Resilience or death: Preparing our farms for the end of agriculture (…as we know it)
“[G]lobal food production is hitting an array of ecological constraints, while population growth and changing diets are driving up demand. …[C]urrent food production is massively subsidised through fossil fuel inputs, and…as those inputs become less available, and people become poorer due to economic contraction, food productivity and access will be undermined. …In totality, we are at the edge of an evolving systemic crisis. Peak oil and food constraints are already undermining the stability of our credit-strained integrated globalised economy. The core pillars of that economy: critical infrastructure, production flows, economies of scale, the financial and monetary system, behavioural adaptation, resource access and energy flows-are likely to begin forcing contagious failure.” – David Korowicz, In the world, at the limits to growth
“…But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. …More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels. If this sounds apocalyptic, it is.” – James Hansen, Game Over for the Climate
“The birds / are waiting to sing in the trees / that will grow in the quiet / that will come when the last / of the dire machines has passed, / burning the world, and the burning / has ceased. / And so am I.” – Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2005 VIII (in Leavings)
SUMMARY: No civilization has ever faced the agricultural challenges confronting us over the coming decades. Ever. And if we can pull it off – wherever we CAN pull it off – it will necessarily be with an agriculture of maximum resilience; an agriculture that can get knocked down and stagger back up again and again and again. So let’s do this.
REFERENCES FOR AGRICULTURAL LIMITS:
I. Energy/economic collapse:
- Richard Heinberg: The End of Growth (2011); “The Food and Farming Transition”
- David Korowicz: Energy & Food Constraints will Collapse Global Economic Recovery; In the world, at the limits to growth; Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production – An Outline Review
- Chris Martenson: The Crash Course (2011); Transcript for Joel Salatin: How to Prepare for A Future Increasingly Defined By Localized Food & Energy
II. Nuclear power-plant accidents and spent-fuel safety:
- Arnie Gunderson: Fairewinds Energy Education (An excellent and comprehensive resource; See collected videos, podcasts, and reports)
- Robert Alvarez: America's Nuclear Spent-Fuel Time Bombs; Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage
- Nuclear Information and Resource Service: (NIRS is a clearinghouse site with lots of great nuclear reports.)
III. Sociopolitical troubles:
- Michael Klare: The Race for What’s Left (2012); Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet (2008); Resource Wars (2002); The Energy Wars Heat Up
- Richard Heinberg: Geopolitical implications of “Peak Everything”
- Rick Munroe: Review of Lt. Col. Eggen’s thesis, Impact of the Peaking of World Oil Production on the Global Balance of Power; and many other peak-oil reviews from a military perspective at Energy Bulletin/Authors/Rick Munroe
IV. Climate change:
- James Hansen: Storms of My Grandchildren (2009); Dr. James E. Hansen; Updating the Climate Science; Game Over for the Climate
- Joseph Romm: Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security; James Hansen Is Correct About Catastrophic Projections For U.S. Drought If We Don’t Act Now
THE FINAL DAYS OF INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE
Visualize, if you will, rivers of food -- rivers of industrial food flowing from the earth to our US kitchens like water. Massive upwellings of industrial food, coaxed from the abused soils of distant agricultural centers, rushing in great torrents over huge distances. And these great torrents of food now branching off at the great population centers, splitting furiously in the last tiny fraction of their journey to our industrial kitchens – just in time.
All as if by magic.
…But wait, it’s not actually magic! Looking behind the curtains, we can see that there are great, poison-belching fires of ancient sunlight burning day and night to both raise the food and keep these great food rivers flowing.
And now, turning from the roaring fossil-fires and billions of hungry mouths grown dependent on them, we glance over at the great gas tanks of ancient sunlight. …And we gasp. They’re half empty!
But the pessimism is justified when we notice, alarmingly, that the gas lines running from the tanks to feed the great fires are beginning to constrict. They are unavoidably and irreversibly constricting. The gas lines that feed the great machines are getting smaller and smaller and smaller…
And as the flow rate of ancient sunlight begins to slow, the flow of industrial food begins to slow with it.
Little by little at first.
