February 7, 2008

8th Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

When we built our retirement house, I made sure that it was oriented with a clear view of the farmstead on the rise to the south of us. On these cold winter days it is reassuring to look out the living room window and see smoke rising from the chimneys and an occasional glimpse of the tractor moving about as Guy does the chores.

View from our living room window.

Current Rant:

Being semi-retired is cool. While it is good to still have a reason to get up at a scheduled time every morning, it is also a relief to know that few, if any, are dependent upon me anymore. As much as a person might like to think they are indispensable it is a vain and ridiculous thought that will ultimately be proven conclusively.

Simi-retirement seems a sensible transition from useful employment to a time of unstructured leisure. It is a phasing out period during which one can figure out what to do with unaccustomed spare time. It is a time to make realistic plans to replace the retirement fantasies that one might have held while still working for a living. Fortunately I am one with more interesting pursuits than time can accommodate. There is little time to dwell on the vagaries and limitations of aging and no excuse for boredom.

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


Ethanol is being widely touted as a possible solution to the oil shortage problem. Apparently in some areas of the world, ethanol production from agricultural crops actually is economically viable. These places tend to be located in tropical areas with their long growing seasons and lots of sunshine and rain.

Brazil’s success with ethanol from sugar cane has been cited as an example of how North America could reduce its dependence on imported oil, by substituting corn-ethanol for gasoline. But, just because the technology is viable in some places does not mean it is everywhere. One must consider the huge variations between different economies and their respective rates of consumption, as well as yield differences between tropical sugar cane and temperate climate plants, such as corn.

Although Brazil’s population is nearly sixty percent as large as North America’s, their fleet of vehicles is only twelve percent of North America’s and uses less than three percent of USA’s gasoline consumption. The average North American vehicle is larger, heavier and less efficient, averaging around 21 miles per gallon of gasoline, whereas the average car in Brazil, being smaller, may obtain averages of 40 miles per gallon. Without fuel ethanol, Brazil would presently require 8 billion gallons of gasoline per year, compared to the USA’s 140 billion gallons per year.

Furthermore, there is very little suburban commuting by car in Brazil. People commute by train, bus and subway to their working places. Eighty percent of all new cars in Brazil are now flex-fueled, running on pure gasoline, pure ethanol or any combination of the two. Brazil started to produce and distribute fuel ethanol in 1975, so they have more than thirty years experience and all their service stations now have ethanol pumps and tanks. Brazilian ethanol, produced from sugar cane, is actually much cheaper than their gasoline that is distilled from locally extracted oil.

On average its price is about half the price of gasoline. In order to be economically viable the price of ethanol must currently be at least seventy percent lower than the price for gasoline.To reach a point where all gasoline could be replaced by ethanol would be quite easy for Brazil. The present cultivated area used for growing sugar cane, to be used for ethanol production, which currently replaces fifty percent of their gasoline requirements, is about seven and a half million acres. That is less than one percent of the U.S. total arable land.

In order to double their ethanol production, it would not be necessary for Brazil to double their planted area. This is because they have achieved a steady increase of three percent in yield every year, in agricultural and industrial operations, over the last few decades. In 1975, ethanol yield was 375 gallons/acre/year. In 2006 it is approaching 870 gallons/acre/year. Organic sugar cane has an even better performance record.Brazil’s available land for sugar cane expansion is approximately 44.5 million acres, so it would be very easy to replace all of their gasoline needs with ethanol. But it’s a different story for the United States.To replace all of its gasoline, 140 billion gallons per year, with ethanol from corn, the USA would need, at present yields of 400 gallons/acre/year, almost 350 million acres of corn dedicated to ethanol production alone. That is over and above the corn required for human and animal consumption. Presently the total U.S. area producing corn is 75 million acres. Approximately one fifth of U.S. total land area, 3,794,083 square miles, is suitable for cultivation. This works out to roughly 485,642,620 acres. So, by doing the math, it’s very evident that, if 350 million of those acres were put into ethanol production, there ain’t going to be a heck of a lot left to raise food on.

But, there’s still more bad news for American corn-ethanol advocates.

