Another Day on the Farm:
I suppose I'll never get used to the fact that after a day like yesterday, when the temp dropped to minus 55F, it felt quite balmy this morning at minus 32F. Yesterday the propane lines froze up and the furnace and kitchen range didn't work until mid-afternoon. A roaring fire in the fireplace managed to keep the plumbing from freezing so we were spared further problems.
My son, Guy, was up several times during the night to thaw out the cattle water lines before they froze solid. Even though the water lines are buried eight feet in the ground they have frozen a couple times in the past. When that happens they don't thaw out until June or July.
It's strange that whenever farm product prices go up a bit ... input prices increase accordingly.
First Excerpt from "Farmageddon":
(Although this book is not yet finished, I have decided to post it as a work-in-progress rather than have it published.)
A prudent man foresees the difficulties ahead and prepares for them;
the simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.
- Proverbs 22:3
A few years ago I wrote a book, entitled, "But ... What About Tomorrow?", which dealt primarily with the unsustainability of agriculture, as it is presently practiced in North America. The basis of the idea that it is unsustainable was the fact of its absolute dependence upon cheap and abundant petroleum products.
The book was based mainly on personal experience and observations as a farmer of more than forty years. My ultimate conclusion, supported by facts gleaned from research, was that our farming methods will have to change dramatically, and very soon, if there is to be any hope of feeding the world's population once cheap oil and natural gas have dried up.
As I was writing the book, I couldn't shake the fear that I might be over-stating the effects of running out oil and natural gas. I was afraid that people might think that I was just another alarmist crackpot with an exaggerated sense of self importance. But, despite my fears, I went ahead with the project because I felt it was time that an ordinary farmer add his two-cents to the message that scientists and other experts have so desperately been trying to tell us for so many years.
Since that book was published I've read several books written by experts in the fields of energy and agricultural economics and I'm now convinced that, rather than over-stating the case, I had done just the opposite. Not only had I overestimated the amount of time we have left to prepare for a softer landing but it is now evident that I had also grossly under-stated the extent of the catastrophe that we face.
I had thought that there was still time for farmers to make significant changes toward a sustainable system of farming before oil and natural gas run out. I felt we could gradually, over a period of a couple of decades or so, repair the damage we have done to our soil and environment in our insane drive to maximize production. I believed that it is up to us farmers to lead the way to sustainable farming. But, after reading what the experts have said, I now believe that I was wrong in every instance save one: We farmers must lead the way.
There is a perfect storm brewing. Among the elements of this storm are global warming, oil and water depletion and economic collapse, to name a few. When all of these elements come together concurrently, there is great potential for an catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude. I believe that, even though it's probably too late to do much about the global warming element, there may still be time to make preparations to soften the effects of some of the other factors.
As an octogenarian, whose best-before date has long since expired, this may prove to be my last book. Despite the ominous sounding title, it is not really a doomsday book. Rather, it deals with preparing for an economic collapse and an agricultural meltdown which I predict will result largely from the ending of the cheap oil era and the concurrent demise of the United States dollar hegemony. Although the book is aimed at farmers, there is food for thought for all.
The title of this book refers to surviving or defeating the anticipated meltdown of agriculture ... labeled "Farmageddon ... in a post-oil economically-collapsed world.
The acronyms, SALT and BS, are transparent attempts to pique the curiosity of bookstore title browsers. The word SALT is a shamelessly flagrant attempt to create a readable acronym by twisting the words of the phrase: Long Term Sustainable Agriculture into Sustainable Agriculture - Long Term. The acronym BS stands for Basic Survival and was chosen for its attention getting attribute due to its more universal meaning.
Being neither a patient man nor diplomatic by nature, as my wife, Lillie, or any of my half-dozen or more kids will confirm, I have a tendency to be a bit tactless at times. Some readers may not appreciate some of my rather blunt comments. To those I say, without apology, I happen to find plain speaking to be more expedient than subtlety.
Sometimes making the point justifies the means. For instance ...
An old man walked into a crowded doctor's office. As he approached the receptionist, she said, "Yes sir, what are you seeing the doctor for today?"
"There's something wrong with my dick", he replied.
As an embarrassed hush fell over the waiting room, the irritated receptionist admonished, "You shouldn't come into a crowded waiting room and say things like that."
"Why not? You asked me what was wrong and I told you," he replied.
The receptionist continued, "Now you've caused some embarrassment in this room full of people. You should have said there is something wrong with your ear, or something, and discussed the problem further with the doctor in private."
