Toban Dyck: Sanity in an oil change

The tangible elements of farming are therapeutic

The webcam on my MacBook hasn’t been working consistently, giving me a great excuse to participate in virtual meetings without having my mug on the screen. I slink back in my chair and engage in the conversation, but my eyes can wander without anyone noticing. I stare out my office window, which overlooks our farmyard and, in those pockets of each meeting that don’t require my attention, I think about and try to unpack just how unique a year 2020 has been, so far.

This year hasn’t really been about farming at all. And that’s the strange part. It’s been about all those other things that go on around us that we may or not be used to thinking about. How many farmers out there spent time before 2020 thinking about society, culture and mental states like they do now?

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The very nature of this column has changed since COVID-19, too. I used to enjoy spending time inside my own head, thinking about the mental underpinnings of learning to farm, taking over a farm and living rurally, but that has changed. While I am still naturally drawn to interpreting the world from the perspective of someone writing one long journal entry, this year more than any other, I’ve found the tangible elements of farming to be the most therapeutic. Replacing an oil seal has become as satisfying as crafting a gem of a sentence.

This is a new attitude for me, but it’s what my farming trajectory needed. My dad knows machines in a general sense. He can listen to a motor run and think intelligently about the specific noises he’s hearing. He understands what’s happening inside the block.

I never took the time to care about such things. Machines are machines. They don’t matter, in the long run. And the thought of “caring” for something like a car or truck or tractor seemed like a colossal waste of time. Something as meaningful as providing care should not be attributed to anything but humans and animals.

We have an old Ford tractor on our farm. It was purchased new the year I was born. It’s still in fantastic shape (because it has been cared for), but it’s now only considered for light duty on the farm. Our farm has scaled up since 1980 and what once was a workhorse is now a tractor spending its retirement running our auger and conveyor. Its PTO needs to work. That’s it.

Setting the conveyor up on the Ford isn’t complicated, per se, but it sends me into a bit of a tizzy every year. The jump conveyor leg that swings out from the main part is operated by its own set of hydraulics. So, one line to raise and lower the main conveyor and two to operate the jump. Hooking this up correctly is not rocket science, by any stretch, but it’s a process I never really took the time to understand, apart from knowing that it requires a ton of troubleshooting and frustration before it’ll all finally work as it should.

The main conveyor runs via the PTO. The jump, however, runs off a hydraulic pump. The lever that activates it in the cab has to remain in “lift” position. To get this all to work, console settings have to change and there are tarp straps involved.

This year, I did something I had never before done. I took the time to locate the tractor’s manual and I read about the hydraulic system and what exactly I’d need to do in order to achieve what I needed to achieve. It was enlightening. I was able to walk up to the problem, and instead of being a bull in a china shop, I was able to tackle the job with an understanding of how each piece of the puzzle worked and needed to fit together.

I’d still maintain it isn’t healthy to elevate machines to human status and give them the same level of care. But, before a pandemic forced me to stay at home more than usual, I would have said a machine’s worth is tethered to its utility and that’s it.

The tangible elements of farming — like getting out there and working with your hands — have proved to be something controllable. Changing the oil on a machine puts me in a mental state where things feel sane and that has value beyond the utility of clean oil in a machine.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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