September 5, 2011

Labor and Agroecology Day


Democratic agroecology, organic food democracy, is the basis for a society which shall feed us all post-oil. It shall do so while, for the first time in recorded history, providing full access to fulfilling work and full scope for our human imperatives toward political and economic democracy. It shall consummate history’s democratic movement and render our economies just and rational.
Since today is Labor Day, I want to make two points about agroecology.
1. The current system tends to value activity (and rentier inactivity) in inverse proportion to how productive it is, how much work is actually done. Agroecology is real work which accomplishes marvelous things.
One typical study (summary and full report), done by a team led by Catherine Badgley, found that agroecology/organic production can maintain and improve upon current conventional levels of bulk and caloric production for all significant food groups, and do so while replacing synthetic fertilizers with natural nutrient cycling.

The research team compared yields of organic and conventional agriculture (including low-intensive food production) in 293 examples, and estimated the average yield ratio (organic versus non-organic) of different food categories for the developed and the developing world. With the average yield ratios, they modelled the global food supply that could be grown organically in the current agricultural land base. The results indicate that organic methods could produce enough food to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.

They also estimated the amount of nitrogen potentially available from nitrogen fixation by legumes as cover crops. Data from temperate and tropical agroecosystmes suggest that they could fix enough nitrogen to replace all of the synthetic fertilizer currently in use.

The report concluded: “These results indicate that organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply, while reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.”

This is true globally and especially in the non-industrialized world. (That means “the world” post-fossil fuels, although the study didn’t discuss Peak Oil.) 

According to Model 2, the estimated organic food supply
exceeds the current food supply in all food categories, with
most estimates over 50% greater than the amount of food
currently produced. (p. 91)


Model 1 yielded 2641 kcal
person-1 day-1, which is above the recommended value,
even if slightly less than the current availability of calories.
Model 2 yielded 4381 kcal person-1 day-1, which is 57%
greater than current availability. This estimate suggests
that organic production has the potential to support a substantially
larger human population than currently exists.
Significantly, both models have high yields of grains, which
constitute the major caloric component of the human diet.
Under Model 1, the grain yield is 93% that of current
production. Under Model 2, the grain yield is 145% that of
current production. (p. 92)

It shall achieve this level of production at the same time that it replaces all current synthetic fertilizer use with organic soil nutrient techniques (p.92-3).
All of this can be done using the existing agricultural acreage.
For another example, when Chris Martenson interviewed Joel Salatin (podcast here, transcript here), Salatin described the prodigies achieved by his farming based on grassy perennials and mobile pasturage.

There is no question, absolutely no question, that these systems are far more productive. Just to give you an example. On our farm, in our county, one of the measures for pasture production is in cow days per acre. In other words a ‘cow day’ is what one cow will eat in a single day – that’s one cow day. And so in our county, the average cow days per acre is currently 80 cow days per acre. That’s what an acre of pasture does. On our farm, and I already told you at the top of the program what our farm looked like 50 years ago without a single chemical fertilizer and without planting a seed, we own no plow and no disc, and in 50 years, we have moved this farm to average 400 cow days per acre – that’s five times the county average. And so, the fact is, if Monsanto figured out a way to get 1% increase in yields in something it would make the front page of the New York Times. I’m telling you ways to double and triple production without chemical fertilizer, without even planting anything and it doesn’t make the obitituary page.

Now that’s what I call productive work. This Badgley study doesn’t delve into the socioeconomic implications, but other studies have been more specific about how agroecology requires the breaking up of corporate megafarms into smaller farms in order to be most productive, and implies a general relocalization of food distribution. The principles of Food Sovereignty in turn enshrine this requirement for access to the land, which completely joins the fates of our food imperatives with our democratic imperatives, and renders both synonymous with the continued existence of humanity itself.
So this study is another proof that it’s within our hands to flourish as never before, if we take our real work directly into our hands instead of continuing to allow it to be stolen from us and then rented back to us.
Agroecology is real work, and the basis for a real economy worthy of the name.  
2. Agroecology is highly skilled work. It requires intimate knowledge of the ways of the soil, weather, climate, plants (crops, other beneficial plants, harmful weeds), animals (beneficial and pests). The techniques of high-productivity agriculture without monocropping or synthetic fertilizers and poisons include natural nutrient-cycling and soil building, such as the skillful use of cover crops, manure, crop rotation, intercropping, alley cropping with leguminous trees, infusion of free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the soil, biological pest control, agroforestry, better water management, rotation of livestock with annual crops, the whole art of integrating grass-fed livestock pasturage with vegetable production. It also requires the most effective use of energy and other resource inputs. All these factors will require even more precise knowledge as the fossil fuel crutch is removed once and for all.
Salatin describes just a few of the areas of intensive knowledge this farming requires.

What stimulates the nutrient cycling is the onsite biomass regeneration cycle. Not the least of which of course is the earthworm community. You know it’s amazing that earthworms can eat a pound of stuff in their front end and send it through their alimentary canal, bring it out their back end, the same pound of stuff, and its like three times the calcium, seven times the nitrogen, eleven times the potassium, fourteen times the phosphorous, plus an elevating of all the whole trace elements, boron, cobalt, copper, molybdenum – all those things are increased. And what’s amazing is that nobody knows how that’s done. It’s actually not concentrated, it’s actually acted on by some sort of activity in the earthworm. Some bacteria for example, are free living, they are not rhizomes like legume roots like alfalfa and clover, they are free-living bacteria that will bring up to 100 lbs. of nitrogen per acre per year out of the atmosphere and put it in the soil but they only really become active at 4% organic matter and most of our soils are not anywhere close to 4% organic matter anymore. They used to be, back when the buffalo were here and perennial grasses, but they are not now. I think it’s fascinating that we actually produced more nutrient density in what is now the U.S. 600 years ago, than we actually do today, even with all of our petroleum and everything, So the whole secret of the nutrient cycling is to tap into the green material to capture more solar energy, put it into green material that can de-compose and go into the soil, and the best way to do that is with an herbivore – lamb, goat, cow – some sort of herbivore, that is what I call the bio- mass accumulation re-start button to prune that forage off and re-start the fast biomass accumulation cycle. If you don’t have that, what you just have is the bio-mass just goes into senescence and in senescence simply vaporizes the CO2 off into the atmosphere and it doesn’t do anything any good. So it’s the animal that recycles, that starts that whole fast metabolism cycle to metabolize the solar energy into biomass through photosynthetic activity…

