February 9, 2008

10th Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

Minus 32C again but not much wind. The wood piles are going down faster than I had hoped and I’ve had to dig under the drifted snow to find some of it. Thinking about getting a twenty foot Shipping Container to use as a woodshed for next winter. They’re kind of unsightly things but if it’s hidden behind the garage it shouldn’t be to noticeable. Ugly in the summer can be beauty in the winter. Sure like the idea of good dry wood that’s not frozen together under snow.

Forty Foot Container

Current Rant:

What is a waste of time? Depends on one’s age and circumstances I guess. As a boy climbing trees, playing baseball, riding bikes, fishing for creek trout was about the best use of time imaginable. In school, however, daydreaming about such things during class time was deemed a waste of time. As a young man earning a living and raising a family properly occupies most of one’s time.

But, as an old man there is very little that one can do that is really a waste of time. Just the fact that you are doing something is time well spent. To a certain limit even sleeping is a good use of time, but only to the extent necessary … anything beyond necessary rest is time wasted. The key thing is to have a reason for getting out of bed.

An old person cannot have too many hobbies or interests. Anything that stimulates the mind and body is time well spent. Reading, just about anything, in a comfortable chair by the fireplace is time well spent. Surfing the internet is time well spent, especially if done to expand one’s knowledge and stimulate the mind. Taking a walk or any other activity that gets the blood circulating is time well spent.

The worst waste of time is wishing and bemoaning. Wishing accomplishes nothing. Bemoaning the past is just as useless. What is done is done and no amount of wishing or bemoaning can change it. The best that can be gained from such idleness is determining to not waste the time you still have left on such uselessness.

Get off your butt and do something!

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

Economic collapse

North America’s prosperity is built on the principal of exhausting the world's resources as quickly as possible, with little concern for our neighbours, other life forms, or even our children’s future.

Although indications are that there will be a radical economic adjustment sometime in the near future, it can yet be mitigated by timely political action. I would like to believe that our leaders will wake up in time to prevent a total economic collapse and dampen the effects of oil shortages, but, considering their record to date on ecology issues, it would seem prudent for each of us to get our own houses in order in the meantime.

An economic system can drag on for quite some time after it becomes untenable. The notion that it is possible to perpetually borrow more and more money from abroad, to pay for more and more energy imports, while the price of these imports continues to double every few years, is clearly unsound. It cannot continue much longer.

In North America, relatively few people own their homes free and clear. In the event of an economic collapse, many people therefore face homelessness, due to the loss of their income and the inability to make mortgage payments. Add to that the car-dependent nature of most suburbanites, which could lead to mass migrations of homeless people toward city centers.

North Americans are unquestionably car-dependent. Consequently, we are extremely dependent upon imported oil and the infrastructure that keeps our cars rolling. We also rely on continuous public investment in road construction and repair. Our cars are not designed to last very long and depend on a steady stream of imported parts, from both domestic and foreign sources. If these intra-dependent systems stop functioning, much of the population will likely find itself afoot or on bicycles.

The people of the Soviet Union were actually better prepared for their economic collapse than we are, even though their agricultural sector was notoriously inefficient. Many Russian people grew their own food, even in relatively prosperous times. There were food warehouses in many cities, stocked according to government regulations, although shopping for their daily needs was very time-consuming and wearisome. There were relatively few restaurants, so most families cooked and ate at home. Because of their existing conditions, it was much easier for them to adjust to an economic collapse that it will be for us.

In North America most of us get our food from a supermarket which is supplied from distant places via refrigerated diesel fueled trucks. Many others don't even bother to shop for food, preferring to eat at restaurants. When people do cook, they often just heat up prepared foods in their microwave ovens, rarely cooking from scratch.

The U.S. economy is a kind of pyramid contrivance, based on faith in its growth potential, and can only survive by continual expansion. Ours is a consumption-based economy that thrives on excessive and wasteful use of natural resources, particularly energy. Peak Oil is not a problem in itself. The real problem is the notion that infinite economic growth on a finite resource base is possible. Collapse can be triggered by the exhaustion of any one of several resources; drinkable water, breathable air, arable land, and so on. So the limits imposed by diminishing oil resources is only one of many physical limits to continuous growth.

The collapse of our economy will likely be incremental rather than sudden. I suspect it will effect one person, one family, one community at a time. The first effects may only be psychological — dreams will evaporate as hope for the future starts looking glum and ever more uncertain. As people are confronted with ever greater indignities and privations, some will become despondent and feel that they are personally at fault. No doubt some will end it all by resorting to suicide. But I expect the majority of us will eventually accept the fact that times have changed and we must learn to make the best of it.

One way to get a taste of what it may be like, for you personally, would be to try giving up driving; not cut down on driving but selling your car and refusing to ride in one on a regular basis. If this would force you to relocate, or to change jobs or careers, you might think about doing so now. You may have to do so later on when everyone else is facing the same situation.

Of course that’s a radical idea that only an extremist would take seriously, but, if nothing else, it got your attention for a moment and it might make what follows seem a bit more reasonable by comparison.

Assume that every supermarket and big-box store is out of business, having been driven bankrupt by the high cost and shortage of diesel fuel, electricity, and natural gas. As a consequence, assume that shopping is limited to local farmer's markets, small neighbourhood grocers, thrift stores and the like. Under such circumstances you may not have need for a car and there might be a tendency to buy only the essentials that can easily be carried by hand. There might also be an incentive to salvage from previously discarded items in waste dumps and repair things instead of replacing them. Learning to grow, or gather, some of your food would be another option for some.

