Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Agriculture: The Price of Transition

One of the great gifts of crisis is supposed to be the way it helps sort out the difference between what’s essential and what’s not. As we move deeper into the crisis of industrial civilization, that particular gift is likely to arrive in horse doctor’s doses. Those who insist that the first priority in an age of declining petroleum production is finding some other way to fuel a suburban SUV lifestyle, or who hope to see some favorite technology – the internet, say, or space travel – privileged in the same way, risk finding out the hard way that other things come first.

At the top of the list of those other things are the immediate necessities of human life: breathable air, drinkable water, edible food. Lacking those, nothing else matters much. The first two are provided by natural cycles that industrial civilization is doing its best to mess up, but so far the damage has been localized. There are still crucial issues to consider and work to be done, but the raw resilience of a billion-year-old biosphere that has shrugged off ice ages and asteroid impacts is a powerful ally.

Food is another matter. Unlike air and water, the vast majority of the food we eat comes from human activity rather than the free operation of natural cycles, and the human population has gone so far beyond the limits of what surviving natural ecosystems can support that attempting to fall back on wild foods at this point would be a recipe for dieoff and ecological catastrophe. At the same time, most of the world’s population today survives on food produced using fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources such as mineral phosphate and ice age aquifers. As the end of the fossil fuel age approaches, other arrangements have to be made.

This poses a challenge, because nearly every resource currently used in industrial agriculture, from the petroleum that powers tractors and provides raw materials for pesticides, through the natural gas and phosphate rock that go into fertilizer, to the topsoil that underlies the whole process, is being depleted at radically unsustainable rates. Some peak oil theorists, noting this, have worried publicly that the consequences of declining petroleum production will include the collapse of industrial agriculture and worldwide starvation.

Still, this is one of those places where one of the central themes of recent Archdruid Report posts – the theme of adaptation – is particularly useful. If today’s industrial agriculture were to keep chugging away along its present course into the future, the results could be disastrous. One of the few things that can be said for certain, though, is that this sort of straight-line extrapolation is the least likely trajectory for the agriculture of the future.

The certainty here comes from two sources. First, the industrial agriculture we have today did not pop fully formed out of a John Deere plant like Athena from the head of Zeus. It evolved as farmers and agricultural corporations took advantage of the abundant energy supplies made available by the exploitation of oil reserves in the 20th century. At that time, increasing energy inputs into agriculture was adaptive; it made use of an abundant resource – cheap fossil fuel energy – to make up for other resources that were more expensive or less available. That same equation, though, works equally well the other way. As energy and other fossil fuel products become more expensive, farmers have a strong incentive to use less of them, and to replace them with other resources.

The second source of certainty comes from the simple fact that adaptations in the other direction are already taking place. The organic farming revolution, the most important of these, may be the most promising and least often discussed of the factors shaping the future of industrial society. It’s not a small factor, either. In 2005, the most recent year for which I have been able to get data, some four million acres of land completed the transition from chemical to organic agriculture, about a million acres over the previous year’s figure.

Because it uses no chemical fertilizers and no pesticides, organic agriculture is significantly less dependent on fossil fuels than standard agriculture, and yet it produces roughly comparable yields. It has huge ecological benefits – properly done, organic agriculture reverses topsoil loss and steadily improves the fertility of the soil rather than depleting it – but it also translates into a simple economic equation: a farmer can get comparable yields for less cost by growing crops organically, and get higher prices for the results. As the prices of petroleum, natural gas, phosphate rock, and other feedstocks for the agrichemical industry continue to climb, that equation will become even harder to ignore – and in the meantime the infrastructure and knowledge base necessary to manage organic farming on a commercial scale is already solidly in place and continues to expand.

As fuel prices continue to climb, tractor fuel and transportation costs are likely to become the next major bottlenecks. The adaptive responses here are already taking shape, though they’re back further in the development curve – more or less where organic agriculture was in the 1970s.

The renaissance of horsedrawn agriculture is one adaptive response moving steadily toward the takeoff point. After a long period when diesel was so much cheaper than feed that horses no longer made economic sense, the balance is swinging the other way, and farmers are waking up to the advantages of “tractors” that run on grain and hay, rather than expensive diesel fuel, and can be manufactured in a horse barn by the simple expedient of letting a stallion in among the mares. The percentage of North American acreage farmed by horsedrawn equipment is still very small, but it’s many times larger than it was even a decade ago, and the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to expand further are coming into being.

Transportation, at least in North America, is a thornier problem. The railroad system that once connected North American farmland to the rest of the planet, and enabled it to become the world’s breadbasket, was effectively abandoned decades ago, and it’s an open question whether enough of it can be rebuilt in the teeth of catabolic collapse to make any kind of difference. In the meantime, though, another set of adaptive responses is taking shape. All over the US, though it’s especially common on the west coast, local farmers markets have sprung up over the last decade, and much of the produce sold in them comes from small local farms.

In cities where the farmers market movement has set down strong roots – I’m thinking particularly of Seattle, where five weekly farmers markets and the seven-days-a-week Pike Place Market supply local shoppers with produce of every kind – the economics of modern farming have been turned on their heads, and truck farms from 10 to 100 acres located close to the city have become profitable for the first time in many decades. Once again, the infrastructure and knowledge base needed for further expansion is taking shape.

All these transformations and the others that will come after them, though, have their price tag. The central reason why modern industrial agriculture elbowed its competitors out of the way was that, during the heyday of fossil fuel consumption, a farmer could produce more food for less money than ever before in history. The results combined with the transportation revolution of the 20th century to redefine the human food chain from top to bottom. For the first time in history, it became economical to centralize agriculture so drastically that only a very small fraction of food was grown within a thousand miles of the place where it was eaten, and to turn most foodstuffs into processed and packaged commercial products in place of the bulk commodities and garden truck of an earlier era. All of this required immense energy inputs, but at the time nobody worried about those.

As we move further into the twenty-first century, though, the industrial food chain of the late twentieth has become a costly anachronism full of feedback loops that amplify increases in energy costs manyfold. As a result, food prices have soared – according to the FAO's Food Outlook for 2007, up 37% from September 2006 to the same month this year – and will very likely continue to climb in the years to come. As industrial agriculture prices itself out of the market, other ways of farming are moving up to take its place, but each of these exacts its price. Replace diesel oil with biodiesel, and part of your cropland has to go into oilseeds; replace tractors altogether with horses, and part of your cropland has to go into feed; convert more farmland into small farms serving local communities, and economies of scale go away, leading to rising costs. The recent push to pour our food supply into our gas tanks by way of expanded ethanol production doesn’t help either, of course.

All this will make life more challenging. Changes in the agricultural system will ripple upwards through the rest of society, forcing unexpected adjustments in economic sectors and cultural patterns that have nothing obvious to do with agriculture at all. Rising prices and shrinking supplies will pinch budgets, damage public health, and make malnutrition a significant issue all through the developed world; actual famines are possible, and may be unavoidable, as shifting climate interacts with an agricultural economy in the throes of change. All this is part of the price of adaptation, the unavoidable cost of changing from a food system suited to the age of fossil fuels to one that can still function in the deindustrial transition.

The same process can serve as a model for other changes that will be demanded of us as the industrial system moves deeper into obsolescence. Adaptation is always possible, but it’s going to come with a price tag, and the results will likely not be as convenient, abundant, or welcome as the equivalents were in the days when every American had the energy equivalent of 260 slaves working night and day for his or her comfort. That can’t be helped. Today’s industrial agriculture and the food chain depending on it, after all, were simply the temporary result of an equally temporary abundance of fossil fuel energy, and as that goes away, so will they. The same is true of any number of other familiar and comfortable things; still, the more willing we are to pay the price of transition, the better able we will be to move forward into the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar world.


Erik said...
Our CSA is expanding into eggs and chickens next season, and they are working toward becoming a sort of clearinghouse for some of their neighbors with old orchards and small livestock operations (we currently get beef, pork and chicken from the sister of a friend - it's coming from Kentucky to North Carolina so it's not as local as it would be ideally, but we know where it comes from and the conditions under which the animals were raised. It's a beginning.)

I would encourage everyone with access to local food to take advantage of it - even if you're not concerned about the economic and ecological impact of the grocery-store model, the food just plain *tastes better* because it was picked yesterday, when it was ready.

12/13/07, 4:14 AM

tRB said...

Good points about the sensibility of transition. But I have a few questions for people to consider (and maybe even answer).

I have always heard that organic agriculture would need more land to produce the same amount of food as industrial agriculture. This is partly because pests will destroy more of the crop without synthetic pesticides. Is this not (or no longer) the case?

Do we know how much of the growth in organic agriculture is based on marketing and trendhopping, as opposed to conservationist principles, as opposed to health and nutrition claims? If the first reason predominates, I am less confident that agribusiness will stick with it if they see a more-lucrative fad to jump on.

I agree that people will adapt to life with less fossil fuel availability. Wouldn't one adaptation be the introduction of pesticides and fertilizers that can be produced using less energy than now and that don’t use petroleum feedstocks? But would a scramble to develop (or re-adopt) these techniques (say, due to food emergencies) lead to a de-emphasis on research of their safety and effectiveness? Is the learning curve for new techniques low enough that everyone can use them properly, for example, taking care to keep out contaminants such as heavy metals from their fertilizers, and destroying pathogens in manure?

As for horses, I'm glad that you brought up the need to grow food for them. Some folks in the comments to "The Freezing Point of Industrial Society" discussed this, and one person noted the unexplored potential of pedal power. We might not have to go back to horses for personal transport, now that we have bicycles. For farmwork, maybe we'll still need them, but it would be interesting to compare the food and other inputs of working animals versus working humans with human-powered machines.

And if the use of horses in agriculture is still where organic agriculture was in the 1970's, as you suggest, how far along would you say permaculture is?

12/13/07, 8:44 AM

cjwirth said...
We have buried much of the best farmland under suburbia and our beloved highways. We've made our death bed and so we must sleep in it. Most of the U.S. is not sustainable, especially because when the power grid fails so will irrigation. We are not prepared for farming, let alone in the droughts of global warming. I'm going to relocate myself, wife and her family, anyone want to join us? Clifford J. Wirth

12/13/07, 11:46 AM

BingeThinker said...
I appreciate your relatively positive approach to peak oil. While Mad Max scenarios are certainly possible they are not inevitable. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Peak oil has the potential to improve our lives considerably. We spend entirely too much time pursuing consumer goods that we would be better off without.

