Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Agriculture: Closing the Circle

Our modern faith in progress embodies a rich harvest of ironies, but one of the richest unfolds from the way it redefines such concepts as improvement and advancement. To most people nowadays, the way things are done today is by definition more advanced, and therefore better, than the way things were done at any point in the past. This curious way of thinking, which is all but universal in the industrial world among people who haven’t though its implications, starts from the equally widespread belief that all of human history is a straight line that leads to us. It implies in turn that the only way into the future that counts is the one that involves doing even more of what we’re already doing right now.

It’s easy to see why this sort of self-congratulatory thinking is popular, but just now it may also be fatal. The entire industrial way of life is built on the ever accelerating use of nonrenewable resources – primarily but not only fossil fuels – and it therefore faces an imminent collision with the hard facts of geology, in the form of nonnegotiable limits to how much can be extracted from a finite planet before depletion outruns extraction. When that happens, ways of living that made economic sense in a world of cheap abundant resources are likely to become nonviable in a hurry, and beliefs that make those ways of living seem inevitable are just another obstacle in the way of the necessary transitions.

Agriculture, the foundation of human subsistence in nearly all of the world’s societies just now, offers a particularly sharp lesson in this regard. It’s extremely common for people to assume that today’s industrial agriculture is by definition more advanced, and thus better, than any of the alternatives. It’s certainly true that the industrial approach to agriculture – using fossil fuel-powered machines to replace human and animal labor, and fossil fuel-derived chemicals to replace natural nutrient cycles that rely on organic matter – outcompeted its rivals in the market economies of the twentieth century, when fossil fuels were so cheap that it made economic sense to use them in place of everything else. That age is ending, however, and the new economics of energy bid fair to drive a revolution in agriculture as sweeping as any we face.

What needs to be recognized here, though, is that in a crucial sense – the ecological sense – modern industrial agriculture is radically less advanced than most of the viable alternatives. To grasp the way this works, it’s necessary to go back to the concept of ecological succession, the theme of several earlier posts on this blog.

Succession, you’ll remember, is the process by which a vacant lot turns into a forest, or any other disturbed ecosystem returns to the complex long-term equilibrium found in a mature ecology. In the course of succession, the first simple communities of pioneer organisms give way to other communities in a largely predictable sequence, ending in a climax community that can maintain itself over centuries. The stages in the process – seres, in the language of ecology – vary sharply in the way they relate to resources, and the differences involved have crucial implications.

Organisms in earlier seres, to use more ecologists’ jargon, tend to be R-selected – that is, their strategy for living depends on controlling as many resources and producing as many offspring as fast as they possibly can, no matter how inefficient this turns out to be. This strategy gets them established in new areas as quickly as possible, but it makes them vulnerable to competition by more efficient organisms later on. Organisms in later seres tend to be K-selected – that is, their strategy for living depends on using resources as efficiently as possible, even when this makes them slow to spread and limits their ability to get into every possible niche. This means they tend to be elbowed out of the way by R-selected organisms early on, but their efficiency gives them the edge in the long term, allowing them to form stable communities.

The difference between earlier and later seres can be described in another way. Earlier seres tend toward what could be called an extractive model of nutrient use. In the dry country of central Oregon, for example, fireweed – a pioneer plant, and strongly R-selected – grows in the aftermath of forest fires, thriving on the abundant nutrients concentrated in wood ash, and on bare disturbed ground where it can monopolize soil nutrients. As it grows, though, it takes up the nutrient concentrations that allow it to thrive, and leaves behind soil with nutrients spread far more diffusely. Finally other plants better adapted to less concentrated nutrients replace it. Thus the fireweed becomes its own nemesis.

By contrast, later seres tend toward what could be called a recycling model of nutrient use. The climax community in those same central Oregon drylands is dominated by pines of several species, and in a mature pine forest, most nutrients are either in the living trees themselves or in the thick duff of fallen pine needles that covers the forest floor. The duff soaks up rainwater like a sponge, keeping the soil moist and preventing nutrient loss through runoff; as the duff rots, it releases nutrients into the soil where the pine roots can access them, and also encourages the growth of symbiotic soil fungi that improve the pine’s ability to access nutrients. Thus the pine creates and maintains conditions that foster its own survival.

