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Your Children's Farm, Part 1
Friday, May 15, 2009
How will your children eat?
That is to say, how will your children, when they are your age, get food on their table?  If you guess that they will drive to the grocery store once a week and buy bananas from Central America, pork from Iowa, and a salad mix from California, you're wrong.  The way they obtain food --and the type of food they obtain-- will be almost unrecognizable from the way most Americans get food today.
In order to understand the monumental changes that even now are appearing on the horizon, it's not only useful to look into the future, it's also helpful to look at the past and present.  So, let's take a quick farm tour to provide some perspective.
Your Grandparents' Farm
Your grandparents may not have been farmers, but there's about an even chance that they were.  By 1930 there was one farm for every 20 Americans, about half of all Americans lived on a farm, and there was a farmworker for about every 30 acres of land under cultivation.  By the early decades of the last century, America had to a remarkable degree attained Thomas Jefferson's ideal of becoming a nation of farmers.
Although most farms were small, they were complex.  Farmers kept a mix of livestock and grew vegetables and other edibles.  The type of crops changed with seasons and were rotated year to year so the soil could be replenished by nitrogen-producing crops like peanuts in order to support nitrogen-consuming crops like corn.  Most of the farm family's diet came from the food they grew, and most of the surplus was sold locally to townspeople.  
And here's the most important distinction:  To a very large degree the sun was the energy source that made all this productivity possible.  The sun fell upon the grass in the pastures, the cattle ate the grass, the cow manure became fertilizer for the vegetables, and the vegetables became food for people.  It was a neat closed loop that required very little energy from outside the system.  
And so animals and plants were bred that could take the greatest advantage of the relationships within this virtuous energy loop.  Over the centuries livestock was bred that could thrive on pasture; give birth without veterinary assistance; and was indifferent to inclement weather, insects, or parasites.  These animals usually had multiple purposes.  Cattle were used for meat, milk, and as draft animals.  Chickens were bred that laid huge quantities of eggs and for their meaty caracasses.  Similarly, vegetables and fruits were selected for their flavor, hardiness and insect resistance.  These plants were chosen for their ability to compete against weeds, to throw a few sharp elbows in the Darwinian struggle in the garden. 
On your grandparents' farm, both the plants and animals were genetically stable; they produced copies of themselves generation to generation.  Farmers needed to only acquire their initial stock, and for decades and even centuries into the future then they could create food without the need to buy additional livestock or seed.
The knowledge and skill required to manage these complexities was significant.  Farmers were part businessmen, part naturalists, and part endurance athlete.  They made detailed field observations, sifted through hypotheses, and somehow cleverly combined these many elements into a productive whole that fed not only their families, but the non-farming families of America and, to a certain extent, the world.  This required not only brains but significant brawn; farm days began early and ran late for most of the year, and each day demanded punishing exertions.  But somehow, farmers were able to strike a dynamic balance with these diverse elements and each season create a minor miracle in every field and plot.
Your Farm Today        
Today, if you're an American there's about a 1% chance you live on a farm.  If you are one of the very few who do, you feed 99% of the Americans who don't live on farms as well as a many millions of people in other parts of the world.  The expansive power of the individual farmworker would have been incomprehensible just a few decades ago.  Exploiting the efficiencies of mechanization, today there is on the average one farmworker for each 720 acres of farmland.  Said another way, each farmworker is responsible for farming well over a square mile of farmland.  Over a square mile.  The concept is simply mind-boggling.
How was this achieved?  The answer is simple:  petroleum, and lots of it, at modest prices.  Crude oil is refined into gasoline, and one gallon of gasoline produces as much energy as a hard-working man can produce in two months.  All that was necessary was to invent machinery that could effectively convert this cheap energy into productive work, and the face of farming was completely transformed.  The allure of cheap energy and clever machines was irresistible.  For a modest price a modern farmer could have at his disposal the equivalent of an army of working men and draft animals.  
Beginning in the 1950s, a nation emerged from the doldrums of a ruined economy and a costly war and directed its efforts inward.  On the back of cheap energy we built a new agricultural economy with the blunt force of mechanization and commodity-level standardization.  Gone was the subtle interplay between a variety of cultivated species on a farm.  With synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides  -all hugely dependent on hydrocarbon for their commercial production--  we have been able to create abundance on an unprecedented scale.  America is awash in petroleum-based food, although delve below the surface and you can begin to see the inefficiencies.  It's estimated that for every one food calorie you consume, 11 calories of oil were needed for its production.
But abundance came at a price; a price that defies easy calculation.  Vast numbers of domesticated varieties, some in cultivation for thousands of years, simply vanished when they could not conform to the demands of industrialized farming.  While your grandparents could select from dozens of breeds of meat chickens to grow and eat, today more than 90% of all the chickens in America are grown in huge climate-controlled, automated warehouses owed by three giant corporations, and these corporations all use the same type of hybrid chicken for meat production.  The gene pool that supplies our food has dramatically shrunk, and the commercial varieties that survive are all designed to yield maximum productivity in environments that are fundamentally reliant on cheap oil.  So long as cheap oil remains available, so will remain our ability to purchase cheap food.  But, if cheap oil were to disappear....