12/13/07, 12:31 PM

awlknottedup said...
The family farm of movies and xmas cards never really existed but small mostly self sufficient family farms were the backbone of our food production system for most of our history. Heavy manual labor and the need to feed livestock kept them mostly small. Industrialization of farming started in the mid 1800s with the invention of the reaper and development of the small steam engines. When coupled with the threshing machine these devices started us down the road of mechanized farming. Population pressures for more food and the railroads opening up the northern plains created a need for these machines. The large California and Red River Valley farms would not have been possible without them. As more land was needed for grain production the steam traction engine helped break the prairie sod. Gasoline replaced steam at the turn of the century.

Small farmers had no need for power farming, they had all they could manage with horses and limited farm labor, that is until WWI. One of the first events was the closing off of the routes from the Russian wheat fields. Next was the huge need for men to feed the meat grinders of the new power fighting. Men were also needed to build the new machinery designed to do an ever more efficient job of killing people. Men that normally tended farms that were now battlefields.

The major responses to this shaped American and world farmers to this day. American farmers responded by increasing production but with two major problems. We think of WWI an fought with planes and tanks, men doing suicide charges over the top. But more horses and mules were killed in WWI than people and most of those came from the US. Later in the war farmboys left the farm to work in the new defense plants in the city and to join the military. Fewer labors and horses forced the American farmer to buy into the small tractors just coming on the market. Prices were high with demand so many sold horses and bought tractors.

Englad saw the problem with sending farm boys into the meat grinder early on and the Ministry of Munitions asked for ideas. An American company responded with a small, lightweight, reliable, and cheap tractor. The Henry Ford formed the Ford & Sons Tractor Company to build the tractor he felt would liberate the farms as much as his Model T car had. The Fordson was shipped to England and replaced many of those dead farm boys. By 1918 thousands of those little tractors along with the products of IHC, John Deere, Case, Happy Farmer, and hundreds of others were on farms, lining the pockets of the manufactures and bankers.

Things changed at the end of the war. Thousands of young men newly trained as auto mechanics returned from the war. Many farms still used animal power for at least some of the work. These young men saw the future and that did not include horses. Also with the end of hostilities European countries wanted to get farm production going as quickly as possible. So they closed borders to farm imports. Heavy farm debt from purchasing machinery and a drop in world wide grain markets put many farmers in distress. In many ways the depression of the 30s started on American farms.

The war years significantly improved manufacturing techniques and increased production facilities. The was may have used a lot of horses but it was still fueled by oil and that oil production did not go away after the war, instead it fueled the rapid expansion of automobiles. Those farm boys that left for jobs in the city did not want to return and they were joined by brothers who could no longer find jobs on the farm. City jobs allowed the purchase of more automobiles. Improved manufacturing brought improved power farming leaving more people to go to the city. Ever cheaper fuel, cheaper more reliable farm tractors, fewer laborers, and declining farm profits all led to an increase in power farming.

The depression of the 30s placed many farmers in trouble and farms were sold to larger developers who using cheap fuel used less labor and more tractors. A trend that was accelerated by the need for more farm boys to enter another meat grinder. After the war new chemicals and better hybrids increased farm production even further requiring even less labor but ever more capital. So now farming is industrialized requiring heavy inputs of cheap oil.

12/13/07, 2:19 PM

awlknottedup said...
One of the little discussed aspects of the move to industrial farming has been the massive population shift from farms to cities. In 1860 58% of the labor force were farmers. By 1900 that number was down to 38% and 27% by 1920, 18% by 1940, 8.3% by 1960, to around 2% today. Power farming and chemicals reduced the need for labor. That labor was attracted by the lure of an easier life in the cities. Farm families decreased while the average of farmers almost 60 today. Some areas of the country are becoming depopulated as farms are sold out of the family on the death of the remaining farmer. Usually sold to a large corporate farm or in less productive areas, sold as private game reserves.

A return to organic farming would reverse that trend. Organic farming can produce about the same amount of food as does power and chemical farming but with significantly more labor involved. Also organic farming does not lend itself to the grand scale required for the misbegotten biofuels. That is the real issue, city businesses do not want cheap labor to escape back to the farm and people have conditioned themselves against the hard work of farming.

I know. I left the farm to join the military in the 60s. My father was a farmer, my uncles farmed, my grandfather farmed. Now only one cousin farms. The rest of us left for jobs in the city. I went to school, became a EE and the farm was sold to a farmer whose sons now farm several thousand acres. But all along the way I kept a hand in by growing a large garden. I know the work and risk of a farm and do not think many would voluntarily go into farming.

12/13/07, 2:37 PM

FARfetched said...
Good points, even if they seem obvious… in retrospect. :-)

I do believe that people will act rationally if it's shown to be in their own self-interest. For example, in the '70s, the airwaves were filled with PSAs exhorting people to save energy, and people responded. It helped their bottom line, after all. Of course, Reagan undid all that before it had more than gotten started, but appeals to convenience and greed seem to beat appeals to rational behavior. But what has been done before can be done again — if people are shown the choices are either eating or driving, they'll stop driving and make sure that agriculture gets the fuel it needs to continue producing food.

But most adaptations will be less sweeping and abrupt — as you implied last week, we'll solve a lot of problems step by step. Purists will howl with outrage at every supposed "compromise" that brings us only a little closer (not nearly close enough, in their opinion) to the goal, but won't refuse to use the improvements as offered. It could well take the centuries that you posit to reach the (unintended, to many) goal of an ecotechnic civilization. It could take just a lifetime, if one could suspend human nature and get everyone pulling in the same direction.

I think, in some cases, the seeds of future adaptations are to be found in today's infrastructure. Fertilizer, for example, isn't hard to produce — people flush tons of it every day! Instead of dumping it into the nearest river, why not put it where it will do some good? It's not (ahem) far-fetched to suggest that cities could turn their sewage plants into fertilizer factories… the city of Milwaukee has been doing it for decades. Thus, a virtuous circle could be drawn: the countryside supplies the city with food, the city supplies the countryside with fertilizer. Everyone wins, especially the rivers.

That leaves us with the problem of shipment. I can well imagine that vegetables will be grown close to their eventual markets, while bulk foods (grain) and important regional staples (citrus, peanuts, etc.) will continue to be shipped where needed. Sure, the railroads are either gone or dilapidated, but we have this huge network of highways that will be largely sitting unused. Why not create a RoadTrain? It's going to take a lot less energy to put the equivalent of a freight train on the road than it would to lay track everywhere. Mark I will probably be a hacked-up Mack truck pulling a lot more than one trailer. Mark II would likely be a purpose-built diesel-electric, using bio-diesel when available; by this time, some miles of track/lane could be electrified in parts and reduce the amount of batteries needed. Mark III would be fully-electric, along with fully-electrified track/lanes (and perhaps a monorail adapted from the old concrete highway barriers).

That's just one example of using what we have — the point is, we're not going to have the energy (literally) to rip up everything and replace it, especially in one fell swoop. I think agriculture is going to continue to operate, adapt, and produce — simply because the alternative is too horrible to not fight. It will become more labor-intensive than before, and slowly work its way toward sustainable/permaculture status. We may not achieve an orderly transition even without glitches in food production, but (as you said) food is too important to let slide.

Going back to the beginning, I'll have to admit that I would call the Internet my own pet technology. I think that a way to rapidly disseminate information and knowledge around the world is also going to be important, so I would expect some parallel efforts toward adapting the Internet as well. It may devolve into a Usenet/UUCP-like store and forward network, with only the most central nodes up 24/7, or it may not resemble anything we've seen before, but I think something we call "Internet" will exist in the ecotechnic age.

12/13/07, 2:45 PM

Cherenkov said...
Pasture: The major component of a horse's diet is good forage, such as hay or pasture. A horse weighing 1000 lbs. will eat about 600 lbs. of forage each month. How much land will you need to feed one horse for a year?
Keeping a horse on dry land (non-irrigated) pasture, use the following formula to determine how many acres your horse will need per year:
1 animal unit (1 horse) per inch of annual rain (for the region) per section of land (640 ac.) example: 640 acres divided by 8 inches of rain = 80 acres per 1 horse.

Your horse will need supplemental hay during periods of snow cover or other times when pasture forage is not available.

____ Number of days to feed hay x 20 lbs. hay per day divided by ____lbs. of weight per bale = number of bales needed.

Grain: A grain mix (usually oats and corn) should be added to the diet when you increase the horse's training, work or activity. Young and old horses may also need grain.
This chart shows how much grain to feed an average 1000-lb. horse:
No Work, No Grain
Light Work (1-2 hours per day) 1-1 1/2 lbs. grain per hour of work
Medium Work (2-4 hours per day) 1 1/2-2 lbs. grain per hour of work
Heavy Work (4 or more hours per day) 1 1/2-2 1/2 lbs. grain per hour of work.

Water: Your horse must have plenty of clean, fresh water available at ALL times. A horse will drink 10 to 12 gallons of water each day, depending on temperature, humidity levels, ration content work load. In the winter months, stock tank heaters will help stop ice buildup so that water is always accessible to the horse.

The above information can be found at the New Mexico Horse Council website:

Often people who remark on the transition to old agriculture forget that horses require fuel and water! So, you must set aside part of your valuable land solely for the feeding of your horse or horses. As you can see, that is no small amount of grain, land, and water.

There is no true advantage to using animals for traction other than as a method of leveraging the land to make more food and hence money. The ole "capitalism" scheme. Because we are at the very pinnacle of specialization, we have reached the limits to growth. To use any sort of technology, whether it be traction animals or space monkeys, moldboard plows or laser beams, in order to keep things on a business as usual basis is insane. Too many people is too many people no matter how you keep the baby machine going.

I do not anticipate that we will conduct an orderly and logical retreat from the cul de sac of our civilization, but if we were to want that orderly retreat, it would look like this:

1. Map everything. Everywhere. Find out what every microclimate is like. We have the technology for a short time. Use it before it goes.

2. Determine the solar budget for these mapped areas. Then determine the solar needs of all the other biota besides us. Decide how much wildness is needed to buffer the effects of our presence. (Ultimately, we will work back to a complete state of wildness that becomes a synonym for civilization.)

3. Determine how many people a given water/sun/soilshed can support.

4. Land reform. Place land in perpetual trusts. These biotasheds are integral units. They are not to be ever subdivided. Once the capabilities of the land are determined, build farms. Use the best ecological practices. Train people.

5. Work towards maximum plant diversity. Think "The One Straw Revolution," by Masanobu Fukuoka. Work towards maximum productivity by using minimum to zero interference with nature's need to be productive. This leads to minimum labor output.