Other seres in between the pioneer fireweed and the climax pine fall into the space between these two models. It’s very common across a wide range of ecosystems for the early seres in a process of succession to pass by very quickly, in a few years or less, while later seres take progressively longer, culminating in the immensely slow rate of change of a stable climax community. Like all ecological rules, this one has plenty of exceptions, but the pattern is much more common than not. What makes this even more interesting is that the same pattern also appears in something close to its classic form in the history of agriculture.

The first known systems of grain agriculture emerged in the Middle East sometime before 8000 BCE, in the aftermath of the drastic global warming that followed the end of the last ice age and caused massive ecological disruption throughout the temperate zone. These first farming systems were anything but sustainable, and early agricultural societies followed a steady rhythm of expansion and collapse most likely caused by bad farming practices that failed to return nutrients to the soil. It took millennia and plenty of hard experience to evolve the first farming systems that worked well over the long term, and millennia more to craft truly sustainable methods such as Asian wetland rice culture, which cycles nutrients back into the soil in the form of human and animal manure, and has proved itself over some 4000 years.

This process of agricultural evolution parallels succession down to the fine details. In effect, the first grain farming systems were the equivalents, in human ecology, of pioneer plant seres. Their extractive model of nutrient use guaranteed that over time, they would become their own nemesis and fail to thrive. Later, more sustainable methods correspond to later seres, with the handful of fully sustainable systems corresponding to climax communities with a recycling model of nutrient use and stability measured in millennia.

Factor in the emergence of industrial farming in the early twentieth century, though, and the sequence suddenly slams into reverse. Industrial farming follows an extreme case of the extractive model; the nutrients needed by crops come from fertilizers manufactured from natural gas, rock phosphate, and other nonrenewable resources, and the crops themselves are shipped off to distant markets, taking the nutrients with them. This one-way process maximizes profits in the short term, but it damages the soil, pollutes local ecosystems, and poisons water resources. In a world of accelerating resource depletion, such extravagant use of irreplaceable fossil fuels is also a recipe for failure.

Fortunately, as last week’s post showed, the replacement for this hopelessly unsustainable system – if you will, the next sere in the agricultural succession – is already in place and beginning to expand rapidly into the territory of conventional farming. Modeled closely on the sustainable farming practices of Asia by way of early 20th century researchers such as Albert Howard and F.H. King, organic farming moves decisively toward the recycling model by using organic matter and other renewable resources to replace chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and the like. In terms of the modern mythology of progress, this is a step backward, since it abandons chemicals and machines for compost, green manures, and biological pest controls; in terms of succession, it is a step forward, and the beginning of recovery from the great leap backward of industrial agriculture.

This same model may be worth examining closely when it comes time to deal with some of the other dysfunctional habits that became widespread in the industrial world during the fast-departing age of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy. In any field you care to name, sustainability is about closing the circle, replacing wasteful extractive models of resource use with recycling models that enable resource use to continue without depletion over the long term. It’s a fair bet that in the ecotechnic societies of the future – the climax communities of human technic civilization – the flow of resources through the economy will follow circular paths indistinguishable from the ones that track nutrient flows through a healthy ecosystem. How one of the more necessary of those paths could be crafted will be the subject of next week’s post.

19 comments:

FARfetched said...

Good points, as always. In a lot of ways, our current industrial age is a step backwards: certainly, it was able (with the help of progressive movements in the 19th century) to lift millions of people out of poverty and create a large middle class. Agricultural "progress" can be considered a metaphor for civilization in general; we actually did make things better up to a certain point, then… something went w0rng.

One of the aspects of the Asian rice agriculture that is probably worth touching on in future articles is the amount of synergy it employs. Ducks and pigs are both important parts of the system: ducks work the edges of the paddies, clearing weeds (and leaving the rice alone); pigs dispose of the waste materials. Both ducks and pigs feed the land (manure) and the farmers themselves (meat). In the same way, chickens might be useful in an organic farm, eating bugs and scratching in the dirt (and fertilizing, can't forget that), beyond supplying the usual eggs & meat.

In the previous article comments, some people raised doubts about the ability of suburbanites to grow food. I'm not sure why… the basics are pretty simple. Sure, the yields won't be near what an expert gardener or farmer gets, but you have to start somewhere… preferably, before there are food shortages.

ORMUS said...

Dear John,

I have been working on figuring out ways to mitigate or reverse global warming for over a decade.

