growing; only after the plant dies does the skin connect to the potato itself, and dry and thicken in a way that seals in the moisture and wards off decay.
I also learned for the first time about a very cool poultry-raising device called a chicken tractor – a sample of farmer-boy practical technology at its simplest and finest.
A chicken tractor is a floorless, mobile chicken coup that farmers can move along their fields, allowing the chickens to range-feed in safe and orderly conditions, and leave their droppings to fertilize the soil without any need to wheelbarrow-transport the poop.
Most farmers build these chicken tractors to a fairly small size, out of light-weight materials and chicken wire; the farmer I was with, though, was a self-described “metal kind of guy,” so he had welded together a bigger, heavier version that he could move once a day with a truck.
In the first days, he was a little concerned that some of the chickens might get trapped under the back end of the coup as it was being dragged forward – and, in fact, some of them did get themselves stuck there initially, though none were killed or injured.
After the first few times, though, the chickens (who are not a dumb, apparently, as urbanites like me commonly assume they are) learned the rules of the game, and quickly adapted to clustering together in the middle of the coup when the truck appeared, and then walking together in the middle of the coup as it got dragged forward.
The innovative advantages of the heavy-duty, all-metal chicken tractor are two-fold: First, the heavier framework makes it pretty much impossible for a predator like a wolf or a fox to dig under and flip over the chicken tractor to get at the chickens; secondly, the larger size means you can treat and fertilize more cropland at a single go.
As I admired the classic simplicity of this “uber-chicken tractor,” and looked around at the various other machines and systems scattered around the farmyard – tractors, bulldozers, wind turbines, a sun-tracking solar panel array – I was struck by the array of technological literacies you need to be a successful farmer.
I remembered reading in a military history magazine many years ago about how a frequently remarked-upon characteristic of American and Canadian soldiers in the Second World War was their propensity for patching up and jury-rigging captured or abandoned enemy equipment and getting it into service.
It occurred to me this week that the explanation for that propensity probably lies in the fact that the USA and Canada were still largely agrarian countries back in those days, which meant the at about half the young men in any military unit were probably farm boys with farm-hand skills in machining, carpentry, heavy equipment operation, electrical wiring, and a host of others.
They were technological generalists in a way that has now, with increasing social urbanization and technological complication, become a much more rare accomplishment.
One of the most frequent and consistent pleasures of my day job at the Technology Innovation Centre is the way it introduces me to places, people and skill sets that lie outside the normal parameters of my interests and competences.
On the other hand, even at my more or less advanced age, with my more or less widely ranging history of professions from land surveyor to computer nerd, I still stand in envy of the range of competences and the build-it-with-a rock inventiveness of the Canadian farmer.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.