If your present home mortgage requires that you have a full-time job, or two, in order to afford it, you might think about finding ways to change that situation so you will still have a house when you are unemployed. If you can cash out your equity in your present home and buy a place that is smaller, but will be owned free and clear, maybe you should think about it.

In shopping for an affordable home, you should pay particular attention to how difficult it will be to heat. It would be a mistake to assume that heating oil, natural gas, or firewood will always be available or affordable.

Ironically the so called third world countries will have some decided advantages over the developed countries, if and when the crunch comes. Though we may not often think about it, the vast majority of the world’s population is not nearly as dependent on petroleum products as we North Americans. It is we, in the developed countries, that will have to radically adjust our lifestyles.

To be continued next time…

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

High School…

At odd times when my mind was not on girls, I did manage to learn a thing or two in school. Actually, I did pretty well, all things considered. In fact, with a bit more effort and a few less distractions, I'm sure I could have graduated near the top of my class.

One of the biggest distractions was the fact that I, like a lot of my friends, worked night shift while going to school. On my sixteenth birthday, I started working swing shift at the Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver, Washington. This was during the war when there was a shortage of men and jobs were easy to find. You had to be at least sixteen years old to work at the shipyards. I started as a machinists helper in the Machine Shop and later became the crane operator.

We would catch the shipyard bus in Washougal, right after school, ride the bus to Vancouver, work an eight hour shift, get off work at midnight, ride the bus back to Washougal and be home around two o'clock in the morning. It was a rather tough grind, but the pay was good. I was taking home about forty dollars a week.

King Of The Road...

Not only did I start working at the ship yards on my sixteenth birthday, I also got my drivers license the same day. I had been driving since I was thirteen but not on the highways. During the war years there was considerable leniency in certain areas of law enforcement. There was such a shortage of civilian men, and such a demand for workers, that teen aged boys were often looked upon more as men than kids. I'm not sure this had anything to do with my driver license exam, but it may have.

It was about twenty five miles from home to the Washington State Patrol office in Vancouver, where driving examinations were given. I had been looking forward to getting my license on my sixteenth birthday. But as it turned out, none of my family or friends who had drivers licenses were able to go with me on that day, so I simply borrowed dad's car and drove to Vancouver by myself. It was the first time I had driven alone on highways or through towns.

Everything went smoothly. I drove boldly up to the State Patrol office, parked between two patrol cars and walked into the examiners office. After completing the application forms, answering a few verbal questions and having my eyes checked, the examining officer took me outside for my driving test. When he saw that there was nobody waiting in the car, he asked how I got there. I said, "I drove". He said, "But you don't have....", then he took of his hat and rubbed his head and said, "Oh hell...get in, let's see if you can drive."

I got behind the steering wheel and he in the passenger seat…looking half mad and half amused. I started the engine, put the shift lever in reverse, eased the clutch out, backed away from the curb a few feet and he said, "Okay, looks like you know what you're doing...pull up to the curb again."

That was all there was to it. We went back into the office and he told the clerk to issue my license. Then he looked at me, shook his head, laid his hand on my shoulder and walked away. I suspect he might have had a son in the armed forces that he was thinking about at that moment.

I had skipped my morning school classes to get my license, so I drove back to school and attended classes for the remainder of the day, then started working at the shipyard that evening. Life can be beautiful!

To be continued next time…

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

Sustainable Energy…

I've pointed out why we can't wait much longer to start converting to a sustainable system of agriculture, but it's even more important that we find a new source of energy to replace gas and oil before our reserves run out. Agriculture is absolutely dependent on petroleum fuels to power its tractors, combines, trucks, etc. Without fuel for these machines, agriculture would grind to a halt in a matter of hours ... literally. There are very few operations on today's farms that do not involve the use of gasoline or diesel powered machinery.

Farm machinery can be classified into two main categories; self-propelled (having engines) and drawn (pulled by machines with engines). Of the two categories, the self-propelled generally accounts for the major part of a farmer's machinery investment. Machinery wears out and/or becomes obsolete. A properly managed farm must allocate a certain portion of its annual expense budget for machinery replacement so that the machines are gradually replaced over a period of years rather than all at once … well duh!

In order to replace these machines in an orderly and affordable manner, the cost must be spread over a number of years. So if a farmer wishes to have no self-powered machinery more than ten years old, for example, he obviously has to annually replace at least one-tenth of this category of machines. Using this over-simplified example, it will take him at least ten years to replace all of his self-propelled machinery. Converting from a gas/diesel-fueled engine to some new kind of fuel will most likely necessitate the replacement of the entire machine rather than just its engine. In view of the tremendous costs that would entail, it seems logical that the conversion period would have to be spread over a period of a decade or more.

But the conversion obviously can't begin until the new fuel burning engines are available. See the problem? So if there is just fifty years of petroleum left in the ground and it may take a decade or more to develop and convert to a new fuel supply … go figure.

Of course, in the real world, it's not the farmer's machinery needs that will get the first attention. Ninety eight percent of us are not farmers, but most of us have cars. The automotive industry therefore will be the driving force that will develop the new technology, and that's just fine. The important thing is that it gets done, not how.