The old man replied, "And you shouldn't ask questions in a room full people, if the answer could embarrass anyone."
With that, he walked out.
After waiting several minutes, he returned.
The receptionist, smiling apprehensively, asked, "Yes?"
"There's something wrong with my ear." he stated.
Nodding approvingly, assuming the old man had taken her advice, the receptionist asked, "And what is wrong with your ear, Sir?"
"I can't piss out of it," he replied.
To be continued next time...
First Excerpt from Defying the Odds:
It's strange how things turn out sometimes. After bumbling along for years, vaguely dissatisfied with my life but unable to put my finger on the problem, it suddenly became quite clear ... I had drifted into the wrong life! My revelation came one January day in 1962 when it dawned on me that being out of work, with a family of seven to feed, was not necessarily a negative thing ... it was actually an opportunity to start a new life ... a second chance to get it right. But, the story really begins about thirty five years earlier and several hundred miles to the north ...
In The Beginning...
I was born near the small farming community of Huxley, in central Alberta, during the great depression. Mom, dad and my sister, lived on a farm on the treeless prairie. Lois was just a month away from her second birthday when I joined the family. Mom and dad were a young couple beginning their life together while learning to cope with the difficulties of parenthood, farming and hard times.
Their weathered old clapboard house stood smack in the southwest corner of the farm, just opposite the district schoolhouse on the far side of the cross road. A handful of other unpainted buildings also adorned the barren prairie yard. There was the horse barn ... large enough to accommodate sixteen horses, a milk cow and a few chickens ... a well with the customary rope-and-bucket pumping system and, of course, the ubiquitous two-holed reading room. It may not have been impressive, but it was our home.
The farm was originally Canadian Pacific Railway land. Well of course that's a little white lie because the indigenous North Americans had lived on the land long before the CPR acquired it from the Canadian Government ... but we wont talk about how the government acquired it from them Anyway, as I understand it, the CPR had been granted a checker-board of mile-square sections, joined corner to corner on alternate sides of the right of way, all the way across Canada. The CPR, in turn, sold the land to would-be farmers and adventurers, many of whom were immigrants drawn to Canada by that very opportunity.
The best of the land was eagerly sought by farmers because of its proximity to the railway and the inevitable grain elevators which would be constructed at strategic points along its length. Grain elevators were the precursors of villages yet to come ... with their shops, schools, churches and all the other elements of civilization and commerce.
My grandparents had farmed the land before Dad took it over. They were among the earliest settlers in the area. Prior to moving to Canada, they had farmed in eastern Washington, where dad was born. I'm not sure whether grandpa knew in advance exactly were he was going, or just stumbled onto the land, but at any rate, he made a deal with the CPR for a quarter section of land at the going rate of about fifty cents per acre. Evidently the value of the CPR house, which had already been constructed, was added on to the fifty-cent per acre land price.
The sequence of events, from the time grandpa bought the farm until Dad ended up with it, is a bit fuzzy, but, sometime during this interval, Dad and two of his brothers joined with Grandpa to help him run the farm. In time, more land was purchased, more buildings were constructed, more land was broken, machinery was accumulated and, ultimately, another viable farm stood proudly on the bald Alberta prairie.
After a few years, Grandpa and Grandma decided they had struggled enough against difficult odds and returned to Washington, to live happily ever after. The brothers then took over the reins and continued farming together for several years until, one by one, they each married daughters of other farmers in surrounding communities. Although the little house on the prairie was adequate for three bachelor brothers, it was far too small for three couples and their inevitable families. So, as each brother found a bride, it became necessary to figure out who would remain on the farm and who would hit the road.
Dad was the last to marry. When his turn came, he and his remaining brother calculated what the farm was worth and worked out a plan for determining who would stay and who would leave. They agreed that the one who stayed should pay the one who left an amount equal to half of the estimated value of the farm. His brother chose to leave, so Dad bought him out and took over the farm.
Times were not easy, but my parents were young, strong and healthy. They worked hard. The months rolled by and their gains proved to be greater than their losses. Presumably, life was beautiful.
To be continued next time...
First Excerpt from "But ... What About Tomorrow?":
This book is dedicated to the settlers and homesteaders of the past whose hard work and sacrifice made contemporary farming so much easier. In particular it is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Marvin W. Fertig and family whose homestead I took over. Their efforts gave me a kick-start in farming without which I would surely have failed.