Then faster. And faster. And faster and faster. And faster and faster and faster…
And then it stops. …Nothing.
The great rivers of industrial food run dry. Out of gas.
Industrial civilization – the destroyer of worlds – laid low.
And if you’d like a visual here, the flow rate of this great industrial river of food (or industrial anything, really) will probably look pretty much like the gray part of the figure below – the “Net Hubbert Curve.”
…And I don’t think the estimated time-line here is too far off either.
FIGURE 1: THE NET-HUBBERT CURVE – tracking the rise and fall of net energy from petroleum; used in the context of this essay as a rough predictor of industrial agricultural output. Note that a somewhat similar, rapid-collapse, ‘shark-fin’ shape can be found in the ‘food per capita’ curve of the Limits to Growth analysis at Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil.
Source: The Net Hubbert Curve: What Does It Mean?
But wait… Isn’t this net-energy decline argument for the collapse of industrial agriculture a bit too simplistic?
Well, the answer is no -- because exponentially-increasing net fossil-fuel energy is the pin that holds the whole industrial machine together. And as net-energy inputs decline, the machine simply falls apart -- the pieces scattering and losing their integrity. Industrial agriculture will simply be one of those unfortunate pieces. Gone.
Indeed, as David Korowicz writes, “The high dependence of food on fossil fuel inputs, the delocalisation of food sourcing, and lean just-in-time inventories could lead to quickly evolving food insecurity risks even in the most developed countries. At issue is not just food production, but the ability to link surpluses to deficits, collapsed purchasing power, and the ability to monetize transactions.” (Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production – An Outline Review)
…So there it is. Industrial agriculture, R.I.P. ca. 1945-2025. …Or sooner.
And good riddance to the toxic destroyer, sworn enemy of the ecosphere, final cleaver of the bond between humans and the land.
MAKING OTHER PLANS
But of course, we humans HAVE known other ways to feed ourselves. We HAVE known other ways to produce food without the aid of these unholy pyres of ancient sunlight.
And so I imagine we’ll need to recall those pre-industrial ways back before too long, no? We’ll need to re-visit those authors who have illuminated key ideas and practices of an ecologically-sane agriculture that almost was: F.H. King’s ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries’; Sir Albert Howard’s ‘An Agricultural Testament’; Liberty Hyde Bailey’s ‘The Holy Earth’; J. Russell Smith’s ‘Tree Crops’; Wendell Berry’s poetry, novels, and essays; the collected works of Gene Logsdon, ‘Contrary Farmer’.
And I imagine we’ll need to refine our agricultural philosophies and methods in light of all our new (or rediscovered, really) ecological knowledge. We’ll need to seriously consult, in a very practical way, the great agricultural and ecological thinkers of our time: Aldo Leopold’s ‘Land Ethic’; Mollison & Holmgren’s ‘Permaculture’; Wes Jackson’s ‘Natural Systems Agriculture’; Derrick Jensen’s ‘Listening to the Land;’ among others.
And I imagine we’ll need to identify, replicate, and refine the thousands of small, ecologically-sane farming experiments already underway in this country – little jewels, often hanging by an economic thread, buffeted by the spastic convulsions of a dying industrialism.
And maybe we should get started with all this before the industrial food cupboard is completely bare, no? …Barack? Can you even hear us?
Cut to dimly lit living room at noon, curtains drawn, soap operas pre-empted by an urgent announcement from our fearless leader: “OK, unemployed database engineers who can’t tell a seed from a Sudafed, and college-educated baristas who wouldn’t know a collard if it clocked them in the head – it’s time to grow yourselves some dinner! …Ready, set…go!”
THE FINAL DAYS OF HUMAN AGRICULTURE?
But even with the many non-industrial agricultural options theoretically open to us, there are still several well-grounded reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects for ANY form US agriculture over the remainder of this century. And here we need not visualize a great fuel-fed river running dry – but merely to look towards the nearest (or even distant) nuclear spent-fuel pools, missile silos, and the +40% CO2-enriched air around your head.