So yes, these systems work. And the way they work is to go back to historically – well the way nature built soils in the first place; which was with primarily herbivores. So if you really want to eat on a low energy system, quit eating chicken and quit eating so much pork and eat grass-finished beef because grass-finished herbivore is the most nutrient dense substance that doesn’t require any tillage. It fertilizes itself, and doesn’t require any tillage. As soon as you take that herbivore and put it in a feedlot, on an irrigated grain-based system, then it all breaks down from an energy standpoint and, of course, that’s where a lot of the studies that impugn livestock come from. But throughout the world, the great prairies and the great soil building regions of the world, from the Serengetti in Africa to the plains of America with buffalo to the Australian continent 200 years ago that had 10 marsupial species to do the disturbance, all of those were built with herbivores, disturbances, and rest and perennials. Those are the four cornerstones of a system that works. The reason all civilizations throughout history have been built around the herbivore, lamb, goat or cow is because the herbivore is the only domestic animal that can harvest non-tilled, non-planted material. Omnivores like chickens and pigs require some sort of a grain component which then requires tillage. And until cheap energy and cheap machinery, tillage was extremely expensive…The main thing was lamb, goat and cow which was the herbivore. That was the main thing – or deer or bison or whatever – but the point is, that those herbivorous creatures can do or are made to do very well without any tillage whatsoever. And tillage has only actually been doable on a large, grand scale just in the last century.

Contrast this with the brainless, rote processes of corporate agriculture.

These insect-proof and herbicide-resistant crops make farming so much easier that many growers rely heavily on the technology, violating a basic tenet of pest management, which warns that using one method year after year gives more opportunity for pests to adapt.

Monsanto is already at the center of this issue because of its success since the 1990s marketing seeds that grow into crops that can survive exposure to its Roundup herbicide, a glyphosate-based chemical known for its ability to kill almost anything green.

These seeds made it so convenient for farmers to spray Roundup that many farmers stopped using other weedkillers. As a result, say many scientists, superweeds immune to Roundup have spread to millions of acres in more than 20 states in the South and Midwest.

Are these even farmers anymore, as opposed to just a kind of watchman? It’s certainly not skilled labor, just robotic processing.
Agroecology requires creative thinking and artful intermingling with the landbase. In fact, organic growing and farming is an art as well as a skilled craft, and the artistry and craftsmanship required, if performed on a democratic basis, offer the next great creative frontier, this time not just for a handful of specially educated elites but for all workers. While Trotsky was wrong (and probably intentionally exaggerating) when he said that with communism all of us would write like Shakespeare, it is true that as many of us as desire it can become skilled and creative artists of the land, if we choose to invest the land with our humanity and nourish our humanity through communion with the land. This shall be the only nourishment possible anyway. It’s true physically, as the Oil Age ends. And it’s true politically, as the only other attractor available is to descend to a permanent dark age of refeudalization and re-enslavement.
(I’m not personally an expert on these matters, but I gather that the system described by Salatin isn’t identical to much of the agroecology described in the report. But I see no reason that different versions can’t be intermingled or concurrent. They’re all based on the same principles.)
The wondrous experience of Cuba’s post-oil agroecology can be an inspiration and practical example to us all. One of the elements going into their success has been a concerted campaign to educate the people about how their intensive organic agriculture is skilled knowledge work, and they’ve been highly successful at that. So that’s a task for us in our own countries.
I’d like to reinvigorate Labor Day by reinforcing it with a new, specific impetus. (Labor Day is American, but the same idea can apply for labor-celebrating holidays elsewhere.) We could make it Food Sovereignty Day, or Agroecology Day (too jargonistic? any good synonym?). A name and celebration which would seek to bring a sense of immediacy to the day and shine a spotlight on action we can and must be taking right now. I was also thinking of Time Banking Day, but that can be for another post.  


  1. Great article!

    Comment by Dalienate — September 5, 2011 @ 7:22 am

  2. Nice piece, Russ. The only thing I’m not sure about is the use of the term “agroecology” to describe a specific type of agricultural practice- a corporate agriculture system is as much an agroecology (a highly dysfunctional, open-loop one) as organic agriculture or permaculture or Fukuoka-style natural farming is. At least in the academic literature, an “agroecology” is just an ecology that’s being manipulated by humans for agricultural purposes. I’m not really a fan of the term “organic” as it’s been coopted, and “permaculture” is an oxymoron.. so I think there’s room for some new terminology there.

    Comment by paper mac — September 5, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

    • Thanks, paper mac. I’ll think about that, although the way I use the term agroecology follows the way I see it defined in everything I read. Here’s two examples from differing ideological sources:

      The UN Special Rapporteur:

      Click to access 20110308_a-hrc-16-49_agroecology_en.pdf

      summary –

      Drawing on an extensive review of the scientific literature published in the last five
      years, the Special Rapporteur identifies agroecology as a mode of agricultural development
      which not only shows strong conceptual connections with the right to food, but has proven
      results for fast progress in the concretization of this human right for many vulnerable
      groups in various countries and environments. Moreover, agroecology delivers advantages
      that are complementary to better known conventional approaches such as breeding highyielding
      varieties. And it strongly contributes to the broader economic development.

      section 12 –

      Agroecology is both a science and a set of practices. It was created by the
      convergence of two scientific disciplines: agronomy and ecology. As a science,
      agroecology is the “application of ecological science to the study, design and management
      of sustainable agroecosystems.”16 As a set of agricultural practices, agroecology seeks ways
      to enhance agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes, thus creating beneficial
      biological interactions and synergies among the components of the agroecosystem. It
      provides the most favourable soil conditions for plant growth, particularly by managing
      organic matter and by raising soil biotic activity. The core principles of agroecology
      include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs;
      integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in
      agroecosystems over time and space; and focusing on interactions and productivity across
      the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species. Agroecology is highly
      knowledge-intensive, based on techniques that are not delivered top-down but developed on
      the basis of farmers’ knowledge and experimentation.