Global warming is caused by a variety of factors which include changes in solar radiation, changes in reflection from the Earth's surface and probably the largest factor which is increased "greenhouse gasses" like carbon in the atmosphere. A 1994 Greenpeace document titled "The Carbon Bomb" describes how atmospheric carbon contributes to global warming and suggests some remedies that might be instituted to reduce atmospheric carbon.

In 1995 I scanned "The Carbon Bomb" and in 1997 I sent the electronic version to Jay Hansen, one of the leading researchers on peak oil and global warming. You can read "The Carbon Bomb" on Jay's site at:

http://dieoff.org/page129.htm

In 1998 I wrote the following article:

http://www.subtleenergies.com/ormus/bmnfa/global.htm

and put it on my forest web site.

In this article I cited research about how reductions in forest health and growth were exacerbating global warming and asked:

"What are the economic impacts of global warming? How will this affect commerce? What have the recent "natural disasters" cost and how are they related to global warming or ozone depletion?"

I believe that global warming and the end of the petroleum economy are the greatest threats to our well being as a culture and as a species. In 2002 I wrote the following about this:

"As corporate, governmental and religious structures grow very large and powerful they tend to loose track of the other needs of the people they were built to serve. They also tend to maximize short term "profit" by "mining" resources without consideration of sustainability. Supply lines tend to get longer, more interdependent and more fragile.

Our food supply capability is a good example of this. The small, local, family farm has given way to large, distant corporate farms. These large farms are much more dependent on petroleum for running equipment and for shipping food to the distant consumer. As nearby petroleum is "mined" out, the supply lines for it grow longer and more difficult to support and defend. The large corporate farms also become more and more dependent on chemical poisons and fertilizers to maintain production levels because they have depleted ("mined") the mineral productivity of the soil.

As nearby soil is depleted we must go further and further to find productive land. This same scenario has been repeated over and over by every city-based civilization in the past. At some point the supply lines and profit margins are stretched so thin that the smallest disruption can bring the entire structure to the ground."

You can read about how the Easter Islanders destroyed their own resource base in a similar way at:

http://www.sundayherald.com/51442

I believe that the interrelated problems of peak oil, agricultural depletion of soil and global warming pose the greatest threat to our modern culture. I also believe that ORMUS has the potential to provide the most significant contribution to solving both of these problems.

ORMUS is the generic name that we apply to a group of biologically essential minerals that up to now were not known to science. These minerals were unknown because they are generally invisible to spectroscopic assay.

Here is why I believe that ORMUS can help solve many of the problems associated with peak oil, soil depletion and global warming:

First: Atmospheric carbon comes from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, changes in ocean currents and the melting of the permafrost in arctic regions, among other things.

If there was a way to increase carbon sequestration (the binding of carbon in trees, soil, sea water and agricultural plants) this would pull carbon dioxide (one of the largest contributors to global warming) out of the air and lock it up where it no longer works as a greenhouse gas.

It looks like ORMUS can more than double the growth of plants and this will sequester more carbon. The walnuts at:

http://www.subtleenergies.com/ormus/tw/walnuts.htm

and the oranges at:

http://www.subtleenergies.com/ormus/tw/oranges.htm

more than quadrupled in size after being given ORMUS sea water precipitate for four years.

The trees they grew on also showed similar increases in growth as you can see here:

http://www.subtleenergies.com/ormus/tw/walnutcomparison.jpg

These changes in agricultural production should also apply to increases in forest growth if ever ORMUS is applied to entire forests.

Second: The underground ecosystem is also significantly enhanced by ORMUS. There is probably more biomass underground than there is above ground. One very significant component of this biomass is called mycorrhizal fungi. You can read an article I wrote in 1997 on mycorrhizal fungi in forest soils at:

http://www.subtleenergies.com/ormus/bmnfa/soil.htm

Sea water ORMUS precipitate typically doubles the mass of mycorrhizal fungi in soil within a month after application. Since these fungi are the largest organisms on earth, ORMUS can significantly increase the sequestration of carbon in agricultural and forest soils.

Third: Mycorrhizal fungi feed plants by dissolving minerals in the soil and helping to transport these minerals to the plants they are attached to. This reduces the need to add nutrients and fertilizers to the soil. Since these nutrients and fertilizers often come from petroleum sources and must be transported using fossil fuel fed vehicles; reducing the need for fertilizer in half will also significantly reduce the release of carbon into the air.