I. NUCLEAR THREATS -- On the nuclear front, our 100+ aging reactors, brimming with unimaginably toxic and combustible spent fuel are literally ticking time bombs. Increasingly-routine disruptions in the electric grid could send them popping off like corks all over the country. Fukushima, USA X 100. Check out the references at the start of this essay. In the interest of space, let me just quote nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson (www.fairewinds.com) here from a recent Radio Ecoshock podcast: “It’s impossible to predict the worst event that Mother Nature or humans, in the form of terrorists, can do to a nuclear power plant. …Nuclear power, when things go wrong…is a technology that can destroy a nation.”
…Because how DOES that cesium-137 taste with fresh, organic kale and free range eggs? Probably a bit metallicky, huh? …Wait…what’s this lump?...
II. THREATS OF WAR -- As for our deadly missiles of war sleeping lightly in their silos…well, we can all imagine how that might play out. Imagine the unimaginable! (The author shudders.) Follow Michael Klare’s work for a front-row seat on the ramped-up nastiness emerging as an armed-to-the-teeth global technological civilization begins to come apart at the seams. (The Energy Wars Heat Up). And as the economy craters and folks get testy, our 160 years of domestic semi-tranquility may indeed be drawing to a close.
…Because how DOES your garden grow when farmers all around you are being reduced to “bug splat” by unseen drones and your crops, such as they are, are harvested by hordes of starving refugees? …Just don’t forget to turn those compost piles!
III. CLIMATE THREATS -- And on the climate change front, spend a long time checking out the following paleo-climate graphs from NASA’s James Hansen. And please note the disturbingly narrow climatic range in which human agriculture has EVER worked – the paper-thin, 10,000-year Holocene period at almost exactly “2 oC” on all three of these graphs.
FIGURE 2: JAMES HANSEN’S PALEO-CLIMATE GRAPHS. Note that the Holocene – 10,000-year-long home of human agriculture – is located in only a very narrow band right around 2 oC on these graphs. The coming departure from Holocene temperatures and climatic stability poses grave challenges to human agriculture.
Source: James Hansen (NASA)
…And note that we are almost certainly moving rapidly away from this excruciatingly narrow climatic window -- as we speak, even. (Follow all the fun at Joe Romm’s climateprogress.org and James’Hansen’s Updating the Climate Science).
Indeed, on the temperature scales of graphs above, we’re headed from 2 oC (the Holocene) to where? To 4 oC? …to 5 oC? …to 6 oC? …to 7 oC? …higher? Hell, early-Cenozoic, here we come!
Biblical droughts, floods, winds, disease, sea-level rise, oh my!
How far away will we have pushed the climate system with our clumsy industrial blundering and the incipient positive-feedbacks?
…And will agriculture even work AT ALL in these brave new climatic regimes?
In response, I quote from the great probabilistic philosopher, Dirty Harry: “You've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
And having now entrusted our agricultural fate to the dubious kindness and violent, schizophrenic mood-swings of an unraveling complex system, we may indeed become just one more species scrambling for survival in the Great Anthropocene Extinction.
SO THEN WHAT DO WE DO, MR. DOOMER-HEAD?
Well…there, I did it. I said the ‘E’-word.
…So having gotten this far, let me summarize: (1) Industrial agriculture has NO chance, even short-term; (3) the transition to an ecologically-sane, post-industrial agriculture will be damn hard -- but is conceivably possible; and (3) even THAT might not be enough -- because human agriculture itself only MAYBE has a chance, long term, due to the gathering nuclear and climatic storms.
So where does that leave us?
It leaves us here: (1) We embrace (and hasten?) the collapse of the industrial killing-machine; (2) we apply ourselves to the creation of a resilient, ecologically-sane, land-based agriculture with all our hearts and minds; and (3) we pray to God or gods or Gaia or the Infinite Ether for mercy, for we were as children and knew not what we did.
Sounds like a plan. …I guess.
Well, no use wallowing in self-pity at this point.
Let’s just do it.
RESILIENCE OR DEATH
But let’s be honest with ourselves here: This is gonna be damn hard. It’s gonna take more than just gumption and rah-rah, eco-farming spirit to get through this mess.