It seems to me that hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, would have been the logical source of fuel here on earth had not wood, coal and petroleum been cheaper and much easier to develop. Ironically, the relatively small hydrogen deposits thought to exist on the moon are viewed as a priceless potential source of fuel for space exploration, yet the surface of our planet is seventy percent water and we fail to develop it.

It seems safe to assume that hydrogen will be the future fuel of choice for most self propelled conveyances that have to carry their own fuel supply. Trains are good candidates for electric power and ships might go nuclear but cars, trucks, buses and farm machinery will most likely be hydrogen powered—at least that would be my bet.

Sure, there are some little problems to solve before hydrogen can take the place of gasoline and diesel fuel, but there were some little problems that had to be worked out before Mrs. Armstrong's little boy bounced around on the moon and we managed that. There were some little details to work out before the internet took over our lives and it has. There were some little infrastructure technicalities that had to be taken care of before Mr. Ford's invention became the indispensable apparatus we believe it to be. The list goes on and on, but the point is obvious.

The reason that very little has yet been done with regard to replacing hydrocarbons with hydrogen is also obvious. For one thing, the oil companies have a vested interest in holding on to their monopoly as long as possible. For another, just about every land, sea and air vehicle runs on gasoline or diesel and until there are some that burn hydrogen, there really isn't much point in producing hydrogen on a very large scale. It's a bit of a Catch 22.

If and when the move to hydrogen gets started, it seems to me that the oil companies are the logical ones to head it up. They certainly have the funds to do the research and development. They have the distribution infrastructure in place to get the product to the public and there is the added incentive that they're going to be out of work when the oil is gone. I would think there would actually be a mad scramble to get in on the ground floor.

Since I'm too old to lead the way, and my pension check falls a little short of funding the project, about all I can do is share my wisdom with you industrial giants out there ... are you listening Mr. Exxon?

First of all, the raw materials aren’t hard to find … they're not buried ten thousand feet in the ground or beneath the ocean. The ocean are it … for Pete's sake! Now that that little secret is out, what about the energy required to convert the raw material into hydrogen? Look up ... see that big yellow thing? Solar energy is free and there is even more of it than there is raw material for hydrogen production. The only drawback is it will be a real challenge for you industrial tycoons to corner the supply.

So, your raw materials and energy problems are solved … what next? You get yourself a big sparkplug thingy and hook it up to your solar panel and stick it into the water. By the way, you'll need a couple containers for the oxygen and hydrogen.

"What kind of containers?", you say. I was hoping you'd figure that one out for yourself, but, for starters, you might try using oxygen tanks for the oxygen and hydrogen tanks for … see where I'm going? By the way, you might give some thought to using fiberglass rather than steel for those tanks.

Ok, now that you've got the oxygen and hydrogen separated and all bottled up, all that's left is to sell it through your existing service stations. A system modeled on the way you dispense propane should work just fine. Oh yeah, you should have gotten together with Mr. G. Motors some time ago to arrange to have some cars ready to burn this stuff.

To be continued next time…

I would like to hear from you! You may send your comments by clicking either the Comments or the Letter icon below. Thank you…

Have a warm day…


February 8, 2008

9th Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

Snowed and blowed most of the night. Getting nasty out there. The forecast is for more of the same for a day or so. The snow banks thrown up by the snow plows are about six feet high in some places. If it drifts full behind them the roads could be blocked for a few days.

Current Rant:

Are you aware that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which our MP’s (Moron Politicians) in Ottawa signed with the US a while back, contains a clause that Canada must continue to supply the same proportion of its oil and gas resources to the US in future years as it does now? And … that we are currently export approximately 60 percent of our natural gas to them?


Canadians heat almost three quarters of our homes with natural gas and propane heats a majority of the rest. Furthermore, fertilizer prices are skyrocketing in the wake of rising petroleum prices and declining natural gas supplies. Wonder what’s going to happen as Canada’s needs continue to increase while our supply steadily declines.

Are our government leaders actually so stupid that they couldn’t see this coming … or is it possible that someone got paid off? (I’m trying to remember who our Prime Minister was when the NAFTA agreement was signed.)

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


The word “survivalist” conjures up all sorts of images. A popular one is that of a scraggly bearded wild-eyed hermit who spends the better part of his time hunkered down behind the foot-thick door of his bunker, protecting his stuff from anyone that comes along by blowing their brains out with his 357 Magnum.

My image is a little different. To me, a bona fide survivalist is a rational person who prepares in advance for potential emergencies, be they large or small. My survivalist prefers self-reliance over dependency on others. Self-reliant people try not to be dependent on governments or societies for aid in emergency situations.

The concept of survivalism is not limited to catastrophic events. Sensible survivalists plan for small emergencies as well. In fact, they would normally focus more on being prepared for the short-term emergencies of daily life of a local nature.

Long term and widespread disasters are obviously of concern to survivalists also, and they are more difficult and expensive to prepare for. But, unfortunately, most people are not able to make adequate preparations for major catastrophes of long duration, for the simple reason that: Most people live in cities.

Even for those who have the necessary financial, material and intellectual resources, including adequate space for storing provisions, preparing for long-term survival is neither a simple thing to do nor an easy decision to make. The ultimate success or failure of any survival plan depends largely on the degree of commitment one is willing to make. Those who are not willing to make sacrifices now, in the hope that their future might be more secure, are not truly committed survivalists.

