February 5, 2008

6th Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

The propane truck filled up our tank yesterday. The bill came to $696.43. The last fill up was just 30 days ago. That works out to $23.22 per day to heat the house and cook the meals ... and that doesn’t take into account the wood burned in the fireplace or the power for a couple portable heating units. Maybe it would be cheaper to go south for the winter!

Our House at sunrise - minus 25C

Current Rant:

When it’s quicker to go to town and buy something, that you’re pretty sure you already have somewhere in the house but can't find it, I’m not sure whether it’s an indication that you have too much stuff; you’re poorly organized; you have too much money or all of the above. But when the high point of your day is a BM ... I’m pretty sure it’s an indication that your best-before-date has expired.

Sixth Excerpt from “Farmageddon”:
(My latest unfinished book)

Peak Oil

The term “Peak Oil” is a label for the maximum point in total global oil production. It is the point at which production just keeps abreast of consumption. It is the top of the bell curve of oil production vs consumption, beyond which point production can no longer keep up with consumption. It is also the point at which consumption will necessarily start to be reduced.

The rate of oil production, currently about eighty four million barrels per day globally, has grown in most years over the last century, but once we go through the halfway point of all reserves production will decline. Peak Oil spells the end of cheap oil. For societies and enterprises founded on constantly increasing amounts of cheap oil, the consequences of running out of cheap oil may be calamitous.

For obvious reasons, oil companies extracted the easiest-to-obtain cheap oil first. Oil was first discovered on land, near the surface, under pressure, and it was also easy to refine. Now that the easy oil is about gone, the remaining oil, often off-shore, far from markets, in smaller fields, and of inferior quality, takes increasingly more money and energy to extract and refine.
Consequently, the rate of extraction inevitably drops. Eventually all oil fields reach a point where they are no longer economically viable. When it reaches the point where it takes the energy of a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, then further extraction is obviously pointless.

Sometime in the 1970’s the U.S. oil “peak” passed by with little notice, largely because the shortfall in oil was covered by imported oil from foreign sources. When global oil production peaks, however, the event is not likely to go unnoticed because the resulting shortfall can no longer be kept secret.

Many regions of the world have already reached, or passed, their peak period of petroleum production. It is predicted that the global petroleum production peak will be reached within the present decade. If this prediction proves to be correct, then we farmers will be hard pressed for enough time to convert from an oil-abundant system of farming to an oil-shortage system before the crunch comes. If nothing else, it is a safe bet that, as global peaking approaches, petroleum product prices will increase dramatically and we will ultimately be forced to reduce our use of both fuel and fertilizer.

There is an ever-increasing amount of media attention being paid to the looming energy crisis. Very few people still argue that there will not be a problem with the energy supply of both natural gas and oil in the foreseeable future. There is also a growing acknowledgment of the fact that we could very well be facing a permanent energy shortfall, which will cause economic and societal disruptions of staggering scope and will transform our way of life.

Unfortunately “Peak Oil” is not the only “Peak” we have to contend with. There are several others that are happening concurrently. Among them are peak water and peak food, to name a couple. Collectively they are going to lead to some very serious problems.

As to global warming, a problem that could well prove to be more serious than all of our other problems combined, I am detouring the subject because it’s a problem that must be solved from the top-down. Fortunately some people, like Al Gore and Tony Blair, seem to be working on it.

To be continued next time…

Sixth Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)

Model T Ford…

A strictly chronological listing of the events in my life does not seem to work well because certain events trigger flashbacks of other related events. Our old Model-T truck is a good example.

The Model-T was one of Ford Motor Company's first mass produced models. It was the realisation of Henry Ford’s dream of making automobiles affordable to the masses, particularly to farmers whose excursions were generally restricted to the distance a horse could travel in a day. The Model-T was produced in vast numbers and with such efficiency that it could be sold very cheaply. It was designed for economical operation and easy maintenance, but with few creature comforts. It had high road clearance for the dirt roads of that time, which turned to muddy ruts when it rained. There was no electric starter, no battery, no geared transmission, no foot throttle, and no side windows. It had to be cranked by hand to start it. The transmission was an ingenious arrangement of clutch drums and bands rather than the now familiar gear boxes.