We’re going to need a very different and very special agriculture to confront the awesome challenges we’re facing here.
We are going to need an agriculture certainly far different from the absurdly fragile and destructive industrial model – but it will also necessarily be different from just about any agriculture we’ve seen for thousands of years. …Or maybe ever.
Because whatever agriculture we practice in the US in the coming decades, it will face a toxic combination of searing challenges: global economic collapse, intense socio-political destabilization, debilitating nuclear and chemical pollution, and a potentially apocalyptic destabilization of the global climate.
No human civilization has EVER faced, much less survived, this fetid cocktail of shit-storms in our 10,000 year history of growing our own food. …Ever. In fact, civilizations and populations have blinked out in the face of far weaker challenges.
But if we can pull it off – wherever we are ABLE to pull it off -- it will necessarily be with an agriculture of maximum resilience – one that can get knocked down and stagger back up again and again; one that utilizes the overlapping talents and resiliency of countless organisms as a buffer against the blows that will certainly come and come and come and come again; one that takes full and skillful advantage of EVERY food-producing strategy ever utilized by our species.
…Or it won’t be at all.
Resilience or death. That’s our choice.
The cultural selection process will be brutal in the challenging decades to come, and it will hinge almost entirely on whether a given local culture has its agricultural act together – whether its farms are tuned into the new (and constantly shifting) biophysical realities of this planet: And if they are? Advance to the next (wildly uncertain) growing season. And if they aren’t? Thanks for playing, goodbye.
May we all live in interesting times, indeed!
OK, so we’ll almost certainly need an agriculture of ‘maximum resilience.’ But how do we go about designing such an agriculture?
To answer that we would be wise to collectively consult Holmgren’s excellent and comprehensive permaculture design principles -- and really the entire voluminous body of permaculture literature (Chelsea Green). But in the interest of space, I’ll just cut to the chase here and say that we’ll need to adopt a slew of farming strategies – as many as possible – each with complementary resiliencies.
And why? Because when one strategy (or two or three or four) invariably gets laid low, others will be there to take up the slack – at least partially; at least to help us limp over to the next growing season.
To accomplish this, we’ll need to consider both the many kinds of food producing strategies we can employ in any given place, but also what each strategy has going for it in the resiliency sense – its resiliency attributes.
This will necessarily be tackled differently in each region, in each food-shed, and on each farm -- but as an example, here’s a partial analysis I sketched up for some strategies I’m using and/or developing on my farm in central New Jersey.
FIGURE 3: RESILIENCY ATTRIBUTES OF DIFFERENT CROP TYPES ON MY NJ FARM. Each crop type has its own resiliency pros and cons – as does each individual crop within a type, each variety within each crop, and each genetically-distinct individual within a variety. We would do well to utilize as many resiliency profiles as possible at each level to make it through the coming troubles. (For more details, see my essay An agriculture that stands a chance: perennial polyculture & the hard limits of post-carbon farming)
And I think it’s also helpful to consider which of these crop types possess the best resiliency against some of the specific agricultural stresses we can expect. In the chart below I’ve marked with an ‘X’ the two crop types on my farm with the (arguably) best resilencies to each environmental and socio-political stressor. It’s certainly not a comprehensive chart – reality is much messier than this -- but it gives a taste of the sorts of analyses I think will be crucial if we’re able to develop an agriculture that stands a chance for a given farm and region.
For example, annual vegetables have relatively little resilience against drought and floods, but due to the many types available, they offer good resilience against pests and disease – assuming you skillfully take advantage of this diversity. They also offer good resilience against a forced relocation due to their often-short fruiting/bearing times and mobile seeds. …Because it’ll be awfully hard to throw those chestnut trees on your back when the local nuclear power plant blows a gasket and you need to scram for 100 years or so.
FIGURE 4: CROP TYPES WITH THE BEST RESILIENCIES AGAINST SOME POSSIBLE AGRICULTURAL STRESSES IN CENTRAL NJ. The two crops with (arguably) the best resilience against each stress are marked with an ‘X’. Reality will undoubtedly be far messier than this, but the point here is that some crops will do better against some stresses than others. The more variety we have – the broader our resiliency profiles – the better chance we have of getting through each growing season in our increasingly-destabilized socio-political and physical climates.