One negative aspect of becoming a “survivalist” is the risk of becoming the butt of neighbourhood jokes. Survivalists tend to be looked upon as “Odd” or “Nuts”, by those who do not share their views. A thick skin helps, but a crusade to convert those who taunt is generally not a good idea. If disparagement becomes unbearable, you can always pray for a catastrophe, if vindication is that important. Then, when the detractors come begging at your door, starving and freezing to death, just think how satisfying it will be to thumb your nose and say, “Who’s laughing now?”

Stocking up for emergencies is not the same as hoarding. Stocking up while supplies are plentiful is intelligent planning. Hoarding is a greedy reaction to shortages. Timely purchases of survival items assures better variety in greater quantities. When an emergency arises, supplies will disappear very quickly, considering that even in normal times there is only a few days stock on the shelves of the average grocery store. Unfortunately, our society is geared to having long supply lines of materials, extending across continents and oceans, to constantly replenish the shelves of our stores.

Emergency survival preparation should actually be regarded as a social obligation. If every household is prepared for emergencies then the whole of society is more secure. The Mormon Church advocates having a two-year supply of non-perishable foods and supplies on hand at all times. While I’m not in total agreement with that idea, it certainly is not without merit. The main fault I find with the plan is that you would apparently be eating two-year-old stuff all the time.

Just how far to go in preparing for emergency situations clearly depends on the severity and duration of the anticipated emergency, as well as one’s geographic location. A short-duration emergency, such as a temporary electrical power outage, is really just a nuisance, requiring little more than a flashlight, some candles and some patience. Preparing for catastrophic events that could disrupt normal life for a week or more, such as a hurricane or the mother-in-law moving in (pardon the redundancy), plainly calls for a more extensive survival kit. Preparing for global calamities goes way beyond mere survival kits — about midway between the Mormon’s plan and old Noah’s of biblical times, should do.

Since a major economic collapse would likely curtail both domestic production and imports, it would be a good idea, when shopping for non-food items, to buy things that wear out slowly and are repairable. If anyone finds a place to buy such things, please let me know.

Survival is not about running away from everyone else and building a fortress to protect one’s stuff. It’s not about arming ourselves to the teeth or bashing each other over the head. And, it’s not about eating two-year-old beans and rodents for the rest of our lives. It’s about becoming as self-sufficient as possible. It’s about learning the skills necessary to live comfortably under adverse conditions. It’s about making a living as independent of society as possible. It’s also about re-learning the skills of our grandparents.

Hopefully we will never be faced with conditions that force us to assume a survival mode of any kind. But, hope is a poor thing to stake your life on. Still, one would hope that, if and when a collapse comes, it will occur gradually enough to permit us to adapt to changing conditions over a period of time — a slow decline rather than a sudden complete crash.

To be continued next time…

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

Discovering Girls…

There were other affairs of the heart as the school years slipped by, but my aspirations became a bit more realistic after the crush on my third grade teacher. I don't think the teachers were any less attractive, but by grade eight I noticed that the girls had definitely become prettier.

Girls have always been important in my life. The first was Betty Cooper, whom I have already mentioned. Another girl that caught my eye was a pretty little red-head named Colleen. I was in grade four, I think, and she was a grade behind me. We rode the same school bus and often sat together and talked, but she seemed more like my sister than a girl friend. I liked Colleen very much. She was friendly, intelligent and fun to be with. We did date a time or two in high school, but never seriously.

But the first girl that I really fell in love with was Shirley Sleight. She was a very pretty blonde girl. I first saw her one summer day, during school vacation, when I was about fourteen. A friend and I were riding our bikes to town and, as we rode past the old two storey grade school, we noticed two girls playing on the school fire escape slide. As we rode by, they teasingly waved to us. We stopped and talked. I knew right from the start that Shirley was the one for me. She was just about perfect, even the small birth mark on her left cheek seemed only to add to her pretty face.

Shirley was a very popular girl. She was one of the cheer leaders and was active in all sorts of school activities…it was hard to find her alone. I was one grade ahead of her, but there were times—ball games, school assembly meetings, and the like—when I found an opportunity to sit next to her. I talked to her at every opportunity, but it was a long time before our first night date.

When we did start dating, we usually just went to a movie. Shirley liked dancing, but I had never learned how (although she offered to teach me) and I was too embarrassed to admit that I had been taught that dancing was sinful. I have often thought how different my life might have been if it weren't for those so-called sins that so completely dominated my early life.

Thou Shalt Not…

I grew up in a very religious home. I can just vaguely remember when dad used to smoke a pipe…possibly I am just remembering pictures of him smoking. There were occasional hints from his brothers that indicated his language and behaviour, as a younger, man were not so pious, but from my earliest memories, he was a very religious man. The only time I ever heard him use a profane word was while he was recovering from a stroke in the latter years of his life.
He was a "born again Christian" and lived his life accordingly.

My religious upbringing strongly influenced my life, both positively and negatively. In our home, we were forbidden to do many things that were considered sinful. Profanity, swearing, card playing, smoking, alcoholic beverages, dancing, attending movies or carnivals, even wearing lipstick, were forbidden. We could not attend school dances. We could not work on Sundays. We went to church every Sunday as well as evening church services and revival meetings as often as possible. In fact, most of our social life was church related. We had church people over for dinner and went to their homes for dinners. There were even occasional Prayer Meetings conducted in our home.