      Michael Altieri writing for Monthly Review:


      The science of agroecology—the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agricultural ecosystems—provides a framework to assess the complexity of agroecosystems.This approach is based on enhancing the habitat both aboveground and in the soil to produce strong and healthy plants by promoting beneficial organisms while adversely affecting crop pests (weeds, insects, diseases, and nematodes).4

      For centuries the agricultures of developing countries were built upon the local resources of land, water, and other resources, as well as local varieties and indigenous knowledge. This has nurtured biologically and genetically diverse smallholder farms with a robustness and a built-in resilience that has helped them to adjust to rapidly changing climates, pests, and diseases.5 The persistence of millions of agricultural hectares under ancient, traditional management in the form of raised fields, terraces, polycultures (with a number of crops growing in the same field), agroforestry systems, etc., document a successful indigenous agricultural strategy and constitutes a tribute to the “creativity” of traditional farmers. These microcosms of traditional agriculture offer promising models for other areas because they promote biodiversity, thrive without agrochemicals, and sustain year-round yields. The new models of agriculture that humanity will need to include forms of farming that are more ecological, biodiverse, local, sustainable, and socially just. They will be rooted in the ecological rationale of traditional small-scale agriculture, representing long established examples of successful community-based local agriculture. Such systems have fed much of the world for centuries and continue to feed people in many parts of the planet.6

      Fortunately, thousands of small traditional farms still exist in most rural landscapes of the third world. The productivity and sustainability of such agroecosystems can be optimized with agroecological approaches and thus they can form the basis of food sovereignty, defined as the right of each nation or region to maintain and develop their capacity to produce basic food crops with the corresponding productive and cultural diversity. The emerging concept of food sovereignty emphasizes farmers’ access to land, seeds, and water while focusing on local autonomy, local markets, local production-consumption cycles, energy and technological sovereignty, and farmer-to-farmer networks.

      But maybe my reading doesn’t run a very wide ideological gamut (I gather the Special Rapporteur is an outlier among his UN peers).

      I’ve been reading the paper you sent, “Marketing and Social Structure in China”. It’s very interesting. I was especially interested in the section on periodicity and market schedules (I guess since we’re stuck with the 7 day week for the time being, the closest thing to a once-a-week market is the 2X6 day duodenary schedule).

      The most obvious and perhaps decisive difference is of course the car, which pretty much obliterates what a footnote calls a tradeoff between the disciplines of time and space. That temporary difference may be decisive enough that there’s not much to be learned here for now, I don’t know. But I’m going to study it further.

      I received my copies of Graeber and the two Scott books. Now I have to schedule reading them.

      Comment by Russ — September 5, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

      • I think I’ll retract that terminology criticism for now, since it seems like the field is so young, and the terms in such flux, that it’s worth contesting catchy words like “agroecology” in order to assign the meanings we’d like to them. I’ve been thinking about what the constituent methods of such an “agroecology” might be, and it’s tough to get around the dogma and near-religious thinking in the field. Take that Detroit paper you’ve linked here and elsewhere- if you look at the reference for their yield calculations, they’re citing John Jeavons’ 40-year-old book on biointensive methods. It seems to be a stretch to apply his particular results in California (which weren’t exactly controlled, peer-reviewed experiments, he was trying to sell a book) to potential agricultural productivity in Michigan, even accounting for seasonal availability. Is there really no one in Michigan who’s done a controlled experiment on agricultural yields using various biointensive and commercial cultivation methods? This kind of stuff drives me nuts. We need people applying the scientific method rigorously in local areas to determine the best agroecological methods for that area. One size does not fit all. Can’t wait to get into the fields.

        Anyway, as for the China paper, I think you might be right about the transportation issue. I don’t claim to really understand the mathematical basis of central place theory, so I’m not sure how that changes things, but from a post-peak relocalisation perspective, it’s something to think about, anyway. Let me know what you think of the books, I’ll be interested to hear your take on them.

        Comment by paper mac — September 6, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

      • Sorry that the paper irritates you. I wasn’t offering it as necessarily “correct” in its findings for Detroit. (After all, its political assumptions are at least as questionable as its assumptions about suitable techniques. BTW, the Badgley study compiles hundreds of region-specific practical and scholarly studies and induces an aggregate from them, but it doesn’t prescribe any particular technique as applicable everywhere.)

        Rather, I was saying “Here’s an example of the kind of study we can do, but using better premises.”

        I agree completely that we need lots more practical experience and study derived from that.

        What were the examples you saw of a different use of “agroecology”?

        Here’s another conclusion from the China paper which may temporarily not apply to our situation. This is the most directly relevant to the “too many markets” question which started this. It found that the “standard markets” of a region didn’t worry much about overlapping with each other. Instead, the critical thing was not to overlap with any of the “intermediate markets” which encompassed that region. (To reprise why is too long for a mere comment.)

        But I suppose with today’s cars, Internet, trucking/delivery system, supermarkets, big box stores, etc. there’s no spatial difference between standard and intermediate markets, but both are everywhere at all times. That is, there’s no such distinction. To some extent that’s true even for the “central markets”.

