Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Two Agricultures, Not One

Talking about the future after peak oil is a challenging thing. One of the things that makes it most challenging is the extent to which so many people seem unable to imagine any way of doing things that isn’t business as usual in some lightly modified form. Last week’s post made a passing reference to this odd blinkering of our collective imagination, in the context of current worries in the peak oil blogosphere about “peak phosphorus.”

It’s true, of course, that the rapid depletion of the world’s reserves of rock phosphate, a key ingredient in chemical fertilizers, is a serious short term problem. Today’s agricultural systems depend on chemical fertilizers, and there aren’t any other abundant and highly concentrated sources of mineral phosphate available to be dumped into the intake hoppers of fertilizer factories. Still, this doesn’t mean that we’re all going to starve to death; it means that the way we produce food nowadays is not long for the world, and will be replaced by other ways of producing food that don’t depend on mass infusions of nonrenewable resources.

Those other ways already exist, and have the benefit of well over a century of practical experience and testing. What makes it difficult for many people to notice them, or factor them into a sense of the future, is that they don’t look like industrial agriculture at all. To borrow a metaphor from computer technology, they aren’t plug-and-play components; they presuppose radically different relationships among land, resources, farmers, crops, and consumers; and as they expand into the space left blank by today’s faltering industrial agriculture – a process already well under way – the new social forms defined by these relationships differ so starkly from existing forms of food production and distribution so greatly that many people have trouble fitting the new possibilities into their view of the future..

Of course this same pattern pervades nearly all current debates about peak oil. Consider the endless bickering over the potential of renewable energy. Most of that bickering presupposes that the only way a society can or should use energy is the way today’s industrial nations currently use energy. Thus you get one side insisting that windpower, say, can provide the same sort of instantly accessible and abundant energy supply we’re used to having, using some equivalent of the same distribution systems and technologies we’re used to using, while the other side – generally with better evidence – insists that it can’t.

What nearly always gets missed in these debates is the fact that it’s quite possible to have a technologically advanced and humane society without, for example, having electricity on demand from sockets on every wall across the length and breadth of a continent, or mortgaging our future to allow individuals to zoom around in hopelessly inefficient personal vehicles on an extravagant system of highways. The sooner we start thinking about what kinds and forms of energy wind turbines are actually best suited to produce – rather than trying to forcie them onto the Procrustean bed of an electrical grid that was designed to exploit the very idiosyncratic kinds of energy you get from fossil fuel supplies – the sooner windpower can be put to use building an energy system for the future, rather than propping up a failing one from the past. What stands in the way of this recognition, of course, is the emotional power of today’s ideology of progress, the purblind assumption that the way we do things must be the best possible way to do them.

A similar set of blinders blocks the way to a clear sense of our agricultural options in the age of peak oil. It’s indicative, for example, that a recent post here on composting brought several denunciatory responses insisting that there was no way for one family to produce enough compost to fertilize a 640-acre wheat farm or the equivalent. In one sense, that sort of response is quite correct; in another, it’s completely beside the point, because you wouldn’t use homebrewed compost to fertilize a 640-acre wheat farm at all. Composting, especially on a home scale, is aimed at a different part of the complex land use pattern of a sustainable agricultural system.

If you hopped into a time machine and went back to visit farm country a century or so, to the days when sprawling interstate highway systems and fleets of trucks hadn’t yet made distance an irrelevance over continental scales, you’d notice something about the farms of that time that you won’t find in most farms today: each farm had, apart from its main acreage for corn or wheat or what have you, a kitchen garden, an orchard, a henhouse, and a bit of pasture for a cow or two. Those had a completely different economic function from that of the main acreage, and they were managed in a completely different way. Their function was to produce food for the farm family and farmhands, where the main acreage was used to produce a cash crop for sale; and they were worked intensively, while the main acreage was farmed extensively.

The shift in prefixes between these two words defines a nearly total change in approach. Extensive farming, as the term suggests, involves significant acreage. It maintains soil fertility through crop rotation and fallow periods, rather than through fertilizers or soil amendments. The basic tools of the trade are a plow and something to draw it – horses or oxen, when you don’t have factories to produce tractors and fossil fuels to power them – with add-ons up to and including the huge horse-drawn combines that lumbered over American fields in the 1920s. The crops that you can grow with extensive farming in temperate regions, in the absence of cheap abundant energy, are pretty much limited to grains, dry beans and dry peas, but you can produce these in very substantial amounts, and they store and ship well, so they make good cash crops even if the only way to get them to market is a wagon to the nearest river system and a canal boat from there.

Intensive gardening has to be done on a much smaller scale; among other reasons, the labor it requires is too substantial to be applied to acreage of any size. It maintains soil fertility by adding whatever soil amendments are available – compost, manure, leaf mold, a fish buried in every corn hill, you name it – and the basic tools of the trade are a hoe and somebody who knows how to use it. The crops you can grow in an intensive garden account for everything other than grains and dry legumes, from the first spring radishes to the leeks you overwinter under straw; the chickens, the cow, and the fruit from the orchard all belong to this same intensive sector and participate in its tight cycles of nutrients. In an age without fossil fuels, very little of what can be grown intensively can be transported over any distance without spoiling, so intensive growing is always done close to where the food will be eaten.

That’s why every farm in the America of a century ago had its own intensive kitchen garden, orchard and livestock, and it’s also why every American city a hundred years ago was ringed with market gardens, chicken farms, dairies, and the like, to keep the shelves of urban grocers filled with something other than grains and dried legumes. It’s also why most American urban houses from a century ago, even the cramped little row houses that were built for factory workers, had a little plot in back that got at least a few hours of sunlight a day. That was where the kitchen garden and the hens went; they were as much a part of an ordinary urban household as the pantry.

Thus America a century ago had two separate systems of food production. You would have seen exactly the same thing in most other countries at the same time; if you left your time machine parked in some Iowa barn, hopped the train to New York, and booked passage on a tramp steamer headed around the world, you could count on finding much the same sort of double system busy at work in most of your ports of call. If you caught the train to Paris while your ship was taking on cargo in Marseilles, you would find that the market gardens around the French capitol were using the ancestor of today’s deep bed intensive gardening to keep their customers supplied with produce; if you had time to kill in Kowloon while the cargo from Marseilles was unloaded, you could travel inland a bit and see another ancestor of today’s organic gardening thriving on little patches of land, while the monotonous green of rice paddies spread in every direction around them.

The great transformation of American agriculture in the middle decades of the twentieth century, which was exported around the world under the banner of the “Green Revolution” a few decades later, centered on the abandonment of the intensive half of this system, and its replacement by extensive farming of all the crops that used to be grown intensively. That transformation was only possible because chemical fertilizers could (temporarily) replace the nutrients intensive gardening methods put into the soil by other means, and because petroleum-powered transport could (just as temporarily) make it possible for produce to be shipped across continents and oceans without spoiling, either in processed form or more recently in some semblance of its fresh condition.

The Green Revolution in particular was surrounded by massive propaganda campaigns about feeding the world, but I trust most people by now realize that much of its actual agenda focused on turning the rest of the world into a source of luxury crops for the industrial nations. The model they used was the one pioneered in the early 20th century by American fruit companies in Central America, right up to and including the corporate-backed kleptocracies that contributed the phrase “banana republic” to the English language. The project was a success, in narrowly economic terms; the replacement throughout the Third World of small farms growing food for local consumption with big farms growing export crops for overseas markets duly followed, as did the mass expropriation of land that has flooded Third World cities with dispossessed farm families ever since, and the inevitable famines and public health crises as well. Recent attempts to turn what foodstuffs are still produced in the Third World into automobile fuel for the industrial nations are simply one logical outcome of the same process.

Unfortunately for the architects and beneficiaries of this system, though perhaps fortunately for a good many others, the whole project depended on huge supplies of fertilizer feedstocks and fossil fuels, neither of which have turned out to be available indefinitely. For the world’s nonindustrial nations, then, the end of the industrial age thus ushers in a difficult but ultimately positive shift in which the mechanisms of foreign export, along with the wild distortions of political and economic power they produced, come apart at the seams. For the world’s industrial nations, on the other hand, the end of a system that kept shoppers happily supplied with strawberries in January promises to usher in a time of food crisis in which a system of intensive local production will need to be revived in a hurry.

It’s thus not accidental that the material discussed here in recent posts has focused on exactly the sort of small-scale intensive organic gardening that is well suited to fill this niche in the human ecology of the near future. For that matter, it’s not accidental that much of the last half century or so of research and experimentation into organic food growing has focused on exactly this sort of intensive production; it doubtless helped that it’s a lot easier to afford a backyard or two for experimental garden plots than it is to arrange for 640 acres or so to use some innovative organic farming method or other – though this has also been done, with good results. Some of my readers may be in a position, now or in the future, to try their hand at extensive farming using organic methods to produce grains and dry legumes, and a century from now maybe half the American population will be making their livings that way, but they will also have their own kitchen gardens, henhouses, and so on – and a much larger fraction of readers here and now are in the position to do the same thing.

The productive potential of intensive gardening, especially under emergency conditions, should not be underestimated. A team of researchers at pioneering organic-gardening group Ecology Action found, on the basis of extensive tests, that it’s possible to feed one person year round on a spare but adequate vegetarian diet off less than 1000 square feet of intensively gardened soil. (The details are in David Duhon’s book, listed in the resource section.) In the more troubled parts of the future ahead of us, some of us may have to do just that; a great many more of us will need to be able to garden in order to pad out potential irregularities in a food supply that’s desperately vulnerable, over the short term, to fluctuations in the price and availability of fertilizer feedstocks and fossil fuels. The victory gardens of past wars are likely to be a useful template for the survival gardens of the deindustrial future.

A little further down the road, as the resource and energy base for conventional farming begins to run noticeably short, the shift toward a more sustainable extensive agriculture will have to follow. I don’t expect to contribute much to that, as I don’t have any experience with large acreages; green wizards in training who are interested in pursuing extensive organic farming thus will have to do a fair bit of their own homework. For the moment, though, intensive gardening is the more urgent of the two, and it’s also the one with which I have some thirty years of hands-on experience in one form or another. The habit of abstract speculation about other people’s knowledge is not as useful as some seem to think; more useful and more important just know is teaching what one knows.


There are plenty of books on small-scale organic intensive gardening available these days; everyone has their favorites. John Jeavons’ How To Grow More Vegetables is among the most popular, though there are also plenty of people who swear at it rather than by it. Most of these latter seem to like Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts, so having both of these on your shelf may be a good idea. Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening is particularly good if you’ve never grown an edible plant before. Two other favorites of mine, out of print but readily available on the used book market, are John Seymour’s The Self-Sufficient Gardener and Duane Newcomb’s The Postage Stamp Garden Book.

The claim that intensive organic gardening can feed one person year round on less than 1000 square feet is documented in detail in David Duhon’s book One Circle, out of print and not always easy to find; my copy was purchased at a book sale where, to their lasting discredit, an organic farming and gardening organization that will go unnamed here was selling off their entire library of Seventies green wizardry books for pennies on the dollar. Another book that covers some of the same ground, and supports the same claim, is John A Freeman’s Survival Gardening.


Cathy McGuire said...

Excellent post, as usual! That’s such a clear point abot the two farming types, and yet we’ve come so far down the road, it hadn’t occurred to me – of course, most of the fresh fruits & veggies are hard to ship (until the advent of the ‘cardboard hybrids’) and therefore easier to grow at home. And “storage” as a living plant in a garden guarantees freshness for a meal better than refrigerating, even.

But I can certainly attest to the “intensive” part of it – this year, I’m trying to develop my skills at seed saving, having bought many heirloom seeds from Seed Savers Exchange in past years (I would recommend supporting this organization – – for a small annual membership, you can access literally thousands of heirloom vegetables for $2 and $3.) Gardens have such a different rhythm than modern life, and that will also be a learning curve for many beginners. For example, unless you have automatic watering, you have to flex your schedule to deal with temperature extremes; you have to constantly monitor the plants for diseases and bugs (and then figure out what to do); you have to follow through on that first eager planting for months before you get to harvest, and then it often comes all at once and you have to deal with that. And if you haven’t done it before, you will be amazed at how much plant goes into making the small part that you eat! And Sharon Astyk recently had a very good post about “quick meal recipes” that assume most of the ingredients come from a can or jar… and that few Americans know how to cook the food one grows in a garden! That shocked me, but then, thinking about my friends and family, I can see she’s right – many have given up cooking in favor of microwaving and ordering in… and today as I was making bread, I mused that most folks wouldn’t have the patience; wouldn’t think it was worth the time.

BTW, while I was looking up Seed Savers Exchange info, I noticed this wonderful notice (apropos of good reference books): “Purchased from a book collector in New York, the "East Coast Collection" consists of five divisions: British Agricultural Literature, American Agricultural Literature, Historical Agriculture, Bibliography and Ephemera.

A sampling of the titles includes:
The Farmer's Complete Guide, John Ball, 1760
Essays and Notes on Husbandry, John Bordley, 1801
The New England Farmer, Samuel Deane, 1790
The Cider Maker's Manual, Jesse Buel, 1869
The American Farmer's Instructor, Francis Wiggins, 1840”

They look like wonderful titles… I wish I lived closer to their farm/library!!

Robin Datta said...

Plenty of prognostications and prescriptions float around in the Peakist realms of the blogosphere: few make an effort to address the most basic of issues - dinner - from scratch as the Archdruid does.

As the late Matt Simmons said, it will take a crisis to draw and hold the attention of the people. Perhaps then these posts (and the often equally informative comments) will get the recognition they deserve.

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, all good points. The rhythm of gardening does take some getting used to, though once you're used to it, it becomes second nature -- and the total time commitment is a lot less than many beginners tend to think; I probably put ten hours a week into my garden in the busy seasons, and we do tolerably well by it. As for those books, I want them! I'll have to see if Google Books has copies.

Robin, unfortunately, I think it won't be until people have to do without a few dinners that a good many of them will sit up and take notice. Still, the more people get going on this now, the easier it will be to give 'em a meal and then show them how to start putting food on the table themselves.

jmy said...

Your statement ...
"Ecology Action found, on the basis of extensive tests, that it’s possible to feed one person year round on a spare but adequate vegetarian diet off less than 1000 square feet of intensively gardened soil."

is misleading.

This was not actually done but merely a mathematical extrapolation from test beds.

I grew my total diet for over 13 years and it will take 2.5 acres/adult to get 15,000 calories per week year around assuming no animal products , good soil , adequate water and climate.

Class of 67 Dept. of Agriculture CSUF

DIYer said...

Sadly, even the traditional agriculture of 200 years ago involves the movement of biomass, and therefore phosphorus and potash, from the farm to some other location. If there is no counterflow of these nutrients back to the farm, and no "upstream" supply of them, it will inevitably lead to thinning and eventual depletion of the farm's topsoil.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Ahhh: intensive vs extensive farming! That's what I was missing. "Farming" has come to be synonymous with acres and acres of land in monoculture maintained by big fancy equipment, or herds of cattle hauled to auction by the semi trailer load. When I say "I just want to be a farmer", people look at me like I'm insane - I live on 6 acres, I have 1 cow, a bunch of hens and a few sheep. What kind of farmer has so little?

I see now: I've got the intensive part, but not much of the extensive part. Maybe I'll never grow much of a cash crop (although the sheep & wool are definitely a small cash crop) ... but that doesn't mean I'm not farming. It's just not farming like the Big Guys do it these days.

As for your book resources, I can comment on both both Square Foot (Bartholomew in my case, I haven't got a copy of Jeavons) and well-spaced (Solomons) methods - I use both in my garden ... each seems better suited to different things. Tomatoes like space to spread out (and as they are now climbing over one another I see I underestimated that requirement yet again), carrots and beets do nicely in squares. Besides, since I'm engaged in the Great Battle of the Quackgrass Invaders, raised beds with weed cloth under them (topped up with composted barn waste after the first year, when I didn't have any yet and had to buy some clean soil) give the smaller veggies a bit of breathing room.

I wrote about both methods and my 'garden journal' that combines the information from both in one handy place (and has just the 'stuff I need for where I live') here.

sofistek said...

Bountiful Gardens has a number of interesting books and pamphlets, including One Circle.

rainman said...

Good post and food for thought.
Yes, gardening does take time and effort, but it’s what I/we do. Not being locked up in the wage-earning world, we have that time to pursue this lifestyle, and enjoy it very much, even when things don’t grow well. But, we have put away nearly 60 pounds of blueberries, and eating great tasting greens of all types daily.
We too have been saving seeds and have had a great deal of success. We make soil blocks and have had 100% germination in most cases, not so with some purchased seeds. We have found this method to be worthwhile. Friends have had the same results as well.
Next season we have decided to go with more heirloom seeds.
We eat fresh greens nearly year round in our region, zone 8, in the Puget Sound of Washington state.