Sugar cane is a semi-perennial plant with a six to seven year cropping cycle. It needs far fewer nutrients than corn. In Brazil it is one of the least soil-eroding large crops because the soil remains covered by grasses most of the time, since there is no need for cultivation to control weed growth. Perhaps more importantly, sugar cane does not need to be irrigated in Brazil, whereas much of the corn in the U.S. requires irrigation.

For those who are not yet convinced that corn-ethanol production in America cannot hope to compete with cane-ethanol produced in Brazil, this should be the clincher: In Brazil all the energy required for the processing cane into ethanol comes from burning bagasse — the pulp remaining after extracting the juices. Bagasse is used as fuel to heat the high pressure boilers which provide all the thermal, mechanical and electrical energy required to produce the ethanol. Furthermore, there is at least a ten percent surplus of electrical energy produced in the process, which is sold to the electrical grid. Corn-ethanol, by comparison, requires natural gas or fuel oil plus electricity from the grid to supply its processing energy demands.

Ethanol yields, in gallons per acre, for sugar cane under good tropical conditions, is double that of corn. Considering all of these factors, sugar cane ethanol is seven times more energy efficient than corn-ethanol. Its net energy return (the amount of energy returned in relation to the amount of energy expended), expressed as ERoEI, is 9:1 while corn ethanol has an ERoEI of only 1.3:1.

Presently the U.S. needs almost four hundred thousand barrels of ethanol per day to meet current legislated requirements, but produces only three hundred thousand barrels per day. So, aside from whether American corn-ethanol is an energy efficient product or not, one must surely conclude that sugar cane-ethanol production in Brazil is not a realistic model for corn-ethanol production in America. It is very easy to replace all of your gasoline requirements with ethanol if you only need 8 billion gallons per year, and you have a crop that thrives without irrigation under tropical conditions, and occupies less than one percent of a country’s arable land.

Brazil’s success cannot be duplicated in the U.S., not for corn nor even for sugar cane grown in the southern states. There are just too many insurmountable natural differences in the two countries.

The production of biofuels on farms to ensure farmers can plough, sow and harvest food may be a prudent and wise move in an energy scarce world. However, the idea that we should plough more land or reduce food production so we can continue to go shopping for food we could more efficiently produce at home, doesn’t make any sense at all.

To be continued next time…

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

My First Wheels…

Being the oldest boy, I was dad's helper from a young age. I started milking cows when I was eleven years old and helped him build the barn and chicken house. By my twelfth birthday I was not only a fairly capable carpenter but strong and not afraid of work. My thirteenth year was one of the most memorable of my childhood...my sister, Kathleen, was born and I got my first bicycle. Kathleen came as a complete surprise. The bike didn't.

I didn't have a bike when I was a kid but always wanted one in the worst way. I learned to ride on a neighbour kid's bike and dreamed of having my own. In those days, a new bicycle cost from twenty dollars, for the cheapest, to a hundred or more for the very best aluminum ones…with shock absorbers, lights, horns and all the other neat things.

Ever since I was about nine years old, I had hoped and prayed for a bike for Christmas, but there just wasn't enough money. Mom was particularly aware of my disappointment year after year, and I overheard quiet discussions between her and dad, but they just couldn't afford it. After all, there were three other kids to buy presents for too. Nevertheless, I always hoped that there would be a bike for me.

One Christmas there was a big cardboard box under the tree with no name on it. From the shape of the box, I knew that it could not contain an assembled bike, but I convinced myself that a bike fully torn down could fit into that box. I had tested the weight of the box often enough and it certainly was heavy enough to be a bike…it even rattled like bike parts.

On Christmas Eve, the night we always opened our presents, I could hardly wait to open that big box. When it was finally taken from under the tree, dad said, "This is for all three of you boys". My first reaction was disappointment in not having a bike all to myself, but then I figured that a shared bike would be better than no bike at all. Besides, I was the oldest and biggest and shouldn't have much trouble arranging things to my advantage.