RINGS OF RESILIENCE
Another factor to consider in designing this uber-resilient agriculture is the scale required by each crop type – i.e. roughly how large of an area should be devoted to each crop.
This scale will be determined by both the productivity of a given crop type in a given location, but also by the labor requirements. For example, I’d have trouble keeping up with five acres of tomatoes vines, but I can easily handle five acres of chestnut trees. The ‘Rings of Resilience’ diagram below illustrates the relative scale of some food/fiber producing strategies open to me on my farm in central NJ and a possibly-reasonable scale for each.
FIGURE 5: “THE RINGS OF RESILIENCE” – Possibly-appropriate scales for several different crop types on a central-NJ farm. Each crop type has its own suite of resilience attributes and strengths, all adding up to an agriculture that might just stand a chance in the challenging era to come. Management intensity requirements decreases outward from the center. (See David Holmgren’s discussion of ‘Principle 7: Design from patterns to details’ in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability for a somewhat similar take on this idea.)
ANNUAL CROPS: (1 acre) Annual veggies, fruits, and grains. These require labor-intensive soil disturbance (at least without access to trucked-in compost/mulch). Shallow-rooted and thus need babying or sacrifice during the ever more frequent and nasty droughts. Require labor-intensive weed management. Grass/clover strips between the veggie rows promote some biodiversity (Misty Acres Farm), but not nearly as much as the perennial strategies that follow. Grains grown in the small-scale Gene Logsdon strip fashion. Small plots of annual veggies & grain can be ridiculously productive with annual manuring (from winter animal bedding) and adequate watering during dry weeks. Very time-sensitive for planting, and requires some skill in seed harvest and saving. Will crash and burn within a few months if you’re forced to take an involuntary leave of absence. …But you can bring seeds with you.
SMALL PERENNIAL CROPS: (2 acres) Perennial cane & bush fruits, perennial vegetables (sunchokes, scorzonera, Chinese yam, groundnuts, etc.), bush nuts (ex: hazelnuts), inherently smaller-sized fruit trees (ex: paw paw), bamboos, and (perhaps someday) The Land Institute’s perennial grains. Species and varieties that don’t need babying. Requires only very infrequent labor-intensive soil disturbance. Much easier weed management. Allows better biodiversity than annuals, but still on the lower side. Fairly productive, requiring less manure & water inputs than annuals, due to more extensive root systems and more robust soil communities. More resistant to drought. Avoids need to save seed annually, as well as the time-sensitive & labor-intensive planting windows. Will persist for about 2-8 years if you need to lay low somewhere else for a spell.
GRAZED PASTURE: (4 acres) Perennial grasses & clovers grazed by ruminants (sheep, goats, and cows) – for meat, milk, wool, and some occasional hay. No difficult soil disturbance required. Relatively easy weed management (two words: include goats). But only so-so above-ground biodiversity due to simple spatial structure -- but soil can support a veritable rainforest of species if not over-grazed. Deep rooted and quite drought resistant – will go dormant, but not die, during a drought. Fairly productive and multipurpose. Will persist for ~10-15 years if you need to skip town – using goats to whip it back to pasture again quickly.
GRAZED ORCHARD: (8 acres) A diverse stand of standard-sized fruit and nut trees set far enough apart for some grazing of grasses & clovers underneath. No soil disturbance or weed management worries at all. Pick hardy species and varieties that don’t need spraying and babying. Good biodiversity -- both above and below ground. Multi-purpose for wood products when trees are pruned (by saw or wind) or need to be replaced. Grazing underneath provides free weed-management and contributes towards raising all the ruminant-based food/fiber products. Very drought resistant – although yield will suffer. Attracts edible wildlife as an added bonus. Will persist for decades if you’re otherwise indisposed. Will feed you if even if you house is torched, all your animals stolen, your veggie seeds lost, and the steely boot of oppression is on your neck.