Joel said...

For some amazing work on extensive market garden methods, which I've found helpful in my intensive growing, take a look at the work of Helen Atthowe and Ron Morse, in the videos made by OSU:

Weed 'Em and Reap

Atthowe talks a lot more informatively about ecosystems, and (not coincidentally) seems much less dependent on outside soil amendments or pest control measures. Her system might adapt OK to a lack of fuel, and I'm sure she could build a new one if the need arose.

Eric and Anne Nordell are the only ones in that video series that don't bring engines out into the fields with them. They till more than the other two I mentioned, but I don't think that's necessarily related to their use of draft animals. I think the task of a roller-crimper could be done without an internal-combustion engine.

Jeff said...

I'm loving this Green Wizard series of posts. Action! All your work is top notch.

I hope you turn your readers onto Rudolf Steiner and Biodynamics.

The hardest part of gardening well is keeping up with the flood of delicious fruits and veggies! Preserving them can be a monumental task. It's a shame most small, local canneries are gone. That's a great biz opp for the future though.

@Cathy: planting a hedge row of plants friendly to insect predators is a great way to "outsource" bug control. Mixing in flowers and aromatic herbs is another great strategy as well. Google "companion planting' for more info.

Babaji said...

We live this way already on a village farm in South India: 12 humans, 2 cows, 6 acres of staple crops and about 1.2 acres of intensive organic gardening. The cows, organic farming byproducts and even the output of a dry composting toilet go right back into the garden. We produce way more than we consume, and are getting ready to invest in ox power and appropriate technology to jumpstart a local alternative economy.

Gary said...

My sense is that the learning curve for intensive gardening is steeper than many think. I grew up eating vegetables from a large home garden in northern Minnesota. My mom was always after the best short season varieties. We froze, canned, and cellared away produce for the entire year - and everything was delicious. Since then I’ve lived and gardened in western Washington, upstate New York, Indiana, and now Eugene, Oregon. Each place has its own riches and problems. Using skills and varieties that work in one location can lead to crop failure somewhere else. The best books can only complement a little trial and error in your own back yard. Having gardened for most of my 56 years, there are still many more questions and garden experiments waiting for NEXT YEAR than there are set ways of doing things. Most gardeners will acknowledge that there can be large variability in crop success year to year. This year – peas worked and squash didn’t. Last year the opposite. You plant enough things, and usually you are not disappointed with everything. Backyard gardeners are constrained by the space available, soil, shade, fertility sources, water, and time. Some years the mix makes great vegetables, other years more weeds. The process gets refined little by little.
I probably have about that 1000 sq.ft. garden. I’m sure if I used it all to the best extent possible it could feed me, but despite the time I’ve been doing this; those various constraints still impose limits. But this is still just practice for real hard times. We all have a lot of practice to do before we are ready to rely on ourselves again. I think about that as I contemplate my gardening plans. This year the new experiments are Brussels sprouts for the winter garden. (I’ve tried them before – but I have too much shade so they need an even longer season in my spot – at least that’s this year’s theory.) I also have a large patch of amaranth growing beside the road – I hope for winter breakfasts! (Last year’s test patch was encouraging, but too small.) I’m saving more seed this year – parsnips, onion and leeks, lettuce, mache, snow & sugar snap peas, beans, crimson clover, squash, etc. and trying out drip irrigation instead of sprinklers.
I think this is where we will all have to go someday… but it’s going to take some practice.
(occasional thoughts on my gardening experiments can be found at )

Red Neck Girl said...

In regard to farming and providing fresh vegetables to cities I've read different claims about past practices. One claim was that New York City was being swamped by horse manure yet at the same time the claim was that truck farms surrounding the city were able to provide strawberries out of season because of the manures hauled out of the city. Heavy bell shaped glass cloches were antiques heavily sought after in the 60s and 70s. They were originally used by the farms to produce those strawberries as well as other fresh foods for city restaurants.

It seems to me that the complaint about horse manure was justification for using motor vehicles. Without a readily available fertilizer from horses, cows, sheep and goats for intensive gardening the ring of farms became bedroom communities.

A waste of resources today are factory farms. At best the farm waste is processed as any sewage effluent, at worst it goes 'away' which means washed into waterways where it eventually ends up with excess chemical fertilizers in dead zones off our coasts at the mouth of rivers.

The idea of factory farms, hog and chicken operations as well as feed lots becoming 'extinct' fills me with joy since I feel they're cruel and disrespectful of the animals grown for meat.

In some aspects I feel the collapse can't get here soon enough.

alexevansuk said...

Great post, and like Cathy I appreciate the helpful distinction between intensive and extensive.

My question, though, is more on the latter front - particularly from an international development perspective.

During the 2008 food price spike, poor countries faced a double crisis. Figures for undernutrition shot up, from about 850m to over 1bn. But at the same time, *mal*nutrition went off the scale too - humanitarian assistance practitioners I know are still horrified by the fact that an entire generation of kids' cognitive development was basically stunted for life by missing out on key nutrients in their early years.

Now if I'm reading the post correctly, both intensive and extensive agriculture is relevant here. Intensive horticulture provides the micronutrients, vitamins, minerals etc. that prevent malnutrition; but it's extensive agriculture that provides the calories that keep us alive.

I don't disagree for a moment that we've got a huge amount to do on the intensive front - that there's much to learn here from recent experience in the organics movement, that we're probably headed for a much more localised model, and so on.

But I'd like to explore the extensive side of the equation a little further - as I'm not sure I buy the premise that the revolution we need today is all about intensive, and that the revolution on the extensive front is a task for another day.

True, enough calories are produced today to feed everyone amply, so in that sense the current problem is one of politics, not production. But as population rises and as the world's middle class gets more affluent, demand is rocketing (the World Bank reckons global food demand will be up 50% by 2030). That's only twenty years to produce half as much food again, a period during which we'll face intensifying climate impacts, peak oil, dramatically scaled up water scarcity, intensifying competition for land (food, feed, fuel, fiber, cities, carbon sequestration, conservation - you name it).

So on that basis, it looks to me like we need to get cracking right now on the extensive as well as the intensive front. And I'm especially interested in two big questions here (which I'm going to have to set out in a separate comment to comply with the character limit...)

jean-vivien said...


on a totally unrelated note, I was wondering about two practical details - maybe relevant to the idea of wizardy though not the green one -

What possibilities do you see for making light out of electricity ? It might very well be that quite a few people are still going to be able to produce enough electricity for parcimonious home lighting, for quite a while - and then probably at a time by which the big industrial structures that produce lightbulbs will have already faded away.

And then second, what methods of cleaning the laundry would fit into the green wizardry concept ? Like, not producing any toxic byproducts or detergents and so on, but still providing us with reasonable means of putting the unwanted organisms at bay - bacteria, fungi, virus and so on...

Cherokee Organics said...


My last post came back with the message "We're sorry, but we were unable to complete your request."

Gremlins in the box!


Alice Y. said...

I've been looking into growing some of the "alternative grains" next season, which comes in "somewhere between" intensive and extensive growing on your scale, I suppose. It might be that the work is variety discovery and genetic maintenance for future extensive growers. Someone has to develop local staples for the future - us growers? If anyone can find space for 200 plants, you can start breeding for adaptation to your local conditions even in staple crops you might usually think of as being extensively farmed.
I am planning to hand-cultivate, on ground prepared by mowing and laying down 15 cm+ depth of green waste-sourced compost in metre-wide rows, on a derelict plot in the city where I live. If I can start 600 amaranth seeds in modules and get them in the ground by June, I might harvest 45 kg of amaranth seed. 600 plants might go staggered into 6 metre-wide rows 25 m long. It could increase the nutrient value of soups and stews - around 15% protein and makes such foods feel more filling.
I've found a grower who can supply the amaranth seed; I'm still looking for suppliers for other suitable crops such as buckwheat, oilcrop sunflowers, and an ultra-short-cool-summer maize corn (52 degrees lat, temperate/maritime), maybe other readers can suggest such.
A recent discovery on the food garedning &varieties topic - I was given some dried Carlin peas. Grows 2 m tall, ripens at a good time for the weather here, and dries and keeps beautifully. Then I discovered "pease pottage" made from this pea used to be an English staple dish. It might possibly be a staple again by next winter for us, depends how the financial meltdown continues I suppose!

Bill Pulliam said...

In the early centuries of the global agriculture trade (when it happened via rat-infested ships), one of the main things farmers did with their cash crops for export was to convert them in to liquid form. The joke in Tennessee in the 19th Century was that if you asked the farmer how much corn he expected to harvest this year, he'd say "about a hundred gallons per acre." Whiskey and rum kept better, shipped easier, and fetched better prices. The landscape was full of small distilleries, and before the Civil War it was perfectly legal. Evidently it became "moonshining" down here after that war when a whiskey tax was imposed to pay off the war debt. Funny how that tax never ended... but even then you could still make your own whiskey and sell it so long as you paid the tax. Only prohibition ended it, and (funny thing, can't imagine who lobbied for this...) when it was repealed it somehow neglected to lift the prohibition on home brewing and private distilling, putting the business completely in the hands of the industrialists.

NorthCreekNews said...

As a mostly organic vegetable farmer, I use rotations, green manures and just a little compost to grow my vegetables and grow enough for many families to have summer vegetables. I have a 150 share CSA. If I grew storage crops, more beans and enough wheat, I could supply about 75 families with food year round. It could include meat as areas of my farm are not suitable for row crops or tillage. Even though I use horses for cultivation, to use them for all of the work, would reduce the number of families I could support just because of time constraints. I want to examine this more and use the horses more in the future.

One of the places we are more vulnerable than in the past, is that farmers used to raise their own food as well as a portion for sale off the farm hence the two agricultures you are talking about. During the depression, many people were supported by the generosity of farms with extra food. Now, many farms are just commercial production units that raise only their own specialty and the farmers buy their food at the store.

Just a note on meat. I often hear now that one way to save the planet is to eat less meat. While it is true that factory farm, feedlot meat is a problem, meat produced from animals raised on grass and the production from properly rotated crops is a wonderful source of protein. If you don't eat meat for ethical reasons, I have no argument with that. Don't forget though, that if you eat dairy, you are essentially eating meat. For a cow to give milk, she must be bred each year and this produces a calf that must be milked or, if it is a bull calf, the choice is to eat it or let it live its life out until it dies of old age and then needs to be disposed of. Even old dairy cows, if not eaten live many more years beyond production. If you eat dairy, it makes sense to eat some beef.

Resilience and relocalization will require a return to this two agriculture system. Thanks for talking again about important ideas. Don't forget that just reading books will not give the experience it takes to actually grow the crops. There's no teacher like experience, just start small.

Trimorph said...

Great article!

Just a couple of linguistic pedantries: I think the paragraph starting "If you hopped into a time machine" needs "ago" before the first comma; and Paris is the capital of France, not the capitol, the latter being (usually American) government building, not a city!

No need to post this.

gaias daughter said...

Another good post, JMG -- but that's what I have come to expect!

To your list of gardening books, I would like to add a couple of my favorites -- Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway and Four Season Harvet by Eliot Coleman. And the Dervaes family is an excellent example of intensive urban gardening in action. They feed a family of four on a fifth of an acre and have produce left over to sell.

As for extensive farming, Joel Salatin has perfected a method of field rotation that mimics nature in a sustainable way

Lamb said...

A couple of other books worth mentioning are 5 Acres and Independence and 10 Acres Enough. The latter, originally published in 1864, is a good treatise on how the *market gardens* of New Jersey, New York and Pa. grew enough on their small acreages for themselves and enough excess to sell for a profit.

I have also found myself engaging in what is called "guerrilla gardening" in the past, due to living in an apartment or someplace where I couldn't "get my garden on." Simply put, it is sowing seeds or planting seeds. trees, shrubs or bushes (all food bearing) on land that wasn't mine---usually public land that was less traveled. The lovely thing is that after left to their own devices, many of the plants just do what they do naturally...resow themselves and continue to flourish. A friend of mine, wandering in an area where I did guerrilla gardening a few years back recently reported finding "watermelons growing wild" there. He said they were smaller than what he found in grocery stores, but tried one and found it very sweet with an intense flavor.

Oh yes...another book I have recently received as a gift..."Gaia Gardening", also a good choice for your shelf!

GreenStrong said...

Excellent post. It bears mentioning that the future will need at least two other time- honored systems of extensive farming. One is herding and ranching, which is suited to terrain too steep or climates too dry for field crops.

The other is largely forgotten within Western culture: agroforestry. The Native Americans were masters of low intensity agroforestry, using fire to shape the ecosystem of the entire continent to favor production of edible plants and game. This kind of management also has the potential to improve production of firewood and timber. Goats and hogs are powerful tools to clear forest understory and cycle nutrients which the Native Americans didn't have access to until their cultures were already being destroyed.

Scott C said...

Wow, a lot of good replies. Having just visited Polyface Farms for a two day discovery seminar, I have to agree about their system being quite impressive. They use rotational grazing by successive species to utilize a large acreage, and the soil becomes better rather than worse because of it.

As to books on gardening, I would throw in The Vegetable Gardener's Bible. If anything, the section of the book on which crops to put next to each other or not is worth the price.

alexevansuk said...

[continued from previous comment above]

First: even if we assume that we’re headed for a more localised future for intensive horticulture, do we think the same applies to extensive agriculture? I honestly don’t know.

On one hand, I can see that peak oil might have the effect of reducing trade volumes – especially for bulky, low value-added goods like grain. But on the other, what the hell would that mean for food import dependent countries that have no realistic prospect of feeding themselves? Set aside for a moment import-dependent countries like the Gulf states or the Asian emerging economies, who can afford to land grab their way out; instead, look at West Africa’s vulnerability to price spikes as a result of its dependence on imported rice. The food localisation agenda is worryingly silent about what’s supposed to happen there, it seems to me.

Second: even if we assume that the future for intensive horticulture is organic, can we assume the same for extensive agriculture? As Greer says in his post, after all, most of the innovation and R&D on organics in recent years has been focused on the intensive side of things. So by extension, there’s not much data to back up the argument that we can provide enough calories – as opposed to micronutrients – to feed a world of 9 billion with no fertilisers, just traditional crop rotation.

Of course, peak oil means that fossil-fuel based nitrogen fertilisers are likely to become more expensive; other fertilisers, like phosphorus, look set to become scarcer too. I’m not saying there’s a non-organic panacea here (and n.b. I’m certainly not arguing that “GM crops can feed the world” – if only it were so simple); and of course all of this is as much to do with politics as with food production systems. I’m just not sure that we can be confident that organic agriculture is a panacea either.

Gavin said...

Good article Mr. Greer. Always lots to think about, lots to do. Regretfully, I feel the need to pile on more. I stumbled across news of a bill in the Senate, S510, that would supposedly make it illegal to grow one's own food. The article, found here at I found to be a little sensationalized, but after reading through a summary of the various sections of the bill, it would seem to implicitly allow for a significant increase in regulation and interference from the government for those who would grow their own food. So, check it out, see what you think.

darius said...

Thanks for the picture created by "Ex" vs "In" ...tensive.

I practice the "In" portion of gardening, to the best I can for a 70 year old woman without any help. Many things I'd prefer to do are not possible due to limited income coupled with no help available (not even 'willing to be paid') despite huge unemployment numbers locally.

Seed banks are important: During WWII, with Leningrad under siege, twelve scientists protecting the Russian seed bank's valuable specimens starved to death, unwilling to eat the rare seeds. Membership in SSE is great; I was once a member, but it's no longer possible for me, even for less expensive diverse heirloom OP seed available from an extensive group of collectors.

However, I do save seed, just like many who comment here, but there is little genetic diversity in what I have, which makes for a bleak future for my garden.

earthdoglady said...

A commenter last week suggested the book, "Managing Cover Crops Profitably" by SARE. I received my copy and it will hugely benefit both large and small farmers.
A lot can be learned from the accounts of homesteaders from earlier times. I just read, "Nothing to Do but Stay- My Pioneer Mother". It illustrates the importance of the intensive side of farming with accounts of the 1930's. "...we lived solely from the cows and chickens...the chickens kept us in groceries. Every week my mother took anywhere from three to twelve dozen eggs to the grocery and traded them for sugar, flour, coffee and a few canned vegetables. She didn't need much. My father butchered hogs and mother churned her own butter, rendered her own lard, baked her own bread, and canned whatever she could glean out of the summer's parched garden...and of course, potatoes." This allowed them to survive while hundreds of acres of wheat could not due to drought and market conditions. Her father could only harvest 2-3 bushels per acre, enough to only pay the property taxes.