Fourth: The nutrients that have been put into solution and moved into the associated plants by the mycorrhizal fungi will remain bioavailable and eventually will make their way to the ocean where they will feed the ocean microorganisms which are one of the earth's greatest carbon sequestration factors. These ocean microorganisms are finally being recognized as comprising one third of all of the earth's biomass as you can see at:

http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=34176

They are also a major factor in global climate:

http://www.asm.org/microbe/index.asp?bid=40060

Also see:

http://www.nhmag.com/master.html?http://www.nhmag.com/0503/0503_feature.html

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE0DC173FF936A2575BC0A96F948260&sec=health&pagewanted=print

http://www.bio.utk.edu/wilhelm/Wilhelm%20lab%20papers/wilhelm%20et%20al%202002%20P&P.pdf

Fifth: Plants that are grown with ORMUS supplements have increased sugar content in both the edible and in the more "woody" inedible portions. This means that they will produce more alcohol per acre if fermented.

Alcohol is a major fuel in Brazil where dual fuel cars that can be run totally on alcohol are being produced. See:

http://www.tierramerica.net/2004/1030/iarticulo.shtml

It looks like ORMUS can double, triple or even quadruple the plant production on an acre of land and that ORMUS also increases the sugar content of these plants by 30% or more and that ORMUS makes the brewers yeasts hardy enough that they can make higher percentage alcohol before they die. If these observations are consistently confirmed by the growing body of agricultural experience with ORMUS, we may see as much as a ten fold increase in alcohol production per acre with ORMUS. Already alcohol is "about one-third less expensive than gasoline"; see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_alcohol_fuel

If we can get only twice as much alcohol per acre (instead of ten times as much as I suspect we can) it will still be much more competitive with petroleum. See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol_fuel_in_Brazil

Add in the burning of biomass, the use of biodiesel and other bioenergy products that would be increased by the greater productivity of ORMUS crops and we should see a significant reduction in the burning of fossil fuels and their contribution to atmospheric carbon.

With kindest regards,
Barry Carter

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, I'll be talking at length about the human-animal symbioses in a healthy ecological agriculture a bit further down the road. Rabbits are also high on the list -- easy to raise, very nutritious, and their manure makes some of the best compost you'll ever see.

As for backyard gardens, they're crucial, as an opportunity to learn skills but also as a source of vitamins and minerals. In North America, at least, we can probably count on access to grains, beans, and other bulk commodities, but fresh vegetables and protein foods such as eggs and rabbit meat may be scarce and expensive. The backyard garden helps fill those gaps.

Barry, I get a lot of sales pitches of the sort you've made here, and I have to say I find yours less convincing than most. Half the problem we face, when it comes to agriculture, is the reckless use of chemicals to produce unnatural increases in crop productivity -- these always turn out to have bad consequences for the broader environment. I also confess I'd like to see some independent experimental confirmation of the claims you've made.

I've put your post through on the off chance that you're not just offering snake oil, just as I've put through posts on fusion and other probably-unworkable energy sources. If your product actually works, and doesn't wreck the soil or damage local ecosystems in the process, that will doubtless become clear soon enough.

Bill Pulliam said...

Actually, JMG, the whole "orbitally rearranged monoatomic elements" (ORME --> "Ormus") thing is only slightly more rooted in actual reality than the belief that extraterrestrials or angels will soon swoop in to save us from our evil ways. Your fusion fans are dead center mainstream scientists by comparison. A good discussion of the progenitor of the ORME gobbledygook is at:

http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/2003-05/1054230570.Ph.r.html

But on the topic of carbon and agriculture...

The role of the extractive phase of agriculture in the global carbon budget is underappreciated in the general world of environmentalism, though it is of considerable concern in scientific circles. About a third of the tropospheric CO2 increase is estimated to have come from changes in land use, half of which is derived from losses in soil organic carbon (SOC). SOC is lost when forest is cleared and when agricultural soils are degraded. Modern mechanical petrochemical-based agriculture tends to rapidly blow out most of the SOC. One of these interesting little number things: If you put all the SOC up into the atmosphere as CO2, it would probably more than double CO2 concentrations over their (already elevated) present levels.

Just a tidbit...

FARfetched said...

JMG, it's too bad snake oil can't be used as fuel. It seems that we truly have an unlimited resource there. :-)

Looking forward to seeing your thoughts on symbioses.

yooper said...

Hello John! Another great article in this series! Perhaps, in a very large part, industraiized agriculture will be closing this present circle into conclusion. Perhaps, after 8,000 years this society is coming to a close. For me, this has been an exciting adventure you're taking us on. Thank you, for sharing this with us.