As we tore open the box, I glanced up at mom. She knew how badly I wanted it to be a bike and just shook her head ever so slightly. Even then I still had hopes that she was just teasing. It was not until I looked into the open end of the box and saw the bright red steel box of a coaster wagon that my hopes were completely dashed. It was very hard to hold back the tears as we assembled the wagon. Even though it was the best wagon I had ever seen, and my brothers were tickled with it, I could not have been more disappointed. To make matters worse, I knew that the wagon must have cost as much as a bike.

All winter long I tried to figure out how I could earn enough money to buy my own bike. I was only twelve years old and there wasn't much a kid could do to earn money. Besides the dollar per week I was paid for milking the cows, I had been earning a few dollars every spring by selling Cascara bark.

The bark of the Cascara tree, which grew wild in our area, was used to make some sort of medicine. The local feed mill bought the dried bark for a few cents a pound. Bark was collected by peeling it from the living trees. In the spring, when the sap was rising, it peeled of quite easily. The procedure required making two cuts through the bark, a foot or so apart, around a branch or the trunk of the tree and then slitting the bark between the two cuts. The section of bark would then peel off cleanly between the two cuts. On a good day a kid could peel a gunny sack full of bark.

After peeling the bark and lugging it home, it had to be dried before it could be sold. A full sack of green bark was about all a twelve-year-old could handle. After drying in the barn loft for a couple weeks, the bark shrank to about one tenth of it's green weight. But you had to make sure it was completely dry before sacking it up for selling because, if it wasn't, it would mildew in the sack and be worthless.

Since the trees die after being peeled, live trees were becoming scarce by the time I decided to save money for a bike. There were very few bark trees left on our land, so after peeling the rest of them, I had to walk farther and farther to find trees along the county roads. Most of them had already been peeled by other kids too. The chances of raising enough money by peeling bark looked pretty slim. Besides, bark could only be peeled for a period of a few weeks in the spring, so it would likely take two or three years to raise enough money for a bike.

Then one evening, right out of the blue, dad asked me if I would be interested in working for a bike. I didn't know what he had in mind, but I jumped at the chance. He had apparently been thinking about it for a while and offered to buy me a bike in exchange for clearing some land. He said that he would mark out the land the next day.

The next day, when I got home from school, I could hardly wait to get started. Dad took me out south of the barn and showed me the area that he wanted cleared. He had marked out the boundary by blazing marks on trees with an axe. After pointing out the first corner of the area, we started walking around it. My heart began to sink. The area seemed enormous. Actually, it turned out to be approximately one acre in size, but to me it seemed much larger. It looked like I'd be working for years.

There were no trees larger than six or eight inches in diameter, because it was mostly hazelnut bushes. Hazelnut grows in thick clumps. Most of the trunks are only about an inch in diameter at the ground but each clump may consist of thirty to forty tightly massed trunks. The only way they can be cut down with an axe is to chop your way around and around the clump until you finally reach the middle.

Sounds simple enough, but there's a problem—you're bending over awkwardly, trying to see under the overhanging growth, as you swing the axe with one hand, holding on to the very tip of the handle in order to extend your reach sufficiently to strike your target. If you chop too high, the stick will whip you in the face as the axe ricochets off. If you chop too low, your axe is apt to strike a rock as the blade slashes into the ground—more often than not.

The deal was that dad would buy me a bike as soon the acre of land was cleared. Clearing was defined as: The brush was to be cut off at ground level; the larger trees were to be grubbed out by the roots; all trees and brush, one inch in diameter and larger, had to be chopped into sixteen inch lengths for firewood; and all limbs and small brush had to be piled in burn piles. I could work after school and on Saturdays and holidays but not on Sundays. He also said he would buy me an axe…didn't want me dulling his good one.

I agreed to the deal. I knew it would be hard work, but it was the best option I had. Until then I had no idea about what he had in mind and, actually, I was a bit relieved because one of my jobs had already been to cut wood for the kitchen stove and now I would get a bike for doing it. Besides, I wanted to prove to dad that I could do it. The next day he bought me an axe.