Cathy McGuire said...

Re: the learning curve. I agree, JMG, that in total it doesn't take a huge amount of time, once you get the hang of it, yet it can feel like a lot after a day's work in the wage-slave "fields". Even if it cuts off my supply of cash, I look forward to a day when I only have the "homestead" to work on - I think the rhythm will work much better! (as it is, today I have to "attend" a webinar and then write it up, and the lettuce seeds need to be harvested before they fly away!)

One of the bumps in the learning curve that you might try to address is the issue of expectations -- I'm amazed how even in a decade, Americans (I don't know about other countries) have begun to expect blemish-free produce, glitch-free homes, etc. - and all instantaneous. When I started gardening, years ago, I learned that a few bug-nibbles do not make a plant inedible, cutting off the bruise on the apple makes it just fine, and sometimes, as Gary says, crops just fail for no apparent reason! We need a class in "what to expect" or most Americans who haven't gardened will become confused, discouraged and scared (if the crisis has come)... someone (forget who - Sharon Astyk?) did a great blog on garden failures, and how to just keep going... it inspired me to put in a fall crop of cabbage, turnip and carrots for the first time, since this wet spring messed up the first planting.

Evan said...

I think it's worth considering that our calorie crops in temperate climate do not need to come from annuals -- cereal grains and legumes -- but can come, as they often have for much of the lifespan of homo sapiens, from tree crops.

This is not simply a matter of mimicking patterns that have worked for homo sapiens -- diets based on acorns and chestnuts, for example -- but a matter of energy. The most recent edition of Agroforestry News (and I'm sorry I do not have the copy on hand at this writing) had a great article analyzing the most energy-effective means of employing land for food production. The most effective turned out to be a Nut Orchard.

Considering that planting a hazel bush or chestnut tree would take only a few hundred kilocalories of effort on my part and with occasional maintenance that would require no more than a couple hundred kilocalories every week (for the first couple of years) and then even less after that, I could get quite a bit of energy out of these for the energy invested. Compared with any kind of annual agriculture -- excepting something akin to Fukuoka's rice-barley farming system -- this would prove to make much more sense than trying to live off beans and wheat.

What trees take that annuals don't is forethought and long-distance vision. Planting a hazel bush that won't produce for five years, or even more difficult a chestnut tree that won't produce significant amounts of nuts for ten years takes an attitude of reflection and rootedness that our schizophrenically transient culture cannot fathom.

Sure, we will need transition methods, of which intensive gardening and small grain and dry bean crops can play a role, but looking into the distant future and to the generations that will follow, I think it would be best if we started taking over fields and planting mixed nut, mast and fiber orchards (from fiber trees like basswood, for example).

The cultural shift that will need to take place in the food system is great enough that we might as well as go as far as turn over this notion that we need annual crops to stand at the center of our food system. This would make the beginnings of a culture that can root itself in place and consider the intergenerational impacts of new decisions. I think we can agree that this is something industrial culture does not do, and something we must cultivate if we are to thrive as a species.

Andy Brown said...

I notice there are a lot more chickens around than there used to be. I know that in a lot of the world (especially places where resources are stretched thin) people often raise some smaller animals, both as a way of capturing more from the resource stream (scraps, herbage, bugs) and as some valuable protein for the pot. As someone who doesn't relish the idea of herding goats or managing a cow, I wonder what experience there is out there instead for guinea pigs, rabbits, doves, geese, or even fish as elements in this intensive farming.

blue sun said...


Thank you for this much needed clarification wrapped in excellent prose!

As for those in a position to try their hand at "extensive" farming, I hope that, at the least, they become aware of Edward Faulkner's contention of the superiority of the disc harrow to the mouldboard plow. He describes it in his book Ploughman's Folly, available at this site:
I don't know if any readers practicing now can speak to that, but I know Joel Salatin endorses the book.

I imagine in the ecotechnic future that "extensive" farmers will be discing instead of plowing.

Adrian Skilling said...

For an intensive approach which should minimize inputs due to promotion of biodiversity in the soil and minimise nutrient take a look at Emilia Hazelips ideas (tried in France) - they are inspiring.

Its raised bed approach with permanent mulch and surface composting with polycultures. I've tried it this year (in UK). So far I think the beds didnt start fertile enough and the straw may be causing some nitrogen robbery but I hope to remedy that once I'm surface composting more green matter and getting the cycle going better.

Bill Pulliam said...

Gaia's daugher -- Salatin is a very important innovator and promoter, but you need to take his claims of success with a whole shaker full of salt. Like anyone whose business is selling his ideas as much as his farm products, he makes more money by being more unrealistically optimistic. His claims about pastured poultry (Make $20,000 a year working part time!) were so misleading that they bordered on fraudulent.

This is of course a problem through all businesses, green and otherwise. Never believe the claims of the person who is trying to sell you the book or the equipment if you have not seen independent verification.

Joel said...

Evan said: "[planting nut trees] takes an attitude of reflection and rootedness"

It also takes confident land tenure, or a sense of altruism.

Most industrialized people have no guarantee of long-term access to the land they currently occupy. If people fear they will go hungry, they might not be inclined to help feed whoever eventually evicts them.

Thardiust said...

Here's a video explanation to go with your 13th paragraph.

Glenn in Maine said...

On our double city lot we have a 12 x 20 greenhouse, chicken coop, beehives, fruit trees, berries, edible vines and 628 SF of raised vegetable beds which produce a substantial amount of our yearly needs (local farms provide the rest), so it can be done. Also we have two plots at the neighborhood community garden, and all work is done by hand with hand tools, so I suppose that fits the definition of intensive. I don’t think the goal is to be self sufficient but rather self reliant: whatever you can produce, you should, and source the rest as close to home as possible. It’s the bulls-eye concentric circle approach. I’d add Elliot Coleman’s books to the list: especially for gardeners in northern climates.

Frank Hemming said...

On peas and beans. Tall peas and beans are suited to intensive agriculture as they need support, and crop over a longer period than the dwarf varieties that have been bred to be cropped all at once. I grow a very reliable Borlotti type climbing bean called "Blue and White" which I obtained from the British "Garden Organic" Heritage Seed Library. It was bred especially for UK conditions. Mangetout peas can also make good drying peas with more protein content than sweet garden peas.

I agree that there is a lot of potential in growing nut trees. I am trialling hazel, walnut and sweet chestnut. I also use hazel as pea and bean support.

Separate comment referring to Archdruid Report a few weeks back. was the reference to looking at and through glass inspired by William Herbert's "The Elixir"?

"A man who looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth through it pass
And there the Heaven espy."

tom rainboro said...

"radically different relationships among land, resources, farmers, crops, and consumers"...
tantalising post! I was looking forward to reading about these radically different relationships and how they can come about. Maybe next time? In this tiny hamlet where I live there are plenty of people who are skilled at intensive organic gardening but we have tiny plots and are surrounded by farmers who waste land and won't sell.
I'm also interested by the repeated claims for 'Agroforesty'. A traditional part of the landscape here in
southern England is the coppice woodland (usually hazel understorey and oak or ash up top). These still exist and although they would yield some nuts I have never heard anyone express they idea that they could supplant the growing of cereals in open fields for staple foods. Maybe nut crops are inconsistent?
Cider making.... I'd recommend 'Craft Cider Making' by A G H Lea, published in the last couple of years. I met Andrew Lea while he was working on his cider doctorate at Long Ashton Research Station near Bristol in 1970s. This book is written by a scientist but definitely based on small-scale craft cider making. Available
from your local internet bookstore.

Wendy said...

Thank you for this. It's something I've always suspected, but haven't been able to prove.

I live on a quarter acre suburban lot with my husband and three daughters. That's five of us on a lot that's, roughly, 10,000 square feet. A good portion of the lot is occupied by the house and by a leech field, and since we live in Maine, growing year-round is a little more of a challenge (and not possible without some sort of protection for the plants, like a green house or well-insulated cold frame).

What's thrilling to learn (and what I've always suspected and which you confirm here) is that growing enough food to sustain the five of us on our small lot is possible.

We're not even close to doing it, yet, but each year, each addition of an edible perennial or a new garden bed, gets us one small step closer to our goal of self-sufficiency.

I have no interest in farming "for a living", but if I can grow enough food to feed my family, that's all I ask, and if we supplement our diet with plants we forage and with small amounts of meat (backyard raised and wild caught), we'll go straight up from just "sustaining" ourselves to actually being wholly sated ... even without Russian wheat and rice from Thailand ;).

@Andy Brown - We've raised rabbits for most of the thirteen years we've lived in our house, we've raised chickens (both for meat and for eggs) for the past five years, and we've raised ducks (for eggs) for the past two. Rabbits are very easy to take care of, are not noisy or smelly, don't take up a lot of space, and provide an amazing soil amendment. For anyone who is looking at small space "homesteading" and wants to include animal protein, I highly recommend starting with rabbits. The hardest part (and it is *seriously* hard!) is the "harvest." I have a friend who lives on a similarly sized lot as mine who raises quail.

Harry said...

A century ago? As I grew up in Wales in the 60's and 70's, about 80% of all the vegetables I ate either came out of our garden plot or from our 'allotment' - the British term for a victory garden.

Robo said...

Everyone understands and accepts that the 'intensive' gardening of fruits and vegetables involves plenty of manual labor, but the 'extensive' farming of grains, grasses and legumes in the USA and many other countries is a fossil-fueled industrial process. To feed even a fraction of our present populations without the big machines will not be easy.

I've been attempting some extensive organic-style farming this season here in western New York, and I can tell you that growing just one and a half acres of cereal grain is a very big job for one person without the benefit of large-scale machinery. Even with a modern reaper/binder, a hand-fed bundle thresher and occasional help from an enthusiastic friend, the number of hours needed to plant, weed, harvest, transport and process 1000 lbs of clean grain has added up to many weeks of effort over the course of the season. I feel like I've come to know every single stalk of wheat, emmer and spelt on a personal basis. A larger gang of people using traditional scythes and hand-threshing methods would work even harder and know those stalks even better.

Contrast this with the neighbor who cruises a 100 acre wheat field in the cab of a huge combine harvester, chatting on his cellphone while the machine cuts, threshes and cleans over 240,000 lbs of chemically fertilized grain in less than a day.

Right now it's the Mexicans, Dominicans and Guatemalans who do the bulk of the manual farm work for the American market, especially when it comes to vegetables and fruit. The rest of the cropping is done by the drivers of the big machines with the diesel engines.

Before long the rest of us will have to pitch in. We've got a lot of realities to re-acquaint ourselves with in the meantime. Do we really know what we're in for? How will we react to this change of circumstance? Do we have time?

At least we're getting a start on it.

--Lee Rust

Luciddreams said...

I just opened up about a half acre of land that was a mix of several species of oak and pine for the purposes of growing food for my family of three. I've been putting a lot of thought into the best course of action...what to plant? I don't have enough land for extensive. Yet a half acre would be next to impossible to till without the help of petroleum seeing as how I don't have the space for a horse or mule. My original idea was to open the land up for staple crops such as corn, taters, and beans. To do that I would need a way to till or plow. I've already outlined why plowing won't happen and tilling requires petroleum as well. I already have a 500 square foot kitchen garden influenced mainly by Steve Soloman's "Gardening When it Counts." Due to two massive oaks (both over 100 years old) situated on the east and west side of my property I will not be extending that garden due to sunlight limitations. I think my best option is to plant several fruit trees and several nut trees. I was thinking a couple of apple trees, some plum, peach, and maybe crabapple. As far as nuts I'm not sure yet but I love walnuts. I know pecans grow good around here. I live in the upstate of SC which is 7b. I also want to grow some grapes and maybe some blueberry. It seems to me the best thing for me to do is to use that land for an orchard. My infant son will definitely reap the rewards if I don't.

Houyhnhnm said...

North Creek News said, “Even though I use horses for cultivation, to use them for all of the work, would reduce the number of families I could support just because of time constraints. I want to examine this more and use the horses more in the future.”

You bring up a vital consideration -- time. I'm old enough to get worn our just thinking about tacking up a saddle horse. A draft team -- oi.

By the way, love your Norwegian Fjords.

GreenStrong said, “The Native Americans were masters of low intensity agroforestry, using fire to shape the ecosystem of the entire continent to favor production of edible plants and game.”

The use of fire as part of agriculture is problematical. In Colorado, farmers burn off their fields and irrigation ditches in spring. As I watch the smoke rise, I think of William F. Ruddiman’s thesis in _Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum_. He contends that humans started to change the climate when they first began using fire as an ag tool.

alexevansuk said, “[T]here’s not much data to back up the argument that we can provide enough calories – as opposed to micronutrients – to feed a world of 9 billion with no fertilisers, just traditional crop rotation.

Unfortunately, there’s a significant amount of data suggesting we can not do this. Some 30 years ago, William Catton drew a pretty dire scenario in _Overshoot_, and now we get to add factors such as water shortages and/or unexpected severe floods, i.e. “global weirding.” Yippee.

Gavin remarked on “a bill in the Senate, S510, that would supposedly make it illegal to grow one's own food.”

For what it’s worth, says this is mostly false:

Andy Brown said, “As someone who doesn't relish the idea of herding goats or managing a cow, I wonder what experience there is out there instead for guinea pigs, rabbits, doves, geese, or even fish as elements in this intensive farming.”

Doves are small and a lot of work for the calories. Rabbits are easy. Geese have the advantage of being great weeders. I’d add ducks to the list.

Ducks are easier to raise than chickens and healthier. The downside is ducks can harbor some nasty stuff--think bird flu--without themselves dying. One answer is a roof on their enclosure so that they are isolated from migratory birds.

Allowed to forage though, ducks will help with insects and thereby reduce the need for store-bought feed. Some say foraging reduces the cholesterol level in the eggs too.

We have Welsh Harlequins, a rare breed of egg ducks that are also suitable as roasters. They are light-weight ducks, much smaller than Pekins but also much leaner.

Plus, ducks are inherently funny and provide great entertainment. Around here, work stops for The Duck Show, the time I let the ducks into their pool for a swim.


Jonathan Feld said...

More resources:

I am totally following you on this journey toward green wizardry!! As I said in a comment to a previous post, the time is now and the generation is this one. We still have the ability as a people to capture the knowledges of old and apply them to the times of new. We are running out of time, though, so we have to act quickly!

Aside from Jeavons, I think that Eliot Coleman is another who will go down in history as brilliant and a savior. Check out his work on unheated greenhouses.

Additionally, look back to the victory gardens of WWII. Although hard to find, info from the area tells that the Brits honed in on 2700 sq ft to feed a family of 5. The Americans reduced that to 540 sq ft. They were talking mostly veggies and fruits (i.e. not land-hogging grains) but still...this is doable in urbana and suburbia!!
The Russians managed to 'find' 18 million acres of 'farmland' by rallying their citizens to plant their yards with food rather than lawn. Imagine if America did the same!!

Finally, I have recently begun a project to resurect the kitchen gardens of which you speak. Check out It's not as extreme as the Dervaes family ( but it is doable for the average citizen.

P.S. help out Seed Saver's Exchange - they are trying to save a Russian heirloom seed bank that is on the verge of being torn down to make room for a subdivision. 90% of it's contents are found no where else in the world!

gaias daughter said...

The comments are, as usual, quite informative -- thanks to all who contribute.

Two more books to inspire -- _Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer_ by Novella Carpenter and _Possum Living: How to live well without a job and with (almost) no money_ by Dolly Freed. Both were written by urban 'farmers' and detail their individual experiences. Dolly Freed was only 18 when she wrote her book, but it is chock full of helpful advice -- everything from how to make rabbit sausage to setting up your own still. Even if you are a teetotaler, alcohol can come in mighty handy as a disinfectant and even a fuel. In the updated version, a now grown-up Dolly reviews her advice and clarifies a bit. Both books are well-worth reading.

Brad K. said...

@ Gary,

During a particularly "interesting" year in the late 1960s, my mother put up a needlework piece in the kitchen.

Dad raised hogs, corn, and soybeans in NW Iowa. Lest anyone think that extensive agriculture is predictable, even from season to season, should check into that assumption. Uncertainties of what works don't just vary from region to region.

Mom's piece stated "He who plants a seed and waits, believes in God." This has less about theology or faith, than it does about not counting your chickens before they hatch.

I have three hens. I killed my third egg-eating snake last night. Last spring there were four opossums on various nights, and I still haven't found how they got into the pen. Counting eggs, indeed.