One of the fellows dad worked with at the paper mill had bought a 1925 Model-T roadster for eight dollars. In his spare time he had completely overhauled the car and converted it into a pickup truck. After working on it for several weeks, he finally had it in good running order and put it up for sale. Dad bought it from him for eighteen dollars. That old truck not only moved us to our new home but it served us well for many more years. My brothers and I all learned to drive in it. It was used to haul water from a neighbouring farm until we finally had our own water well. Dad never bothered to license the old truck, after moving with it, because it was never driven to town.

During the war years, when tires were rationed, and cost more than the old truck was worth anyway, we replaced worn out tires with blocks of oak wood bolted to the wheel rims. Wooden tires leave a lot to be desired. At slow speeds the ride was very rough…comparable to driving down a railroad track on the ties. At higher speeds the ride was a bit smoother but the oak blocks tended to break and fly off, leaving large gaps which made the old girl leap about rather hazardously…not to mention the hazard of flying shrapnel.

All things considered, the old Model-T contributed much more than just transportation. It was also an education. Out of necessity, my brothers and I became fairly accomplished mechanics. My youngest brother, Don, eventually became so adept at engine repairs that he could pull the engine out, dismantle it, replace or patch up the source of trouble and reinstall the engine in a of couple hours. He was a big strong kid and just lifted the whole engine in and out by hand.

To be continued next time…

Sixth Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)

Sustainable Farming…

Any simpleton can grow beautiful high-yield weed-free crops if he uses enough chemical fertilizers and herbicides, but that does not mark him as a good farmer. Quite the contrary … a good farmer is one who raises healthy crops without the use of such chemicals.

To my mind, the whole concept of sacrificing our soil and non-renewable natural resources for immediate riches is a Faustian bargain. The day will come when we must pay for our folly. Chemically fed crops are like drug enhanced athletic performance in that both trade immediate gain for long-term harm. To use a financial investment analogy, when we sacrifice our land for immediate income, we are spending the principle rather than the interest. In effect, we are exchanging the long term productivity of our land for such things as machinery and immediate income … killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Agriculture is more than a business; it is a cornerstone of our national economy. The food produced by farmers is not only basic to our health but to our national security. Farmland itself is an irreplaceable resource which is vital to the sustenance of life. North Americans must never allow themselves to get into a position where we rely on other nations for our food supply.

Recent projections of increasing international demand for food, coupled with rapidly shrinking global food reserves, suggest that consumers will pay more for food in the future and that poor countries will receive less North American food aid.

The word sustainable means different things in different situations. It is used in defining all aspects of the economy and environment, including dozens of definitions of sustainable agriculture alone. It appears that everyone wants a definition that includes themselves, and if they don't find one, they make up their own. Nobody apparently wants to be unsustainable.
A typical definition of sustainable farming is based on maximizing the use of natural, renewable, and on-farm inputs and minimizing reliance on the use of synthetic fertilizers and other chemical inputs. The goal being to develop an efficient system which does not require high levels of chemical inputs and is ecologically friendly.

My personal view of sustainability in agriculture is that we must meet our present needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This principle also applies to every other branch of the economy, but I want to focus primarily on agriculture and the stewardship of the land.

Responsible stewardship of the land means maintaining and enhancing this vital resource in perpetuity. The future of agriculture obviously depends upon its sustainability. Incidentally, I believe that the family-farm concept is a vital part of that sustainability but I'm afraid we may be down to the last generations of family farms in this country unless something changes drastically and soon.

Making the transition to sustainable agriculture, from where we are now, is a process that will take time. It entails a series of small, affordable incremental steps. The process not only involves changes to correct the flaws in our present system for the sake of the future, it also involves repairing the damage that has already been done, insofar as possible. One of the deterrents to making these changes is that there is presently no economic incentive for farmers to change the way they farm.

Many farmers seem to believe that their profits would drop substantially if they were to convert to a sustainable system of farming. But sustainable agriculture need not be less profitable than conventional agriculture, once established. Admittedly during the transition period, farms converting to sustainable methods will likely have lower yields initially, but this will be partially offset by reduced input costs for such things as fertilizers and pesticides.

But I agree … it is a difficult thing for individual farmers to do on their own. This is why I believe that incentives must be offered to help us through the transition period. As more and more farmers join the movement and marketing economics adjust to the changes in commodity supplies, farmers profit margins will gradually improve. But, more importantly in the long run, the ecological costs of food production will become an integral part of the price the consumer pays at the grocery store.