I'd also like to thank your readership here for the ideas they expressed. I feel very forunate to be apart in this exchange of thought.

Thanks yooper

The Naked Mechanic said...

An off topic but appropriate link on multiplication without machines http://bluematter.blogspot.com/2007/12/multiply-in-style.html
Cheers
Rob

Beo said...

JMG, Very excited to see you picking up this topic.

Farfetched, I am seeing more and more gardening groups starting up in the Victory Garden tradition across the nation. Whether from a desire to reduce their impact, reconnect to he earth, on in search for safer, more nutritious food the movement to garden again is, ahem, growing.

I am attempting to grow 2000lbs of food, including protein and carb crops on .1 acres of suburban backyard in Wisconsin. I hit 500#'s this year on half dead soil without fruit trees. As I rebuild the soil and get the orchard growing I just might make it. Putting the information out either via tours or the internet may help fill the gap that is inevitable as The Resource Funnel closes in this century.

Great discussion!

M said...

Good post, except that I think the focus on industrial farming in terms of agriculture is only dealing with the tail end of the most recent phase of food production technology. It will probably collapse soon under its own weight due to peak oil and ecological consequences. What seems to be the new hope of corporate and industrial agriculture is, of course, the GMO syndrome - genetic modification technologies that have already gobbled up much of American agricultural production. The claim of GMO advocates is that it promotes ecologically safer agricultural practices, no-till farming, in many cases reduction of pesticide use, etc. While these claims, at this point seem to be bogus at best in the long run, the fact that they are made, along with the extremely rapid diffusion of GMO based agriculture suggests that this is going to be the real competitor (possibly to the death) of ecologically based organic food production. As a believer in the critical importance of organic production in any transition to sustainability, I think it is worth recognizing where the threat to it is increasingly located. This poses the additional question, in relation to your post, of what the triumph of GMO agriculture might signify in terms of your evolutionary seres. Seems to me that it very likely could be something quite outside of that process, and at this point we really don't have a clue, but we're conducting the experiment in real world and time.

yooper said...

Happy Holidays, John! Coming full circle, indeed. Through you, my sequence of thought has been slammed into reverse! Not that I have any doubt that we both invision very much the same future for humanity.

Last year at this time I would scoff at anyone who held an "long emergency" view of decline. Entrenched in linear thinking and believeing in myth, distorted my view. Whereas all I could see was an apocalyptic, sudden collaspe. Through your patience with me, I'm just beginning to see a brighter, more realistic near future.

In response, I'm giving up my survivalist mentality. It's not just about me or my family...Any thoughts of long term survival would be depending on others, in a communal effort. I've always known this....

This Christmas, I'll be giving myself a portable diesel powered electric generator, built for, "the long run." Perhaps, this unit will not only power our home during electrical outages during crucial times in the winter months but also be of use to water the organic gardens that my neighbors tend. I can just imagine how much more pleased they'd be to see this unit arrive, instead of bringing a well point, pipe and picture pump!

Naturally, this will come at a price, however, what insurance does'nt? The diesel powered portable units range from $1,000 to $2,000, for a 4,000 to 5,000 watt range. Fuel required to run such a unit for 10 hrs is about 3 gals at around $10.00, in today's prices. So, using this formula, a unit like this running 20 hrs a day for six months would require, 1080 gals costing about $3,600.

For me, this is a small price to pay for peace of mind, insuring not only the short term needs of keeping the water flowing and heat on in our home, but what could be irrigation needs in the near future.

Thanks, yooper

bryant said...

JMG,
Great post, and one dear to my Permaculture soul. I do have a little dissent though. While your explanation of R- and K-selected species is interesting and informs your point well, the reality of R-selected species is more subtle than simply "extractive".

I realize that you were presenting a simple explanation for the sake of argument, and that you no doubt know, but R-selected species don't extract and disperse nutrients as much as they modify them. Early successional states are characterized by largely inorganic conditions and R-selected species excel at driving those systems towards more organic conditions. Most nutrient loss from burned areas is accomplished by non-biological processes like runoff and wind. Nutrients that are taken up by R-selected species are generally the nutrients available for use by later seres.