Don't ask about the three-tined pitch fork and hammer in the chicken house.


It occurs to me that so much reliance on vegetarian diets overlooks something. Today we use plastics and rubber for footwear and various seals in plumbing and piping. That used to be an application for leather (tanned and process animal hide, often cow or horse). I have a couple of raggedy horse blankets for sleighs - that is, chunks of tanned horse hide - used in past times for cold outdoor transportation comfort. In the Robert Redford movie Jeremiah Johnson, a couple of old shoe soles got nailed to a door for hinges - a convenience, or important accommodation to the weather?

Leo Frankowski in his SF novel "High Tech Knight" covers using birch bark and rags for winter shoes, and going barefoot in summer.

What do you see happening when $3 flip flops go to $5.75 - and then become unavailable? I recall the tire-tread sandals coming back from Vietnam - but I am not sure if that predated today's steel reinforcing practice (might result in risk of injury from sharp ends).

The Nordells were mentioned above. They included their animals and their manure in managing the fertility of their farming. MatronOfHusbandry actively uses her cows to enrich and drought-proof her pastures and hay ground.

When I hear criticism of how much water cows consume - over the course of a lifetime - I wonder how many deer and other un-monitored wild life those cows are displacing. And I wait to hear someone monitor all gas exchanges and releases for an acre of pasture, an acre of woodland, an acre of crop land - and an acre of pasture with cows. Regardless of how much methane a cow produces, no one seems interested in whether the related ground - pasture and/or crop - would have produced less or more methane, etc. without the cow there. The initial "hole in the ozone" activists railing against methane from cows on leased federal lands (as the sole source of concern) never mentioned the methane impact of withdrawing the cows - whether returning wildlife and ungrazed greenstuff would have produced any less methane or CO2.

Undoubtedly intensive gardening applies to those with very limited ground, and large livestock is not an option for people with small plots, so I understand the direction of your Green Wizardry. But I have to wonder whether you see leather as regaining a significant role in American postindustrial life, and where that leather will be coming from.

@ Evan,

Here in Northern Oklahoma it looks like we will get a Pecan crop this year. Maybe. Two years ago - there were no nuts at all, a funny late frost (as can happen when the climate gets less stable?) scotched that. Last year the only shells were full of black dust - bacteral or fungal invasion. 2nd year, though, of no harvest at all.

I read the filbert (hazelnut) is the most efficient production of food for ground space. But a mix of varieties, as in most other areas of agriculture, spreads the risk of failure of a particular crop. Agriculture is not a place to use "do or die" as a strategy.

Richard said...

The intensive vs extensive issue is something that definitely needs to be more widely known. On so many occasions I've heard people talk about growing the majority of their own food only to realize that they just mean the majority of their fruits and vegetables, which are important as a source of nutrition but a fraction of the calories they're actually eating. In that sense I'm in agreement with most of the post.

What I did want to mention was the same topic Evan brought up, perennial crops, particularly trees. Sticking only to temperate zones, there's a few that can and have been used as a staple food. The chestnut is an important example. See this link for a history of chestnuts in Europe.

Chestnuts have been just as important to certain peoples as wheat, rice or potatoes to others.

That's only for Europe, Asia and north America have a history with chestnuts too. Some native tribes' word for them translates as "the corn that grows on trees". Chestnut blight wiped out almost all our native American Chestnuts, but there are blight resistant Asian varieties and hybrids that can grow well in many parts of the US. I've planted a number of them over the past couple of years, of course it will be a while before they start producing nuts, but many have grown pretty fast for a tree.

Chestnuts are much more reliable bearers than acorns or most fruits for that matter, too.

I do remember some comments on previous posts stating that perennials would not be best for the changing times ahead. I'm not telling people not to plant any annuals, I grow lots of annuals myself, it's a good idea to still grow enough of them to have the skills to depend on them if forced to move by political events.

continued due to character limit

Richard said...

However, to take an analogy from a previous post, "thinking like an ecosystem", you will soon realize that healthy ecosystems tend to have a predominance of perennials, with annuals mostly occuring where there's a disturbance. Extensive farming of annuals on unsuitable land using unsuitable methods has ruined or at least degraded so much land, often in a surprisingly short time. People keep referring to the farms of 100 years ago as sustainable, but in the USA, especially in the southern parts where water erosion is worst wherever there's a slope because of the heavy downpours we're prone to, the history of the white man's farming is mostly one of land degradation and often abandonment.

Where I am in the Missouri ozarks, the soil was never that great to start out with except in some bottomlands, however you can still see the results of the farming of the pioneer days, where what little topsoil there was was lost and the gullies may be forested over now but are still there. Dig in the ground and underneath the decomposing leaves there's subsoil. In the really abused spots the forest is stunted, the trees don't grow the same as in areas that still have more fertility.

J Russell Smith published "Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture" back in the 1950s, but it's still very valuable today, both for the info on many temperate zone tree crops, and also for the striking examples of land degradation from extensive annual farming. He doesn't claim that there should be no annual agriculture, just that tree crops have many advantages and can be used on land that's unsuitable for cultivation except possibly with terracing.

It's pretty clear that intensive annual farming isn't the problem, when you have that much time to devote to a small area you're unlikely to let the land degrade, and things like terracing are much more workable. Areas that were intensive gardens in the pioneer days of the Ozarks are now still often especially fertile.

I understand you focus on intensive farming because it's accessible to many more people (and that's where my experience lies too) but we do need to recognize that in terms of sustainablity, extensive agriculture needs the most changes, not only to adapt to a lack of fossil fuels, but to regain a truly healthy relationship with the land, one that sustains the soil.

continued again due to character limit

DIYer said...

(continued from above)
Of course, that topsoil will last longer if we abandon the crime-against-nature that is today's extensive farming practice. On a visit to southern Indiana over the last weekend, we drove past miles of corn and soybeans in the Wabash and Ohio river valleys. This bi-culture is hardly better than mono-culture -- one really successful plant parasite away from losing half the area's. Totally dependent on non-renewable phosphate and potash inputs. And a large fraction of the corn produced goes to these foolish ethanol plants.

Is there a faster way to wreck our life support system?

Jesse said...

Excellent post, as usual, JMG. I've been reading for a few months now and figured it was time to say thanks to you and also jump into the discussion. I've also read The Long Descent and Monsters. Really great stuff, thanks.

I've read Jeavon's How to grow more vegetables, and while it had some good information, I didn't like the branding of his system (GROW BIOINTENSIVE) and selling it as a solution for all climates. If you've read this book or are reading others on intensive gardening, I'd recommend you also read Steve Solomon's Gardening When It Counts. He counters many of the points made by Jeavons and shows that there is no best way. Also, Steve started a seed company (Territorial Seeds) so he knows a lot about seeds. I'd say the book is worth it just for the information about seeds and planting them. He exposes the unethical practices many seed companies use to make more money, which results in lower quality seeds. There's also some really great information on gardening without irrigation. Steve also runs a free online library by scanning out of print and public domain agricultural and health related books. See Soil And Health

Richard said...

Climate change in my opinion is actually a good reason to grow perennials, as long as you get a diversity of ones from different sources. Many temperate climate plants grow naturally over a wide range of climates, chestnuts are a good example of that and I've gotten chestnuts from several different sources in different climates. The reason I think climate change is a good reason to plant perennials is that one of the effects that every climate scientist I've ever heard agrees on, is that heavy downpours and flooding will increase in most places, even if dry periods do too, This is really common sense, as warmer, more humid areas of the globe are prone to heavier downpours because there's just that mush more moisture in the air. That will both increase the potential for erosion on cultivated land, and also mean that deep rooted perennials will tend to be able to better withstand dry spells, especially ones that come earlier in the season when annuals are still small. That's important on land without reliable irrigation.

DaShui said...

Archdruid Greer,

You are hurting me and my friend's feelings with your emphasis on agriculture, while ignoring the other alternative, a pastoral life. We plan to move to the Great Plains and reinvent the Cossack, Apache, Bedouin,Mongol way of herding animals, supplemented with the occasional ethanol- powered-Harley raid on farm villages.

Don Plummer said...

For Bill Pulliam, re. your last post on black locust from the previous thread:

The original range of Robinia pseudo-acacia in Ohio is somewhat of a mystery, since it spread widely throughout the state almost immediately after it was settled. According to The Woody Plants of Ohio, by E. Lucy Braun (OSU Press, 1961, reprinted 1989 and considered the definitive source on the subject), the tree originally was found only in the southern part of the state: "Daniel Drake, in his Picture of Cincinnati in 1815, states that it was seldom seen more than 30 miles north of the Ohio River (Braun, p. 229).

That might explain why some around here (central Ohio) consider it a weed. It probably spread by colonizing uncultivated places that had previously been cleared of forest.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Gavin of a bill in the Senate, S510, that would supposedly make it illegal to grow one's own food.
I read the short version on the site. Nothing in the bill prevents private growing/eating of food. It's all about sales and processing of food.

Chris Harries said...

JMG, referring to your first several paragraphs (on avoiding business as usual thinking), it was pointed out to me recently that just 120 years ago European cities were horse driven - horses provided the mainstay for nearly all commerce, freight and personal mobility. And those cities were becoming literally buried in horse manure. A solution had to be found.

It seems to me we have now arrived at an identical juxtasposition. Our society has reached an almost identical limit with oil, except exchange horse manure for carbon dioxide.

120 years go the horse problem was resolved by the rapid deployment of the motor car. Problem solved. No more horse manure.

One problem solved, another much larger one created.

This seems to be our present dilemma. Leaping into grid connected wind machines is being done whilst turning a blind yere to the long-term problems that will be created.

We may appear to solve one problem, but will create a much larger one down the track. Investing ehavily in a non-solution is sheer madness at this critical juncture.

We should at least learn from the lessons of history.

Bill Pulliam said...

Various things --

About outlawing growing your own food... it seems to me that small-scale farmers are a rather apocalyptic lot. If you go to their internet fora you will always hear about the latest plot by the gubbmint to outlaw everything that makes life anywhere but in a concentration camp possible. In most cases they have only slightly more reality than Sarah Palin's death panels. Besides, the gubbmint has ALREADY outlawed many practices that homesteaders and small farmers still routinely engage in anyway.

About the evils of annual crops... afraid I have to invoke the lessons of history here. Annual-based agriculture is not some recent aberration of the industrial world, nor is it inexorably linked to mechanized agriculture, soil depletion, and chemical/deisel fuel based farming. It has been the standard since agriculture was invented many hundreds of generations of farmers ago, deep in prehistory. Most of our major annual crops were domesticated back then, and have been feeding humanity ever since. If 8,000 years isn't long enough to be considered sustainable, I don't know what is. I'd have to say there's pretty good evidence that you should base your civilization's calorie supply on annual crops with long shelf life if you want your food supply to be stable and sustainable.

"Perennial polycultures" have also been used for many many millennia. We call them "pastures," "hayfields," and "rangeland." We use them to feed animals. They use food sources we cannot, converting them to meat, eggs, and work we can use. Well-managed, not overstocked, this is also apparently sustainable for a very long time.

It's true we have a lot of new knowledge and technology that our neolithic forbearers did not have. But we still don't need to be totally reinventing the wheel. Wheels still work really well, nothing better has come along (seen any flying cars lately? They must be hovering over the fields of high-yielding sustainable perennial grain crops). Mind you I think developing perennial grains is a great idea; I'd buy some to try tomorrow if there were good perennial wheat-like grains commercially available. But annuals have been fueling us since the dawn of "civilization" and I expect they will continue to do so until its sunset. Folks, remember that the most amazing and fundamental inventions that all civilizations have been based on happened in prehistory -- domesticated plants and animals, levers, wheels, stone- , wood- and metal-working, fibers, etc. etc. We've just been refining the details ever since.

Finally, I think it is interesting when people discuss how much more work non-fossil fuel agriculture would be, almost as if we have the choice as to whether or not to pursue it. It doesn't matter how hard it might be, or whether or not you personally like the idea or would enjoy living that way. Eventually there ain't gonna be any choice in the matter, folks.

Conchscooter said...

I am 52 years old and grew up in farming country in central Italy. I well remember sharecroppers ( peasants) ploughing with oxen. Even today my sisters live there and operate modern oil powered farms but they still have exactly what you describe- high intensity kitchen gardens near their farm houses to feed themselves.

John Michael Greer said...

Jmy, you don't mention whether you used the same methods, grew the same crops, or subsisted on the same sparse diet as in the Duhon study, so it's hard to judge the relevance of your claims.

DIYer, this is one of the reasons why it's not necessarily a good idea to go back to the precise way farming was done a century ago. The distinction I wanted to draw was that between extensive and intensive growing.

Apple Jack, exactly -- if you're close to a market, you're all set up to be an intensive market gardener or specialty crop producer.

Sofistek, thank you for finding this!

Rainman, good to hear. I hear from a lot of people who are walking that same path, and it's one of the things that gives me some hope for the future.

Joel, thanks for the links!

Jeff, I'll certainly mention him down the road a bit, but Steiner's not for everybody -- either you resonate with it or you don't, and a high tolerance for traditional occultism is pretty much required. (His books are tolerably well represented in my library, but I'd hate to try to explain him to a materialist.)

Babaji, I'm glad to hear that things are moving ahead so well! The point about producing more than you consume is crucial; too many proposed communities fail to grasp that, which is why they go under.

Gary, any pursuit worth doing yields more questions than answers, and the longer you do it, the bigger the questions get. That's as true of philosophy, say, as it is of gardening; those who get good at either one get used to it, as I'm sure you have.

Girl, bingo. Horse manure was the driving force behind the hot frames (we'll be talking about those soon) that allowed fresh vegetables to be grown year round around most 19th century cities, and it was also a key fertilizer in the intensive gardening system generally. One of the reasons I think horses have a huge future ahead of them is precisely that their "exhaust" is first-class fertilizer feedstock.

Alex, well, what can you personally do about extensive farming? It's great to be concerned about this or that, but right now I'm trying to focus on things that people can do right here and now, where they are -- and that pretty much means intensive gardening. If you happen to own 640 acres in Iowa, mind you, by all means argue with me!

John Michael Greer said...

Jean-Vivien, those are good questions. The first one I can't answer right off the bat; incandescent lamps aren't that difficult to make if you've got access to tungsten or some other filament stock -- vacuum pumps are late medieval technology, and so is adequate glassblowing -- but I'm not too sure of the availability of the tungsten, or what the alternatives might be.

As for laundry, though, that's an easy one. You can make lye from wood ashes; combine that with any clean animal or vegetable fat in the right way, which is easy to learn and do, and you've got soap. It's a simple, resilient, sustainable technology and one we'll be talking about down the road a bit. Laundry soap is one of the products; you can also make soap for many other uses.

Cherokee, give it another try! Blogger is having hiccups.

Alice, excellent. Pease pottage deserves a revival; it's cheap, nourishing, and hearty, and was a staple of the English peasant diet for centuries. If you can find a good recipe for it, please post it!

Bill, true enough -- though I think whiskey taxes go back further than that; the Whiskey Rebellion comes to mind. Beer was another ancient and traditional way to store and consume grain in a spoilage-free form.

News, good to hear from somebody else who's doing the work. Of course you're quite right that this stuff has to be learned by doing it, which is one reason why I'm encouraging readers to get to work! As for meat, I agree with you; I'm not a vegetarian myself, and have studied enough ecology to recognize the flaws in radical vegetarian propaganda. That's one of the reasons why chickens came up in this post, and why chickens, rabbits, and small-scale aquaculture will be covered in more detail further on.

Trimorph, I always post grammatical critiques! It's good for my ego.

Daughter and Lamb, thanks for the book recommendations!

GreenStrong, excellent points. The main reasons I haven't discussed them is, again, that very few of my readers will have the chance to do anything constructive in their own lives in either of these directions -- but most of my readers can plant and harvest a small intensive garden.

Scott, thanks for the recommendation.

Alex, I'm certainly not suggesting that organic growing is a panacea; I'm simply pointing out that after the end of the industrial age, it's what we'll have, and it's actually made some massive strides over the last century or two.

Gavin, see the discussion below. It looks like a rumor panic.

John Michael Greer said...

Darius, the future may not be so bleak as that -- remember that the seed you've saved is unlikely to be genetically identical to the seed saved by the person down the street.

Earthdoglady, one of these days I need to do a post encouraging people to go back and read first person accounts of the Great Depression -- er, the last one, not the present one, of course. I suspect most of us have led lives pampered enough that we really have no idea just how little is needed to scrape by.

Cathy, that's an excellent point. Farm families used to keep the blemished produce for use in the kitchen, and put out the good stuff to sell -- for all I know, they may still do so.