Although dad's intentions were unquestionably good, his strict religious ideals and demands were the cause of a good deal of discomfort, misunderstanding, embarrassment and fear in the lives of his children. He made his opinions known on a variety of sins, but he was especially adamant about the sin of adultery. I never figured out exactly why he was so obsessed with that particular "thou shalt not", but it was a subject that frequently came up in our household, usually with reference to some divorced person—grass-widow, as he called them—that attended our church. Mom used to shush him up sometimes…she didn't think it was an appropriate subject to discuss in front of us kids. We, of course, didn't have a clue as to what it was all about anyway.

My religious upbringing had a profound effect on my relationship with girls. By the time I graduated, Shirley and I were dating regularly. I had been allowed to use dad's car since my sixteenth birthday. A typical date would be going to a movie, having a snack and then going for a drive in the country. Soon the driving in the country evolved into parking in some secluded spot. Our relationship gradually became more intimate, until we were faced with the ultimate test of our moral upbringing. It is with very mixed feelings that I admit to being the one that chickened-out.

To be continued next time…

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

The "Farm Problem"…

The Farm Problem—a term commonly used by economists to encapsulate a set of problems which are unique to farming—is typically defined by them as: "The relatively low income of farmers, compared with incomes in the non-agricultural economy, linked with the tendency for the farm prices to fluctuate sharply from year to year." Quite a mouthful, which sums it up neatly but incompletely. The problem also involves perceptions, politics, global trade, social structures and, probably most importantly, a lack of understanding or concern by the general population. This general lack of concern or understanding is the part I want to address.

The Farm Problem has been referred to for as long as I can remember. There was a farm problem back in the 1940's when I was a kid, though it was no doubt a bit different then than the current one. I suspect there always has been a farm problem and likely there always will be.

Frequently the problem has been related to overproduction. There is a false perception among individual farmers, that if they produce more their revenues will increase. This is true ... to a point. When individual farms produce more, and sell at the same prices as farmers who have not, they obviously stand to make relatively more than the other farmers. However, when farmers, as a group, increase the total production of agricultural commodities it tends to force the price of their produce down, along with their total revenues, because of over supply.

Since many farmers tend to follow the same expert advice, they often end up all doing more or less the same thing at the same time. Government agencies, such as federal and provincial departments of agriculture, under the guise of expert counseling, often distribute literature, offer seminars, et cetera, that encourage practices designed to increase production and efficiency. The obvious problem with such programs is that, if they are successful, the individual farmer ends up being no better off in comparison with the rest of the farmers.
Consumers, on the other hand, become the beneficiaries of increased production, in the form of cheap food and fiber.

Artificially supported prices, resulting from governmental subsidy programs for example, often create incentives for expansion, which further contributes to excessive production of specific commodities … which, in turn, necessitates more governmental interference to help dispose of the resulting glut on the market. But, perhaps the unkindest cut of all, many government aid programs, intended to help preserve the family farm, have principally benefited the larger farming operations … many of which are owned by huge corporations. The net result is that the bulk of farm subsidies have been paid to fewer than one fifth of all farmers.

The rapid improvement in agricultural efficiency, over the past fifty years, has been one of the main causes of overproduction of farm commodities. Modern machinery, improved strains of seed, selective animal breeding, increased use of chemicals and extensive irrigation are among the technological advances that have expanded agricultural yields and improved efficiency while reducing labor requirements. But increased production does not greatly increase farm revenues because food consumption is relatively unresponsive to either lower food prices or increased consumer income. Total demand for farm goods remains roughly proportional to population size.

The demand for all farm products, as a whole, tends to be relatively price and income inelastic … people consume very little more food just because the price happens to be low. Therefore much lower prices are required to significantly reduce a surplus of agricultural products than would be necessary to reduce non-farm product surpluses. Thus, the widespread adoption of more productive agricultural technologies tends to drive farmers revenues down even more, unless foreign markets are found to consume the surplus. But, the point I want to stress is, in agriculture, increasing total production does not necessarily increase total revenues.

Agriculture, as far as I know, remains the world's largest industry and farming is often cited as the prime example of pure competition. A couple of centuries ago, nineteen out of twenty North Americans made their living by farming. Today approximately two percent of the population remain on the farm and economic pressures for farmers to leave the land remain undiminished. The tiny minority of North Americans who are farmers is also diminishing in proportion to all the farmers on earth, yet we are still able to generate large surpluses for export around the world.

According to well documented statistics, per capita farm income is generally less than in the rest of the economy and tends to be far more erratic as well. For a sixty year period, from 1930 through 1990, per capita farm income in North America varied from a low of thirty percent to a high of ninety percent of non-farm income. It peaked at ninety percent in the mid 1970s and then steadily declined to about fifty percent by 1990.

During the relatively prosperous period of the mid 1970's, many farmers were influenced to go heavily into debt for additional land and larger machinery. The resulting increased demand for land by farmers, coupled with that of urban sprawl et cetera, caused land prices to rise sharply. Then when farm revenues fell, after the short period of relative prosperity, the market value of farm land dropped by approximately thirty percent, in some areas, with the result that, for the first time in fifty years, North American farm debts exceeded farm land values. Huge debts and rising interest rates, put many farmers in the position of not being able to service their mortgage payments. The resulting foreclosures put many farmers out of business, and, incidentally, some farm community banks and small businesses as well.

