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Peak Oil and Soil   (Eric Andrews, August 1, 2007)

We’re discussing the value of soil especially in the context of Peak Oil, the devil is in the details.

There are two parts to this: First is that readers may not realize the gravity of the situation concerning food and Peak Oil. There is a wing of the Peak Oil argument that statistically demonstrates how food presently can be said to be a form of oil. Numbers run as high as 10 calories of oil per calorie of food, which with 2,000 mile Caesar salads from California and 10,000 mile apples from New Zealand, is not hard to believe.

In fact, every step of the food chain rests entirely on oil and cheap energy: seed production and storage; plowing and planting via diesel tractors; irrigation of the desert by diesel pumps; fertilizer created from natural gas, without which tired fields that have no natural tilth or manure could not otherwise produce; pesticides and herbicides created from oil and applied with tractors; the harvest by diesel combine and shipped by semi from remote areas; the drying of grain or year-round cold storage; shipping by truck center to the mill and then the grocery where coolers and air conditioning with computer registers and just-in-time inventory again support the entire process.

In fact, there is less than a week’s supply of food in the entire food chain, while consumers—in contrast to America before 1960--hold less than a week’s worth of food at home. …In their refrigerators.

The “Green Revolution”, which ended the famines of the 70’s, could arguably be said to be a result of eating oil. The logical conclusion is that without cheap oil, we must again return to those times, except with 1/3 more population.

This is the true and verifiable situation, easily discovered with an afternoon’s research at or The inescapable conclusion is that we are on the ragged edge of a human catastrophe.

As a gardener from old-time farming country, however, I can provide another perspective. Although at the moment we produce food using this system, that is not to say that we must, or that it is the only way these levels of production can be maintained.

Let’s look at the 10,000 mile apple: Here in New York, our groceries also sell Washington and New Zealand apples, although we are the heart of apple country, one of the three major producing regions. Why? Modern grocers are super-sized while it remains competitive to ship such distances. Can your 50 acre family farm provide 100,000 pallet boxes to Costco, delivered year-round on time? They need size. Also the shiny, wooden varieties that store and ship well that are produced in such places.

Let’s raise the price of oil: The New Zealand apples become uncompetitive locally, and although the grocer may want size, they will be forced to the trouble of the smaller local farms and/or those farms will collectivize their sales as they have in the west. Alternately, the large grocers may not adapt and we would return to local markets. New Zealanders will eat their goods, while we will eat ours. That foods will again become regional and seasonal is a given because the alternatives are a luxury.

For energy-intensive cold storage, we now have cement-block warehouses run by bulk refrigeration. But it was not always that way. Not only were the cold storage built uninsulated (back when energy was cheap) but there is no need to store in this way at all. Even today with the poorly-insulated buildings farmers can and do cool their potatoes with night air and shut up the warehouses by day. Historically, they used to stack cabbage in pyramids and bury in sand. In the 50’s this was done with bulldozers or at home in the root cellar. This works with apples in barrels, carrots and root vegetables, or pumpkins and squash. I can’t guarantee the same storage success, but I can guarantee a far lower energy use.

The storage success is not as important as it seems either, as only a fraction of food produced gets to market. Anything smaller in size, blemished, picked on a wrong day, or otherwise too troublesome to sort is dumped. …And this is before the 50% of food that arrives on restaurant plates or grocery displays only to be thrown in a dumpster. There is far MORE food being produced than necessary already—it’s just being used inefficiently.

But suppose this part cannot be helped. Won’t production fall due to oil shortages? The fertilizers and pesticides, the planting and harvesting? Again, just because we do things a certain way NOW, doesn’t mean it is the only way, or even the best way.

First, we choose a variety of plants that are annuals and not perennials. This has been human choice for 10,000 years, to base on wheat, corn, and rice and not olives or apples. Nevertheless, it is not necessary. One of the greatest producers of carbs per acre is the chestnut. (a great contender as ethanol feedstock, btw) It requires no plowing or planting, and very modest weed control, easily done by scythe and harrow. Some other major perennial producers are walnuts, grapes, apples, or jerusalem artichokes.

While we’re speaking of other varieties, why do we plant corn, wheat and soy? It’s cultural inertia. Amaranth and Millet are far more productive with less input. Other things are edible we’ve never explored, such as milkweed, cattail, and arrowroot. These sound odd to us, but it was not long since the Peruvian potato and tomato were hotly disputed introductions, dismissed as toxic or as poverty food but are now staples. In Asia, the strangest things are eaten with the least comment.