        Now, I think if a theory derived from this is generally valid, then it ought to retain some partial validity even during this ahistorical and temporary fossil fuel blip. So I’d want to try to derive some pointers from it that we can still apply today. But I only just started thinking about it, so in my mind it’s very much in the R&D stage, if not the playground stage. (Creative play, hopefully. 🙂 )

        I’ll definitely discuss the books as I read them. Maybe we could turn one of them, e.g. the Graeber book, into an online book discussion group, if there’s other readers here who have read/are reading it.

        Comment by Russ — September 7, 2011 @ 3:28 am

      • The paper itself doesn’t irritate me, I’m glad that people are trying to sort out these issues of urban agriculture. What does frustrate me is the apparent lack of evidence for most of the techniques we’re interested in. I find myself wondering what the hell agricultural scientists have been doing for the last 50 years. In any case, hopefully we can start to rectify that.

        I’ve seen “agroecology” used to refer to everything from swiddening (IIRC Scott uses it in this way) to industrial agriculture. By itself I would assume that the term refers to an agricultural ecology and so could be applied to any ecology that’s being modified by humans for subsistence purposes. Assigning a more specific meaning to it seems like a worthwhile goal, although, as I was getting at, I’m not sure what the subset of practices it should refer to ought to be. We can easily rule things out, like the use of chemical pesticides or mineral fertilisers or what-have-you, but it’s hard to rule-in. Swiddening is a good example- I don’t know of too many people who wouldn’t reject outright the notion that slash-and-burn is not an inherently destructive practice, and I think there’d probably be a lot of resistance to attempting to develop it.

        I was at a farmer’s market yesterday, and on the way home I was trying to place supermarkets and big box stores and the like in Skinner’s typology, and I couldn’t do it. I think you might be right that the typology just doesn’t fit with this kind of highly decentralised, continuous marketing structure. I think that’s probably part of why it’s so difficult to establish periodic farmer’s markets that get the kind of market share that a supermarket might get, since the 24/7, anytime, anywhere marketing model is so embedded in the mind of the end consumer. We’ve got a system where producer->market distance is basically irrelevant (from the point of view of product spoilage etc), where equivalent markets are continuously open and distributed liberally across the landscape (food deserts in poor urban areas excepted, and consumer->market distance is much less relevant than it would be without cars and cheap gas. We’re trying to prepare for a situation where basically none of those conditions are true.. I don’t think I appreciated until I started thinking about this since you started posting about the farmer’s market, how difficult a task that is. I’m going to try to read Skinner’s paper more carefully and try to think about how things have changed in China since he wrote it. If I come up with anything, I’ll let you know.

        Comment by paper mac — September 7, 2011 @ 11:13 am

      • Yes, evidently Cuba’s agronomists working on this were far more productive during the 70s and 80s even though they had to live on budgetary scraps from the table. They amassed a huge amount of knowledge and were persistent enough that when the oil was cut off theirs was “one of the ideas lying around”.

        I hadn’t thought before of there being a battle over the term agroecology, but I feel like I’ve been on the right track just using it implicitly to mean organic and related practices.

        To get food customers to think in terms other than the industrial system is a major part of the endeavor, so I suppose getting them to think in terms of the best markets being time and space limited is just another new idea to propagate, much like the propositions that organic is better, local is better, etc.

        Comment by Russ — September 7, 2011 @ 11:29 am

  3. There is a minimum land threshold for Salatin’s methods; I think he would say it’s about 20 acres, but possible on 10. Animal manure is crucial to rebuilding soil over any area. It seems, in my mind, it would be a much longer process converting food waste over time to repair soil.

    Also, at Polyface they really don’t grow any vegetables or fruit “commercially.” They raise animals for meat and keep chickens for eggs. There is a family vegetable garden (>1000 sq. ft) next to the house, but that’s all. They also compost extensively, mostly offal.

    I visited Polyface for a week in December 2010, if you have any questions. I interviewed for a year-long apprenticeship but wasn’t hired.

    Comment by Ross — September 6, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

    • Yes, from what I’ve read and saw in “Fresh”


      I gathered that Salatin’s not a much of a produce grower. But he says that to convert lots of land to the pasturage he advocates wouldn’t have to touch existing vegetable acreage, since the vast majority of land in grains isn’t to feed people but goes to animal feed, agrofuels, processing into corn syrup.

      What could restore sanity to our agriculture? Salatin gives a taut formula. Currently 70% of our grain production goes to cattle feed, only 30% to people, pigs, and poultry. So take the land dedicated to that wasted 70% and restore it to grass-fed cattle raising. This would restore the balances and eliminate the problems.

      So we should just convert all of that currently wasted land to his form of herding.

      While I don’t know exactly how well things could intermingle, it seems that there wouldn’t be much conflict between various things. The Badgley study doesn’t envision, for example, converting most land now in corn to vegetable production. Rather, it projects increases among all food types including grains, if agroecological methods were used. So far as I can see, it doesn’t take into account the fact that so much grain production isn’t even used for food, but simply counts total production. Therefore, my impression is that you could incorporate Salatin’s idea without compromising the basic premise that organic can feed the world.

      (The Badgley study makes a point of saying all its findings apply to existing agricultural acreage, that all these things can be achieved without expanding the acreage. In my vision, we would also be greatly expanding the acreage, which means not only that differing modes of production can more easily co-exist, but that every finding of these practices and studies can be extrapolated if we were to redeem the land the way I picture. So we really can feed everyone.)

      If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that especially where soils have been severely degraded, the grassy perennials/pasturage would rebuild the soil more quickly than other methods, and would therefore be most appropriate for much of the land we intend to redeem. Then some years down the line, we could put it into any kind of agroecological production we wanted. And in the meantime we’d be more heavily reliant on biointensive techniques like those used in Cuba, on less land, since we’d initially be dealing with vast areas of land which couldn’t immediately perform the way the study envisions (because of soil depletion, toxicity, etc.).

      That’s interesting about the internship. What would it have been? How big is Polyface, anyway? While watching the movie I had the impression that it was pretty big, but if they gave the acreage I missed it.