Evan, tree crops are useful -- and most historic societies, even those that primarily subsisted on grains, have made use of them -- but they have their own limitations, which is why annuals have generally been the primary food source in settled societies. That certainly doesn't preclude some use of tree crops; you'll notice that I mentioned the farm orchard in my post.

Andy, we'll be getting to that in a few posts. Small-scale animal raising is another of those basic gimmicks that people have done for a very long time to produce food intensively on little plots of land.

Blue Sun, I suspect that will depend on which method turns out to work best in the long run. Technologies are subject to their own Darwinian selection over time.

Adrian, thanks for the link and the recommendation!

Bill, that was kind of my sense as well.

Joel, also a good point.

Thardiust, thanks for the link.

Glenn, the bull's-eye is a great metaphor, and represents the way that subsistence farming normally works much more accurately than the notion of complete self-sufficiency. Also, thanks for the recommendation!

Frank, that's a good question I can't answer -- the metaphor of the window is one that was used by one of my teachers in magic, and though he didn't cite the Herbert poem, he might have been inspired by it, or one of the people who taught him might have.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG mused "Farm families used to keep the blemished produce for use in the kitchen, and put out the good stuff to sell -- for all I know, they may still do so."

Absolutely still true. Also to give away to neighbors, family, etc. Plus the blemished stuff is often fine for canning, just cutout the bad spots. There's a family egg-and-chicken-and-tomato farm up the hill from us who also runs a teeny weeny feed co-op. I was up there buying some feed and a bird when the couple were out picking tomatoes for the farmers market the next day. My total came to $19.50, I gave them a $20 and told them not to worry about the change. We chatted about local politics while they picked tomatoes. They kept handing me 'maters that were too bruised, cracked, or hen-pecked to sell; I went home with about 10 pounds of organic heirloom tomatoes in lieu of my 50 cents in change! Needless to say I was soon busy filling up canning jars.

Kal said...

"If you happen to own 640 acres in Iowa, mind you, by all means argue with me!"

640 acres in Iowa is just enough to need a day job to pay the bills.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, to a very large extent those new relationships will evolve over time, under the pressure of the massive historical changes we're facing. Anything I say about them here and now would be rank speculation -- though it's tempting to engage in a bit of that in some future post. Thanks for the cider book recommendation!

Wendy, yes, you could do it. In your place I'd make sure to get the cold frame and the greenhouse up and running sooner rather than later -- we'll be talking about those next week -- so you can extend your season; but 3/4 of an acre is a good chunk of ground for intensive methods.

Harry, well, the Welsh have always been more sensible.

Lee, oh, granted. It's a helluva lot of work. There's a reason why harvesting crews used to migrate north across the grain belt, hiring themselves out to farmers in one region after another, and earning enough in the harvest season to get by for much of the rest of the year.

Lucid, I'd also check out hazelnuts and small fruits -- berries and the like. You could do quite well.

Houyhnhnm, good to know. Duck eggs make me violently ill -- probably an allergy -- so it's chickens for me, but for those that can make good use of them, by all means.

Jonathan, thank you for the resources! I'll check into the Russian seed bank issue.

Daughter, I'm delighted to hear that Possum Living is back in print! That's a keeper -- one of the books that launched me on my trajectory away from business as usual.

Brad, leather will play a huge role in any future America, and it will be coming from cows, lots of them. My focus on vegetables rather than cows, again, comes from the fact that it's kind of hard to raise cattle in an urban backyard, or any of the other options available to most of my readers.

Richard/DIYer, I'm not fond of the slogan "permanent agriculture" -- the fantasy that anything in human life is permanent is not one I like to encourage. That being said, tree crops will certainly have a role in an ecotechnic future. The ancient Greeks used to plant groves sacred to Demeter in places where the trees would control erosion, and used olive plantations more generally to keep their sparse soil from eroding away; as one piece of a richly complex puzzle, it definitely has value.

Jesse, thank you. As I mentioned, most of the people I know who don't like Jeavons' methods love Solomon's book!

Richard, that depends on local conditions. I'm reminded of the end of the Iowa apple industry -- one catastrophic frost at the wrong time in spring killed most of the apple trees in the state, which is why they mostly grow corn there now.

John Michael Greer said...

DaShui, well, I certainly don't want to irritate a band of future nomadic raiders. Still, I think you're about a century too soon. Once the collapse of farming and settlement on the plains completes, nomadic herding cultures are dead certain to arise there, with all the usual complexities; I doubt anyone will be raiding with Harleys, but horses are another matter, and no doubt the future history of North America will be profoundly shaped by the ebb and flow of power between the prairie nomads and the urban farming cultures of the Mississippi-Ohio valleys, as per the usual process.

Don and Cathy, thanks for the info!

Chris, one of the fundamental credos of industrial society is that we have nothing to learn from history. That belief ranks high up there among the reasons why industrial society is gearing up for an epic decline and fall. Of course you're quite right; plunging into one new technofix after another, without stepping back and thinking through the implications, is a guarantee of massive problems down the road; but that's the only option our culture will permit most people to think about.

Bill, good. And of course the point about work is crucial. All of us -- or, rather, all of us who survive into the next phase of history -- will have to get used to using our muscles a lot more than we're used to in today's society. That's not negotiable; all that we can do is get ready for it, or not.

John Michael Greer said...

Conch, it's basically universal practice wherever fossil fuels haven't shoved it aside. Good to hear that your sisters still do it; the skills involved are crucial, and worth preserving.

Bill, I figured! You can get blemished fruit at the local farmer's market here in Cumberland cheap, for canning, jam and jelly making, etc.; it's an education to watch a little old Appalachian lady go through a bin of #2 peaches the way the Visigoths went through Rome, picking out the peaches that fit her handed-down-in-the-family definition of good for whatever canning project she has in mind.

Kal, be that as it may, it's still enough for somebody to do some serious experimental work on extensive organic agriculture -- and the difference in costs (no pesticides, no fertilizers) may just help with the financial issue, as it has with a good many farmers.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, a reminder to everyone: if you try to post and get a 403 Google page saying "your post is too large," don't believe it; it's lying. (I think Joe Isuzu is programming for Blogger these days.) You'll know if you've actually gone over limit if you get bopped back to the comments page and there's a note in red below the comments window. I've been getting four and five copies of some people's comments, and I suspect that the 403 page is the reason.

Dwig said...

Evan: "...looking into the distant future and to the generations that will follow, I think it would be best if we started taking over fields and planting mixed nut, mast and fiber orchards (from fiber trees like basswood, for example)."

This gives new meaning to the phrase "slow food"! It also exemplifies the feeling I have that one of the adaptive techniques we'll need to develop is to trade off time for energy wherever possible. I had a dream a while back of visiting a land where people lived in dwellings whose floors, walls, and roofs were living tissue that had been planted and shaped over centuries by their ancestors. Of course, their main occupations were planting and nurturing their descendant's resources.

I recently ran across an interesting resource in extensive ag: One Straw. His essay "Eco Vegetarianism" is an interesting exploration into both vegetarianism and how the "farm of the future" might operate.

Cherokee Organics said...


The original post disappeared! Oh well, as the English say "mustn’t grumble".

You are spot on in your observations.

Broad scale farming using organic methods are certainly possible and have a historic precedent. The real problem lies in the transition time which can take quite a few years. There wouldn't be too many farmers that can afford this time of low production. As a result, the industrial methods will be hung onto right up to the point where they no longer become either feasible or economic. It's a bit sad really, because now is the time to progress down this path whilst there are both the resources and producers to cover such a transition.

Still, it was very wise not to have this conversation on the blog as I can't imagine too many broad acre farmers would take the time to comment here.

Nature applies limits to the industrial agricultural system through finite resources that can't be worked or talked around. It will all sort itself out. Mind you, it's probably going to involve great pain as people have an innate ability for self deception and disconnection. Most people don't think about where their food comes from, only about it's availability and how much it costs.

You can see the self deception in many forms. I went to a large plant nursery today to buy some more fruit trees as you can never have too many. Anyway, I was surprised to find that almost three quarters of the stock were ornamental fruit trees rather than the fruit producing species. People like saying with their gardens, "Look at me, I'm so wealthy that I don't have to have any fruit trees or vegetables. My garden is purely for aesthetic purposes". Don't get me wrong, a flowering quince tree is lovely, but so is quince jam and I know if I were hungry which I'd prefer.

As a society, we have turned our backs on the intensive back yard garden and now is the time to get it going again so that when the time comes - and it will - we can feed ourselves. Hungry people are desperate people and you can't live very long without food and water.

Cherokee Organics said...

JMG, please remember to include something about fruit trees as they can take up to five years before they produce adequate amounts of produce. People forget this as they are disconnected from the source of their food. I have a couple of Macadamia nut trees and they can take upwards of ten years to produce fruit.

Any transition to organic methods are not an overnight project, but one that takes years.

Good luck!

Brad K. said...

@ Cathy McGuire,

S510 does not outlaw small farming. Kind of.

S.510 was written as a followup to the e.coli thing in the peanut butter plant. S.510 creates a new Federal regulatory agency, the Food Safety Administration, under the Food and Drug Administration. S.510 requires everyone that produces, processes, transports, or stores food or components that could go into food for people or for animals to be registered with the FSA; it requires fairly extensive records be kept, and audited annually, with surprise inspections; it requires fines enough to make a peanut butter factory blanche (that is, ruinous for the mere 640 acre Iowa farmer); and it restricts production and handling to approved scientific practices.

The Senate version seems to exempt smaller operations - like backyard gardens, some roadside stands and farmers and flea market selling. The version the passed the House didn't exempt the small producer.

Some/many organic and alternative growers are concerned about the "approved" and "scientific" wording, since Monsanto helped write the bill.

Saying that S.510 would "make it illegal to grow one's own food" is far fetched. The House version might affect eating from your own garden; it is possible it might be interpreted to apply to what you gather from your own garden, but likely not. The Senate version, S.510, doesn't. The "reconciled" version might be anywhere between the two, or maybe more extreme.

There is no doubt in my mind, though, that anyone intending to produce food for sale will be affected, as will anyone intending to store or sell food, or haul it from the back yard to the roadside stand or other distributor - and anyone wanting to purchase food. I also expect that the Food Safety Administration will have as little likelihood of improving the quantity or quality of food, as B. Hussein Obama's socialist attack on employers has of increasing employment. For about the same reason - increasing fees and regulations tends to stifle activity - which is the reason for imposing fees and regulations in the first place.

flute said...

Spot on, as usual, Mr. Archdruid!
Through a Swedish peak oil forum I found the following interesting document, which clarifies some crucial differences between what they call "The Industrial Food Chain" and "The Peasant Food Web".
They also point out that a large portion of the world's food is produced by "peasants" instead of industrial farming. Though I suspect they got some numbers wrong - too much food production attributed to the "peasant" side.

P.S. I practise intensive gardening. My 100 m2 allotment currently looks like a "vegetable jungle", where I harvest every day, both for immediate consumption and for canning.

Don Plummer said...

Red Neck Girl wrote:
"A waste of resources today are factory farms. At best the farm waste is processed as any sewage effluent, at worst it goes 'away' which means washed into waterways where it eventually ends up with excess chemical fertilizers in dead zones off our coasts at the mouth of rivers."

This summer, Ohio's inland lakes are being plagued by huge blooms of toxic cyanobacteria (AKA blue-green algae). Everything from Grand Lake/St. Marys, Ohio's largest inland lake, to a fishing pond in one of the Columbus Metroparks, is being affected. The cause is fertilizer runoff from farms.

Hal said...

I'm scratching my head about this one. Kitchen gardens are alive and well in the Mississippi Delta, and never really left. Now, no one depends on them for survival, but they are a common feature of households, rich and poor. The skills and, more importantly, the culture, survives.

Actually, I think they are more common in more affluent neighborhoods than in the poorer ones. I think this is probably because the more well-to-do have the space, time, and financial resources to make a viable go of it, while it's a lot harder to grow vegetables in the tiny backyard of a shotgun tenant house or a housing project apartment. Also, I have to say food stamps have eliminated a lot of the motivation for poorer people. Same reason you don't see a lot of possum and coon hunting anymore.

When I moved back here three years ago I had no intention of growing vegetables for commercial sale, but the local farmer's market needed growers and was so small that I was able to make a contribution out of my kitchen garden by sharing a table with another grower. It's been a bit humbling to try to sell into a market in which a large percentage of the potential customers (those that actually know and care about fresh produce) are not only growing their own vegetables, but have been doing it for a lot longer than I'm likely to ever do it.

I've been asked to give a talk to one of the local garden clubs in town and am not looking forward to looking out at a room full of coiffed, lifted, and heavily made up wives of the local bankers, insurance salesmen, and realtors and realizing that most of them could grow rings around me any day of the week. Of course, this does not touch on the question of how sustainably they grow. I hope to be able to speak to that issue a bit, not by giving a lot of useful advice, which I have very little, but by trying to give a small non-alarmist plug for why they might want to start thinking about it.

About a month ago, a woman in the Master Gardeners program here brought to the market a large quantity of the most delicious heirloom tomatoes I think I've ever eaten. She said she grew them organically, and I was amazed at how beautiful and perfect they were. After a bit of questioning, she said, "I'm pretty sure sevin is OK for organic."

to be continued

Hal said...


Since the first year I have been experimenting with scaling up and am now somewhere in the gray area between intensive and extensive.

Part of the problem I've encountered is in trying to find the right, most "appropriate," level of technology to use for what I need to do. I could write a long post about the comedy of errors I've been through trying to get that right, and probably should if I ever get serious about my own blog. Believe me, I've got a thing or two to pass along to anyone looking to break into small-scale market gardening, though I've by no means arrived at the definitive mix.

But that's not the point of the article I'm commenting on, so I'll spare the readers my tales of woe.

I do want to touch on one other issue, though, and that's the use of the word organic. It's not a criticism, and I think anyone growing non-commercially has the right to use the word however they want, as I have used it for many years, basically the Rodale definition. But the word nowadays has a specific legal definition for anyone growing commercially, and I think that definition has come to subsume the older meaning in the minds of most people. That definition is mostly in negative terms, i.e., a method that doesn't use artificial pesticides or fertilizers. The problem with that definition is that it is not necessarily useful if what we're interested in is a form of agriculture (or horticulture) that is sustainable in the long-term without fossil chemical or energy inputs.

I find that most of the practices followed by certified organic growers are anything but sustainable. How is black plastic anything but a petrochemical herbicide? How is repeated tillage sustainable? This is also true for backyard gardeners. You can buy all of the "organic" Miracle-Grow potting soil you can carry down at the local Wal-Mart, along with handy squirt-bottles of every OMRI-certified, shipped-from-California, bug-killer you could want.

Here I also have to take issue with Bill Pulliam's statement, "If 8,000 years isn't long enough to be considered sustainable, I don't know what is." Now, I have really valued Bill's input here, to the extent that I bookmarked his blog, but I can't agree with this statement. I've never been there, but I suspect a visit to the cradles of civilization would not support that statement, nor would the history of the European settlement of North America. All of that was certainly "organic" by the current popular definition, but hardly sustainable.

Don Plummer said...

@ Bill Pulliam, re. whiskey:
You might enjoy reading Gene Logsdon's Good Spirits: A New Look at Ol' Demon Alcohol. Gene covers the history of both legal and not so legal alcohol production in his inimitable, somewhat irreverent style. Recommended.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

Extensive biomass counterflow --
industrialized humanure

Frederick Kaufman's 2008 Harper's article "Wasteland: A Journey through the American Cloaca" was mentioned in this blog's comments a year or two ago, but without a way to read it - now you can see the text at

or the entire PDF with photographs from the author's website

It's well worth reading. Kaufman is also the author of "The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away With It" - Harper's, June 2010 - also available from his website.

sgage said...

Cherokee Organic,

I've encountered the opposite attitude when trying to convince folks to plant fruit trees. They think it will take so long before the trees would bear fruit that it's not worth planting them - they don't think that they will see any benefit in their lifetime!


Re: your comment on kitchen gardens never really going away...

I often read that "we've lost all the skills", "nobody knows how to work with horses", etc. The fact is, these skills are alive and well, and actually highly evolved. In some places, they're vibrantly alive and being advanced.

Yes, it will take time to disseminate and ramp up some of these technologies, and to apply them to local conditions. But it can happen remarkably quickly. An example from personal experience: It took me about a year to go from knowing zilch about horses to logging my woodlot with a big Percheron mare.

Another thing I notice is that, at least around here (central NH), people who do know the kind of skills we're talking about are very willing to share and to teach.