A post-fire regime is probably not the best place to see this at work, because, as you correctly note, there is an abundance of easily accessible nutrients. A better place to see this is in land denuded by human activity. Take a field which has been scraped by a bulldozer(or a landslide/mass wasting event)...the topsoil has been removed and there is little organic material remaining - just mineral soils. Despite this lack, R-selected species will run riot the next spring. Over time the annual weeds will give way to perennial plants and the scrub and finally trees(assuming that is the climax state). The pioneer species don’t disperse nutrient as much as they modify the soil conditions...more carbon, better water retention etc.

Anyway, another great post, among a series of excellent essays...the highlight of my online week is your new posting!

eboy said...

John I think you are ahead of the curve on agriculture (I mean by this an awareness that there are problems ahead). Having the attitude that there is much to learn on the subject has exposed me to Ploughman's folly, Sir Albert Howard, Albrecht.and my favorite Freind Sykes. Mr. Sykes was a friend of Howards and is referred to in Howards 'Agricultural Testement'
(He wrote 'Humus and the Farmer' circa 1945). Pursuing older knowledge and attitudes led me through to 'Pleasant Valley' and 'Malabar Farm' which to my tastes is agricultural sizzle. A current source for agricultural ideology and practices is the ecological farming association: Acres USA,(The Eco-Farm) and the Small Farmers Journal. They do a good job of testifying that 'we' took the wrong path in the 50's.

A common thread to all of these concerned minds is the orientation towards the small farmer. Not necessarily for the efficiency gains but to the footprint and an understanding of the need for connection with animals in our care and the soil that we depend on. And that soil quality plays a huge role in the health of our bio-sphere and us.
I agree with 'm' on the issue of gmo's and complications. The fact that most small farms are no longer economically viable should be a show stopper to the planners but apparently graft does a better job of blinding the eyes. Poor decision making that doesn't suffer economic consequences so the 'externalities' imposed by gmo's won't be felt by those that would play russian roulette with the food supply and the bio-sphere (content with being cast as an alarmist on this one)

Where I live small farmers have been under seige for the last 50 years. I suspect that this is pretty much true for most of North America. In fact most (in my area which at one point boasted some 200 cheese factories -now about 5 remain) have completely quit and the farms are now occupied by people seeking to retire to the country, that do not suffer any illusions about growing food and achieving a positive financial rate of return. This country estate model has driven up the price of land and has contributed to the challenges for remaining farmers in their quest to follow the path of vertical integration and in effect chase that evasive profit.

The reasons offered for their failure is the notion that 'efficiencies' and economies of scale have come into play,
excess food and a functioning market place have yielded cheaper high quality food at the stores.

Of course the truth is something different. Suprise!
The fact that massive overt and hidden subsidies coupled with restricted access to markets, market manipulation like dumping and the behavior of commodity markets has enabled this to take place. The realization that food is not covering it's true cost of production and delivery should surprise many.
The cheap food policy has been very effective,(if eliminating large numbers of small farmers was the goal) whether it is tied to a larger plan or is the blind leading the blind remains to be seen (:-O).
The analysis offered is that they were not competitive due to food excesses elsewhere and decreased demand (apparently their are fewer people to consume that food). How else can we explain why increases in food prices will not translate to increased farm profits and a decline in farm failures?

As Bill Pulliam pointed out farms (following an 'organic' type of model) have the ability to sequester carbon versus releasing it. Conventional agri-business is not going to be interested in talking about sequestering carbon. Though some no-till operations are fairing much better. What is to be asked is how sustainable can a farming model be that relies on the use of herbicides? Especially when weeds are adapting to those herbicides. After having created more than 50,000 chemicals designed to alleviate us of weeds and bugs, at some point like the war on drugs an analysis of the success of this model is required.

We should all take note that one of the externalities of big agri-business is that they can't sequester carbon in their current inception. In fact they are part of the problem and the plants grown on those soils upon which they perform their voodoo on are more susceptable to disease and drought. The cure they would impose as already stated is genetic modification.
The small mixed farm using a minimum till with rotational grazing or extended fallow periods offers a solution. So instead of contributing CO2 to the atmosphere it can be sequestered where it can serve a positive function, enhance bio-diversity. And confer healthy food for people. Other pragmatic considerations that can fit the horse power model. Are grain binders, threshing machines, and fanning mills. ( At the farm auctions the fanning mills are going to scrap, I bet you could put one downtown Manhatten and there may be no one in the whole city who could identify it's function and purpose) Grain binders offer a weed control strategy, which was replaced with the idea of sprays. Modern combines for example do not have scour cleaners (screens weed seeds, like a fanning mill). Being able to clean and save your own seed 'drift' understood is necessary for maintaining seed diversity.