Six months later, after working most evenings after school and all day on Saturdays, the land was finally cleared and the wood all cut to stove length. I confess to bribing my brothers into helping me chop the poles into firewood by telling them that I would take them for rides when I got my bike. So sometimes they would hold the poles across the chopping block while I chopped. It went a lot faster that way because I could then swing the axe with both hands, rather than having to hold the pole with one hand and chop with the other.

Also I should confess that dad helped me finish the job on the last day or two because I had taken a couple days off to fill an old well for him. The well was about three and a half feet in diameter and forty feet deep. It took two days to fill it with a shovel and wheelbarrow. But the main thing was…the long tedious job was finally done! I was pleased with myself for having seen it through and I'm sure dad was too, although he never was much for bestowing praise. I was also rather proud of my callused hands.

The very next Saturday, dad took us to the Firestone store in Vancouver to get my bike. I had assumed that we would buy a bike at one of the local stores in Washougal or Camas, but he said there would be a better selection in Vancouver, which there was.

There must have been thirty bikes of all colours, sizes and prices. Dad told me to look them over and pick out the one I wanted. There was a gleaming silver all aluminum bike that caught my eye as soon as we walked in the door. The price tag read fifty five dollars. I glanced at dad, but he didn't say a word or betray his thoughts in any way. I didn't spend much time looking at the most expensive ones because we weren't used to getting the best. But, I figured that I had earned a pretty good bike and I finally chose a bright red and white one priced at thirty six dollars. The prices ranged from about twenty five up to eighty dollars or more, so it certainly was not one of the cheapest.

I noticed dad wiping his eyes with his handkerchief before approaching the clerk to pay for my shiny new bike. As we drove home with my new bike tied to the front bumper, I was the happiest thirteen year old kid in the world.

Now that I had wheels, my world expanded humungously! Before, my territory was about two miles in any direction from home. Now it was only limited by whether or not I could make it back home before anyone missed me. I made a number of lengthy excursions that I'm sure would not have been approved of had I asked permission first.

From about age twelve I had picked fruit and nuts to earn a bit of money. Starting with strawberries in the early summer and ending with prunes in the fall, there was always some crop to be harvested. The best pickers could average around four dollars per day at the peak of the season. I did best picking prunes. They are harvested by shaking the fruit from the trees and then picking them up from the ground. The pickers were paid ten cents per box. The boxes held forty pounds of prunes and a good picker would pick forty boxes per day. I also worked for farmers during haying season in my early teens. The going rate was fifty cents per hour.

For the next three years, when I got my drivers license—and a year later my first car—I put several hundred miles on that bike. I rode it everywhere, a good part of the time with either with my little sister or one of my brothers riding with me. To mom’s dismay, I would put little Kathleen on my shoulders and take her for rides as she held on tightly to my head, often with her hands covering my eyes. Eventually the bike was passed on to my brothers when I joined the army…but it will never be forgotten.

To be continued next time…

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

Cheap food…

As much as any other single factor, cheap food accounts for North America's prosperity. We spend less of our annual incomes on food than any other people in the world. According to recent government surveys, we spend an average of five and a half percent of our disposable income on food. The British spend seven percent, the Germans eight percent, the French nine percent and the Italians eleven percent. Obviously, the less we spend on food the more we have left to spend on other consumer goods and services. Since the prosperity of our national economy is based on maximizing consumption, and since we can eat only so much food, our fuzzy logic drives us to keep food costs as low as possible so we will have more money to squander on unnecessary things.

Why is our food so cheap? Much of the reason can be attributed to the industrialization of agriculture over the last fifty years. Among other things, the larger farms are able to take advantage of large volume buying, which tends to result in lowering input costs. They also tend to make more efficient use of labor. Currently about two percent of the farms in North America produce fifty percent of all the agricultural products. The remaining ninety eight percent of the farms have to compete with the prices set by the two percent, but on an uneven playing field.

At the beginning of the 20th century, half of our population lived on family-owned farms. Now, less than two percent do. In the past fifty years, with the advent of synthesized fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics, hormones, etc., the so-called factory farms were born because it became possible to substitute fossil fuel energy, chemicals and capital for labor and resource conservation.