6. Create a ritual, a universal ritual whereby a certain number of newborns are randomly sterilized at birth. That number can either be determined as a flat percentage based on local region or a flex-number that adjusts according to natural disasters. Without a ritual that is given the sense of sacredness, we will once again let ourselves outpace the ability of nature to provide.

12/13/07, 3:08 PM

Robin said...
The ArchDruid remains level - headed again.

The ostriches (head in sand deniers), ignorami, cornucopians, doomsayers and others of that ilk are less helpful in guidance through the start of the coming times.

Perhaps it is the clearing of the existing channels from the Infinite to one's own being through Druidry that helps.

12/13/07, 3:36 PM

yooper said...
Hello John!I really like the grist of your article. Without a doubt, the agricultural transition will be a heavy price to pay.

I'm not so sure about your thoughts about organic argriculture producing comparable yeilds as the industrial one...

Coming from a family that has farmed the same land for over 125 years, I'm really questioning this. I suspose the 'ol boys that gather down at the feed mill would have quite the laugh.

For one, the crop the family has been "cultivating" during this time, cannot be organically fertilized. Without the use of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and man made fertilizer, the yeild on the farm would be a fraction of what it is today. Left unattended, the crop would go back eventually to a wild state. This has happened before.

We buy "organic" whenever we can, at farm marts locally. This comes from our friends who could'nt make a go of it in industrial farming. Their farms have declined to the point where it was'nt feasible to continue anymore. These are people who have also farmed their land for nearly a century, they own their land. Try getting a loan from a bank, declaring you're going to commerically raise a crop organically and 9 times out of 10, they're going to laugh you out of the place. They want to be paid back!

"Feasibility" was once a word that one had to have in their vocabulary, to get a loan from a bank, or grant from the goverment, or find investors...

Furthermore, it's just not feasible to believe that thousands of acres that are put in corn, would even be able to produce the same crop, without industrial farming......That ground is sterile! The earth is only there to support the plant upright, period! Moreover, it may take thousands of years,(or a glacier) to make that ground fertile again.

Once again John, I think you're being overly optimistic. Once again, you're you're dodging the elephant in the room. Sure, what you're proposing here is feasible, but, at a hugh price tag, we're talking about people...

Thanks, yooper

12/13/07, 3:59 PM

Kiashu said...
"I have always heard that organic agriculture would need more land to produce the same amount of food as industrial agriculture."

This comes from studies where some university will get two one hectare plots, plant both with (say) wheat, care for one with irrigation, artificial fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide, and the second one they just leave alone, giving nothing to.

The first one they call "conventionally farmed" and the second one they did nothing to they call "organic." The "organic" one usually gets about 60% the yield of the first one. From which you can see that if your "farming" consisted simply of planting crops in a big bunch of the same kind of plants and doing nothing to them to help them along until harvest, you'd need 2/3 more land to get the same yield.

But of course, organic farming does not mean doing nothing at all to the land and the crops, it means helping them grow by means which are more natural and less artificial, using animal or plant manure rather than ammonia, and so on. It also means growing things mixed together, rather than in big lumps of the same plant.

There exist natural pesticides and herbicides, and natural growth boosters. For example, if you crop your tomatoes closely, you don't have to worry about weeds - the sunlight doesn't reach the ground, it's shaded by the plants. But then they're harder to pick, pushing up labour costs. And if you plant basil with your tomatoes, both the basil and the tomatoes grow better than either planted alone.

Organic growing doesn't mean more land needs be used - in fact, done properly less land is used, small allotments of less than 100m2 are more productive per unit area than large areas of thousands of hectares. But it does mean more labour. A machine can harvest a thousand hectares of wheat, but a machine can't harvest a hectare of apples, oranges, peaches, beans, peas, potatoes, carrots, chard and so on. You need people for that.

Organic agriculture requires people out in the fields checking on the plants daily, giving this one a little more water, that one a little more shade, pulling a weed from here and adding a companion plant there. More labour. That's why we use chemicals - it's easier to just spray a thousand litres of stuff on the whole field.

More labour means higher food prices, but it also means more people working on the land growing food, and since in the West we have significant long-term unemployment, something we use daily requiring more people to work on it is not really a bad thing.

12/13/07, 4:14 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Erik, you're using your crystal ball again -- we'll be talking about CSAs and the like in detail a little further on. Still, I should have mentioned them here; thanks for the reminder.

TRB, what I think most people who don't practice organic agriculture don't realize is that it's not a matter of abandoning fertilizers and pesticides; it's about replacing costly, toxic and ecologically damaging products with safer, cheaper, and more ecologically benign ones. Compost replaces NPK fertilizer, biological controls and insecticidal soaps replace insecticides, and a walk through the field with a hoe replaces herbicide. Yields per acre are comparable with conventional farming, and if you move toward the intensive end -- which takes more human labor -- yields per acre go up dramatically (though yields per man-hour go down).

I agree that there are many options for personal transportation besides horses -- but I'd put my money on them for farms. You'd need a small army to run a pedal-powered combine. As for permaculture, we'll get to that in an upcoming post.

Clifford, traditional Mexican methods of dryland agriculture are entirely viable in those areas of the US that are presently irrigated. Still, enjoy your relocation!

Binge, I wish it were just a matter of doing without consumer trinkets!

Awl, thank you for a good historical summary! As for people going back onto the land, though, that's exactly what happened in the US during the Great Depression -- the last one, that is. If it's a matter of go back to the farm or go hungry, many people will head back to the farm.

Farfetched, good points. A lot of gimmicks and kluge jobs of the RoadTrain variety will doubtless make their appearance during the transition; I'm still hoping for a major rebuilding program for the rail network in North America, but we'll see. As for the internet, I'd focus on packet radio -- it's a simpler technology with minimal infrastructure, and if we lose computer technology for a few centuries (as we may well), a radio communications net has enough intrinsic value all by itself to stay in existence until some 24th century Renaissance scholar figures out how to make semiconductors again. More on this later.

Cherenkov, there's frankly zero chance that such a rigid, top-down system as you outline could or would be put into place -- and that's as well. Let the future evolve its own social forms and face its own challenges; we have enough to do facing our own.

Robin, thank you. I think every spiritual tradition has something to offer in the current mess -- it's just the fact that there aren't that many Druids just now that may make what I'm saying seem original.

Yooper, what crop is your family growing? As far as I know every crop in America is being grown commercially using organic methods right now -- field crops, tree crops, garden truck, you name it. There are organic corn farms in Iowa, organic pear orchards in Oregon, organic cotton fields in Mississippi, and organic tobacco fields in North Carolina.

Plenty of farmers still don't know that organic farming is an evolving technology that can approximate conventional yields for less cost and get a better price for the crop. As they do, more and more of them are switching to organic methods. As for loans, our farm country banks out here in Oregon have become eager to loan money to organic farmers, because their likelihood of getting paid back is better.

(BTW, the package arrived today. Many, many thanks.)

12/13/07, 4:45 PM

Tully Reill said...
Living in a railroad town as I currently do (Winslow AZ), I do see just how much the railroad system has been downscaled and degraded over time. Evidence is all over town showing this. Graineries and lumberyards that are no longer in use, trackside warehouses that have been converted into other businesses, track spurs that used to lead to other buildings that are long since gone. Yet, if one looks closely, not that much of the railroad infrastructure is unsalvageable. If the need were to arrise (which it seems to be coming closer all the time) Winslow's rail-hub could easily be fully functional again. I think the same could probably be said for similar towns along the tracks. In addition, BNSF Railroad has begun working on some of the older spurs and sidetracks...perhaps (hopefully) with some foresight into the situation?

12/13/07, 4:56 PM

Stephen said...
As there will be a large suplus population of humans. Perhaps instead of setting aside land to feed horses, people will just till the land manualy with hoes. And harvest and thresh with scythes and flails. This is a solution that will see fewer people starving and less unemployment.

Oxen can also be made to work with more forage and less grain than horses.

12/13/07, 7:00 PM

Mark K said...
Agriculture is a curse. A return to small scale farming means a return to homophobia, supression of women, grain theocracy, and the end of the Great Remembering. The less farmers there are, the closer to the Garden we get. Most of the farmers throughout history have been slaves and the rest merely worked for nothing. That is what I learned from growing up on a farm and why I now live in a city. I hope the Archdruid is the first in line to spend the rest of his life looking up a horse's ass.

12/13/07, 7:34 PM

neighbor said...
I'm not feeling particularly eloquent as I re-read this post (and with a head-cold coming on), so I'm not sure if my point comes through, but here's something in response to Yooper's comments in which the following was written: I'm not so sure about your thoughts about organic argriculture producing comparable yeilds as the industrial one...Coming from a family that has farmed the same land for over 125 years, I'm really questioning this. I suspose the 'ol boys that gather down at the feed mill would have quite the laugh.

First, I think whatever agriculture we settle into, post-industrial era, it won't be 'ol boy style. There will be a return to caring for the soil as it is the ultimate source of anything we eat. I doubt that the last 50 of those 125 years were spent enriching that soil. No wonder there is difficulty cultivating a profitable crop. You noted that the soil is infertile,or sterile as well, so I'm not actually challenging you here, but I want to question your assumption that it's the current method of cultivation that will continue.

For one, the crop the family has been "cultivating" during this time, cannot be organically fertilized. Without the use of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and man made fertilizer, the yeild on the farm would be a fraction of what it is today. Left unattended, the crop would go back eventually to a wild state. This has happened before.

There will be a return to growing food in a way that follows ecological principles (yes, I'm showing my permaculture bias). Every plant that exists naturally (excluding GM here) exists because it could exist naturally, without chemical inputs that it couldn't get on its own. Whether or not there's profit along the lines of cash-cropping is not relevant to the way ecosystems work.

The notion of acres and acres of monocropped whatever, even if nominally organic, will die because it won't work, as you said, "Left unattended, the crop would go back eventually to a wild state." The closer we can get to emulating that wild state in our agriculture, the more successful it will be.

Try getting a loan from a bank, declaring you're going to commerically raise a crop organically and 9 times out of 10, they're going to laugh you out of the place. They want to be paid back!

When it gets down to the wire, we won't commercially raise a crop organically because a) the industrial/commercial farming model doesn't work without huge fuel inputs and b)monocropping is suited only for massive regional trade linked via industrial-scale transportation.

So, Furthermore, it's just not feasible to believe that thousands of acres that are put in corn, would even be able to produce the same crop, without industrial farming...... is absolutely correct. There won't be thousands of acres of anything put in - though as you noted, the land will still try to revert to a wild state. Something will be able to access the limited fertility we've left behind. Will we be flexible enough to see its value?