Stirring the pot (just a little) any farm that is simply substituting 'conventional' inputs with 'organic' inputs. Isn't serving the long term interests really of what is required (imho). I fully recognize that market failure and corporate shenanigans are responsable for this travesty.

'Certified' (U.S.D.A.) organic does not necessarily mean a) sustainable b)environmentally friendly (though clearly eliminating synthetic chemicals from the environment is positive).

The mixed farm is the only medium to long term sustainable form of agriculture known. And yet despite the massive increase in efficiencies conferred by this model of farming. The subsidized agribusiness (financial and regulatory) model is defeating small farmers everywhere. When subsistence nomadic african farmers can't compete with imported chicken from factories in the U.S. then it's time to understand just how these 'vested interests' have a collective catastrophe planned for us.

Bryant said: "The pioneer species don’t disperse nutrient as much as they modify the soil conditions...more carbon, better water retention etc."

I would qualify that by saying that pioneer species secure nutrients for later plants, take sumac or other shrubs that are shade intollerant. For example, when the cottonwoods/ poplars (in my area) grow up the dieing sumac (shrub) as they decay release their nutrients to them. This securing of nutrients happens at the other extreme. For example when the ground has been scorched by excess drought conditions this can trigger critters like locusts to start swarming and consuming. The locusts serve the function of securing protein -their corpses become feed for future seeds to germinate upon the return of moisture. (A north american locust apparently was anhilated as the theory goes by the moldboard plow destroying the larvae. )

Figuring out how to grow as much of your own food as possible, I believe should be very high on our priority list.
The realization that the financial rate of return on this effort is usually quite positive for low to middle income folks.
And you will learn why it makes sense to grow food for yourself but not for others. C.S.A.s can work but around here have had a relatively high failure rate, one model that appears to be doing well from my read is home delivery.
Which competes on service and quality, but not well in a energy restricted future.

Cheers

Dwig said...

Re farfetched's comment: In the previous article comments, some people raised doubts about the ability of suburbanites to grow food. I'm not sure why… the basics are pretty simple.. Amen to that. To paint all suburbanites as identical is to make the same kind of mistake that John's been criticizing all along: mistaking a convenient narrative for reality (yes, Korzybski was right about the map and the territory...).

In my suburb north of Los Angeles, there are several community gardens, where folks sign up for the use of a plot within a garden. There's always a long waiting list. Also, there's been for many years a late summer ritual where suburban gardeners try to find people to take their excess produce. Recently, the food banks have wised up to this, and set up collection centers -- just citrus fruits for now, since they're easier to handle. The interest in this kind of thing is growing; for example see the work being done by Urban Farming, who recently started a branch in L.A. (This is far from being sustainability for the whole population, of course, or even a few, but it shows examples of the trend that John described, and in what many would consider an unlikely place.)

Idaho Locavore said...

eboy said:

This country estate model has driven up the price of land and has contributed to the challenges for remaining farmers in their quest to follow the path of vertical integration

Very true. In most places "land" simply isn't affordable any more. Even half acre lots anywhere near town here go for 20-40K each, and this is one of the country's low price housing areas! There is no way that an average family can buy enough land to grow enough to live on close enough to town to not have to drive everywhere. The only land that is still reasonably priced is miles away - so if you want land it's a big trade-off. Resign yourself to a daily commute, or pay through the nose for land near town.

awlknottedup said...

Fanning mills. Every modern combine has some sort of fanning mill, that is how the grain is separated. Thomas Jefferson pushed fanning mills which he called a Chinese Fan, as a way to reduce the labor on the farm. They have been in use in China for many years and some indications are that some form of fan was used in the Middle East. Piney showed a drawing of a Roman era stripper harvester and some say he shows a fanning mill.

I see a lot about the small farm and the tragedy of it demise. There are many reasons for the current state of affairs, commodity markets was just one of the first steps. Commodity markets do not care about quality, only quantity so there is no incentive to produce a better crop, only to produce more crop at the lowest per unit cost.

Another factor is the need for factory labor. Emptying the farms provides a stream of cheap labor for the factories. As that labor gets more expensive the labor source shifts to other rural areas to empty, Mexico is one example, China another. Jobs in the city and commodified production bolstered by a seemly endless supply of cheap energy in fossilized sunlight in the form of oil bring us our current system of industrialized farming.

eboy said...