We are led to believe that cheap and abundant food is the backbone of a thriving economy. But the fact is that cheap food often comes at a cost that is not reflected in the grocer's price tag—the hidden costs of damage to the environment while producing the cheap food. Cheap food leads to increased industrialization of agriculture as profit per unit of production falls. Then as the giant food processing companies are able to purchase progressively cheaper commodities from the farmers, their own profits increase. Meanwhile, the farmers profit margins tend to decrease on each unit of their production.

The unrelenting drive to produce ever greater amounts of cheaper food has led to the development of largely unsustainable farming practices to the detriment of the environment. There are some major hidden costs that aren't reflected in the price we pay at the grocery store. One of them is the price which our kids will eventually have to pay in the form of environmental restoration costs. Another is the price that the consumer pays in the form of taxes that end up as subsidies and various other forms of aid for farmers.

Using our farm as an example, for the past decade the direct income we have received from the sale of beef has not quite covered the expenses of producing that beef. If it were not for the farm aid programs there would be no profit and we could not continue farming. In the farming community this is known as "farming the government", however it is the consumer that ultimately pays the price in the form of taxes.

As members of the nation's work force, it matters little where our income comes from, but as farmers it's a matter of pride. We would like to think that what we do for a living is important enough to pay its way. We don't like feeling like beggars living on handouts. But we are adjusting to the new reality. Our pride in being self-sufficient independent free-enterprisers is changing to a pride in getting as much out of the government as possible. It's becoming a matter of revenge … if the consumer wants cheap food, they'll pay for it in the end.

Sadly, I'm afraid the farmers image as honest hardworking people is suffering as a consequence of these government support programs. When the price paid at the grocery store is the total source of the farmers income, there is very little opportunity for cheating. But when the farmer must apply to the government for his profit, if there is an opportunity to cheat it could happen, theoretically at least. It's difficult to imagine anyone being such a low-life, but I've heard rumors that some people have even cheated on their tax returns … present company excluded obviously.
Farmers currently get about twenty cents of each dollar the consumer spends on food—down from forty one cents back in 1950. Unable to capture a more equitable share of the consumer's food dollar, farmers are stuck in a vicious cycle to produce ever higher volumes of cheap commodities at low profit margins. Every year we sacrifice thousands of farmers to a food system in which they are not paid an adequate price for what they produce. Farmers are left with the option of “getting big or getting out.”

Because pressure from agribusiness and food retailers encourages farmers to produce a limited range of crops, to simplify their marketing and distribution operations, different regions of North America tend to specialize in limited numbers of crop and livestock varieties. As a result, the food that we find on our grocer's shelves travels an estimated average of fifteen hundred miles to get from the farmer to the consumer. But, in spite of the added cost for freight, we still have the cheapest food in the world.

Another crisis is looming because of the way we produce our cheap food. We mix so much antibiotics into pork, beef and chicken feed, both to suppress disease and to kill gut bacteria that compete for the feed calories, that, according to some scientific reports, fifty percent of the world's antibiotic supply now goes into farm animals. This not only seems irrational but it is creating new generations of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Ironically, cheap and plentiful food has even replaced one common health problem with another. Rickets, once so common in children because of inadequate food, has been replaced with obesity…our kids are now unhealthy largely because of overeating. There is more human fat per square yard in North America than anywhere else in the world. But, contrary to what one might expect, cheap food has not eliminated hunger.

Another reason we have cheap food, although it may be relatively insignificant, is because we are able to hire cheap labor to do the stoop work involved in harvesting many of our fruit, nut and vegetable crops. Migrant laborers from Mexico, as well as the otherwise unemployable people of our own country, are willing to do this type of hard physical work only because they cannot find better jobs. Even though they sometimes earn incomes that are comparable to the more prized jobs, in my opinion (having done a good deal of this kind of work in my youth) this is a form of slavery. The vast majority of this work is piece-work, rather than hourly paid. It is very similar to the sweat-shop work in some third-world countries which we criticize so piously. Could this be construed as hypocrisy?

To be continued next time…

Have a warm day…


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