It is also dedicated to those farmers of the future who will take over from where I leave off. May they find the same satisfaction in farming and sense of reverence for the land that I felt during my tenure.
After more than forty years of struggling to hold on to the land, a strong sense of ownership has developed. But, as is true of beer, we do not really own anything ... we just have the use of it for a while. Nevertheless, it is comforting to know that "my" farm will remain in the family for at least the next generation.
The dominant theme of this book is that the world, and more specifically North America, is fast approaching a major crisis because of our present unsustainable system of farming. The reason our system is unsustainable is because it is acutely dependent upon cheap and abundant petrochemicals. The assumption that a crisis is pending is based on the estimates of experts that our oil and gas resources will run out sometime in the next fifty years ... which is barely enough time for us to prepare ourselves, provided we start very soon.
Associated with the main theme is a broad range of relevant information supporting the overriding message that: "The soil is our most precious natural resource and its proper care and management is the key to farming sustainability and human survival". Much of the book is based on my personal experiences and observations during forty years of farming. Much is also based on research.
I make no claims to expertise of any kind. I wrote the book to inform the general public of the current unsustainable state of agriculture; give warning of the consequences of not preparing for a world faced with oil and gas shortages; and to suggest solutions to the problems involved. It is written in layman's language from an ordinary farmer's perspective, by the author of "Defying the Odds" (my autobiography and first book), and focuses primarily on the pending crisis as it relates to agriculture rather than its overall effects.
A good deal of the inspiration to write this book came from three books that strongly influenced my own farming methods. One was "The Plowman's Folly", by agronomist Edward Faulkner, the second was "Out of the Earth" by the famous novelist Louis Bromfield, and the third was Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring". Although I do not presume to include myself in the same category as this august trio, I humbly submit that this book contains a message of equal importance to those which inspired it.
Floyd E. Ells
Once upon a time, in the latter half of the twentieth century, North Americans were the envy of the world. Their standard of living was unequalled in the history of civilization. In terms of creature comforts and basic amenities the ordinary person of that time enjoyed a better life than kings of the past.
One of the chief reasons for their enviable standard of living was the fact that they were the best fed people on earth. Food was cheap and plentiful. So much food was produced that, try as they might, they could not consume it all and millions of surplus tons were exported to every corner of the globe. Their whole economy was actually based upon extravagant consumption and wastefulness.
Farm production exceeded demand to the extent that competition drove profits relentlessly downward. Finally only the most efficient farms could survive. Efficiency of scale was the gospel of the time. Large corporate factory farms gradually squeezed out the traditional family farms which were once the foundation of their economy.
But there was a fundamental flaw in their system of farming, an Achilles heal that was largely ignored: The bountiful yields were dependent upon unlimited supplies of crude oil and natural gas.
By the beginning of the twenty first century, some concern was expressed about the rapid depletion of fossil fuel reserves, but most people were more concerned about the rising costs than the diminishing supply. Experts of the time estimated that there was enough oil and gas in the ground for another fifty years, at the current rate of consumption, but it was widely assumed that science and industry would surely develop some means of eliminating the dependency on these fossil fuels long before that.
But then the two most populous nations on earth, China and India, began to "westernize" their economies ... bring their people's standard of living closer to that of the western countries. The demand for crude oil and natural gas skyrocketed, as did the prices of fuel and nitrogen fertilizer. Those countries which had not squandered their oil and gas reserves soon enjoyed dominant bargaining positions and became world Super Powers by controlling the supply of these scarce commodities.
Ironically, these new Super Powers discovered they had no need for weapons of mass destruction, or even large standing armies to guard their treasures, because no nation on earth, regardless of their military supremacy, dared risk the wrath of the rest of the world for commandeering an unfair share of these scarce resources. This, as every school child now knows, is when the United Nations finally became united and effective.
Because of prohibitively high prices and the scarcity of supply, farmers the world over were forced to drastically reduce their use of fertilizer. Crop yields plummeted. North American grain exports dwindled. Food prices rose dramatically, culminating in our present perilous situation ... just fifty years into the twenty first century.
There is no point in wringing our hands and cursing Grandpa, or wondering how it was possible that his generation ... which was intelligent enough to put the first man on the moon and develop a computer program as sophisticated as Microsoft Windows (although the current version, Window Pane 2050, still requires occasional patching) ... could have been so ignorant about something as fundamental as farming. But, be that as it may, we must now live with the consequences of their greed and ignorance. May they rest in peace and may coming generations not have reason to despise us as we despise those who came before us.
To be continued next time...