      Comment by Russ — September 6, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

      • I think that the contiguous land is about 200 acres and there are a few satellite farms now that add 100 more. It would have been a yearlong apprenticeship working side by side with Joel and his son. Ultimately, I suspect my background was too off-putting for them (East Coast private school-educated, Jewish, financial speculator). But I was thrilled to be invited in the first place.

        Yes, formerly monocropped grainland will have a tough go converting to vegetable production in the near term. It will take some years of soil building efforts to have sufficient topsoil. Of course, another idea would be to simply farm top soil (composting native vegetation at certain seasonal inflections, leaf composting, etc.) As far as intermingling, Salatin rotates cows behind areas that have been previously grazed by chickens; the chicken manure enriches the grass the cows ultimately consume, or nurture themselves with their excrement. I think that animals intermingling is a crucial element to Salatin’s pasturage success.

        You’ve got my point, that I failed to articulate. Say I was going to rehabilitate 50 acres; I would follow Salatin’s model as closely as possible. Basically, allowing the land to return to a natural grassy pasture with intensively managed grazing. As part of the plan, I would also delineate that area that would go into biointensive farming and then agroecological production in the beginning so I could still focus on intensive soil creation in that area. I suppose, creating soil for raised beds from scratch. Say of my 50, I would only mark 2.5 an acre for the agro-eco farming.

        Comment by Ross — September 6, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

      • That’s some good ideas, Ross. Even if we can’t start doing it immediately 🙂 , we can start thinking in specific detail about what can be done.

        In fact, here’s a study which already plans for all of Detroit.

        Click to access 137_JAFSCD_Assessing_Food_Supply_Capacity_Detroit_Nov-2010.pdf

        It assumes lots of government forbearance/help. But in principle we can just as readily (and probably even more plausibly) do similar studies assuming various scenarios of government absence/collapse and/or social transformation. The point is to say, Given x socioeconomic premise, what can be done with this land to grow enough food immediately for y number of people while also building the soil toward much greater production a few years down the line?

        Comment by Russ — September 6, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

  4. Excellent piece and great comments! Thanks to everyone that posted comments and thanks again Russ for all your hard work. Very inspirational. Now I need to find some land far enough north so my tribe and herd of bison can weather the coming storm.

    Any suggestions as to how far north would be advisable? I’m in the S.E. (USA) right now. Climate conditions here are already bad and getting worse every year. This summer was another brutal one. Time to hit the road!

    Comment by William — September 8, 2011 @ 3:15 am

    • Thanks William. I don’t yet have a forecast on where will be the best place to go. But I agree the US southeast looks suboptimal for several reasons, physical and political.

      Comment by Russ — September 8, 2011 @ 7:05 am

      • Thank you Russ.

        Comment by William — September 8, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

    • Prognostication about future climate is a tough business, and your decisions are going to depend on what you think future emissions are going to look like, as well as the timeframe you care about. If you’re thinking it’s going to be business as usual for the next 20-30 years in terms of fossil fuel use, and you care about being somewhere that isn’t affected by severe drought and temperature increases in 2050 or so, you’re probably looking at New England or Canada. Peak oil, economic collapse, things that haven’t been considered in the latest greatest climate models, could all throw wrenches into that, but if that’s what you’re concerned about, you probably want to be making your way toward the border over the next 5-10 years.

      Comment by paper mac — September 8, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    • This: http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2010/10/20/206899/ncar-daidrought-under-global-warming-a-review/

      is a useful summary of the last major NCAR drought forecast analysis that I saw. The regions around the US/Canada border that show close-to-no-change in their drought status will still see a 1-3 deg C average temperature increase year round, with more like 1-2 deg in summer and 2-3 in winter, which will substantially change the growing climate for a lot of those areas. Those are all pretty conservative projections, though, and if we manage to keep burning oil vigorously through the back half of Hubbard’s curve, things could get a lot worse than that.

      Comment by paper mac — September 8, 2011 @ 11:20 am

      • Thanks for the information, paper mac. We need to take this into account. For example, when I wrote my planning e-mail for the seed library I want to start as a group project, one of the criteria I included for desirable seeds to save are those which will thrive a hotter, drier climate, as well as those well-equipped to withstand a greater incidence of extreme weather events.

        I certainly do expect us to dig and burn as much fossil energy as the physical (sufficient energy to drill/strip for more), political, and economic climate leaves possible. Depravity will never voluntarily stop short of that, and Peak Oil will impose the carbon cap wherever it does.

        (Of course, by political I’m not referring to the likes of cap-and-trade or other mitigation policy. I’m referring to e.g. whether a countryside is pacified enough for drilling, probably using slave labor, to continue.)

        Comment by Russ — September 8, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

      • Yeah, my base assumption is that all fossil fuels that can be burnt will be burnt. That said, I can easily envision a scenario where, in ten to twenty years, a combination of economic chaos and social upheaval make it sufficiently difficult to extract, refine, transport, and consume fossil fuels that the emissions scenarios used in climate change models don’t make a lot of sense- most of them assume either emissions stabilisation at some level, or steady growth in perpetuity, neither of which makes a lot of sense to me past a couple of decades out. That said, there’s a lot of inertia loaded into the climate system already, and most of the models don’t account for feedback effects like permafrost melting that are now widely acknowledged to be significant warming accelerants, so it’s hard to say.

        My general feeling is that the defining story of North America over the next century is going to be Grapes of Wrath writ large. Rather than Okies travelling West to California, though, it’s going to be Southerners travelling North. I don’t think a lot of people in the peak oil/relocalisation movements are really grappling with this yet. If Steinbeck’s observations are anything to go by, this is going to be a hell of a rough time. As arable land in the US breadbasket wastes away from drought, the kinds of techniques we’re discussing here are going to be of paramount importance in avoiding catastrophe. I strongly believe that incorporating this climate/agricultural/population thinking into a medium-to-long-term view of relocalisation is a good idea politically as well as practically, although I feel like the political ramifications of this stuff are way beyond my ken at this point.

