California Forum

On farming and the art of repair, and extending the lives of old things

The author, Fresno-area farmer David Mas Masumoto, maintaining his tractor.
The author, Fresno-area farmer David Mas Masumoto, maintaining his tractor. Special to The Bee

I have environmentally correct farm equipment. Our disks and plows were purchased decades ago. My father bought most of our tractors and many were purchased “used.” Shovels, rakes, pitchforks were also passed down with a distinct brown rust coloring. They are ecologically right precisely because they’re old.

The energy and resources required to build a new tractor or forklift are huge. One study reported the making of a new vehicle creates as much carbon pollution as driving it for a decade.

My equipment may move a little slowly and use a little more fuel, but the replacement expense can have a huge impact. So I’ve joined a green wave, using a recycling, anti-consumption business model. We have learned to live with things old, a perspective I appreciate more as I, too, age.

On our farm, we have mastered the art of repair rather than throwing away. It requires a creative eye to see value in the old and anticipate when things will break. The challenge is then how to rally and apply your innovative skills to fix things.

We have learned to live with things old, a perspective I appreciate more as I, too, age.

Others consider me cheap, too frugal to buy new, too simple-minded to part with the old. They forget that it’s a privileged class that discards instead of seeking a creative alternative.

Many of us can’t afford the new. Besides, some things can come back in style. Our ’81 El Camino is now a classic. At least I try to convince myself.

I have explored the culture of old equipment. Each implement holds a story. The history of our farm and family is embedded in the nicks and scratches like past ancestors’ archaeological fingerprints.

The farmer before us, the Riffel family, left pieces of old machine parts in an old red barn. I try to picture the machine that a long, twisted forked steel rod was once part of. Then I joyfully reconfigure it as part of a brace on our French plow, which, of course I bent and broke trying to go too fast in the vineyards.

If you look at farm junk through the eyes of a conservationist, you can see mounds of energy and resource units bound up in metal pieces awaiting re-fabrication and rebirth. And over the years, I’ve learned the character of my aging equipment. When our old tractor is working well, I can hear a Buddhist chant – ooommmmm.

I have learned, too, to live with some ailments and accept the wear and tear and lower performance. Our farm gear and I grow old together and tolerate declining productivity.

I tell myself it’s the quality of work that matters, not speed. I look for ways for the old to work side by side with the new. An aging tractor may no longer handle a big disk but may be still very useful just pulling a trailer. Why tie up valuable modern equipment for minor tasks? In this age of specialization, I have found specific jobs for all levels of capability.

Growing old does not doom us to being outdated. Rather, it’s a process of refinement and redefining. The theory of creative destruction in capitalism dictates the old must give way to innovation and the new. Yet must we always destroy the old? Must traditional ways be discarded?

I like using a better term: creative disruption. That simply signifies a break in existing patterns. It suits me better to bring in new equipment so it fits with the old. This is how we’re trying to transition our farm, with my daughter taking over. There is not yet a succession plan of throwing me out (at least that’s what I hope). Rather it’s how we can form a new type of partnership.

Alas, there does come a time to replace, when the cost of maintenance and repair is no longer worth it. Change can be a slow process, sometimes painful. Who knows when my own time may come? Other times I find it refreshing to know euthanasia sometimes belongs in the journey of life.

Yet, each year I manage to maintain old equipment, I delay consuming and taxing the environment with one more new thing that had to be manufactured. I give and take, and strive for balance. I tolerate imperfection more than I used to. Adaption joins my daily plans. Nothing is complete. In life – as a Buddhist maxim depicts – “the pot is always boiling.”

My father had a system for living with the old. He understood some things would break down, such as ancient pickups, or old farmers. So as he aged, he tried to stay close to home. That’s how we can extend the lives of old things. And not just throw them away.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com.

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