January 26, 2009

20th Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

This has been the coldest winter I can remember or my memory is faulty or I'm getting soft or all of the above. The good news is there should be a decent runoff in the spring because there's lots of snow. Maybe we wont have to pump water into the dugout this year.

I was milking my goat twice a day until Guy's Holstein heifer calved. She is now providing enough milk daily for two households, her calf, two dogs, several cats, two hogs and enough left over for weekly batches of butter, cheese and ice cream.

Current Rant:

If you're tired of hearing about the current global financial collapse, here's something else to think about...

The average age of farmers in North America is sixty-plus years. Only two percent of North Americas' population are farmers. Many of us are beginning to phase out of farming. In many cases land prices are prohibitively high for next generation farmers to take over existing farms.
Fertilizer resources are depleting and costs are increasing. Much of our land is in poor condition because of poor farming practices and will not produce well without commercial fertilizers and chemical weed and pest control. It will take a decade or two to restore the land to health by using organic and/or sustainable farming practices. Meanwhile, the worlds ever increasing population needs to be fed.

The future looks bleak for those that do not have the means of growing some or all of their own food. Apartment dwellers and others that do not have even a small plot of soil on which to raise a small garden may be SOL.

I predict that farms will become smaller and more labor intensive as times get tougher. As more and more city dwellers experience difficulty in finding employment they will see the wisdom of migrating back to the country. Many farmers will likely subdivide their land into smaller and smaller parcels to accommodate the increased demand for land and farmland prices will rise.

If I was a young city-dweller with a family to feed I think I would be investing in a country place before it is too late.

20th Excerpt from “Farmageddon”:
(My latest unfinished book)

A third thing high on our list is a house that is suited for an oil-less economy. The houses that we presently live in are, like most North American houses, totally dependent upon cheap and plentiful petroleum products for heating and electricity for lighting. They are also dependent upon pressurized water systems, like the vast majority of homes in North America.

The laundry appliances and all the other household appliances that we have become so dependant upon are useless without electricity and propane. My house is heated with propane. My son’s house, although heated by an externally located wood fired hot water boiler that is piped to a heat exchanger in the house, is nevertheless dependent upon electricity to run the pump that circulates the hot water to the house, not to mention the electric fan that forces the heated air from the heat exchanger through the heat ducts.

Although we can hope and assume that electricity will still be available in a post-oil world, there are no guarantees. So it wood seem prudent to be prepared for life without electricity as well as life without petroleum products. In view of the fact that our houses are not insulated well enough to be heated by anything but large capacity central heating systems, it would likely be necessary to either improve the insulation or install some other system of heating.

Those are some of the major problems to overcome with regard to our houses. Due to differences of opinion and personal preference my son and I will likely take different approaches to solving the our individual housing problem but we do agree that changes must be made…and soon.

In my case, I am leaning toward starting over again, but this time I will build underground. We intend to live in our present house until circumstances force us to evacuate. An underground facility would only be used for emergency purposes or, if worse comes to worse, for permanent basic survival. There are a number of reasons for choosing this option but the main ones are the initial costs of construction and the ongoing costs of both heating and maintenance. My calculations indicate that it would cost considerably more to make my present house petroleum-independent than it would cost to start from scratch and build underground. Here again lead time is obviously a big factor…although not as big as the lead time required for horses. The details will be addressed in a later chapter.

Realizing the need for a sustainable source of firewood, we are considering the option of leasing some of our poorest land to the local pulp mill and let them plant it to poplar trees. Although it was back in the 80’s, it seems like only yesterday that we were busting our humps picking roots and rocks to increase our cultivated land acreage. The calluses and aching muscles of all that work are still clearly remembered and now we are actually thinking of replanting trees! It’s mind boggling to think that we would even consider such a thing, after spending so much time and effort clearing land for cultivation, but we are trying to keep open minds to every conceivable option. Desperate times may necessitate desperate measures, I guess.

Before leaving that subject, the morality of the whole business of clearing land is a bothersome thing to me. I still have guilty feelings about burning several hundred acres of trees as an expeditious way of disposing of them. Even though, at the time, we had an urgent need for more cultivated land, the absolute waste of perfectly good firewood seems immoral. But then, is it any more immoral than converting trees into paper to wipe our butts on?

Anyway, the current leasing contracts run for a period of twenty years with annual payments of twenty dollars per acre. This is far below the productive value of the land but we are betting (hoping) that the pulp mill will go bankrupt when high fuel prices make their business unprofitable, in which case the lease contract would likely be defunct and we would be left with a sustainable source of firewood. If that little scheme should fail, we already have enough firewood on our land for our foreseeable needs.

When the real American pioneers set out across the land to build their farms a couple hundred years ago, their “venture capital” was limited to the things they were able to pack into their covered wagons. They also were limited by the state of technology of their time. We twenty-first century pioneers have the huge advantage of being able to prepare ourselves for a pseudo-pioneering lifestyle with the aid of modern technology and tools.