        By the way, JMG has had a pretty interesting series of posts up about science fiction and relocalisation/post-oil realities over the last few weeks that I think you might be interested in. He also linked to a paper in the last one that I thought you might be interested in, as I saw a discussion about the limits of renewables in another thread:


        I have zero ability to evaluate these claims, but if it’s true that the thermodynamic limits of energy extraction from the atmosphere limit total global wind power to the order of ~1TW, that pretty much takes wind out of the calculations of the cornucopians.

        Comment by paper mac — September 9, 2011 @ 1:21 am

      • I think in the end lots of fossil fuels will remain in the ground for the reasons you say. Unfortunately, I can’t take seriously anyone who still thinks humanity will voluntarily mitigate. That’s obviously not going to happen. That’s why I bailed on climate change as one of my “things” in spring of 2008.

        Those energy arguments sure are weird. Just yesterday I was telling someone how nice it was that she has birch trees (rare around here) in her yard. She agreed and said the climate is becoming unfavorable for them. We had a good conversation about how many species will find it hard to “migrate” northward, while vermin species and disease is already doing so with ease. But then she lurches into a cornucopian diatribe about how we could provide all our energy needs and far more by building solar collectors in space. (She read about it in George Friedman’s books, of all places.) I mulled whether it was worthwhile to tell her that only cheap, infinite fossil fuels could possibly build such space platforms in the first place, and that anyway that’s nothing but a corporate boondoggle idea meant to generate lots of corporate welfare for R&D but never meant to actually be built. If the Iraq War couldn’t rationally “work”, how is this level of space platform supposed to? So it’s physically and politically impossible.

        I figured there was no point saying that and probably getting into an argument. The energy cornucopians (who are really just falling for yet another corporate scam) will either wake up or not. (I know it’s part of my job to get into arguments, but I do so much of that online that I tend to try to avoid it in real life relationships, at least where it comes to relatively peripheral things.)

        Thanks for the JMG heads up. I’ll check that out (although I haven’t read much SF).

        Comment by Russ — September 9, 2011 @ 6:45 am

      • Greer on:

        Renewable energy scam, student debt version:

        Some of these future programs may even be worth the time, though with the current trajectory of college expenses, it would amaze me if any turn out to be worth the cost.

        (I was thinking the exact same thing as I read the paragraph.)

        This is something that Cahn’s book on co-production discusses (but without mentioning physical energy):

        It’s worth noting, in fact, that the twilight of the contemporary cult of specialization is one of the implications of peak oil. A couple of decades ago, the mathematician Ilya Prigogine showed by way of dizzyingly complex equations that the flow of energy through a system tends to increase the complexity of the system over time. It’s a principle that’s seen plenty of application in biology, among other fields, but I don’t think it’s been applied to history as often as it should have. There does seem to be a broad positive correlation between the energy per capita available, on average, to the members of a human society, and the number of different occupational roles available to members of that society.

        As energy per capita soared to its peak in the industrial world of the late twentieth century, hyperspecialization was the order of the day; as energy per capita declines—and it’s been declining for some time now—the range of specializations that can be supported by the economy will also decline, and individuals and families will have to take up the slack, taking over tasks that for some decades now have been done by professionals. During the transitional period, at least, this will doubtless generate a great deal of commotion, as professional specialists whose jobs are going away try to defend their jobs by making life as difficult as possible for those people who, trying to get by in difficult times, choose the do-it-yourself route. That process is already well under way in a variety of professions

        I know from personal experience that this is heresy:

        I know it’s utter heresy even to hint at this, but I’d like to suggest that science, like logic before it, has gotten pretty close to its natural limits as a method of knowledge. In Darwin’s time, a century and a half ago, it was still possible to make worldshaking scientific discoveries with equipment that would be considered hopelessly inadequate for a middle school classroom nowadays; there was still a lot of low hanging fruit to be picked off the tree of knowledge. At this point, by contrast, the next round of experimental advances in particle physics depends on the Large Hadron Collider, a European project with an estimated total price tag around $5.5 billion. Many other branches of science have reached the point at which very small advances in knowledge are being made with very large investments of money, labor, and computing power. Doubtless there will still be surprises in store, but revolutionary discoveries are very few and far between these days

        The Hadron Collider was the proximate occasion of my anti-scientism posts from 2009. But even self-alleged anarchists seem to cringe from such anti-cornucopian truths.

        This is well said:

        That still leaves room for a good deal of duplicity, and it’s worth noting that this has not escaped the attention of the general public. It’s an item of common knowledge these days that the court testimony or the political endorsement of a qualified scientist, supporting any view you care to name, can be had for the cost of a research grant or two. I’m convinced that this is the hidden subtext in the spreading popular distrust of science that is such a significant feature in our public life: a great many Americans, in particular, have come to see scientific claims as simply one more rhetorical weapon brandished by competing factions in the social and political struggles of our day.

        I’ve argued before that this is the source of what we might call climate change denial “from the left”, like we often see on the econoblogs or among Peak Oilers. That’s part of the reason I gave up on GHG mitigation advocacy. Why side with what’s perceived as system science and get in arguments over it for the sake of advocating “good government” policy which will never be done anyway? The technical term for that is quixotic.

        This is unfortunate, because—like logic—the scientific method is a powerful resource; like logic, again, there are things it can do better than any other creation of the human mind, and some of those things will be needed badly in the years ahead of us. Between the dumping of excess specializations in a contracting economy, the diminishing returns of scientific research itself, and the spreading popular distrust of science as currently practiced, the likelihood that any significant fraction of today’s institutional science will squeeze through the hard times ahead is minimal at best. What that leaves, it seems to me, is a return to the original roots of science as an amateur pursuit.

        AKA the re-democratization of science, something I’ve also written about.

