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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 force 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 sinece, 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 is teaching what one knows.

Resources

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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