When the time comes, the know-how is there. We're like a bunch of sleeper cells, awaiting activation :-)

LewisLucanBooks said...

Re: S.510. A few months ago, the wild rumor was running around that "The Gov'ment" was going to ban all sport fishing. I think that came out of some temporary limitations on some fish stocks on the east coast.

And then there's that old favorite, the moldy goldy oldier "The Gov'ment" is going to take our guns away. I've been hearing that one for 30 years and am frankly tired ...

It always seems to be one wild wedge issue after another that turns out to be smoke, mirrors and distraction. Of course, if they wrote law with a little bit of clarity. Not going to happen.

I think as TLE progresses, they can write laws to their hearts content. Enforcement will be another matter. But I understand that it's always nerve racking to have some statute hanging over your head.

Don Plummer said...

Brad K.:
I was reading your rather excellent discussion of SB510, but as soon as you wrote "B Hussein Obama's socialist attack," you lost me. I'm not going to bother trying to put forth arguments claiming that, whatever the president might be, he is of a certain NOT a "socialist," because you won't hear them anyway and it would be a complete waste of my time. But by introducing your little ad hominem attack on the president, you lost at least one member of your audience. And that was too bad, because otherwise, you had what seemed to be some valuable information for us.

Please: this is not the forum for engaging in attack politics. We have much more serious matters (the collapse of Western industrial civilization) to discuss, and name-calling the president won't help us. It would be best to keep such opinions to ourselves.

Thank you.

nutty professor said...

thank you archdruid
if it is not too late I would like to recommend Steve Solomon's GARDENING WHEN IT COUNTS, if no one else has. An important issue in subsistence gardening is making sure that our crops supply necessary nutrition, something that we tend to forget about. All organic veggies are not the same.

blue sun said...

Faulkner would argue that plowing has passed its prime, much like the fossil-fuel age has. (it's a subtle thing, he means mouldboard plowing, and he's not a no-till practitioner, he suggests discing which stirs the earth like plowing but in a critically different way)

His point, in a nutshell, is that plowing was great for exploiting virgin lands, and passable when used with industrial inputs, but is disastrous when used in an organic* paradigm. In other words, it is not sustainable. Yet farmers keep plowing and plowing much like we will continue to drill and drill long after it makes sense to do so.

As you know, before we began exploiting fossil fuels, we exploited virgin lands (via colonization, etc.). We can no longer afford to do either.

By substituting oil and gas inputs for natural fertility we temporarily conceal that we've used up all the fertility once found in virgin land. But once oil and gas become prohibitively expensive, it will finally become apparent that we've used up our lands' fertility. (...Then we'll have to restore/maintain that fertility with locally-sourced nutrients, not imported nutrients from foreign oil, gas, phosphate, etc..)

* I mean self-sustaining/"true" organic, as described by F.H. King and Albert Howard, not "USDA Organic." As Hal's comment rightly points out, there is a difference between "organic" and "sustainable," unfortunately......

Jb said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

In last weeks post, I commented about purchasing some used books. I would specifically like to recommend to you and your readers:

Root Cellaring
by Mike and Nancy Bubel
Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA

Preserving food will be as important as growing it. In fact, if your yard is shady like mine, you could store your neighbors produce for them in your root cellar as barter!

My sincerest gratitude for your efforts,

Jeff Sties
Charlottesville, Va

Ana's Daughter said...

There's another type of food crop that can be effectively grown using extensive farming --- root crops for human and animal feed. Those same farmers who had a kitchen garden, a hen house, and a couple of dairy cow grew one field full of turnips or rutabagas or mangel-wurzels for cattle feed, and ate some themselves over the winter.

@Harry: The British had such a hard time economically after WWI and WWII that they kept track of the value of feeding one's family from the allotment. Americans got lazy after WWII because we were better off by that time, so by the 60s we'd forgotten a lot.

void_genesis said...

For me I see intensive ag as that which takes concentrated wastes and reclaims the nutrient value. The wastes include a mix of manure (human and animal), ashes (from useful fires) and plant waste. If you have to buy the concentrated inputs then they aren't wastes and the viability of the operation is compromised. Turning a $50 load of manure in $50 worth of vegetables is a null proposition (especially when the animals were fed using crops grown and harvested with fossil fuels, and the manure delivered in a truck using more fossil fuels). As a worst case scenario you always have your own manure (assuming you are eating something) but the cultural and legal obstacles are considerable.

Extensive ag is a more patient way to gather those concentrated wastes for intensive ag in the first place. Intensive ag isn't viable without extensive ag to gather the wastes first.

Because extensive ag relies on next to zero inputs there is less capacity to compensate for poor variety selection. Most of the regionally adapted field crops have been pretty much lost to the western world. Where you can get a pinch of some useful seed you then have to factor in several seasons to build up enough of a seed bank to allow consumption of the excess.

I have picked out a set of about 20 strains of intensive ag crops that are adapted to a modest input Steve Solomon style garden and I'm not interested in adding any more. The extensive ag field crops are a much more interesting problem. I have conducted field trials on dozens of varieties of everything I can get my hands on (including field tuber crops). Getting access to a subtropical field crop seed store run by our Australian government was a particular stroke of luck.

The main conclusion of the trials is that variety selection alone will vary your yield by a factor of ten in most cases. So people who fret over whether or not they are growing their tomatoes correctly without doing a trial on 10-20 varieties are wasting their time.

The other conclusion is that different gardens in different regions will grow some crops reliably and vigorously, while others will be marginal most years. The underlying soil geology and overarching climate will have the last say. A full watering can and a handful of fertility will sometimes help but they are really a drop in the ocean compared to those bigger factors. So some field crops grow like weeds with next to zero pests here, while others can barely germinate or are decimated by pests (in particular our very healthy parrot population).

This has left me with a selection of about 10 good field crops that I feel comfortable relying upon and that complement each other well (for the record I would say potato, sweet potato, pumpkin (a field crop due to its vigour and storage value), queensland arrowroot, cowpeas, pigeon peas, buckwheat and maize are worth growing for me). I'm continuing trials with perennial amaranth (Celosia) and cassava but haven't been able to source multiple varieties of these.

Finally on managing the dynamics of variable cropping years. In temperate zones storing dry grains seems to be the done thing. In warmer climates even getting a reliable dry spell to dry the grain is a problem. Long term storage of dry goods is next to impossible. Here instead you need a stand of a long lasting perennial root crop to act as an emergency back up. Cassava, arrowroot and yams work for me. Old neglected stands yield edible (if somewhat fibrous) crops for years. But it reminds me that subsistence agriculture traditionally is usually supplemented by foraging in wild places during bad seasons. This is another essential (and portable) skill and I am at least aware of the location of stands of edible wild plants in my district if it ever got to that.

Brad K. said...

@ Hal,
"Actually, I think they are more common in more affluent neighborhoods than in the poorer ones."

I can motivate that, possibly. The affluent tend to hang onto treasures, retain family holdings, and retain access to gardens and things. Poor sometimes are allowed to remain settled - but more often they are uprooted pretty regularly. Anyone that has lived in an apartment is going to be challenged to get back to a place with stable prospects for a year or more, and land for a garden. This is one reason that community garden spots often are under utilized, and so precious to those that can use them.

That is, you may be confusing "affluent" with "stable residence".

As for your comment about If 8,000 years isn't long enough to be considered sustainable, I don't know what is.", I think the example of sustainable, is the Chinese farms, where they still work. That experience actually does date back thousands of years, with excellent and stable fertility and productivity.

On the other hand, what the Western world knows about extensive farming was invented by the Anabaptists about the time of the Protestant Reformation, about 1500 a.d. Few successful examples of older, sustainable practices still exist. I take that back - the Nile, growing on annually renewed flood plain silt, is still fertile, and also dates back thousands of years. Reports are, though, that the fertility and productivity fails to keep up with overpopulation and social pressures, making the Nile experienced of mixed value. Plus, it would be tough to duplicate the Nile practices somewhere else. Like my back yard.

@Cherokee Organics,

Thanks for the reminder that perennials of any stripe require a long term plan.

It also occurs to me, that fruit trees consume water. I am *tired* of the saw that it takes thousands of gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. Duh. How many gallons of water does it take to produce a pound of human child, assuming we leave the child intact?

Before dwarf fruit trees were common, the mature Apple tree was considered a water pump, moving about 150 gallons of water per day, during growing season, into the atmosphere. Are we going to let the beef-opponents get away with counting resources consumed, and not 'fess up to the water and minerals fruit trees, intensive and extensive crops "consume"?

Just because we watch the water flow from the hose or pipe for the livestock, and not for the trees - that doesn't mean that the trees aren't pulling water out of the local aquifers.

Joel said...


Acorns can be an important source of calories, both for yourself and for livestock.

I've read that chickens might or might not need them to be cracked open, perhaps this depends on the size of chicken and what sort of grit they have access to. Hogs definitely don't need their acorns pre-processed.

And there are traditional methods of leaching acorns to make porridge or bread from them, of course.

You might also look into pine nut trees, perhaps some variety would do well in your climate, and neatly fit into a niche currently occupied by inedible species.

Richard said...

8000 years of agriculture has proven very mixed results. The Nile valley has been kept fertile because of nutrients from a vast watershed concentrated in the form of silt deposits in the Nile Valley (at least until the Aswan Dam was built). Most places don't have that advantage.

Plato wrote about land degradation in Greece over two thousand years ago, here's a quote from him, taken from this website,

[In earlier days] Attica yielded far more abundant produce. In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body; all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.
But in the primitive state of the country, the mountains were high hills covered with soil, and plains were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of such a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle.
Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea, but, having an abundant supply in all places, and receiving it into herself and treasuring it up in the close clay soil, it let off into the hollows the streams which it absorbed from the heights, providing everywhere abundant fountains and rivers, of which there may still be observed sacred memorials in places where fountains once existed; and this proves the truth of what I am saying. (Plato)

The Chinese "farmers of forty centuries" are people we can learn much from. However even with all their meticulous recycling of nutrients they still had to draw extra from nearby forests. This is only sustainable if you have a much larger area of forest to draw from, doing artificially what the Nile valley flood does naturally, but if your forest area is too small it will deplete the forest. Thus the total area needs to still be largely perennial (in this case forest).


Richard said...

That's really the point I was trying to make, not that annuals are inherently evil, they do have a place in natural ecosystems too. I grow plenty of annuals personally and have no plan on stopping. However my personal annual gardens are on an intensive scale with not-till beds (just some light hoeing is all the disturbance they get after they are established.

Just not cultivating sloping lands (except if they're terracing) and keeping the nutrient cycle intact will end the majority of degradation, but there's still other factors to consider, such as that cultivation leads to faster breakdown of organic matter in the soil, putting you on a treadmill where more organic matter needs to go into the soil to maintain the organic matter levels than in a natural ecosystem.

I do agree about pasture being a tried and true perennial system if managed right, many people overlook that. However the native prairie grasses are much better at building soil than the fescue monocultures that are so often seen where I am. I have hears of ranchers doing Alan Savory style intensive grazing building organic matter to very impressive levels in a pretty short time, I don't remember the exact figures though.

To conclude on the annuals vs perennials issue, I'm just suggesting that perennial systems be looked at more and experimented with, I'm doing that myself although on a moderate scale, because perennials predominate in nature. And, as I stated in an earlier post, the chestnut is an example of a temperate perennial that has served as a staple food. If a completely annual system is sustaining the land I sure won't complain. The larger issue really is that land degradation and unsustainability in agriculture has been a problem long before the fossil fuel age, and I see way too often in the peak oil scene assumptions that agriculture 100 years ago was all sustainable, when there's so many examples in America of gullies and areas where the topsoil is all gone from what is in the scheme of things a pretty brief period of agriculture. Certainly there is a lot that American pre-industrial ways can teach us, and there was plenty of variation in farming practices so specific examples of sustainable farming can be found that can teach us a lot, I just think the peak oil scene needs to be aware that pre-industrial ways are not always sustainable.

Reb said...

I know several people who have gotten excellent experience with the WWOOF program, and several farmers who regularly host Woofers on their CSAs. It's a great way to travel and learn a lot about organic farming/gardening.

Wordek said...

Hi Cathy

“One of the bumps in the learning curve that you might try to address is the issue of expectations -- I'm amazed how even in a decade, Americans (I don't know about other countries) have begun to expect blemish-free produce, glitch-free homes, etc. - and all instantaneous. “

I recall when I moved from country to town noticing this process as it occurred to me. In my case I saw it as a shift in the investment required to feed myself. If you produce your own food with your own efforts then it has a far greater value than the same food in a supermarket before you lay down your cash. When the selection process is “value for money” driven, then blemishes on your fruit are a bit like rust in your car. They drive down its value, so it makes perfect sense to select only the best value fruit on display. This information in the form of unpurchased fruit then makes its way back to the producers who wont bother shipping food that is unlikely to be purchased so a feedback cycle begins which has led us almost inevitably to piles of dumped food and square watermelons. I believe the EU even has a regulation now for the amount of curve that must be present in a “standard banana”.

Go the market.. It isnt always the infallible driver of efficiency that our neoclassical friends would have us believe. That said it isnt just the market that makes people act goofy

Its funny how we forget stuff and then forget that we have forgotten it. And if you can get that process to spin out over more than a generation some other amusing things occur. For example:

Remember when white bread was promoted as the “best thing since sliced bread” because of its “concentrated nutritional value”? None of those unnecessary undigestible extras taking up unnecessary space in your new improved 20th century digestive system

And then:

Remember when the by then largely forgotten concept of “roughage” was reinvented as “dietary fibre” and touted as a new health discovery..? Get your wholemeal loaf today and live to 150?

Once upon a time making booze was a way of storing excess food for later use. When you add the fact that metabolising alcohol itself produces additional body heat (separate from the more usual processes of carbohydrate oxidisation), you can see why “alcoholism” is so prevelant in cold northern climes. Its not a mental illness springing from a dysfunctional culture... its a clever adaptation to extreme conditions.

But all it takes is a couple of generations living somewhere that you wont freeze your ass off or starve to death and the only known value that booze seems to have remaining is as a recreational substance.. hic... 'scuse me.

So in conclusion...??? .....?? what was I talking about???

tom rainboro said...

"Thank you" to whoever posted the earlier reference to the chestnut article. It confirmed my suspicions as to why they had never become a staple crop - difficult to crop beyound the 52nd parallel, difficult to process (peel) and difficult to preserve. The use of cereal crops to feed the population in the age before fossil fuels were used in agriculture depended on the efficient application of skills and machinery to the
processes of threshing, winnowing, storage and milling. I love the old barns on the farms near where I live. Stone-built, they have huge oak doors on the long side to allow a fully laden farm cart to be driven in. There is another door on the opposite side so that breezes passing through the building help to winnow the threshed grain. The floor of the barn, in between those two doors, is hard wood - to allow threshing. The 'chestnut article' makes it clear that no similar process existed for processing nuts in volume. They are effectively another garden crop, rather than one that will provide a staple food, except to the most
impoverished community.
Good to see that the issue of food storage and preservation has been brought up again. We probably have to assume that any one particular crop will fail every 3 to 4 years. A resilient community should therefore not rely on just one staple crop and should also have the capacity to store 2 years' consumption of staples.
That's another reason why the barns are important. In southern England the recent credit fuelled property boom has led to the extensive conversion of centuries-old barns to homes bristling with the latest gadgetry
for those with city incomes. You might well hear a farmer who has just sold one of his barns for £1/4 million complaining about the low level of farm incomes!
I think the issue of the preservation of heritage livestock is as important as that of seeds. The old livestock varieties were often low-input (could survive on just poor pasture), dual purpose (e.g. dairy and beef) and were also very hardy. In the U.K. see the 'Rare Breeds Survival Trust'. (The 'Red Ruby' Devon is the local
cattle breed here). There is also a breed of cattle - the Dexter - that is small enough to be easily managed by the homesteader. Many of these hardy heritage breeds were taken around the world by emigrants from the U.K. and their breed societies were often originally formed in the U.S. or Australia. I myself can recommend Gloucester Old Spot and Tamworth pigs!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi sgage,

Yeah, it's a hard sell. It does take a long time before fruit trees bear fruit and they do need some looking after (although not as much as people generally say). My granfather used to say "It's the people that look ahead that get ahead". Fruit trees are a long term proposition and are probably a bit beyond the average person's attention span. We have several hundred diverse species and no one seems to be very interested. Oh well.

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Brad K.

Water is a very contentious issue and there's no doubt that mature fruit trees consume quite a bit.

However, people mess around with the hydrology of the natural systems so much that they cause more problems than your average mature fruit tree.