        There are still some corners of the sciences—typically those where there isn’t much money in play—that are open to participation by amateurs. There are also quite a few branches of scientific work that are scarcely being done at all these days—again, because there isn’t much money in play—and their number is likely to increase as funding cuts continue. To my mind, one of the places where these trends intersect with the needs of the future is in local natural history and ecology, the kind of close study of nature’s patterns that launched the environmental sciences, back in the day. To cite an example very nearly at random, it would take little more than a microscope, a notebook, and a camera to do some very precise studies of the effect of organic gardening methods on soil microorganisms, beneficial and harmful insects, and crop yields, or to settle once and for all the much-debated question of whether adding biochar to garden soil has any benefits in temperate climates.

        That’s very close to what we were talking about, paper mac.

        So there’s a review of one of the pieces, and I didn’t even get to the SF ones yet. That’s Greer at his best, and reminds me of why I used to read him.

        Comment by Russ — September 9, 2011 @ 9:50 am

      • Yeah, that was a pretty good post. The only criticism I would make is his suggestions about scientific misconduct. Greer, I think, has had some bad experiences in an undergraduate or graduate lab position which, imo, cause him to overestimate the extent and misjudge the nature of corruption in academic science. In writing off professional scientists, he’s dismissing the huge potential to peel off the sizeable scientific underclass which actually, you know, does the work. I think it’s been a while since Greer’s been in a lab, but it would actually be tremendously challenging to do any meaningful soil microbiology with a microscope as your sole instrument. Soil microbiology is actually really fucking complicated (which is a major reason, aside from lack of funding, why it’s not a well developed science), and has only really been tractable in a holistic systems-approach way with the advent of high-throughput DNA sequencing tech. If you want to do soil microbiology, it’s a much better idea to recruit impoverished soil microbiologists (many will be happy to merely be eating regularly and doing science) than to buy a microscope and spend a lot of time staring at dirt. On the other hand, he’s right that there’s huge scope for participation by essentially everyone in macroscale stuff like determining the effects of different tillage practices, sowing routines, etc etc.

        The diminishing returns thing is actually more heresy outside of scientific circles than inside. Most scientists are at least implicitly aware that the huge discoveries made in the early and middle parts of the last century were made on budgets that won’t get you anywhere today. Part of that is rent extraction by corporations (we buy everything we need from corps, back in the day they made it all in-house), but obviously we’re well into the diminishing returns part of the curve. At least in biology, things are still happening fast enough that people internally aren’t seeing the brick wall flying up at the end of that curve the same way the particle physicists have already, but it’ll happen soon enough.

        Anyway, I think Greer’s on the right track in more ways than one, and although I find some of his stances questionable, he’s definitely been worth reading over the past couple months.

        Comment by paper mac — September 9, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

      • At least in biology, things are still happening fast enough that people internally aren’t seeing the brick wall flying up at the end of that curve the same way the particle physicists have already, but it’ll happen soon enough.

        Is that why there’s still such an influx of biology students? (I think it was you who said that.)

        Comment by Russ — September 9, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

      • Yeah, that was me. I really don’t know the reason for it, but I suspect that’s part of it. When I started in undergrad, in 2002, those were heady days, two years after the first draft of the human genome. I remember my pharmacology profs confidently predicting that in 5-10 years, we’d all be going to doctors, having our genomes sequenced, and having personalised medicine crafted for us, stuff like that. So I think a lot of people went in thinking that was the future. I don’t know what enrolment rates are like now, but as far as graduate students go, grad school is at least regular (if below-poverty-line in any major city) pay and honest work, so in a economy like this, people will take it as long as the funding’s still there, whether it’s got a future or not. Even the particle physicists, those guys are still getting hundreds of graduate students, even though I think there’s maybe one or two faculty positions in all of North America that open up a year. But the recognition there is more widespread that you’re never going to be working in a capacity related to your research. My suspicion is that that recognition is going to rapidly spread to other fields over the next 5 years or so.

        Comment by paper mac — September 9, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

  5. Hi Paper Mac, Hi Russ, thank you for the advice and some much needed direction. Much appreciated. I’m thinking now it would be a good insurance policy to stake out two locations. One on the Canadian border and a fall back position inside the arctic circle!

    This is all so frigging crazy, who would of ever thought all this economic and social insanity would actually be taking place. But then if you’ve ever been around any power elite types (unfortunately I have for social functions), one look in to (some of) their eyes and you see the dark evil glaring back at you. Like looking at the devil. Quite frighting.

    Thanks again for the great comments and posts.

    Comment by William — September 9, 2011 @ 7:42 am

    • I can imagine. I try not to look at them.

      Comment by Russ — September 9, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    • If you’re at the point where you need to retreat up to the arctic circle, there won’t be much point in staking out a particular location up there, as you’ll be following the caribou around anyway! In any case, good luck with your relocation/relocalisation efforts.

      Comment by paper mac — September 9, 2011 @ 11:49 am

  6. This discussion is also relevant to the “too many farmers markets” discussion. Really, when everyone is doing physical labor we are going to need veggies for sure but we are also going to need a lot of fat, carbohydrate and protein. In my experience, the best place for a small farmer to get these and to produce a surplus is from potatoes, maybe some beans, goat’s milk and chicken eggs. I would love to have a discussion of this somewhere. Even though I have a lot of farmer friends, am working on our local market and have joined my Grange, I find that most people, even small farmers, expect business as usual.

    It takes more calories to grow veggies than you get back from them. In this age where everyone is overweight and there is plenty of cheap oil it doesn’t matter much. The farmers markets are loaded with veggies in season and no one outside of the big cities makes much money. (It is still a fun community building activity.)

    Joel Salatin raises cows, pigs, chickens etc. All of those things are subject to a lot of regulation. If you try to sell milk and cheese (particularly raw products) in my state they will shut you right down. Legally I don’t think I can even give raw goat’s milk to my neighbors (and many of them beg for it.) I just can’t do it. You have to get a license to butcher your own chickens if you want to sell a few. All of these regulations are a good thing when you have to regulate an industrial corporate agricultural system. Our state inspectors are earnest, hardworking people. They are just clueless about farming and bacteriology.