MANAGED FOREST: (16 acres) Native-type, multi-layered, mixed-deciduous forest with a variety of large trees, understory trees, shrubs, and herbs. Managed with a attentive, humble, and loving eye for selective harvest of wood, wild-plant foraging, and hunting. A sort of slow-motion garden – steered gently over many human generations to a desired species mix, in consultation and partnership with the land itself. Depending on the species, it has good resistance to drought, fire, and many other calamities. The gold standard for both biodiversity and resilience in my region. Both a supplementary and emergency food source. Can persist for centuries if your region is scheduled for a human-timeout.
WILD LANDS: (as much as possible within a few hours walking distance) An anything-goes species mix. Whatever the land feels like growing. Nudged in a desired direction perhaps by hunting and harvest (and maybe the occasional fire), but otherwise too large to be managed. A fall-back food-source for plants and animals when all hell breaks loose. …Back to the stone age! We’ve earned it!
I should note that aquaculture – specifically food production from ponds – is one possible crop type for my farm I haven’t considered here. But that’s just because I haven’t tried it yet. …But I have a pond and an algae-filled pool, so it’s on my ‘to-do’ list. …Only 24 hours in a day. (See Gene Logsdon’s Pond Lovers)
And again, this is just stuff that I’ve been working on so far, where I live. I’m not claiming this can withstand the coming shit-storms. I have no idea. But this is my best shot – the best I can do. It’s going to evolve and expand as I learn more. We just need to do a similar process of learning, testing, and ‘resilifying’ our farms across the entire country – with whatever strategies turn out to work on each particular farm.
So let’s do it.
LESSONS FROM A NEARBY FARM
But CAN we do it?
Being brutally honest with ourselves, I suppose we need to acknowledge that this ‘future of human agriculture’ stuff is, at best, a pretty mixed bag -- scary yet tentatively promising, discouraging yet cautiously-hopeful, overwhelming yet oddly-invigorating.
The creation of a new and lasting agriculture in the face of all the trouble screamin’ down on us is a monumental task. …But we have no choice. It’s resilience or death at this point.
And this is not a task that will be accomplished via grand, general policies and green-flowery language sent down from on-high; it will be undertaken farm by farm, field by field, by millions and millions of recovering industriaholics reacquainting themselves with the land, reacquainting themselves with the countless organisms they’ve tried for so long to ignore, avoid, and kill.
It’ll be easy for these millions of new farmers to get lost in the details, uncertainty, and heartbreaks along the way – to start running down the wrong road just because it’s the only one we can see down at the moment.
So maybe to close here, we should pull back and put all this in perspective a bit.
Come over here and look at this…
I’ve spent some time lately watching ants farm some aphids on a three-foot tall dock plant growing from the foundation of my garage. As I surmise (perhaps only half-correctly), the ants brought the aphids to the plant, protected them to adulthood, and now ‘milk’ them of their sugary secretions as the aphids graze on nutrient rich fluids in the dock. It’s a scene of serene bucolic contentment, hard against the weathered boards, cinders, and garbage cans of my garage.
And on the surrounding land, I farm as well. I grow vegetables, tend an orchard, care for a growing perennial-food-crop nursery, raise chickens and sheep, and work to integrate my farm into the local human and natural communities.
But these ants are the true masters here. For while their actions are perhaps more genetically hard-wired than my farming practices, I would argue that their farming is also far, far more experienced, better adapted, more sustainable, and more resilient than mine. It’s not even close.
And I could easily ruin their little farm next to my garage. One careless swipe of a stick would do it.
But they’d be OK, I suppose. They’d maybe gather their aphids, traipse back to the nest, locate some other promising dock plant, and cobble together a new aphid-milking operation. Or maybe they’d try their hand at some other ant-related agricultural enterprise. I don’t know enough about them to say.
But seeing as how they’re already thriving amidst the ecological train-wreck of my driveway and out-buildings, I bet they’ll get by. Or at least their colony will. Or at least their species.
But I don’t know if I could say the same about my farm, about my community, about my species.
…Maybe I better go back and watch them a bit longer.
…I’ll pull up a chair for you too.
We’ve all got a lot to learn.