I've been out gathering wild radish and mustard greens - everyone else here seems to see just weeds reclaiming tilled land, but truly they're a nourishing gift from the earth. Likewise, I'm awaiting the milk thistles, dandelions, and other "undesirables" because they have value, in spite of the commercial model's disdain.

It's time to be flexible.

12/13/07, 9:15 PM

Chef Jem said...
Right on John Michael! Transition is the future of agriculture! Organic has tons to teach having made much of the transition over the last decades. However, it should be noted that organic agriculture was encouraged by the early practitioners of Biodynamic agriculture which had it's start soon after the original Agriculture lectures were delivered by Rudolph Steiner in 1924. The idea of a self-sufficient farm organism has been developed over the past eight decades and there are a number of such farms multiplying across America! I feel so strongly that these living models deserve our attention that I am now developing the idea for a documentary on Biodynamic agriculture. I see this as an opportunity for further community building just as Biodynamcs has inspired the CSA movement. Now it will be community-supported-documentaries!
Chef Jem
enlighten at safe-mail dot net

12/13/07, 11:48 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Kiashu, exactly. I'm guessing that like me, you've done organic growing.

Tully, our local railroad here in the Rogue River valley is being rebuilt and improved, too. I think a fair number of people have begun to see the writing on the wall.

Stephen, I have no objection to hoe culture, having done it -- and it's supported more than one very humane and cultured society (Tokugawa Japan, my favorite example, comes to mind). Oxen also have their place. The point is not that horses are our only hope -- it's that tractors aren't necessary.

Mark, I've lived and worked on a farm, too, and the lessons I learned are the opposite of the ones you claim to have gotten from the experience. I'd be happy to return to farming, too. Maybe you need to think about why you're projecting so much of your own anger onto the agriculture that keeps you alive.

Neighbor, I'm an intensive organic gardener rather than a permaculturist, but I can't find a thing to disagree with in your comments. Mixed intensive ecologically sane food production is the wave of the future, just as it was the emerging trend before the fossil fuel age knocked us back to an extractive model of food production.

Jem, I look forward to your documentary! Classic Steinerian biodynamics is a little too close to sorcery for a lot of people these days, though I know Druids who are deeply into it. From my perspective, anything that helps us reconnect our ways of living with the cycles of nature is a very, very good thing.

12/14/07, 12:11 AM

Stephen Heyer said...
Ok! Ok John, I’ll bite: It has my name on it.

John Michael Greer: “… or who hope to see some favorite technology – the internet, say, or space travel – privileged in the same way, risk finding out the hard way that other things come first.”

Of course some things are more immediate but perhaps no more essential, like breathing is more immediate than water and water more immediate than food, but all are equally ESSENTIAL. You might survive longer without food than air but without food you’re just as dead – it just takes longer.

Then there is the simple matter of what gets preserved and what sacrificed. If things turn out half as bad as you fear there are a lot of other things, the privileges of the wealthy for one, whose supporters will be desperately trying to jostle the Internet and continuing a space program out of the way.

So, why do I think preserving the Internet and a space program more essential than a lot of other stuff people find more immediately appealing? Simple, both offer many benefits, some unique, both offer irreplaceable hopes for the future and both are dirt cheap for what they offer.

That’s right – dirt cheap now that the considerable costs of developing them are sunk costs.

Let’s start with the Internet. The hardware is cheap in every way and getting cheaper: It costs less, uses less materials all the time, and can use less energy to operate if that is deemed important enough to design for.

Don’t be fooled because people CHOOSE extravagant equipment like 72” plasma displays, much smaller displays would do the job just fine.

Ditto for distribution: A fiber optic (hint – it’s a few strands of special glass) cable laid out through a bulldozer’s ripper is so much cheaper to build and maintain than any previous telecommunications system and as a free bonus offers almost unlimited capacity.

As for the last mile to the house, well, that mess of copper wires actually dates to before the oil age really got going – not that we’d ever build it again even though we could. No, these days we’d do what the third world is doing – go straight to wireless local loops.

Cheaper, easier and uses MUCH less materials.

As for the benefits we can reap from keeping and extending this oh so cheap technology, well I don’t think I have to enumerate them to anyone here. Suffice it to say that I think the Internet is the great hope of the common person in the twenty first century, his only hope against the wealth and power accumulating at the top in much of the world.

As for a space program, well, the Russians have shown the way: Gravel truck technology and mass production. This, if I remember rightly, is the path Wernher Von Braun wanted the USA to take.

Now let’s have a look at the benefits. Well, even a very modest program that a nation of a few million people could afford could keep a network of global positioning and weather satellites up.

That would pay for itself straight off.

Oh! And if by any chance we’re back to sailing ships, accurate, timely weather and wind information is going to keep those new big clipper ships made out of the marvellous new bio-engineered, good-a-composites quick growing wood nearly as fast and reliable as an oil age motor vessel.

And of course, as just about anyone who has half seriously studied the problem knows, there is no long term survival for the human species while it is limited to one planet. Further, without robust control of the near-Earth space environment life on earth will continue to depend on Earth’s so far astonishing good luck.

12/14/07, 1:00 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Stephen, you missed the point of my comment. Of course there are things that would be worth saving once the essentials are taken care of -- though I'd put a lot of other things much higher on the list than the internet and space travel.

Note to all: I'm grateful to Stuart Saniford for catching an error of fact in the post. The 20% increase in food prices mentioned there should have referred to the world, not the US, and the figure is actually higher -- a 37% increase year over year, as of September 2007. I've corrected the post and inserted a link to the reference. As my fellow archdruid Isaac Bonewits has said, the only dogma of Druidry is that archdruids are not infallible.

12/14/07, 5:35 AM

yooper said...
Hello neighbor! I can't disagree with any of your thoughts here either, except implying that I think the current method of cultivation will continue... Might I be so bold, that probably no one on this post knows better that I, that the current industrail farming methods will not last much longer....

The farm underwent a total reconstruction project almost 20 years ago. You can bet, that it was on the forefront of my mind what the farm might look like 100 years in the future. Naturally, certain sacrifices we made to futher facilitate the farm in the future, at the expense of what the farm could have been today. The level of the beds to take advantage of gravitational water, for example.

At the time, I looked like a complete idiot to implement the infrastructure, the way it was done. Now, with the effects of climate change, I wonder if I did enough. This year a $13,000 water well was dug, mind you Lake Superior is not a quarter mile away!!! Even though some of these improvements such as the well, might not make much sense in the future, it will keep the farm alive today...... Hopefully, it will help keep people alive in the far future.

More later...

Thanks, yooper

12/14/07, 7:13 AM

Stephen Heyer said...
John Michael Greer: “Stephen, you missed the point of my comment. Of course there are things that would be worth saving once the essentials are taken care of -- though I'd put a lot of other things much higher on the list than the internet and space travel.”

Any chance of a list of things you consider more/most important?

I’d put effective and honest law enforcement, effective democratic government, modern medicine, good schools, agriculture, manufacturing and basic essential services such as clean water, sewage and power top of my list, not necessarily in that order.

Thing is, a lot of them sort of interweave with the Internet and even a space program – they both enable them and are enabled by them, especially in a crises situation.

For example, just about all of the above make it more likely, directly or indirectly, that the Internet can be kept up, and all, one way or another, will benefit from it being kept up.

Ditto to a lesser extent for the space program, I can tell you that satellite maps make land management, both for agriculture and nature preservation, much easier. In a post-collapse situation when little on-ground observation may be available they would be absolutely essential.

Further, satellite photos could easily be the only way the government could get an idea of what the harvest was likely to be like and thus be able to plan for it.

And of course, the role of weather satellites hardly needs stating, doubly so in a post-collapse situation.

I’m trying not to labor the point, it’s just that for me it’s all interconnected.ublb

12/14/07, 7:15 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Yooper, good to know.

Stephen, that's all very well and good, but if we had any prospect of having the sort of cheap abundant energy supply all that would require, we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place.

12/14/07, 9:05 AM

FARfetched said...
Awlknottedup, those were a couple of great posts.

John, I agree with the "gimmick and kludge" tag. The other phrase is "parts-bin design" — in other words, building something new out of components you've already made for something else. While I think rebuilding rail (and sail, and river) shipping is essential, the county I live in has never had a railroad (but we have a four-lane highway). Given the weight that rails are built to handle, neglect hasn't hurt them *that* much. It will be far cheaper to patch up what's there than to lay new track, and cheaper still to deploy large-scale freight carriers on existing highways to places that don't have rail service now.

12/14/07, 9:35 AM

Wijnandt said...
I always read John's postings with much interest and pleasure, because they also convey his wisdom and not only the rational facts which are already known to many people.

I'm really puzzled why so many people, including, for example, John Greer and Richard Heinberg, make no reference to the works of H.T. Odum et al., e.g. the second edition of his ground breaking book "Environment, Power and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy by Howard T. Odum & Mark T. Brown", of which the first edition appeared in 1971. Also the book (appeared already in 2000!) "A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies by Howard T. Odum & Elisabeth C. Odum" abounds with much, much valuable insights.

I recommend the reading of these books to everyone who is seriously interested in peak oil and related matters.

Wijnandt T. de Vries
The Netherlands

12/14/07, 10:00 AM

awlknottedup said...
A couple of quick comments. First off I also grew up on a farm, not following a horse but spending hours on a tractor thinking of a better way of life. Watching corn grow gives one a lot of time to read and think. I left the farm, went to school, worked as an electronics engineer, retired early, and along the line studied organic growing and gardened organically. Now I am planning on building a small shop, having a small garden, some chickens, and a few bee hives.

Many times you hear the song about organic growing not having the yields of chemical methods. The real issue is not how much yield per acre which is comparable but how much yield per unit of labor or investment. Organic methods will require more labor. Then the issue becomes one of reversing the flow of people from cities to farms. It no longer becomes one of how to get cheap workers for the industrialists to exploit. In the US we are already exporting our exploitation to other countries, leaving workers who would like to return to the soil but need a little help.

The other side is fewer investment opportunities. A $100,000 tractor requires a bank loan thus generating fees and interest and trapping the purchaser in a never ending series of such fees and interest. A $25 shovel requires no such overhead thus looses the support of the huge financial industry.

Now as for organic farms not being able to get loans, I would like to invite you to an organic farm just outside Hollister, CA. He farms 90 acres near Hollister and 100 acres in a nearby valley. He does use tractors but older ones like the mid 50s Oliver and the 1953 water truck I recently helped him buy. His is a serious farming operation and I will be there in a couple of weeks helping fix a tractor and a truck.