It is difficult to pin down what a typical farm is because of the variety if kinds and sizes of farms. They range from small labor-intensive specialty farms of ten acres or less; to large grain farms with their seemingly endless fields; to vast cattle ranches stretching from horizon to horizon. But they all have a number of things in common: They are all competing for a finite amount of arable land. They are all subject to widely fluctuating commodity prices. They are all very susceptible to the vagaries of nature, in varying degrees.

To add to the confusion, the distinction between farmers income and their wealth can be deceptive. While farmer's incomes typically lag behind those of the urban population, the average farm owner is actually wealthier than the average non-farmer. On the other hand, larger farms account for a disproportionate share of total farm wealth, leaving many smaller farmers quite poor in comparison to average urban families. But, in general, the old cliché, "Farming is a way to live poor and die rich", sums it up very well.

Let me illustrate that point by using our own farm data as an example … as humiliating as it may be. I recently reviewed our farm account books and income tax records for the last ten years. During that period, which happens to be one of the best decades of our farming career, we (a partnership of two farm families) have had an average annual net income of approximately forty thousand dollars, before taxes. To state that in another way, forty thousand dollars, in this case, represents the salaries of two full-time farmers for twelve months work…or, for example, about the equivalent of one school teacher's annual income for nine or ten months work. However, in the farmer's case, it represents not only the take-home wages for his manual labor but also his management salary and the interest on his investment. In the teacher's case, it simply represents the labor salary, because additional people are employed as school managers, and neither the teachers nor school managers are required to invest a dime in the school's assets. (Obviously, there are many other occupations that would serve equally well as comparative examples to illustrate my point…just about any occupation other than self-employment, for that matter.)

But…there's more. The forty thousand dollar net income figure, for our farm, includes all windfall income as well as all government subsidies and other governmental farm aid income. So, everything considered, the net income from the sale of farm produce (excluding windfall and government aid income) amounts to approximately eighteen thousand dollars annually, on average, for each of our two households. This is the amount that must cover each household's living expenses (food, clothing and shelter), the construction and maintenance of their home, the children's education, the utilities, the car expenses, entertainment…in short, all personal expenses for the farmer and his family.

Now, to view it from a different perspective, in our example case that magnificent sum represents the net return from sixteen hundred acres of land, two to three hundred breeding cows and somewhere between two and three hundred thousand dollars worth of machinery and structures—a total investment in excess of a million dollars—PLUS the labor of two farmers. It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to see that we would be much better off, financially, to invest that amount of money elsewhere at three or four percent interest. Live poor…die rich?

But, to get back to the Farm Problem rant, one would think that persistently low farm income should cause the market value of farm land to be relatively low. But the competition for available land among farmers, and from non-farmers as well, tends to keep the market value of arable land disproportionately higher than its productive value. Cities, airports, highways and industries gobble up large chunks of some of the best agricultural land, and, in the process, drive up the value of the adjacent land.

Urban sprawl is also forcing land prices up, as is the recent trend toward country living by professional people. Farmers, therefore, must often compete with highly paid professionals for the limited amount of available land. They must also indirectly pay the high wages of factory workers when buying farm machinery and they, more often than not, must borrow money to operate their farms and pay high interest rates for the privilege

Farm products, like all other goods, are subject to the basic economic law of demand … quantity demand is lower at higher prices and vise versa. But, demand for food, in total, fluctuates little when prices change since the total quantity of food that people consume remains relatively constant. However, quantities of specific foods consumed (apples, oranges, bananas for example) may change significantly with price fluctuation because one commodity can readily be substituted for another. The same is true of meats … when beef prices are high, in comparison to pork or chicken, for instance, pork or chicken will be substituted for beef until beef prices are driven down to more competitive levels.

Hundreds of experts are offering advice, making the rules and scheming for a piece of the action. For decades the bulk of their advice has been designed to promote larger and more efficient farming operations. The agricultural advisors, the lending agencies, the machinery companies and governmental agricultural policy makers all promote the trend to larger and larger farming operations with an ever increasing dependency on chemicals and greater mechanization. Ultimately this may result in the few remaining farmers being in a better bargaining position than they presently are, if they should choose to organize. But, in my opinion, due to the inherent independent and competitive nature of farmers, that's highly unlikely to happen in the near future…if ever. I say if ever because, in a democracy where only two percent of the population are farmers, the vast majority, who are non-farmers, is highly unlikely to permit a situation to develop in which the two percent could dictate food prices. The majority will obviously change the rules.

Granted, most, if not all, businesses have a variety of problems to cope with. There are certain risks and uncertainties associated with just about any way of making a living. But very few, if any, business enterprises have to contend with the variety of risks and uncertainties of the farmer. The weather is a prime example. Tourism, sports events et cetera can be just as dependent on the weather as farmers, but, although the weather effects everyone and every occupation to some degree, the fact is … farmers are constantly at the mercy of the weather. Prolonged periods of hostile weather can wipe us out. Weather anomalies, such as hail storms or tornadoes are merely nuisances, by comparison. But, obviously the weather is favorable most of the time, otherwise there would be no farmers.

It's difficult to make comparisons between farmers and factory workers, trades people and other blue collar workers, because these occupations have very little in common. For the same reason, it's just as pointless to compare farmers with professional people, such as school teachers and bankers. Farmers can only be compared logically with other business entrepreneurs.

Most businesses are able to set the price of the product or service they provide. Sure, they all must be competitive and deal with the effects of supply and demand, but most at least have some control and some bargaining leverage with regard to the selling price of their product or service.