This cultural inertia is true in the way we plant as well. Worldwide, historically men have had a field of staples: corn, wheat or rice; and the rest has been filled with mixed crops: a fruit and nut orchard with some deep radishes, squash, cucumbers, grapes, berries and the like. Near the house was the kitchen garden rounded out with geese, turkeys, chickens, or a modest milk cow. In energy terms, this mixed field was the greatest producer. It carried not one crop a year, but 2 or 3 or more. While the yield on the extracted staple crop falls without rotation or amendment, the mixed crop maintains itself. While the staple needs plowing and planting with horses and tractors, the permaculture stand needs little more than a shovel. More importantly, while the yield on a mixed acre isn’t 2 or 3x the staple, it is still far more than 1x the yield of the staple acre. And at less work per pound.

But, you say, you cannot grow to scale with a quirky stand of mixed perennial crops—how can you get the volume required without combine-width rows? But this is exactly the question in modern agriculture. Back in 1900, the US, like modern-day China, had well-heeled government initiatives to get farmers away from the farms and into the manufacturing centers. That they could grow more acres with less men was obvious progress. …But the progress was not so obvious. The upscaling of agriculture demolished the “family” in the family farm, as well as the communities that supported them. Soon, anyone who could make something of themselves were leaving for the cities instead, taking their knowledge and strength with them, and with them, the fabric of the community.

At the same time yield per man was rising, (potential) yield per acre fell. It is a truism that the more hand-worked an acre is, the higher the yield, in fact, so much greater is the quality and yield that Eliot Coleman (see: “The New Organic Grower”) recommends truck farmers plant an acre per worker even if they have to leave the rest fallow, rather than waste time and effort on 2-3 acres per person. While this is far more true of truck crops, it would still hold true for staple crops or their substitutes. One reason staples are grown rather than substitutes is BECAUSE of the dearth of hand labor. The Chinese would be wise, while they are paving their scarce fertile acres, to note that moving men to the cities further reduces their yield.

Where would we get the men to support a man-per-acre kind of farming? Well, oddly, the system that promoted getting men off the farm and into the cities has depopulated the farms who now produce at a fraction of their potential while an epidemic of healthy men sit unemployed in the cities. Is this an efficient use of our resources? If people are to sit on one side of the street while there is useful work waiting on the other? So far, no one has crossed the street, but that’s not to say it can’t be done. This would be also true over age groups: older workers may not be as productive as younger ones, yet is it better to add something to production, or to add nothing? Not all farm work is arduous. Much of it is paperwork, cooking, sorting, repairs, going to town and so on; jobs well suited to knowledgeable and trustworthy retirees.

Lastly, there is the problem of soil and acres. The best soil in America is quite possibly underneath the city of Chicago, followed by the river bottoms in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Napa Valley, San Francisco, New Jersey (the Garden State) and Long Island among others. People have always located on the river valleys, and on the best land. It goes without saying then that the best land in America is now buried under suburban asphalt. This is a grave problem, as that is where the (present) population lives and needs the food to arrive. What to do?

Going back to the mixed acres, you can see that, although a combine will never again fit between McMansions of Indianapolis, yet throughout the houses and surrounding areas small, people-sized crops can be grown. These were always more productive anyway, but now are forced into use by our careless buildout or infrastructure during the previous century of cheap energy. It’s not that there isn’t still land (here in America) but that we don’t see what land we have.

I think of the miles of endless highways, well drained with excellent access, snaking through the population centers, peppered with catfish ponds and growing grass. If they grew the least crop—grapes on the fences—we would be overwhelmed with food. If they planted oats rather than lawn, a combine could drive from Albany to St Louis before turning around on the opposite margin. If every inch, every slope, every ditch, were filled with appropriate food plants, the production would be unimaginable, ripening through every season of the year. –And this is just the highways, not adding the suburbs, the trainyards, the slopes and cuts, and overlooked lots. In Japan an acre is a field; here it’s a yard—it depends on your perspective.

Who loses in all this? Scale. Large, centralized processes and organizations would be keenly ill-suited to a human-sized and powered agriculture. That is part of the reason it isn’t in place already, as the lobbying power of agribusiness over family business permitted them to tip the scales in favor of size and centralization for over 100 years. This would carry over the political realm as well, where re-localization due to high energy costs leads people to question the need for extensive support of remote lobbyists in a distant capitol. The resulting lower taxes and greater diversity would arguably be beneficial to the country, and to employment and commerce, while invigorating the principles of limited and localized government the nation was founded on.

So yes, Peak Oil and soil loss are acutely grave problems that very well might spark a catastrophic decline in population. However, there are things that we can do, provided we start early and are not too proud to work, too proud to reach, or too proud to try new things. All it takes is for us to decide we wish to do it.

Peak Oil is frightening, and the statistics are fatal. The solutions, however, create a new, better—and more human--world.

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