As for the midwest, many farms are as described so totally stripped of soil life that it is almost hydroponic farming. That will take a long time to repair if ever. Organic methods can repair the damage over time but it will be slow. On the other hand maybe we should not farm every possible square inch. I know of land along the Mississippi River that is farmed for the insurance. It produces just enough crop in good years that the rest of the time much more profit is made off a bad crop and letting insurance pay off.

12/14/07, 10:19 AM

tRB said...
Regarding Chef Jem's comments,

It should also be noted that Steiner made many nonsensical claims. Steiner gave lectures on farming, but did no scientific research to test his ideas. Without extraordinary evidence, Steiner's extraordinary claims of "cosmic forces" are empty. I mean, how does one even invent the idea that seeds are "filled with longing to deny the cosmic forces", or that the timing of planting has anything to do with the movements of other planets? These sound like vitalism and astrology, with no contribution to agriculture.

If any of the practices of "biodynamic farming" are useful, then evidence-based research can show which ones are valid and which are not, and why. Those that work will probably be incorporated into standard agricultural practice, and those that don't will be discarded. I'm not expecting much.

More about Steiner at:


And let me echo one of Mark K's concerns in light of Chef Jem's comment. If farm "self-sufficiency" turns into parochialism, that's no good. Social, cultural, commercial, and (yes) scientific connections between farms and non-farm places (such as cities) can enrich the lives of the people in all of these communities. These ties can also be used to check against bigotry and discrimination, which still happens in small communities that confuse close-knittedness with conformity. As others have warned here, don't romanticize farmwork or rural life.


And regarding Stephen Heyer's comments, I would add that one asteroid can ruin your whole day.

12/14/07, 10:38 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Farfetched, the "parts bin" approach is exactly what's needed. Thanks for the term.

Wijnandt, I've referred to H.T. Odum a number of times! In particular, his concept of "emergy" (embodied energy) has an important place in my analysis these days -- it makes a useful tool for making sense of catabolic collapse, among other things.

Awl, more good points.

TRB, the fact that you disagree with Steiner's ideas doesn't make them nonsense. It's one of the least attractive features of today's evangelical scientism that it insists that any viewpoint other than its own is not merely wrong but meaningless.

12/14/07, 11:39 AM

yooper said...
Hello John! I can't agree more with awlknottedup's analogy of the past 100 or so years and the family farm has reflected on each one of his assessments, to the tee.

The dynasty's glory days were fround during the Victorian era. The farm supported several families and the land became "settled". When men left to fight WW1, a Fordson Tractor was bought to replace the labor needed. Today, this same steal wheeled tractor is displayed at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

To fully appericate where the birth of our modern industrail society came from, this display is a must see. I have often called Henry Ford and Thomas Edison as the fathers of this society, that some of us take for granted. Indeed these two men actually changed the world... As we descend, perhaps knowing were we came from, can be a knowledge worth it's weight in gold.

The family farm over the years has seen it's periods of growth and decline. Perhaps even more reflecting upon your thoughts John, of periods of recovery only to slip further into decline...

Without a doubt this farm will face great challenges in the future. However, through the years this farm has proved to be resilient. Perhaps, once again it can find glory days once more, even if it does'nt include me...This is my hope, my dream........

Thanks, yooper

12/14/07, 11:51 AM

Stephen Heyer said...
John Michael Greer: “Stephen, that's all very well and good, but if we had any prospect of having the sort of cheap abundant energy supply all that would require, we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place.”

I’m sorry John, but I think you have not taken on board the fact that the whole world is not the USA with a population of 300 million plus increasing by an uncontrollable flood of illegal (and legal) immigrants at the rate of a couple of million a year.

Some parts of the world will continue to have cheap abundant energy deep into the decent. Some will always have access to plentiful wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal power and no doubt other sources we have not yet thought of or invented.

It might not always be what they are using now, but energy will be available. I guess wealth, power and industry will move to those areas as it moved to the newly coal powered England a few hundred years ago.

Difference is, they will be smaller scale and their prosperity will depend on strict limits of growth.

I guess those that continue long term to be nice places to live will be command economies with what is presently very unfashionable immigration and birth control policies. I suspect they will be deeply socialist in something like the Nordic model.

I live in just such a place with access to cheap abundant energy supplies from several sources, so I guess the best post peak oil policies for my region are very different from the best for yours.

In other words I’m sorry, I’m not always correcting or arguing with you, it is just that optimum descent policies for our respective areas are probably very different.

12/14/07, 4:09 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
WARNING: Fanciful post – philosophy, speculation, SF and worse

I started off to write about horses verses small diesels fueled by biofuel or synthetic diesel on small farms, but realized I was missing the real picture.

Briefly, my lady has two beloved, elderly, retired horses on her little property in the dry tropics. It doesn’t come close to supporting them, so there is no way it could support a working horse and produce useful amounts of food – its entire production would go into supporting the horse.

On the other hand, if we planted the “hill slope” with olives the first cold press of the olive crop would yield superbly healthy vitamin rich oil for human consumption, the second steam extraction press oil suitable for small diesel motors and the remaining cake would be useful as a stock food.

A couple of small diesel motors, used sparingly, would do the heavy work around the place and, unlike horses, “eat” nothing when not in use. It seemed to me that this would apply to most small farms, especially if using low till agriculture.

But then I realized I was looking at the problem through a narrow tunnel of inflexible thinking.

If oil really becomes too expensive there are many, many fairly simple solutions (for a small farm). We just have to start seeing them, and seeing them for all post Peak Oil problems.

For example, my lady’s farm is already on the electricity grid, in fact a huge power station is only about 20 kilometers away and it draws on some of the world’s biggest high grade coal deposits. We could run mains power to strategic points and run an all electric farm.

Sure, it would be a bit of messing around, trailing long leads behind power tillers and the like, but doable. Further, the electric equipment would be easier to use (starts every time) cheaper and lower in maintenance than IC powered equipment.

Further, this could probably be done on most small farms and market gardens near urban areas in Australia. Even some big properties could rig systems to run their tractors on electricity.

Hell! If there was a big enough fuss over global warming I could even run our fairly modest system off solar cells, just restricting work to periods of good sunshine.

Solar power is actually reasonably simple and not too expensive so long as you don’t try to store the power and have it available 24/7.

Funny, having not long returned from South America I was telling my friends about the electric bus systems I saw there that seemed to me to involve little more than installing the overhead power wires for the buses and installing trolley poles and electric motors in the buses. We were discussing how easy it would be to do this in our local city (Rockhampton).

In other words, once you start thinking outside the box there is a whole universe of solutions to the immediate problems we will encounter as peak oil/everything starts to bite. Better yet, many of the solutions are already well known and fully developed. All you have to do is apply them to your problem.

Rule 1: Don’t reinvent the wheel.
Rule 2: Good enough technology is good enough.

I mentioned another more exotic solution in my previous post when I suggested bioengineered trees that were quick growing and produced timber of near composite strength and probably also fire, rot and marine worm resistant for building ships, or for that matter aircraft and motor vehicles (all were once built largely of wood). But of course, that is for a bit further down the road towards the ecotechnic societies and economies.

Further bizarre thought: I remember reading that the Chinese were using plain old oak as heat shields on their reentry vehicles and had found it as good as the West’s ceramics and rather cheaper. Who’s for a wooden spaceship?

Hey! With genetic engineered super-woods I’m going to be able to have my space program even in the ecotechnic societies of the deep future. Actually, they’ll probably just genetic engineer the whole ship as a living organism, which is quite an old idea in SF.

Running a breeding herd of starships: Now that’s the kind of farming I want to do! :)

Kind of puts muddling through in a whole new light: It becomes open mindedness unfettered by ideology or theory combined with the ability see and exploit appropriate opportunities wherever and whenever they arise.

12/14/07, 4:30 PM

Kiashu said...
JMG, my experiences with organic growing are strictly backyard stuff (limited by land area, not by my desires), but in the past few years of pottering about I've learned a bit about the general principles and detailed practice. The general principle is that it's labour expensive but resource cheap, the reverse of our industrialised agriculture.

More than a hundred years ago Richard Jefferies wrote that because of the rising demand for meat and the rising population, the country would have to be fed on either the industrialised farming system, or the "allotment" system, ie small backyard gardens owned by labourers and so on (farm labourers used to be given cottages on the farms they were hired on with allotments of their own to work).

He spoke of the difficulty of increasing the yield of meat, saying "coal contains a force stored from the sun in ages ast: where shall we find a cattle coal, to put life in, and sulpy the food of life to additional millions of shadowy herds of the future?" He said that if such a "cattle coal" could be found, then farming would all be industrial, land owned by a few and worked by machines. If not, it would likely be an allotment system, since those were so productive.

And of course we did find a "cattle coal", in the form of turning natural gas into ammonia to fertilise crops which were then fed to livestock. But in time this stuff will run short, so the allotment system starts to look more attractive.

Actually growing some of your own food, even as a hobby, helps make these things clear to you in a way that no amount of statistics ever can. When you sit down to a dinner of boiled potatoes, crisp cos lettuce, tomatoes and spring onions , flavoured with garlic, all from your own garden, grown over months by you... you appreciate at once that we can feed ourselves on a small area and without petrochemicals, and also why most don't, and prefer to use chemicals and machines.

This article has been critiqued, you may be interested to know.

Like both you and Sharon, I think that change is inevitable. The only question is whether the change is likely to be painful and chaotic, or painless and smooth. JMG leans more one way, and Sharon the other. I say that we cannot know. Considering two countries which have both gone through fossoil fuel shortages affecting their agriculture, Cuba and North Korea, each had a very different response to it; one improved their quality of life, while the other worsened it, and had mass famine along the way. Because of being in democracies and less hermit-like, the mass famine I think is unlikely. But it nonetheless demonstrates that the responses of countries to crises vary, and thus how painful and chaotic or painless and smooth the changes are also varies.

12/15/07, 5:55 PM

Nass said...
John congratulations on a fantastic piece of blog work. I am a young (worried) broadacre grain farmer in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia. My farms transition to a non fossil fuel based production system is well underway. You would be interested in this model because it illustrates a profitable example of how to ditch the fossil fuel dependency in staple food production. I hope you enjoy reading through my farm website - You will be hearing a lot more about these sorts of crops in the future.
Aaron Edmonds
2002 Nuffield Scholar and Simple Farmer

12/15/07, 8:14 PM

Smith Mill Creek Notes said...
If you enter
" site:http://thearchdruidreport. odum "

into Google, you will get returned a list of all the times Odum is mentioned on this site. Works for other sites as well. Notice the space between com/ and odum.

Odum might be a brilliant writer, but he's not an easy read.