Farmers, by comparison, do not have this advantage. Almost without exception, farmers make their plans and invest their time and money without benefit of knowing what they will receive in return. And, to further complicate things, most farmers must make decisions and commitments months, or even years, before any hope of a payoff. Once the seed is in the ground, the cow is bred or the new machine is purchased, there is no turning back. The commitment has been made and the farmer's future is on the line. To make matters worse, many farmers only have one payday per year.

But, to be fair, it must be pointed out that farmers, as a group, must take their due share of blame for their present predicament. Many farmers who are in trouble now are in that position because of their own bad management practices. However, blaming ones troubles on someone else is just as popular with farmers as with any other group. Pointing the finger at the bankers and politicians is a handy alibi for those of us who are not willing to admit to our own faults. Bad luck can be a factor, but I suspect that the majority of farmers who are in severe financial difficulty are the victims of at least some of their own bad decisions.

Having said that, it does not seem reasonable that farmers can be held responsible for all of the problems of agriculture. On the contrary, we can only be held accountable for a small part of the current crisis in agriculture. Hopefully, my attempt to identify some of those who must share the blame with us will put things into perspective and promote a better understand of why we farmers are in the position we find ourselves in today.

To be continued next time…

I would like to hear from you! You may send your comments by clicking either the Comments or the Letter icon below. Thank you…

Have a warm day…


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…


February 6, 2008

7th Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

Have had to start a little fire every morning in the “Cave” stove during this cold spell. The Cave is a twenty foot Cargo Container (sometimes known as Sea Cans) which we buried in a side hill to serve as a combination root cellar and emergency housing facility. Besides the potatoes and carrots, which keep very well there, there is also a wood stove, solar lighting, a bed, table and chairs and a supply of emergency items … candles, firewood & kindling, matches, saws, axes, blankets, several cases of beer, a gattling gun, a case of hand grenades, etc.

When the ambient temperature is greater than zero degrees F, the temperature inside the Cave stays above the freezing point, without auxiliary heating. In the summer the temp stays around twenty to thirty degrees below the ambient temperature … nice place for a snooze on a hot summer afternoon.

The Cave during construction.

Current Rant:

With the economic downturn now looming in the United States, it is highly unlikely that the policy changes necessary to ensure global ecological sustainability will be enacted in the near future. But it may actually be better for the economic collapse to come now rather than later because continuous economic growth is deadly to the ecology. Our throw-away consumption tradition and explosive population growth are only possible by using up fossil fuels and destroying ecosystems. So far we have proven to be unwilling and unable to address climate change, and other environmental threats, with the haste and drive that is required. The longer we wait to take action on such things as reducing coal consumption, forest depletion, population explosion, renewable energy implementation and emission reductions the harder the job will be for future generations and the more severe will be the consequences.

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

Peak Water

A third of the world’s population presently faces some form of water scarcity. Physical scarcity, as opposed to economical scarcity, occurs when the water resources cannot meet the demands of the population. Economic scarcity occurs when the cost or water exceeds the return on investment. Arid regions are most associated with water scarcity. Physical scarcity is exacerbated by “artificial” or “created” scarcity, which is the result of self-indulgent waste.

There is a sickening trend in increasing artificially-created scarcity. The thousands of private swimming pools found all over North America and the ubiquitous artificial oases called golf courses, so familiar in desert areas, are good examples.

Worldwide, agricultural activities consume more water than any other enterprise. Agriculture consumes up to seventy times more water than is used in drinking and other household purposes, including cooking, washing, bathing and flushing.

The inevitable results of excessive water consumption are dried up and polluted rivers, declining groundwater and regional shortages. Egypt, with its great Nile river, imports more than half of its food because it does not have enough water to grow it domestically. Australia is faced with major water scarcity in the Murray-Darling Basin as a result of diverting large quantities of water for use in agriculture. The shrunken Aral Sea, in central Asia, is one of the most visible examples of the effects of massive diversions of water to agriculture, causing widespread water scarcity along with an environmental catastrophe. The Colorado River water is allocated beyond its natural flow and little of the river, that once handled ocean-going vessels, now reaches the ocean.

One quarter of the world's population lives in river basins where water is now physically scarce. Another billion people live in river basins where water is economically scarce. As a result many people around the world, who are dependent on rivers, lakes and other wetlands, risk falling into poverty or starvation.

The Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies approximately 225,000 square miles in the Great Plains region of the Unites States, has long been a major source of water for agricultural, municipal, and industrial use. The usage of this once-thought unlimited water source, began at the turn of the twentieth century and has now greatly surpassed the aquifer's rate of natural recharge. Some places overlying the aquifer have already exhausted their underground supply as a source for irrigation. As long as high capacity pumps continue to be used, it may only be a few decades before vast areas of this aquifer are pumped "dry". If and when high powered pumps can no longer be used, because of energy shortages, irrigation will cease. Approximately one third of North America’s cropland is irrigated in this unsustainable manner.

We do not have the technology to replace the quantities of "fossil water" that have been squandered. Ocean water can be desalinized, but not in sufficient quantities to maintain the present population and their necessary crops. If global warming fears materialize, heat and reduced rainfall could exacerbate the problem.

The total amount of water used globally in crop production could increase from 1,725 cubic miles annually to as much as 3,240 cubic miles by 2050, if the world’s population growth continues at the present rate. Responding to the resulting increased food demand by diverting more water to agriculture and expanding the total area used by agriculture, does not appear to be a viable option.