Farmers may also worry that converting to sustainable farming would result in a return to more manual labor. Sustainable agriculture should not be viewed as a throwback to hundred-year-old agricultural practices but as an advancement in technology. It does not mean going back to horse drawn implements … far from it. But it does require that a farmer be more knowledgeable and concerned about his farm’s ecosystem and its importance in both his life and the lives of future generations. In most cases, sustainable agriculture simply implies diversification in place of specialization.

Agriculture has changed significantly in the last half century. Production has risen dramatically because of new technologies, mechanization, increased chemical use, specialization and government policies that favor maximum production. As a result of these changes a relatively small number of farmers, using less labor, are able to produce the bulk of the food and fiber in North America.

Admittedly these changes have had some short term positive effects but there have been some serious negative ones as well. Among these are topsoil organic-matter depletion, groundwater contamination and the decline in the number of family farms. I would expect that as these adverse effects become increasingly evident the interest in sustainable farming will increase.

It is an indisputable fact that sustainability must include sufficient profit to keep the farms going for both the present and future generations. At the present time, the majority of farmers find it necessary to supplement their income with a second off-farm job. So, in essence, the job of farming is actually done by working overtime. This will obviously have to change before sustainable farming can be achieved.

According to the USDA, approximately ninety percent of rancher's and farmer's household income comes from outside sources. Such farmers actually have to support their farms through money earned, either by themselves or their spouse, from off-farm jobs. This is largely the result of high equipment and other farm input prices, and low commodity prices. Another important factor is the farm family's desire to live as well as their urban cousins.

From 1988 to 1993, even the most economically profitable farms averaged only a three to five percent return on equity. Food manufacturers, on the other hand, averaged sixteen and a half percent. Clearly, farmers receive little of the "value-added" profit accrued to the food manufacturers that process farm goods.

The growing consolidation and control of food production by a few very large corporations jeopardizes the survival of small family farms, which I believe are a key component of agricultural sustainability. Corporate factory hog farms, cattle feedlots, and poultry operations, as well as the corporations that supply them, are becoming increasingly vertically integrated.

One result of this is that more and more family farms and rural agri-businesses are being forced out of business. In effect, it also reduces many farmers to the status of corporate laborers.

Large corporate, so-called factory farms, do tend to be much more efficient than family farms for a number of rather obvious reasons. They also tend to be much more wasteful and less environmentally friendly. Eighty percent of all the corn grown in the U.S. goes to feed livestock, poultry and fish. Access to inexpensive corn and soybeans has encouraged the rapid growth of large-scale confined animal feeding operations that provide cheap meat for both the domestic and international appetites.

The explosion of factory hog farms, cattle feedlots, and poultry operations during the last few years has increased livestock concentrations, confinement housing, and separation of animals from their natural environments. As a result, these animals are more prone to disease and they require more antibiotics. Consequently their waste products often become health hazards rather than natural aids to soil fertility.

To ensure maximum weight gain in their livestock, many farmers commonly inject antibiotics into healthy animals. An estimated seventy percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. go into healthy pigs, healthy poultry and healthy cattle to promote weight gain and to minimize the disease risks associated with large numbers of animals being crammed together within one complex. Many scientists suspect that this practice helps create bacteria and viruses that are resistant or immune to antibiotics.

The U.S. beef, pork and chicken industries generate approximately two trillion pounds of manure a year which can cause problems with the environment, such as threatening neighboring waterways and air quality with obnoxious odors.

Two trillion of anything is mind boggling, so to put two trillion pounds of manure into graphical terms that I could visualize, I made some crude calculations. The manure spreaders used on our farm hold approximately ten tons per load. Two trillion pounds equals one billion tons or a hundred million spreader loads. At the rate we apply manure, one load covers a strip ten feet wide by six hundred feet long, or approximately nine loads to the mile. At that rate, two trillion pounds of manure would cover a strip four hundred and fifty feet wide clear around the world. What a glorious sight to behold!

To sum up, sustainable agriculture involves much more than merely looking after the vitality of the land, although that is the single most important factor. It must also be environmentally, economically and socially friendly. In my opinion, the only way all of these conditions are likely to be met is via the small-farm concept. Much of the world's farmland is presently in such poor condition that future farmers will be faced with the double challenge of finding ways to grow crops without the aid of fertilizers while simultaneously repairing the damage that has already been done …otherwise food production will not keep pace with a growing population.

To be continued next time…

Have a warm day…


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