12/15/07, 9:34 PM

eboy said...
Let's hope that enough small organic farms survive to see the change over. There are lot's of 'new' organic farms showing up. But there are just as many if not more going out of business.
People don't want to know that food is not like widgets. Price is not determined by the cost of production.
It is possible that we could face food failure because farmers would choose not to plant as they couldn't afford to. At what point would the decision be made to do something? In february?

John Deere did an analysis of the great increase in productivity of horses over men. But thinking that switching back to horsedrawn equipmnet which needs infrastructure (remember the example of buggy whips?) to repair and replace parts needs to be created.

The work of making hay for the livestock to get through winter with horses is something that has to be done, in order to be appreciated.

And the realization that fencing will be needed in order to revert to a mixed farming model. Think of miles of fencing and think about the price and the labour requirement to get er done.
One thing there won't be a shortage of is work.

I think John that many will be surprised to learn that we don't live in a post agrarian society. They just think that they do. Food magically appears at the store.

12/16/07, 1:25 AM

Panidaho said...
JMG said:

"the more willing we are to pay the price of transition, the better able we will be to move forward into the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar world.

Well, and there's the rub.

Looking around my small community I see a lot of folks who never really lost their connection to the land and to the food they eat. Food gardens are everywhere here, even in front yard flowerbeds! Even well-off folks here still can their own jams and jellies.
However, I have not always lived here, and from what I've seen in much larger communities elsewhere, the vast majority of the people who have left the farm and left food production to the agribiz folks have absolutely no desire or willingness to go back. Old fashioned farm work has a reputation for being back-breaking, smelly, soul-busting, dirty, dirt-poor, low-class work. People who choose to grow and process anything more than a token amount of their own food at home are considered very odd indeed.

This is an attitude that will take some work to change if we are to have hope that any significant portion of the population can ever be expected to be "willing" to pay the price of transition. Over the past 100 years, those hundreds of energy-slaves you mentioned have had the effect of turning us all into a culture of primped and pampered landless gentry.

Speaking of attitudes, I used to raise rabbits for meat years ago, and we always used the composted droppings for amending the garden soil. We also trucked composted horse bedding every other year or so and tilled that in as well. I grew some pretty wonderful veggies organically that way for years. But I had many friends (actually most) who would not accept produce from our garden, nor eat at our home, because our veggies were grown with the aid of animal poop! So that ignorant and neurotically fastidious attitude is another that's likely to cause a problem on the way to transition.

12/16/07, 10:00 AM

sv koho said...
John, I read your blog before all others in the Peak Oil Community because your thoughts tend to be coherent, concise and persuasive. You bat 3 or 4 in the lineup but you just hit a weak ground ball into a double play...."Organic agriculture gives roughly comparable yields"...wish it were true. The value in organic agriculture is not in its yields, but in its sustainability.

12/16/07, 5:26 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Yooper, my guess is that farming will be one of the major growth industries of the next few centuries, especially here in North America. Your family farm should do fine.

Stephen, of course optimal policies for different regions will be different. Given that Australia currently uses more energy per capita than the US does, has to import a larger percentage than we do, and is just as vulnerable to mass migration as anyplace else once it loses the protection of a fossil-fuel-dependent navy, though, I suspect you're being a bit overconfident.

As for your speculative post, oil crop farming is a very good idea in the dry tropics or Mediterranean climates -- it was one of the core elements of the old Mediterranean subsistence economies, and well worth repeating. Beyond that, though, thinking outside the box too often turns into an excuse for ignoring the reality of ecological limits. Sure, you can burn that high quality coal -- but are you sure you can survive the climate change, or that the Chinese won't buy it out from under you (or, if it comes to that, take it by force)? In a world of environmental crisis and rapidly depleting energy reserves, I can't think of anything less useful than building your future on an energy resource as ecologically destructive and nonrenewable as coal. As for the SF stuff, well, by all means daydream if that turns your crank.

Kiashu, backyard gardening is far too important to dismiss out of hand. That's the school where the organic farmers of the future are learning their craft right now. I know Sharon and I disagree on a good many details, which doesn't change the fact that I consider hers one of the best blogs out there on this subject.

Aaron, thank you for the link! This is exactly the sort of thing the world needs more of.

Notes, true enough -- a difficult read but an important one.

Eboy, my guess is there will be a lot of rough patches and some serious shortages of food before the new agricultural model starts becoming standard. Rising commodity prices, though, will help things along -- if you can get twice the price for your produce, it certainly helps keep the farm running.

Teresa, understood. What will it take for people to retool their expectations and embrace farming -- or, for that matter, manure fertilized crops? My guess is that genuine hunger will do a fine job, but we'll see.

Koho, you need to do your homework. Here (1, 2, 3, and 4) are some references to studies showing that organic farming does indeed produce comparable yields to conventional agriculture. The claim that they don't is 30 years out of date, and yet people keep repeating it. I think it's a kind of Puritan hangover -- an assumption something morally good can't actually work!

12/16/07, 11:45 PM

Ben said...
I don't think that it's fair to write off the humble tractor too soon in the face of fossil fuel depletion. A number of electric tractors already exist, and they're a perfect application for electric motors, as they need high torque and weight for traction. I think that a common sight in 30-40 years will be a wind turbine set in the middle of a field hooked up to a battery pack which can be swapped into a tractor as needed.

As the price of wind generation continues to fall, I suspect that this sort of system should be competitive sooner rather than later.

12/17/07, 12:24 AM

FARfetched said...
John, you're quite welcome. I can't claim to have originated the term "parts-bin design" though — it's in common use in motorcycle (and to lesser extent, auto) engineering. I agree that we'll depend on it heavily if we're to avoid some of the more disastrous scenarios.

tRB, the timing of planting … with the movements of other planets is also known as "planting by the signs." My in-laws swear by it. Many calendars given out by rural banks and utility companies show the dates when the "signs" change. Sure, I'm skeptical, and one of these days I'll conduct some experiments if someone else hasn't, but until the debunking is done it's hard to argue with people who lived off their own produce for decades.

Has anyone diverted their non-toilet drains to irrigation systems? We're planning to tackle that after replacing some trimwork that's gone bad.

12/17/07, 12:29 PM

Kiashu said...
Panidaho wrote, "People who choose to grow and process anything more than a token amount of their own food at home are considered very odd indeed."

This may be true where Panidaho lives, but is not true everywhere. Here in Australia many people grow some food in their yards. Mostly they're migrants from Greece, Italy, southern China and so on. Those of Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Indian background tend not to so much. But in no case does anyone think you're "odd". They're generally impressed by the quantity that can be grown in a small area, and happy to take the produce.

We're not social outcasts.

JMG, I certainly wouldn't dismiss backyard stuff out of hand. As I said, quite a lot of food can be had from a small area. What I mean simply is that there's a scale difference, and a difference in how reliable it has to be. To scale from "one or two meals a week" to "most of your food" isn't easy, co-ordinating things so you have a steady supply rather than bounty and then nothing. And having to depend on that yard for most of your food needs is very different to, "woops, the garden flooded, oh well let's go to the supermarket", different in psychological and social terms. Basically it's the difference between a hobby and work.

I see this article of JMG's got a lot of attention, comments and critiques. To cash in on the glory, I've written my own perspective on the shape of food to come.

12/17/07, 1:35 PM

DickLawrence said...
It's likely as JM Greer says that many more will return to farming - a nation like the U.S. has enormous land resources that won't be neglected, especially when people are hungry. But one thing we can't return to is the allocation of land ownership: 100 years ago most of the population was farmers, as noted, and they were primarily owners of small farms. Now, most people are city residents and don't own property. Many more live on small suburban lots.
I'm very curious to understand how the patterns of land ownership have changed - vast swathes of New England are now wooded, No Trespassing signs posted. My theory is that much of it has passed into ownership by a small minority of wealthy people who may or may not live nearby. I would love to see someone do a PhD thesis on this - it's all public information.

These patterns of land ownership considerably complicate the process of moving people back to working on the land; put bluntly, their status may be more that of "hired hand" or serf to the estate than that of owner of small family farm. Of course there was always a subset of society without means, and they too worked on the farm: nearly every town still has vestiges or memories of the town Poor Farm ("Poor Farm Road") where those on the bottom rungs of society could still get 3 square meals a day in exchange for a day of labor.

- Dick Lawrence

12/17/07, 3:20 PM

Bytesmiths said...
As others have pointed out, reversion to pure horse power has its problems.

I think it would be smart to focus on appropriate technology, rather than absolutist ideals of mankind and animals sans machines.

As long as diesel engines can be maintained, it is a no-brainer that they will have a greater return on energy invested than horses, or oxen, or humans with hoes and pitch forks.

For one thing, you can't "turn off" that horse. There is no ignition switch. And while it uses less energy in the non-working season, the basal metabolism is still infinitely higher than a tractor with the fuel turned off.

My calculations indicate that a savvy farmer should be able to use mechanized agriculture on fifteen acres for every one acre planted in (for example) rape or similar seed oil. An ERoEI of 15:1 is not bad, even by today's petroleum standards!

Many (myself included) decry the use of good farmland to produce transportation fuel. But producing fuel for mechanized farming is entirely different.

Perhaps in as little as a few decades, we will have lost the capacity to build and maintain diesel engines. But the diesel engine is over 100 years old, and I'm hoping that organic mechanized agriculture will provide a bridge between today's industrial agriculture and tomorrow's animal-based agriculture.

The bridge of technology is one we cannot afford to burn, just because we have a strong feeling that it may have to go away someday.

Likewise with solar cells. Stephen Heyer wrote that solar cells are "not too expensive," perhaps without recognition that their price floats upon a sea of petroleum. Oil goes up, so do solar cells -- they will not be around forever. And yet they provide us with a useful transition strategy while we prepare for re-dependence on chlorophyl-powered solar cells that grow on trees.

12/17/07, 4:40 PM

Audrey said...
Mr. Greer-
I'm from Seattle and I'm doing a project on religion/spirituality for my school. Do you have any recomendations for speakers in the area? Anything would be helpful! Thanks.

12/17/07, 6:36 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Ben, you're missing the key issue of net energy. It takes a lot of energy and other resources to build a tractor -- electric or otherwise. It takes a lot less to make a horse. My guess is that the horse will prove to be a good deal more economical when all the inputs into the tractor and the horse as whole systems are taken into account.

Farfetched, I've planted by the signs for years, too, and gotten good results. Placebo effect? Who cares, if the results are good? We live in a rented place these days, so serious plumbing retrofits are out until the housing crash bottoms out and we can get our own home. When that happens, graywater irrigation and a composting toilet are high up on the to-do list.