To be continued next time…

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

Grade School…

By the time school started in the fall of 1936, we were pretty well settled in our new home. There were three of us kids going to school by then. We caught the bus about a quarter mile from the house at 7:30am and returned home around 4:30pm. In those days, each school bus made two trips picking up and returning kids, night and morning. Our bus driver was a high school senior who lived just a short distance from us. Since the bus stayed at his place at night, we were the first kids he picked up in the morning and the last to be dropped off at night.

My third grade teacher was Miss Roley and I had a crush on her right from the start. I was very shy, but I always felt comfortable around Miss Roley. It was her younger brother that drove our school bus and she sometimes rode home with us. While waiting for the bus after school, I often erased blackboards for her and did other little things to help...but mainly it was just to be near her. She was very pretty.

One day after school, I was helping Miss Roley when a man, whom I had never seen, entered the room. Miss Roley introduced us, which made me feel very important. The man's name was Reggie Russell. He seemed almost as nice as Miss Roley and talked to me while she finished some paper work.

On the first day of school after Christmas vacation that winter, Miss Roley made an announcement as she wrote the words "Mrs. Russell" on the blackboard. She said she had married Mr. Russell and we should now call her Mrs. Russell. From their reaction, the girls apparently thought that was wonderful news but I was devastated. Mrs. Russell moved away at the end of that school year and I never saw her again until we happened to meet in a grocery store years later.

By that time I too was married and a parent as well. We recognised each other instantly. She was still very pretty and as we shook hands she told me I had been her favourite student. I blushed and stammered that she was my favourite teacher. I still have my grade three report card and the note Mrs. Russell wrote to my mother, which reads: "I want you to know how very much I've enjoyed working with Floyd. He is not only an excellent student, but also a wholesome, loveable all-around boy. Sincerely, Alice Roley Russell." When Mom showed me the note and I saw the word "loveable", I knew instantly that Miss Roley understood how I felt about her too.

To be continued next time…

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

The Tragedy of the Commons…

"The tragedy of the commons", a term coined by Garrett Hardin in his science article "The Tragedy of the Commons", has become a metaphor to signify the misuse of public resources (the commons) by private individuals when their personal interests conflict with the common good. It is a metaphor that I use in this book as an aid to understanding the effects of certain behavioral patterns of both farmers and non-farmers.

The core of the tragedy of the commons concept is that, when individuals share a publicly owned property, there is a tendency for each individual to maximize his own benefits without regard for the whole. The best strategy, from the individual's standpoint, is to try to exploit more than his or her share of public resources. Obviously if every individual follows this strategy, the public resource becomes overexploited and that, of course, is a tragedy for all.

Consider a publicly owned pasture, that can indefinitely support a maximum of fifty head of cattle, which is used by a group of twenty five people each having two cows. So long as each individual pastures only two animals the pasture will sustain all of their animals indefinitely.

But as soon as some wise guy figures out that by grazing one extra cow he can make roughly fifty percent more profit, at an increased cost of only one fiftieth more to himself, the whole communal enterprise (the common) begins to suffer. This temptation for each individual to keep adding cattle for his own personal gain ultimately reaches a point which is beyond the capacity of the common to sustain them all.

Other examples of individual lack of concern for common property would include pollution of waterways, logging of forests, over fishing of the oceans and throwing trash from car windows. While each individual may only contribute a small amount, the combined effect of all individuals can become large enough to degrade or destroy the resource. (Obviously, two of these examples involve putting things into the common rather than taking something out.)
Individuals within a group have two options—they can either cooperate with the group or cheat. Cooperation means that every individual agrees to protect and preserve a common resource for the good of all … every individual agrees not to take more than their share. Cheating by greedy individuals who use more than their share of public resource eventually results in failure for all.

Two obvious solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons phenomenon are enforcement of the rules by an authority or converting the common ownership into private properties … thus giving individual owners an incentive to protect the sustainability of their piece of the pie.
If we think of air and water bodies as examples of commons, it is easy to see whether or not they are kept clean of pollutants without regulation. Obviously they are not, largely because controlling pollutant emissions works against the short term economic interests of someone … industries and cities for example. But eventually, when so much damage has occurred to these public resources that it becomes intolerable, legislation is passed to enforce their clean up and restrict further pollution.

I see a parallel between Winston Churchill's famous statement about democracy ("Democracy is the best form of the worst type of government") and private ownership of land, in that private ownership is probably the best of two bad options. Private ownership of land creates some incentive to look after the land while public ownership gives incentive to exploit the land. Unfortunately private ownership also affords an opportunity to misuse land if one is so inclined.

The logic of the commons has been understood for a long time, perhaps since the beginnings of agriculture or at least since the concept of private property in real estate. But even after the passing of decades and centuries, cattlemen leasing public land still don't seem to understand the consequences of pressuring authorities to increase the permissible numbers of cattle per acre to the point where overgrazing destroys the carrying capacity of the range land.

The oceans of the world are suffering similarly because of the concept of the freedom of the seas. Although it was once felt that the resources of the oceans were inexhaustible, species after species of fish and aquatic mammals are coming closer and closer to extinction because individual nations choose to cheat rather than cooperate. But that is beyond the scope of this book.

To be continued next time…

Have a warm day…


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…