    In my state (so far) you can raise a few chickens and sell the eggs. We get $6/doz. for truly free range chickens fed a little organic grain. That is good – and the chickens eat human food leftovers to produce those eggs. So the EROEI is great for chickens. Same for goats. They eat all sorts of stuff that needs to be eaten (and also stuff you wish they wouldn’t.) We fertilize the fields with the milk that we are not allowed to give or sell to humans. We bed our draft horse in peat moss and then add lime and put it into the garden and on the fields.

    Having done this for awhile, I think that you could manage a flock of 20-30 laying hens, one horse and 6 goats on a five acre parcel if you were careful. (We have more land, but we have some woods and a stream that we must protect. The horse is a real question for me because I don’t make my own hay and I don’t know how much land you would need to keep a horse through the winter on hay. I think that, depending on the soils, you might need a few more acres. Maybe someone out there knows for sure.) I think cows are wasteful – sorry dairy farmers. Horses might be wasteful too but I love mine and appreciate her heaps of manure.

    I don’t think you could grow many grains on such a farm but you could grow a lot of potatoes and, if you are careful to have several varieties you could avoid the awful blights. You could also grow a lot of berries and maybe some nuts and, of course apples and lesser fruits.

    Anyway, I am lecturer for my local Grange this year and I am trying to find a good way to get people thinking about these things. I know that if I come on too strong people will not like it. Any suggestions?

    Comment by Ellen Anderson — September 13, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    • Hi Ellen, I think you’re spot on with developing a “staples regime” for small-scale farming. I think the beans/goat’s milk/chicken eggs and potatoes is solid because it can be done on a very small scale. I think you’re estimation of needing 5 acres is even excessive but I am not sure what horses require in pasturage. But 20-30 layers could be kept on about one acre; if properly rotated, they would not degrade the land. I have less familiarity with goats so won’t even venture a wild ass guess. But again, the goats pasture rotation could be co-managed with the layer hens.

      Grains are probably not as space-effective on a small plot as other staples like potatoes. There might be some type of co-planting regime for staple grains, though. For example, in one spot in my garden I planted corn and beans in the same rows, almost on top of each other. The beans did fantastic but the corn stunted a bit. However, co-planting this way I’m confident I could get two bean crops in Northern Illinois.

      As for suggestions for encouraging people to become basically subsistence farmers again, you have to sell it as something positive. Something for the kids, something for their health, something to save some extra money, something to save a trip to the supermarket. The negatives like food supply fears drive people away.

      As for regulations, it’s a pretty awful situation when you can’t even engage in mutual exchange with your neighbors. At some point, the regulations will be unenforced or openly defied out of necessity. For now, you take a real risk of losing your property by being a good neighbor.

      Hope this was helpful.

      Comment by Ross — September 13, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

      • I agree with you that the regulations will not be changed. I guess that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, just that we won’t succeed. So how much time should we spend on it. I rely on groups like the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund and try to send them money when I can.

        The thing is that most people can’t really afford to wait until they can sell their products. You have to have a lot of money or someone has to have an off-farm job (as I do.) That is why this transitional period is so hard for people who are trying to relocalize. People think we are nuts and we are always short on time and money.

        Comment by Ellen Anderson — September 13, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

      • Ellen, Ross, thanks for all this good information. I’m printing it all out. (My own personal experience is still mostly limited to small-scale gardening.)

        FTCLDF is an excellent group. I recently heard from them about Paul’s latest attempt to decriminalize raw milk at the federal level.



        I write about NJ’s more advanced attempt to decriminalize purchases directly from dairies.

        I think Ross is right about being affirmative about food relocalization, and that’s perfect because that seems to be how more and more people are naturally seeing things like gardening, seed saving, etc. Some who do it have a clear knowledge of the political, socioeconomic, and physical threats. More have a vague intuition about these. But most of all people are doing it because they feel it’s something worthy and fulfilling. All we need to go is go with that affirmation, and only supplement it with the negative reasons.

        Comment by Russ — September 13, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

  7. Hi there Russ,
    I’ve been on the sidelines reading your posts and they are inspiring and thought provoking. Magnificent.

    I was wondering whether it is necessary that we continue to consume meat and whether it is wise to use valuable land for the production of animal meat. It is my understanding that in doing so we are limiting the evolution and diversity of flora and fauna. I am aware that mankind has always influenced evolution, but nowadays with the dwindling spaces available evolution is fighting it’s own losing battle (unless one considers concrete jungles and shallow cleared land as being good enough for evolutionary processes).

    I would also like to know your thoughts on hydroponic farming, which I think would do away with land waste, water waste and eliminate for a great deal, the amount of pesticides and fertilizers used in today’s crop farming aswell as substantially increasing yields.


    Comment by Warry — September 22, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    • Hi Warry,

      Thanks for your kind words.

      I think we need to be as diverse in our post-industrial agricultural solutions as possible, from biointensivity to this pastoralism based on perennial grasses. That’ll be key for resiliency and for freedom. I don’t know if there’s really a “better” solution than the others. But the studies and simple comparison of existing land use have found that we can do all this on the amount of land already in production. (And that’s not even counting any currently wasted land – lawns, pavement, etc. – we could redeem and put into production. There’s a vast amount of such land.) So, like Salatin says, replacing corn monocropping with his variety of grazing wouldn’t harm biodiversity at all. It would foster it. Monoculture land has almost no biodiversity – just a few weeds and vermin species. Perennial grass habitats would be vastly closer to what nature would restore if the land went completely wild. I don’t know much about biointensivity as a wildlife habitat.

      I don’t know much about hydroponics. Is that what’s involved in using aquaculture to grow greens?

      Comment by Russ — September 22, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

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