"Fanning mills. Every modern combine has some sort of fanning mill, that is how the grain is separated. Thomas Jefferson pushed fanning mills which he called a Chinese Fan, as a way to reduce the labor on the farm. They have been in use in China for many years and some indications are that some form of fan was used in the Middle East. Piney showed a drawing of a Roman era stripper harvester and some say he shows a fanning mill."

Hi Awk

What I am referring to are specifically known as scour cleaners. I have 3 early Allis Chalmers combines. 1 60 and two 66's they all have scour cleaners which act like fanningmills in the sense that they screen out weed seeds.
Modern combines assume that you will use sprays for this function and no longer use these scour cleaners. I can't speak to all combines, nor should that be assumed.

Clearly nothing is new under the sun. So the notion of fanning mills was undoubtedly used on the banks of the Tigris. We credit the invention of the fanningmill somewhere in the 1870's. When coupled with a grain binder this affords a weed control strategy.

In recent news we heard that Australia was getting some rain in the east, was that a help? We've heard that drought is playing a heavy toll down under.

Cheers from above

muzzduck said...

Eboy,
Yes most of us here in Australia has had some good rains by now, but as is the case with ,most industrial ag regions it only takes a couple of hot windy days to undo a lot of it.
Thanks John for the continued thought provoking blogs as it continues to engage great discussion.
Eboy, Have to say how much i think you've hit the nail on the head right here, wish i had formulated it so well.
Regards Muzzduck

NICOFROG said...

nicofrog said;
wow what a great blog! as a compost worshiper and advocate, I have had an uphill struggle with laziness,apathy, and ignorance, I never though to put it in spiritual terms even though "everything" in my life is part of my spirituality .
as you may well know,Food in the land fill is now considered#1 contributor to "greenhouse gasses"
I got this info from Rick Kaye
www.compostclub.org
he seems like a reliable guy so I did not snopes it or anything, people sure don't want to hear it though, when I consider a 10 mile stretch of the main drag through our small town, with say 3 Big Groceries, 4 or 5 restaurants, and two bakeries, All of their waste goes,mixed with broken fluorescent bulbs, into landfill.(accept the tiny amount I and a few organic farmers manage to divert)
I figure thats well over a hundred tons a year. Buried at 30 or forty feet beneath tons of other crap. generating wasted methane and
godknows what else.
Its ridiculous, everyone should just stop shopping for a week until they clean their act up,
to me putting food in trash is obscene,I LOVED the statement "No matter how much lipstick you put on this pig..." Jim Hightower put it succinctly when he said"the problem with this country, is that the pigs are in the waterhole"
Never try to teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time,and will annoy the pig!
So how he also put it was you don't move pigs by going "here piggy piggy"
One problem composters run into here, Is the Garbage Cartels these guys are hugely powerful get the health department to get some idiotic trumped up story(from the great and undeniable U.C.) about how we can't compost because meat and dairy, they can have pathogens!! ooooh,like a rotten potato doesn't!?
and there might be rats, or raccoons or lizards( i actually saw that in an article one time)Lizards? this is a problem?
We of course have been successfully composting everything for twenty five years,the garbage people who painted all their trucks green YEARS AGO belch around huffing diesel smoke 12 times at each residence hauling their precious TONNAGE of food contaminated garbage .
Recycling was supposed to save the world 30 years ago, saved material for industry! If we built our homes out of recycling it would be better for everybody!
Eboy! I liked your point very much about TRANSITIONAL FARMS
its expensive and time consuming to "go organic" and there are a lot of great farms that just don't bother! I live in an area(Sonoma County Ca.) where there is a LOT of hippy vegan righteousness to dig through! you get dirty looks for using a paper plate!
your articles here will help a lot of people THINK .
Farmers have an earth first way of getting thoughtfull that I like a lot.
Ma earth LOVES it when we give back! (funny the Native Americans
told us that 100 years ago, takes a while,(( and a smoky sky)) for us to "get it")
Nico

Joe said...

John,

i discovered your blog a few weeks ago. I appreciate your thoughtful examinations and efforts to connect themes to create the big picture.

i think agriculture takes many forms--urban, personal, community, corporate. i also think agriculture as a monolithic, separate land use isn't necessarily the only way to go--integrating agriculture at every scale in every location might be a better option for the post-carbon world.

be well, and please keep writing.

-james
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www.ecohuman.com