Take for example, water bores (I think they're called wells in the US). People pump water from aquifiers to keep gardens (or worse lawns) green over high summer without any thought about their long term actions.

Or, they grow crops that are unsuitable for the rainfall patterns so water is supplemented by pumping from aquifier. This includes crops for stock feed.

Like everything else, aquifiers are not an unlimited resource. You can run them dry.

Even worse, around here people keep streams clear which accelerates the movement of water rather than slowing it down, allowing flooding and thereby replenishing the aquifiers.

Who knows where it will all end up.

As an explanation, I don't tend to water my own fruit trees unless absolutely necessary and even then the water is stored above ground in large tanks. This helps them develop larger root systems so that they are better able to forage for water themselves and in the long term become more drought hardy.

Also I plant them closely together so they form a rainforest ecology and help to shade the ground over summer which further reduces transpiration. This works very well.

Hope this helps clarify what is a murky issue. The natural systems and processes are the most resilient.

Good luck!

darius said...

I just came across this, which I think is relevant to the overall theme of this 'journey'...

9 Steps to Understanding Göbekli Tepe

Bill Pulliam said...

Brad K etc. -- whatever demagogic tag you might stick on the current president, he is solidly within the American political mainstream. A popularly elected president is almost by very definition the political mainstream. If you think he is "far left," just read some of the stuff written by the true "far left" and you'll find they are almost as unhappy with him as the "right" is. On foreign policy and national security I have started calling him "O'Busha." Every president in living memory has been described as a socialist, a fascist, a communist, a nazi, a tyrant, or whatever the current reigning label was at the time by those who opposed him politically. Meanwhile they have ALL been expanding government and promoting American imperialism and corporate power, be they perceived as "left" or "right."

I remember when the house version of SB510 was passed, and the commentary in the mainstream media that if read literally it might have inadvertently outlawed home gardening. It was very clear that this was perceived as a major slip up which has zero chance of surviving the rest of the process. On the whole, the bill is yet another standard action by the feds (regardless of who is in charge) to give more power and influence to mega agribusiness and industrial food production.

The gubbmint ain't cummin fer yer guns, its cummin' fer yer 'maters.

Mark said...

Wonderful essay, and the magick unfolds... John Jeavon's book is one of the most amazing books on intensive veggie gardening. The key is to garden like a farmer and farm like a gardener.

As an aside -- your essays tend to spark flows of thought -- there is some very good broadacre work being done with aerated compost teas (building off of Elaine Ingham's work), rotational grazing, grain growing, and agroforestry in the world right now. Joel Salatin has a beautiful example at Polyface Farm, Wes Jackson at The Land Institute, & wonderful work at Taranaki Farm

During hard times, especially, we can be planting hazelnut shrubs and chestnut trees (to name two calorie dense tree crops), investing in decades of high calorie food production that require very little work (aside from harvesting and processing). These topics may be a bit beyond the scope of the vision for your blog, but certainly valuable information for budding Green Wizards! I look forward to a Green Wizard discussion outlet...

ChristineStone said...

One thing to consider in planning a sustainable food system is the need for oils/fats. In warmer climates, tree and vegetable oils, e.g. olive oil, are practical, but in Northern European-type climates, you need animals to get the fats. I am a vegetarian at present, in the UK, and have to confess I am aware that my omega, fatty acids etc. come from sunflowers and olive trees which are not grown locally. For detailed analysis, google Simon Fairlie, The Land magazine.


John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, once the rubble stops bouncing and the climate settles down to whatever its new stable state will be, that kind of thinking will be a very good idea. I'm reminded of the old story about Talleyrand, who decided to have his gardener plant a double row of oaks along one of the avenues on his estate. When the gardener objected that it would be a hundred years before they provided any shade, Talleyrand said, "Then there is no time to waste! Plant them this very afternoon."

(Come to think of it, I'm not sure that was actually Talleyrand, but it should have been; he's the guy who was once heard to say to his coachman, "Slow down, you fool! Can't you see that I'm in a hurry?"

Cherokee, bingo. This is another reason why I'm encouraging people to learn ways to grow food fast, with easily available resources, on little patches of land. As for fruit trees, we'll talk about them in a bit.

Brad, er, before dismissing all regulation as evil, I'd encourage you to pick up a copy of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and find out what food production was like before we had government inspection. It's one of the common bad habits of contemporary thought to insist that if a system doesn't work in its current form, going to some other extreme is the only viable option.

Flute, thank you for the link! My garden is still a jungle in training -- this is my first year growing here, and the climate and soil are very different from what I'm used to. Still, another year or two and it should be a proper jungle of edibles.

Don, are these blooms new? Ohio's used a lot of fertilizer for a lot of years; if cyanobacteria are suddenly going nuts, there may be some new factor involved. One way or another, it's not a good sign.

Hal, I'm glad to hear about another corner of the world where the kitchen garden remains a living institution! As for the cradles of civilization, though, there's been a great deal of disinformation circulated about that. How many people are aware, for example, that Syria -- where grain cultivation was probably invented, and was certainly practiced as far back as anywhere on the planet -- is still a major wheat exporter?

Charley, thanks for the links! I'm coming to the conclusion that there's nothing that an industrial approach can't mess up -- another good reason to compost your own humanure right at home.

Sgage, you've just given away the secret strategy behind the Green Wizard project: to make sure there are plenty of people all over the place who have certain critical skills, and aren't afraid to use them.

Lew, true enough. It's always a useful way to rally your followers after a stinging electoral defeat to insist that the other side's candidate is about to impose a police state or whatever. I don't think we've had a president since Reagan who hasn't been the target of those claims, which work equally well for both sides. Mind you, it's rotting the guts out of what little is left of American democracy, and setting the stage for the brutal civil wars to come, but why worry about that when you can score momentary points?

Don, well put -- but you know as well as I do that it's just too tempting for people on both sides to use labels like "socialist" and "fascist" as meaningless snarl words for the other side of today's widening social schism.

mageprof said...

About blemishes on fruit and other produce . . .

When I was a boy back in the '40s, we walked every other day to the corner market. Almost everything was on shelves behind counters that ran around the whole store. You waited for your turn with one of the grocers and asked, item by item, for what you wanted to buy: a dozen eggs, four potatoes, three tomatoes, 5 carrots, four oranges, and so forth. You didn't get to choose just which oranges, which carrots, which tomatoes, which potatoes, which eggs you would buy. Rather, the grocer chose which ones he would sell you, and you would have to take your fair share of the blemished and less desirable items.

No use complaining, either. There were other stores within walking distance, but they all had the same counters between the customers and the produce, and the same fair-share policy.

This was, of course, before there were any supermarkets anywhere. Don't get me started on just how pernicious have been most of the consequences of the rise of the supermarket in American life!

John Michael Greer said...

Professor, you can certainly recommend it; given that I mentioned that book in the resources part of the post, I think it's certain to get into the list!

Blue Sun, most interesting. I'll check Faulkner's ideas out as time permits. Certainly I don't recommend that anybody get a plow for their backyard garden!

Jeff, it's already on the list for when we get to food preservation and storage. When my wife and I moved to western Maryland last year, we were delighted to find that the 1925 brick bungalow we picked up for next to nothing already had a fully fitted out root cellar in the basement; it's now starting to look nicely stocked with home canned food, onions, winter squash, and more.

Ana's Daughter, true enough. Turnips in particular are one of those traditional peasant foods, easy to grow, easy to store, and good to eat.

Void, thanks for the feedback from your tests! I'd encourage you to take a closer look at humanure, though -- in most cases it's the most readily accessible source of plant nutrients around, and can be converted into excellent compost with no trouble at all.

Brad, er, I'd encourage you to look a little more broadly at the history of western agriculture and gardening. The Nile and the Anabaptists are far from the only options. Also, and crucially, current state of the art organic methods represent a revolutionary leap forward in sustainability; it's hard to overemphasize just how much of an improvement they are on older methods. I've argued in past posts that when the dust settles, the organic revolution will be considered the most important advance in human knowledge to come out of the 20th century.

Richard, the "farmers of forty centuries" were exactly the people whose work inspired the organic revolution I've just referenced in response to Brad's post. I have no objection to people experimenting with perennials -- I've got some in my own garden -- but we're in a situation where food availability could become a crisis with very little warning, and so I'm a bit more interested in encouraging people to learn things that are known to work first and foremost, and letting them pursue any experiments they might have in mind thereafter.

Reb, I've heard the same thing, and prospective green wizards might want to keep this in mind as a resource.

Wordek, you were talking about the fact that most of the things that make up the universe we think we live in are a product of our collective imagination, not of actual experience -- which is quite true, of course.

Tom, we'll be talking about food storage and preservation at length in a later post. As for livestock, that too, though most backyards are a bit too small for swine! Or for barns -- a triumph of vernacular architecture, those, too rarely recognized for the understated brilliance of their design.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, the difference between the attention span that can see the point in planting fruit trees and the attention span that can't is likely to be subject to sharp Darwinian selection in the years to come. We'll have our vines and at least some of our dwarf trees in this fall.

Darius, thanks for the link!

Bill, actually, I suspect that in the fairly near future the gummint will be too busy coming unraveled to come for anything else at all. Total political gridlock isn't a sustainable state for any nation, and for an empire in decline, it's usually fatal in the fairly short term.

Mark, hazelnuts were being deliberately planted by human beings before the end of the last ice age -- the pattern by which hazen pollen leapfrogged into deglaciated lands in northern Europe, well ahead of any other plant of the associated ecosystem, has no other explanation -- so you're in a very old tradition in suggesting them. As for the Green Wizards forum, it's in process -- I should have some good news in the next couple of weeks.

John Michael Greer said...

Christine, it surprises me that sunflowers won't grow in your climate -- there are varieties that are commercially grown in Russia, which last I checked has a harsher climate than the UK! Still, you're quite correct that fats are crucial to health, and animal fats are a good source.

(Before anybody jumps in with a comment of the "No, no, fats are evil!" variety, it's one of the results of America's puritan heritage that so many people here are obsessed with the idea that there's some type of food that's the dietary equivalent of evil incarnate, and if you can identify it and cast it out of your diet, preferably with wailing and gnashing of teeth, then you get to be among the digestively saved. The last century or so of American health crazes thus consists largely of witch hunts directed at various foods. Remember when cholesterol was bad for you and polyunsaturated fats were virtuous? 'Nuf said.)

Mageprof, no argument there!

Richard said...

Tom, the article I posted doesn't come to the same conclusion that you state, that being the chestnut has never been a staple food. In fact the article refers to the use of chestnuts as a staple food in certain regions of Europe such as Corsica, although they've fallen out of favor in recent centuries, which is why its use as a staple is largely forgotten, here's a quote from it,

"That the geographical areas favorable to chestnut trees and their fruits were precisely the areas in which populations adopted chestnuts as a staple food seems obvious enough. But in order to make full use of the opportunity, populations had to create what might be called a "chestnut civilization," meaning that they had to fashion their lives around the trees, from planting the trees to processing the fruits."

People fashioning their lives around the trees certainly sounds like something done for a staple crop, whole populations don't fashion their lives around lettuce or radishes.

Of course it was only suited to certain areas, like any crop, and the processing is time consuming, although grain processing is too, unfortunately the article doesn't give a comparison in processing time. I haven't much experience with that yet because my plantings are small trees not bearing yet. However this fall I'm going to visit someone who has large scale mature chestnut plantings, with the goal of experiencing the process of harvesting and processing them. If anyone here does actually have experience in chestnut processing and storage on a large scale, please chime in.

Dried chestnuts do store well, up to several years.

I'm not trying to suggest that chestnuts are a panacea, and I agree that a diversity of staples is a good bet. My main point is that chestnuts have been used as a staple and have similar properties to the grains in many ways.

Don Plummer said...

Re. acorns:
Anyone thinking of gathering acorns for human food in North America should be aware that there are two types of oaks here. Broadly, they're the white oak group and the red oak group. Without going into lots of detail, acorns from the white oak group are the ones you want to look for because they're the sweetest and have lower tannin content. Acorns from red oak types are high in tannin and are extremely bitter; they're considered inedible for humans.

Among common white oak types are white oak, Quercus alba; bur oak, Q. macrocarpa; chestnut oak, Q. montana; and, in the south, overcup oak, Q. lyrata. The swamp white oak, Q. bicolor is reputed to have the sweetest acorns of all, but, at least in my experience, the squirrels know that and get them all first. Trees of the white oak group usually have rounded lobes on their leaves, and the acorns mature in one growing season.

Red oak types include northern red oak, Q. rubra or Q. borealis; pin oak, Q. palustris; southern red oak, Q. falcata; black oak, Q. velutina; and scarlet oak, Q. coccinea. Their leaves usually have pointed lobes with "bristles" (actually extensions of the leaf veins) sticking out beyond the tips of the lobes, and their acorns take two seasons to mature; productive trees will have both first-year and second-year acorns on them.

Red oak types only grow in North America; all the European oaks, for example, are white oak type and have edible acorns.

tom rainboro said...

The cottage (and backyard city) pig has as big a tradition here as the backyard chicken and a very similar role (no eggs though). I live in a terrace of ex-estate worker's cottages and each was provided with a pigshed - stone built 10 foot by 10 foot. Now, along with 4 neighbours, I raise 5 pigs in a small paddock. We buy them as weaners (2 months old) and feed them for about 5 months till they are at porker weight. We are on our 4th batch. This reminds me that I probably haven't mentioned my blog - where you can see pictures of much of this.
By the way, it's illegal in the U.K. to feed kitchen scraps to chickens and pigs and has been so since new regulations made after the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG: "Bill, actually, I suspect that in the fairly near future the gummint will be too busy coming unraveled to come for anything else at all. "

Oh of course, the comments about the gubbmint were fully tongue in cheek. For better or for worse, and I'm afraid within my lifetime (hopefully close to the very end of a long one), the law will once again be the local sheriff and citizen militias, at least in rural areas. I'm not too worried about "oppressive federal regulations" when about 10% of my neighbors are already involved in the production and distribution of federally banned substances (without the benefit of a state law exemption) and do so with impunity so long as they don't step on the wrong toes.

Red Neck Girl said...

JMG said:
"Jean-Vivien, those are good questions. The first one I can't answer right off the bat; incandescent lamps aren't that difficult to make if you've got access to tungsten or some other filament stock -- vacuum pumps are late medieval technology, and so is adequate glassblowing -- but I'm not too sure of the availability of the tungsten, or what the alternatives might be."

I can answer that one I believe. I remember an episode from a defunct series on TV where before tungsten, Edison used a thin carbon filament. The carbon was a cotton thread turned to charcoal. I may be wrong but that's what I remember. I've picked up a lot of garbage from pop culture, books, TV and movies. Now's the time to figure out what works and what doesn't. Hmmm?

JMG said:
"Girl, bingo. Horse manure was the driving force behind the hot frames (we'll be talking about those soon) that allowed fresh vegetables to be grown year round around most 19th century cities, and it was also a key fertilizer in the intensive gardening system generally. One of the reasons I think horses have a huge future ahead of them is precisely that their "exhaust" is first-class fertilizer feedstock."

Does this mean I lose my reputation as the board simpleton?

BTW, There's a magazine I get quite often here in the US that has a lot of hints and tips on old methods for living. It's called The Backwoodsman, it's web site is This issue has a backwoodsman's woodslore page, hints and tips for outdoor survival and primitive living. One tip is making sourdough starter and another section features 5 different ways to start a fire, as well as pond scum soup. On other pages are little tips on wood working, fishing tips and so one. One article is on barter with sample items for trade (like heirloom garden seeds) and some tradable services.

One nice thing about this magazine, there are editions available that contain 'The Best Of . . .,' they're up to volume 4.

Ahh! I'm Glad to hear Possum Living has been reissued. My best friend swiped my first copy and I had to replace it, then we both lost our copies to family spite. I want another copy!

Brad K. said...

John Michael Greer,

My contention about S.510 is not the existence of regulation - it is a matter of what is pertinent.

The initial impetus of S.510 was the peanut butter plant fiasco. All reports include how nasty the place was - and how inadequate the inspections had been. Simply enforcing existing code would be far more effective, and far less intrusive, than what S.510 seems likely to empower.

My concern is that S.510 is likely to strangle local and small suppliers out of business - or worse. S.510 includes "confiscate premises" as a penalty - if you are found at fault at home, poof, your home is gone. All without solving an existing problem.

SophieGale said...

Apologies if someone else has posted this information...Jonathon Feld reported "P.S. help out Seed Saver's Exchange - they are trying to save a Russian heirloom seed bank that is on the verge of being torn down to make room for a subdivision. 90% of it's contents are found no where else in the world!"