Kiashu, understood! The backyard is a backup; it's also a training opportunity; and, perhaps most crucially, it's a way of supplementing the crops that will likely be available in bulk (grains, beans, etc.) with sources of vitamins and minerals. For all these reasons I think it's one of the crucial elements in getting ready, for those that can do it.

Dick, good to hear from you. Land ownership is a complex issue; depending on social shifts in the decades to come, we may see anything from prison-worked farms through mass sharecropping to the wholesale expropriation of land by revolutionary governments and its transfer to the poor, along Latin American lines. It's way too early in the game to guess.

Bytesmith, where do you get the idea that I'm insisting on a complete rejection of technology? I've argued for the same viewpoint you're suggesting here -- using available tech to cushion the transition to the deindustrial age -- since this blog started a year and a half ago. What I'm arguing is that for many farming purposes, horses may well be more economical than tractors, when all the energy and resource inputs into both (including manufacture and waste output) are taken into account. Horses manufacture themselves, using no raw materials or energy inputs beyond food, water, shelter, and basic care, and their waste output is fine fertilizer with a significant value in its own right. None of those are true of tractors, in case you haven't noticed.

Audrey, I can be reached for this sort of thing via email c/o info (at) aoda (dot) org.

12/17/07, 11:59 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
Bytesmiths: “Likewise with solar cells. Stephen Heyer wrote that solar cells are "not too expensive," perhaps without recognition that their price floats upon a sea of petroleum.”

No, solar cell production floats on a sea of energy, we just happen to use oil for a lot of it at the moment. Their price rests on many things, of which energy is just one.

And that sea of energy just may be coming from other, previously built solar cells provided your society has been wise enough to leverage up its oil before it runs out, or its coal before climate catastrophe and international pressure reduces its use, so as to fully outfit itself with solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean thermal or whatever renewable energy is appropriate to its situation.

Now, I’m fully aware that some people claim that solar cells never “pay back” the power used to manufacture them, but I’m also aware that many technically literate people claim that they do, and more than adequately. I’m also aware that different types of solar cells take very different amounts of energy and materials to fabricate and that the power output of solar cells is continuing to improve while their cost and evidently the energy and materials required continues to decrease.

In other words, I have no doubt we’ll be using solar cells where appropriate unless and until something better comes along.

12/18/07, 6:22 AM

yooper said...
Hello John! Going back to the family farm. Walking past where the old crank up, gas powered, steal wheeled Fordson tractor once sat, a little further back sits another piece of farm implement. It's the wooden wagon wheeled "dump truck" of the day in the 1800's, that was powered by oxen. It has perhaps a yard and a half scoop with two steel handles attached to it. This was a three man operation, two men lifting up on the handles and a third driving the oxen as the scoop gouges into the earth.

John, I look foward to the day when you'll lay your hand on this piece of machinery...

The first roads and ditches were made primarily by this machine. I wonder John, how many slaves, did this piece of equipment save? As the secondary means of doing this task, was just that, slave labor.

Dick, brought up an interesting point, land ownership. Back in the mid 1800's when my great grandfather's half brother was dropped off from a schooner to settle this land, he was the the "Lord" of the land. He was very educated and was the doctor, dentist, veterinarian, undertaker, employer, I suppose, even the judge and jury.... In fact, I was raised reading from his library. I was groomed to become as much like this man as I could be......

I can't be sure if this man actually "owned" the land at the time, as in deeds or property lines. He managed "the area". As family's moved in, land was "set aside" for building homes/gardens. These families "shared" the crop they managed in exchange for this.
Actual goverment surveying of the land did'nt began until the early1900's.

To be sure, concept's of "owning property" back then, were very different of what they are today. I suppose, it will be "men of vision" who will manage the land in the future.

Thanks, yooper

12/18/07, 6:36 AM

Panidaho said...
Kiashu said:

This may be true where Panidaho lives, but is not true everywhere. Here in Australia many people grow some food in their yards. Mostly they're migrants from Greece, Italy, southern China and so on. Those of Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Indian background tend not to so much.

I'm glad to hear that self-reliance hasn't gone out of fashion where you live yet, Kiashu. I am sorry to hear that it's mostly immigrants that are doing the backyard growing, however, because if your country's experience parallels ours, that will probably end in a generation. We still have pockets of self-reliant attitude here in the US as well (I currently live in one of them) but I'm sorry to say that in my experience they are becoming more an anomaly than the norm. Buying food pre-processed and pre-cooked at the local Fast Food Emporium (you know, those places that were once known as "grocery stores?") is a much more attractive option for most.

dicklawrence said:

100 years ago most of the population was farmers, as noted, and they were primarily owners of small farms. Now, most people are city residents and don't own property. Many more live on small suburban lots.

I'm also curious to see whether there even be enough usable land available near the cities that can be put into small-scale agriculture when the crunch hits. A landless family can do a lot to feed themselves with even a quarter of an acre, but not if it's fenced off with barbed wire and has "do not trespass" signs posted all over it.

It will be interesting to see how the land issue works itself out. Perhaps some land owners with large tracts bordering cities will decide they can make more money "renting" it out in family-garden-size plots than they can by farming it themselves? We may see a whole new type of community garden model arise, if we're lucky. Something more along the lines of what rural villages the world over are still doing.

12/18/07, 7:50 AM

Stephen Heyer said...
I’ve been following this blog for some time and am generally very impressed with it and John Greer. I have learned a lot and it has changed my thinking. However, I think it occasionally falls into the same kind of traps of dogma as the stock-of-guns-and-ammo-and beans-under-the-bed survivalists.

These are the areas I think people are sometimes not seeing, or just getting wrong. My opinion of course, I could be the one who is wrong, or, going from history, more likely we are all wrong.

1. Genetic engineering will greatly increase the options available to future societies, especially if they are severely resource restrained.

This isn’t my idea, or even a new idea, it’s about as close to received wisdom as you are going to get from the scientific community.

In previous posts I used The Parable of the Wood to try to suggest this, but maybe I need to be plainer. I picked wood because:

First, it seemed a fairly innocuous choice for genetic engineering as we don’t eat it and by “knocking out” the tree’s ability to produce seed we can easily prevent it ever escaping into the wild, yet still propagate it at will from cuttings.

Second, we can use wood to replace much of the metal and plastic we presently use, if we have to. As an example, in the nineteenth century when Japan and China were industrializing they not only used wood to make some of the machines we would make from metal, they even made production machinery from wood.

Third, some natural woods have amazing properties, it is just that they may be slow growing, not grow in our climate, be subject to pests of have other, less desirable properties. Using genetic engineering to put together the best properties shouldn’t be too hard with our level of science. Within a century or so my “super woods” should be a wiz.

2. Societies are going to be able to “top up” some of their resources from the environment far into the deep future.

Many of the elements modern societies need are what the world is made of. While the easily refined ores may one day be a thing of the past, it will always be possible to obtain, for example, aluminum (8% by weight of the Earth’s solid surface ).

Admittedly the cost will be higher, especially if future societies have a limited energy budget, but if they carefully husband their resources instead of digging it up, using it once then dumping it, as we do now, they will only require small amounts to top up their supplies.

3. Science and industry will continue to advance and thrive as they did before coal, let alone oil.

Science and industry were doing very well in their water and wind powered world before coal and the steam engine came along. Of course, industry was limited in both scale and location by suitable water wheel sites, but they were doing a pretty good job of utilizing what they could.

Science and industry will survive the going of oil and even coal, helped of course by the new power sources now available to them.

4. Many of today’s societies and nations will continue to exist. No Mad Max required.

I keep getting the impression some people expect the present societies and nations to collapse just because oil becomes too expensive to spend all day driving the kids around in the SUV and/or there are a few pandemics.

They seem it imagine themselves as Mad Max.

Some societies that are already on the brink may very well collapse, but most will just adapt. Historically, reasonably sound societies can shrug off the death of half the population and recover surprisingly quickly. Of course, it’s pretty horrible for the people going through it, but recovery is aided by the fact that the survivors suddenly have twice as much land and wealth, in other words are well below their Malthusian limits.

5. Many societies and nations will be able to adjust one step at a time using a mixture of old and new technologies and ideas and will not suffer too badly.

This is of course exactly the tactic John Greer is advocating and pretty much what they did in Cuba.

6. Some places will be nicer to live in than others, just like now, it’s just that they will be different places.

What can I say. Some places had lots of oil, in the brave new world some will have lots of wind, or solar, or a particularly good government.

Anyway folks, that’s they way I see it. Please notice that everything I’m complaining about is long-term and big picture. When it comes to what we can do right now or how to get through tough times personally, I think the general opinions on this blog are about right.

Yea! Backyard gardens are the way to go!

12/18/07, 7:57 AM

FARfetched said...
Dick, the whole concept of land ownership (especially in suburbia) is probably going to get loosy-goosy when everything else is going to hell in a handbasket. In my on-going fictional series, FAR Future (published on my blog), I've touched on this lately. Those big wooded swaths of land will attract squatters, probably armed ones, especially when the landowner is elsewhere.

I just don't see how some cadre of "elites," who have never dealt with adversity, are going to maintain (let alone increase) their power when all the supports are being knocked out from below. Of course they think they can, and perhaps even think they're guiding the process, but they're more likely than you & I to be swept away in the deluge.

12/18/07, 8:02 AM

tRB said...

You don't need me to tell you that timing is important in agriculture; so long, of course, as you know what the right timing is for your area. (And, now, with recent adjustments for climate change.) Regarding planting by a sky-based calendar, I would hypothesize that it's really about the timing and not about gravity from distant worlds or anything weird like that. The page you linked to may simply list some handy mnemonic devices for particular climates and cultures. I'll look into it. In the meantime, what gardening work does one do when the moon is in Ophiuchus? :)


...and John,

My opinion about Steiner matters as little as his opinions about farming. That's kind of the point. There are methods of taking care that we don't fool ourselves, and this process helps people move past disagreements of opinion. When a "viewpoint" starts to make testable claims, it moves into the realm of scientific inquiry, and (to put it crudely) such claims can be found "right" or "wrong". Whether or not anyone finds those claims "meaningful" (in an emotional sense?) is their own business.

And thanks for the links about the productivity of organic agriculture. It's good to know.

12/18/07, 11:56 AM

Anthony said...

I live in Seattle and have my degree in Religious Studies. I focused my studies on modern religious movements. If you'd like to chat you can reach me at

avalterra (at) gmail (dot) com

John - if you want to forward this rather then post it I am fine with that.

12/18/07, 1:44 PM

Danby said...
Time for the middle-aged crippled-up part-time farmer to weigh in.