You can send a plea directly to Russian President Medvedev to save the Pavlovsk Agricultural Station. (I never dreamed I would send a letter to the President of Russia...I don't know whether to giggle or cry...) You can use the web form at

justjohn said...

Someone in the comments was looking for a short season field corn ... I don't have personal experience with it, but ran across Painted Mountain corn last year when looking at seeds. It sounded wonderful, and I want to try it soon (don't really need such a short season corn here, but...)

The breeder's website is

Justin said...

It seems that intensive agriculture might be a better choice for grain production in the mid-future as well. At least I assume you would consider rice production in medieval Southern China intensive. Granted, it would have to be modified for non-wet rice crops. It might take a lot more labor, but if the overall production per acre is higher, that is a good thing. Many poorer farmers would be better than fewer richer ones, as at least the poor farmers would have employment and food. If the overall production per acre is higher, that means fewer city dweller going hungry as well.

Of course, that would entail such a significant retooling of land distribution and food production mentalities that I don't hold out much hope for rapid adoption.

Wordek said...

"No, no, fats are evil!"

Twenty five years or so back I worked in a dairy factory which was right next to a vegetable oil refinery
On slow night shifts we would occasionally pass the time by wandering over to the refinery to visit the lads for a spot of “midnight cricket” and other such wholesome youthful activities. Suffice it to say that seeing food being “created” has cemented my opinion that the most nutritious fats arent necessarily the vegetable based stuff labeled “heart health approved”, its the stuff that has received as little industrial manipulation as possible. As you imply, this doesnt mean you should go to the other extrteme and take your daily bath in it though

“It's always a useful way to rally your followers after a stinging electoral defeat to insist that the other side's candidate is about to impose a police state or whatever”

Its a great way to rally followers before an election as well. Keep an eye on Australia, we just had a federal election, and the epic battle between the “Ranga” and the “Mad Monk” has resulted in a hung parliament. So there are now 3 independents that no one had heard of a week ago who hold the balance of power. I'm expecting some quality entertainment over the next few weeks as these guys get to deal with the love bombing and dirty tricks of the major parties while they try to claim power by “capturing” them. Glad I'm not in politics!

“Certainly I don't recommend that anybody get a plow for their backyard garden!”
Why not? I have a combine harvester in my window box ;) vroom!

Cathy McGuire said...

Over at the Oil Drum today:

A Modern CCC for Soils Remediation

some food for thought...

Bill Pulliam said...

Cathy --

Unfortunately that piece reads mostly like a long PR press release for permaculture and its (expensive) training institutes. Once they start promoting this "one-size-fits-all," "we know the answer and it is us" sort of solution to an extremely complex and large-scale problem, I walk on.

SophieGale said...

I don't think it does us much good to speculate on what bill S510 really means to the intensive gardener. Senator Dick Durbin is the sponsor of the bill. Why not brighten up his week and ask him? I am sure he will interested in your input.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Wordek,

The election result was a bit crazy wasn't it!

They haven't had a hung parliament in Australia for over 70 years. The whole point of the preferential voting system and mandatory voting is to produce a stable system. Didn't really work this time did it?

Mind you, indepedents have controlled the balance of power in the Senate for years.

We kind of got what we deserved really. Neither major party had any vision, the Greens were pretty quiet and the public as a whole seemed apathetic.

Still, it should make for months/years of entertainment and not much will happen which should please the corporate interests that run the country anyway (witness the recent mining resource tax debacle).

I'm off to propagate some trees!

Good luck!

tom rainboro said...

"Dried chestnuts do store well."
Yes - I have a small quantity in my kitchen cupboard. I don't know how or where they were dried. I'd bet some fossil fuel was required. Here in the west of England in a wet, mild Atlantic climate getting anything dry is difficult. I'd bet that drying a chestnut is a lot harder than drying a wheat seed. The biggest thing I dry is beans. Get them too hot and they cook, not hot enough and they ferment or germinate. I only do a few pounds weight and use the background heat of a solid fuel stove.
The peak oil community is full of people advocating this or that idea. I think it's reasonable to turn to them and ask "do you do that yourself?" or "do your neighbours do that?". Otherwise we will find people building careers and celebrity on the basis of recommending unviable lifestyles to millions of people, won't we?
For the record, I have hazelnuts and Kentish Cob in my garden and seedlings of Kentish Cob and French
chestnuts awaiting homes in the hedges or field corners of the neighbourhood. They seem to be easy to germinate.
(Yes, my neighbour does have a plough in his backyard - under a tarpaulin. It's called an Iron Horse. Don't know what vintage. I've seen some very neat attachments for 'two wheeled tractors' but they are expensive.)

mxyzptlk said...

Speaking of unimaginable other ways of doing things, it appears that in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation, work wasn't work and learning didn't require teaching:

Don Plummer said...

Re. cyanobacteria in Ohio lakes:
I haven't had time to do extensive research on this, but from the little I have found, it seems that this problem has been growing for several years, not only in Ohio but throughout much of the Midwest.

Nobody is quite sure what is causing this problem to grow, but one of the contributing factors surely is an increase in phosphates in the water, largely from agricultural runoff, but in addition, Canada geese droppings, lawn and garden fertilizers, and flawed septic system operation may also be contributing. Other factors include stagnant water, lower than normal water levels, and possibly high atmospheric temperatures, although summer 2009 saw increases despite relatively cool temperatures.

What made the topic big news this summer is the release of toxins into the water. Toxins are produced in the cells and are released under certain conditions, conditions that were unspecified in the reports I read. These toxins fall into three categories: nerve toxins, liver toxins, and skin irritants. People who had contact with the Grand Lake/St Marys water later had skin rash and itching. Two or three dogs that were in contact with the water have died. And fish are dying in many of these lakes and ponds. People have been advised to stay away from the water--no boating, fishing, or swimming. This problem has killed tourism in these areas.

Alice Y. said...

@JMG - glad you like, I will see what I can do on the recipe front. =)

@Robo -- Lee Rust: "A larger gang of people using traditional scythes and hand-threshing methods would work even harder and know those stalks even better."

Sickles, not scythes, if our oat-harvesting test three weeks ago was anything to go by. See "The scythe book" for more info if you're interested. Scythes with *cradles*, perhaps, but otherwise sharp sickles. Without cradles, the scythed oats are scattered due to their height and weight (unlike in scythe hay-mowing), and it takes ages for the gatherers to collect and stack the stooks. With sickles, the oats went into tidy bundles straightaway, so it took much less time to get stooks bound and stacked.

@Justjohn - that was me - thanks!

Joan said...

On food preservation:

I want to state my doubts about canning as a food preservation technology for the long term. We tend to think of it as an old traditional skill, but it's really a phenomenon of 19th century industrial technology, specifically the air-tight seal that can be heated to sterilizing temperatures. This technology is unlikely to survive the demise of industrialism in any form affordable to ordinary people. Canning is also extravagant in its use of heating fuel and destructive of nutrients relative to older preservation methods such as drying, smoking, brining, pickling, sugaring, oil-curing and room-temperature air-tight seals made with wax. I have made a particular investment in drying equipment in order to avoid the chemicals commonly applied to commercially available dried fruit, jerky, etc. The method's major limitation is that the home-dried goodies tend to get eaten up too quickly for the effectiveness of the preservation technique to be really tested.

Next little tidbit: crop selection may have as much to do with societal conditions as climatic ones. In the German-speaking areas of Europe, adoption of the potato as a staple crop happened first in areas where warfare was endemic. Soldiers tended to extend their rations by raiding farms, going particularly for the stored foods in barns and root cellars. Potatoes could be left in the ground and dug up as needed. Raiding soldiers generally didn't have the time for serious digging. Thus, potato enthusiasts prospered while those who stuck with the grain crops were at risk of being wiped out and depending on the charity of their potato-growing neighbors to get them through the winter.

Angry said...

I'm a small scale container gardener who was raised in the country, and I sure am reading what is tantamount to " too much work" from alot of posters here. Don't overthink it. Just start doing it. It is trial and error. That's life. And as for labor, well, I guess if you're the kind of person who drives around looking for a closer parking space, yeah it is alot of work. If you are not a total pod, it isn't. 30-60 minutes a day, maybe?

For people interested in larger scale stuff, I suggest seeing if there are any Africans or SE Asians in your community. I live in the Midwest and many immigrants here do the kind of farming discussed here. Lots of Africans here grow grains, and no one has ever shooed me away for asking questions and looking.

My humble thoughts.

Hal said...

JMG and others, I don't disagree that the sustainability of traditional forms of agriculture is a mixed bag. The Asian systems might be good examples, but I'm not sure if I'd put too much store in the Syria example. I doubt that what's being done there these days is any more sustainable than is the farming of row crops in Arizona. I'm sure as long as you can apply fertilizers, pesticides, and water, you can grow most places.

But I think the larger point I was trying to make has been lost. It's the whole question of "What's sustainable?" I certainly don't think the current legal definition of "organic" agriculture is sustainable in any sense of the term. Too many of the practices allowed depend on large inputs of petrochemical resources. I think this is also true of the things that are marketed and promoted to the public for the backyard kitchen grower.

To me, it goes back to what we mean by "sustainable." I can think of three definitions and I'm sure there are more. First, if we equate it with the popular understanding of organic, sustainable just means the same as "green" or "less toxic": things that have a lower environmental impact. So bug killers made without petrochemical toxins are OK, even though they may come in disposable petrochemical containers, poison a lot of non-target species, or even be themselves made from petrochemicals, such as black plastic mulch or row covers.

The second sense takes this a step further, and insists on not doing anything that actually harms the environment or uses excessive amounts of nonrenewable resources. An example of this I can think of is something I do a lot of, which is use discarded corrugated cardboard for sheet mulches. Sure, it arguably isn't doing much harm, and in fact decreases impacts on landfills, but it's dependent on an economy that includes appliance stores that regularly discard large numbers of refrigerator boxes. I'm sure we can all think of a lot of examples like this, all the way back to the old vertical-shaft wind generators made from recycled 55-gallon oil drums and used auto parts. I still do a lot of this stuff, and think it's great, but is it sustainable?

My final definition, and it's not something I'm likely to be close to in my practices for a long time yet, would be something like 'that which can be done on the long-term without non-renewable chemical or energy inputs, and which does not degrade the natural systems on which it depends.' I know, I can't seem to get away from a negative definition, either, but just saying the first part of that wouldn't quite get at what I'm trying to say.

Not trying to be argumentative here, but I think a little clarity in what we're going for here would be useful in the final draft of this very valuable and impressive piece of work you're creating.

Cathy McGuire said...

Sigh... here is a perfect example of what people want "green" to be: an "earthship" $400k home in Taos that brags that off-grid living can not only be easy "but luxurious". Beautiful, but obviously they are not factoring any kind of drought in! No well allowed to be dug... in NM? It boggled my mind..

Cathy McGuire said...

@Bill P Unfortunately that piece reads mostly like a long PR press release
Ah, true - one size does not fit all, as industry has shown us... but a CCC workforce to do various re-foresting/revivifying things around the country not only would help the soil, but teach people valuable skills... which might be much needed soon!

Bill Pulliam said...

Joan -- think of canning as a transitional technology (which in the long run, EVERYTHING is). True it requires some centralized manufacturing to make jars and lids. But the energy for the pressure sterilizing can be provided by non-fossil sources, even locally grown or locally gathered -- wood or charcoal can power a stovetop pressure canner, I'm sure someone can concoct a solar cooker that could reach high enough temperatures for a pressure canner. The energy used in the sterilizing I'd wager is far less than the energy that would be used in refrigeration for comparable time periods. ALL food preservation entails loss of nutrients and changes in flavor; but all are better than having the food rot. Just as canning was practical on a widespread scale in the early days of industrialization before ubiquitous electric refrigeration and massive food distribution networks, so it will remain practical on the other side of the peak far longer than the alternatives that require constant, ongoing, uninterrupted inputs of electricity and fossil fuels.

Cathy -- the bigger problem with the CCC model is that it requires a strong central government with money to spend. Central government, as you may have noticed, is starting to unravel worldwide. I think we're gonna have to each be our own CCC.

Blagroll said...

Do I see peak oil around me? Are people lining up at the pumps for hours? Are mine and my neighbors conversations dominated by oil and environmental concerns? In Ireland I can emphatically say this is not the case. Its BAU land, and people are just waiting for the consummer economy to mend itself before we begin another wave of debt and consumption.

Sure there are a small, most times very minute, number of people in various areas surrounding me that have some awareness that things just aren't right. Yet, their responses span from the ecotechnic (they'll buy fuel security with high tech devices); to the basic belief that making a few pots of jam will ward off bad times; to the ability to ignore all information and frame present conditons within past conditions: ". . . sure it's bad now but its just like it was back in the 1980's when immigration and money were tight."

Which is a round about way of saying that conditions, local to be sure in the fullness of time, will ultimately decide on how people organise. If there is even a very modest recovery in the economy, the pot jars will go back into the cubbards forgotten. The ecotech devices will become conversation pieces while a new SUV is purchased. Going by past experience, people's resource and environmental concerns will melt like snow on the ditches - if only for a brief moment this time around.

These present social conditions, allied with the various agency and govt departments around the world who are finally and explicitly telling us that conditions have changed with regard to peak oil and the environment, are guiding my response to up-skilling; along with the green wizard project, of course.

When I make decisions about people whom I might want to share activities with in regard to sufficiency and sustainability I use hard criteria. How close are they in case travel is serverly restriced. What skills, activities and mind sets do they have, and how can their and my skills mesh. Again, conditions will determine the efficacy of our efforts to find common ground, but I cannot expend my own limited energy and resources on what might happen or what other people might say now but do differently when confronted with a real shift in conditions.

Right now, and given the conditions, the green wizard project allows me to use my limited resources in the best possible way. When the muck hits the fan, whenever that might be or, worse again, if conditions change very slowly and unappreciably with regard to the awareness of the vast majority of people, I can then gauge what community responses are worthy of engagement given my own personal assessment .

Right now and right here the GWP make me think, makes me learn, and make me do. I cannot control macro economic conditions nor my neighbor's various attitudes or behavior. I can only attemp to control my own. Fate or fortune will decide the rest.

I just have one quibble with JMG. A full head of hair. Ok. A full head of hair and a big bushy beard. Those of us who are follicly challenged think your taking the proverbial JMG :-)

Blagroll said...

Do I see peak oil around me? Are people lining up at the pumps for hours? Are mine and my neighbors conversations dominated by oil and environmental concerns? In Ireland I can emphatically say this is not the case. Its BAU land, and people are just waiting for the consummer economy to mend itself before we begin another wave of debt and consumption.

Sure there are a small, most times very minute, number of people in various areas surrounding me that have some awareness that things just aren't right. Yet, their responses span from the ecotechnic (they'll buy fuel security with high tech devices); to the basic belief that making a few pots of jam will ward off bad times; to the ability to ignore all information and frame present conditons within past conditions: ". . . sure it's bad now but its just like it was back in the 1980's when immigration and money were tight."

Which is a round about way of saying that conditions, local to be sure in the fullness of time, will ultimately decide on how people organise. If there is even a very modest recovery in the economy, the pot jars will go back into the cubbards forgotten. The ecotech devices will become conversation pieces while a new SUV is purchased. Going by past experience, people's resource and environmental concerns will melt like snow on the ditches - if only for a brief moment this time around.

These present social conditions, allied with the various agency and govt departments around the world who are finally and explicitly telling us that conditions have changed with regard to peak oil and the environment, are guiding my response to up-skilling; along with the green wizard project, of course.

When I make decisions about people whom I might want to share activities with in regard to sufficiency and sustainability I use hard criteria. How close are they in case travel is serverly restriced. What skills, activities and mind sets do they have, and how can their and my skills mesh. Again, conditions will determine the efficacy of our efforts to find common ground, but I cannot expend my own limited energy and resources on what might happen or what other people might say now but do differently when confronted with a real shift in conditions.

Right now, and given the conditions, the green wizard project allows me to use my limited resources in the best possible way. When the muck hits the fan, whenever that might be or, worse again, if conditions change very slowly and unappreciably with regard to the awareness of the vast majority of people, I can then gauge what community responses are worthy of engagement given my own personal assessment .

Right now and right here the GWP make me think, makes me learn, and make me do. I cannot control macro economic conditions nor my neighbor's various attitudes or behavior. I can only attemp to control my own. Fate or fortune will decide the rest.

I just have one quibble with JMG. A full head of hair. Ok. A full head of hair and a big bushy beard. Those of us who are follicly challenged think your taking the proverbial JMG :-)