Yes, organic production methods frequently produce as much as or more food per acre than industrial agriculture. Remember that the objective of industrial agriculture is to generate the greatest return on investment not the most or best food. In fact, big crops are actually counter-productive to the goal, as they tend to depress prices. Industrial agriculture uses capital (in the form of equipment, fuel, chemicals and bio-engineered seed), to reduce labor.

For example, most of the genetically engineered seed is designed with one built-in trait. It is not vulnerable to glyphosphate poisoning. That is to say, it is "Round-Up Ready." Why this one trait? It allows the producer to spray glyphosphate on the crop to kill weeds. By killing the weeds, production is protected, without the the expensive (in equipment, man power and fuel) process of cultivation. Most industrial farms also avoid plowing and other forms of tillage by using glyphosphate to prepare the field.

Organic agriculture, on the other hand, usually has the objectives of producing better-quality food, while improving the fertility and tilth of the soil. Since organic certification requires a multi-year period of chemical-free production before the crop can be labeled organic, during the first years, organic farms often lose money and production. Over the long-term, however, since the quality of the soil improves every year under organic production, it eventually becomes a source of fertility rather than a substrate useful for holding the plant upright and conveying water and chemicals to the roots. That means production increases each year until the natural carrying capacity of the soil is reached. This production is frequently much greater than is possible with "spray, pay and pray" farming.

Stephen, and many others;
The point you need to remember about the coming catabolic collapse is that it's mode of transmission is money. What we are talking about will be in it's primary effect, an economic collapse. When the cost of transporting goods between continents, or building a new 6.5nm chip fab plant, or launching a satellite, or driving a tractor goes above a certain level, it will no longer be a practical thing to do, no matter how much benefit you can get out of it. The technological advances of the last 150 years are largely the result of economic surplus made possible by cheap energy. Without those economic surpluses, they are not sustainable long-term. Knowing the benefits of weather-satellites does very little good if there is no way to accumulate enough money to build and launch a weather satellite. Some technology will survive, particularly radio (as any kid who's ever built a crystal set can tell you.) Some will survive in degraded form, and some will simply not be available in 100 years. I would place space flight in the last category.

12/18/07, 6:26 PM

yooper said...
Hello Dick, after rereading you're comment several times, I'm not quite sure how to address this.. What exactly do you mean by,"But one thing we can't return to is the allocation of land ownership"?

I can't agree more that 100 years ago most people were farmers, now most live in the city or on small suburian lots. Going back to the Great Depression, people were alot more self sufficent in keeping their mouths feed and it was their generoisty to those that did'nt that prevented a die-off then.

Now, I'm going to be so bold to suggest, that if that same situation occured today or worse, the die-off would begin in earnest. You see, here in the U.S., food is bought with money, not grown in most people's backyards, as back then. Take the money away and well, we have a problem.

Also, I'm not quite sure what you meant when you stated, "These patterns of land ownership considerably complicate the process of taking people back to working the land; put bluntly, their status may be more of a "hired hand" or serf to the estate than that of owner of a small farm".

Might I susgest, those hired hands or serfs, will be the lucky ones. I don't think they'll care what their status is, they'll be alive.... Also suggesting that these city dwellers could simply manage a small farm is laughable. What are you going to do "grow" 50 million farms?! Where would these resouces come from?

I have done a considerable study of land ownership in my area. Land ownership here, changes hands like people change underwear. However, there are those "old stock" families who have stuck it out through thick and thin. Most of these families are farmers and to a great deal of them, they know the land owns them.....there is a difference.

I want to applaud everyone on this post who is growing their own food organically. However, we cannot feed 300 million people in this matter. If it was industrailized farming that got us where we are today, it only stands to reason, that without it well, the population will be much less.

Thanks, yooper.

12/18/07, 7:05 PM

Geoff said...
"1. Genetic engineering will greatly increase the options available to future societies, especially if they are severely resource restrained."

Whilst there is the potential in GE for these things, there is one glaring downside IMO. Anything genetically engineered is centralised. It is owned by a company somewhere, and people must pay a premium to buy seed/stock every year. They're working on getting customers for life, not on saving people money, or saving their lives.

12/18/07, 9:05 PM

Stephen Heyer said...
Danby: “The point you need to remember about the coming catabolic collapse is that it's mode of transmission is money. What we are talking about will be in it's primary effect, an economic collapse. When the cost of transporting goods between continents, or building a new 6.5nm chip fab plant, or launching a satellite, or driving a tractor goes above a certain level, it will no longer be a practical thing to do, no matter how much benefit you can get out of it. The technological advances of the last 150 years are largely the result of economic surplus made possible by cheap energy. Without those economic surpluses, they are not sustainable long-term. Knowing the benefits of weather-satellites does very little good if there is no way to accumulate enough money to build and launch a weather satellite. Some technology will survive, particularly radio (as any kid who's ever built a crystal set can tell you.) Some will survive in degraded form, and some will simply not be available in 100 years. I would place space flight in the last category.”

Yes, it does look like this time it could start in the financial sphere and that the corruption of that system just could lead to a collapse in faith in the whole financial system (in fiat/paper money).

However, since money’s invention societies have been remarkably resilient at finding a new medium of exchange when the old one collapses. I have no doubt that any collapse of the financial system will simply result in the building of a new one, though this could take a decade of more and during that time things will get a bit torrid.

In other words, I don’t see it as being a permanent impediment to trade.

Likewise, we traded across the world before coal, let alone oil, we can do the same again and better, after all we now know a lot more about building sailing ships and predicting where and when favorable winds and currents can be found.

I’ll give you that economic surplus made possible by cheap energy has speeded up the development of technology, but that is now a sunk cost, come what may we now know how to do the technology. As for technology no longer being possible because of peak oil and limits on the use of coal because of adverse climatic effects, there are actually plenty of other sources of energy, some fully renewable.

Trouble is, with the exception of nuclear, none look near able to support a world population of 6 billion plus, or even support great concentrations of people such a Mexico City or New York.

From what I’m told the trouble with nuclear is that to use uranium efficiently enough to allow its extraction from sea water or non-ore rock and thus provid a permanent supply would meaning going to a full breeder reactor, plutonium nuclear cycle. I hardly need tell you the problems with that!

And remember, some countries/areas will be much better off for renewable energy supplies than others and have populations low enough to depend on renewable energy. As I’ve said before, I guess wealth, power and industry will move to those areas and they will be the ones doing high technology.

Geoff: “Whilst there is the potential in GE for these things, there is one glaring downside IMO. Anything genetically engineered is centralised. It is owned by a company somewhere, and people must pay a premium to buy seed/stock every year.”

Not necessarily! Here in Australia we used to have excellent government funded scientific research, the results of which were basically made available to agriculture, industry and medicine.

Of course, then Western governments stopped being about looking after their citizens and became dedicated to helping wealthy companies and individuals become wealthier and all that was stopped.

Well, there is no reason why we cannot go back to publicly funded research and development used for public welfare, not for making the “rich mates” richer.

At least here in Australia the general public was never happy with the privatization of science. I suspect that if things turn out half as bad as they could Australian governments will be forced to go back to doing publicly funded research for the public good.

12/19/07, 6:45 AM

Ben said...
Ben, you're missing the key issue of net energy. It takes a lot of energy and other resources to build a tractor -- electric or otherwise. It takes a lot less to make a horse. My guess is that the horse will prove to be a good deal more economical when all the inputs into the tractor and the horse as whole systems are taken into account.

That may be true, but I think that you are cooking the books when it comes to the cost of a set of horses. While a new horse might be considered to be free, it certainly isn't true that they have no net cost, energy or otherwise. For starters a large chunk of your farmland and water resources must go into their upkeep. They must have shelter, which is expensive to produce in terms of materials, they must have adequate fencing. A large part of the farmer's time must go to maintaining them, and at the end of the day they will have less output than a tractor. All of these will eat into a farmer's bottom line (and unless your farmer is truly living a subsistence lifestyle, there will always be a bottom line).

An electric tractor powered by an onsite wind generator represents a fairly major investment in terms of money and energy, but to all intents and purposes it is a one off payment to the farmer (excluding some maintenance costs, which it could be argued would be less than vet bills in most cases)
I would argue that the energy cost of the tractor is probably less than the equivalent team of horses, in terms of productivity.

Even if that is not the case, much of the energy cost of a vehicle isn't in the engineering, but in the materials used to create it. I put it to you that in the world that you are describing, there would be an excess of scrap metal that would be better put to use in productive farm labor than any other activity, "subsidising" the energy cost significantly.

12/23/07, 4:03 AM

great white quark said...
great discussion!

i too see electric tractors playing a great part in the future, especially as battery technology evolves. searching on the web for info about them has unfortunately yielded very little good. does anyone here have any good links?

2/24/08, 6:57 AM

Bytesmiths said...
I'm a bit dubious about electric tractors. The energy density just isn't there. Battery technology has been largely stagnant for 60 years. It seems like there's been progress, but no order-of-magnitude improvements have happened.

Luckily, tractors need weight, so there is little to recommend expensive lithium-ion batteries over tried-and-true lead-acid batteries.

Even so, a metric ton of lead-acid batteries will only supply about 30kWh of energy, about the same energy content as 3 litres of vegetable oil! Advanced batteries may double that, but still, liquid fuels have an awful lot going for them.

2/26/08, 2:08 PM

Chef Jem said...
Greetings Again John Michael!

Since the start of this particular blog there have been several documentaries produced that speak to some of the issues you've presented. Among them "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" is my favorite! There is also: "One Man, One Cow, One Planet" that essentially brings the cosmic aspects of Biodynamic Agriculture right down to Earth in all practical ways. Maybe tRB would appreciate these!

What is needed are models of sustainable food systems. Fortunately we have some. One of these models just happens to be Biodynamic Agriculture. I am reasonably confident that anyone who gets the opportunity to enjoy Biodynamic food will know the difference in a number of food qualities. In addition the the "taste test" is the "soil test". Anyone who has questions on the proof that the BD preps work can Vvisit a Biodynamic farm and see for themselves and especially look at the soil, it's depth, the feel of it. Then visit other non Biodynamic farms and check their soils. Last but not least a good indicator of "sustainability" is the extent of community-building that comes with the farm. To paraphrase an ancient saying: "Humankind does not live by bread alone". We are nourished in many more ways than with what we put on our plates although I am in now way minimizing the importance of good food and nutrition. There is just more to what sustains us and that more includes the social influences. Biodynamic Farms are famous for the community-building support they give in addition to really good food!

Chef Jem
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2/15/10, 7:57 PM