It would be foolish to get so caught up in the pioneering spirit…just for the sake of pioneering authenticity…as to not take full advantage of modern technology as long as possible. We have no qualms about being seen as phony pioneers...we have nothing to prove in that regard. Our objective is to make the transition to oil-independence as effortless, painless and even enjoyable as possible. We have a shop full of power equipment which we will use as long as possible. Our guiding principle will be: "Do it while it's still easy."

That is about the extent of the things we felt needed to be done right away, so we next tackled the problem of establishing priorities and setting a rough schedule of transition. One thing of concern was the advisability of buying certain items that might become in big demand later on…such as wood ranges, harnesses, small field machinery, etc. With that rough outline of our preliminary thoughts and plans, the following chapter will go into more detail on specific plans and priorities.

To be continued next time…

20th Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)

Back to Square One…

After looking around for another job, in line with my qualifications, for a week or so, I began thinking about starting all over again in some new line of work. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I didn't like working for someone else. This was the moment when I realised that being out of work was not totally negative…it was an opportunity to start a new life.
In hindsight, I now realise that it was also about this time that I first started thinking of myself as a transplanted Canadian. It began to dawn on me how thoroughly Americanised I had become. Although I was never a true flag waving red white and blue God Bless America hubristic bloody American, I definitely was on the slippery slope.

I had grown up hearing stories about the good old days of farming in Canada. The stories about horses, cold weather, self reliance and independence were especially appealing. They stirred my imagination. I began to feel a desire for change and adventure.

As a teenager I had worked a bit for local farmers to earn spending money. I liked farm work but gave no thought to ever becoming a farmer. My only plans for the future, at that time, were to finish high school and get a job. Now, as I looked for a new job, my thoughts turned more and more to farming.

Betty actually had more farming background than I. She was born and raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. One day I asked her how she felt about us trying farming for a living. We discussed it and it soon became apparent that we both liked the idea. A few days later the folks dropped in for a visit and I brought the subject up with them. Dad was enthusiastic from the start—mom wasn't. Before the evening was over I suggested that maybe dad and I should drive up to Alberta for a look around. He was ready to go as soon as possible. Moms attitude was definitely negative.

Anyway, after a couple weeks of writing letters, reading newspaper adds, and hours of discussion, dad and I left our families behind, early one February morning, and we headed for Alberta to look for a farm.

February is not a good time of the year to be going north, but there was no time to waste. We had no income and I either had to find work or become self employed as soon as possible. But more importantly, if we were successful in finding a farm, it would be necessary to complete a deal as soon as possible in order to get a crop seeded, otherwise there would be no income from the farm until the following year.

Our plans were based more on enthusiasm than wisdom. Dads involvement in farming had ended back in 1929 and I was an absolute novice. Time and money were both critical factors and we had very little of either. From our inquiries, it appeared that the farther north one went, the cheaper land became. It seemed therefore that the sensible thing to do was keep going north until land prices matched our funds. What could be more simple!

To be continued next time…

20th Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?”

(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)


I've done a fair amount of research in preparing to write this book. Most of it was done on the internet because it is so handy. Admittedly my research has been primarily to find support for my theories but I try to sort out radical positions and stick with the ones that seem most reasonable.

I also "do my own math", rather than rely on other people's conclusions. For example, to determine how long it will likely be before we run out of oil, rather than using someone else's calculations, I searched for what seemed to be the least biased estimates of the amount of oil that is still in the ground and then divided that amount by the current daily rate of consumption. It works out to be approximately fifty years. If this estimate is accurate, then it is obvious that we will have to find something to take the place of oil as our main energy source very soon ... certainly within the lifetime of our kids.

The same kind of research and mathematics was applied to natural gas reserves. But the numbers I found were ambiguous so I was unable to work out a useful timeframe. Nevertheless, it is obvious that, since natural gas is also a non-renewable resource of finite quantities, there will come a time when it also runs out—possibly even sooner than oil according to some predictions. But whatever the timeframe may be, between now and then, we, just as obviously, will have to find some way of doing without the fertilizers and other compounds that are synthesized from natural gas …which we are currently so dependant upon. There is really nothing mysterious or mind boggling about it. It should be evident to any thinking person that, sooner or later, we will have to change our ways and the lead-time involved makes it wise, if not imperative, that we get started sooner rather than later.

It is well known that cheap and abundant fossil fuels have been key factors in attaining the high standard of living that we presently enjoy. Modern agriculture is closely tied to non-renewable energy sources, particularly petroleum and natural gas, a dependency which cannot be sustained indefinitely. In fact, our whole life style is absolutely dependent upon fossil fuels … primarily oil and natural gas. Without going into a lot of boring statistics, which are readily available on the internet with a few clicks of a mouse, I will just site a few basic statistics and make a couple simple mathematical calculations that are easy to understand.

According to the latest figures on the internet (2001) it is estimated that the worlds total oil reserves amount to about 1,501,000,000,000 (1.5 trillion) barrels. That figure includes an estimated four hundred and fifty billion barrels of "Undiscovered Reserves"…which seems like kind of fuzzy thinking at best.

Again, according to internet data, the current global rate of oil consumption is seventy six million barrels per day. Assuming these figures are somewhere within the ballpark, the world has 19,750 days, or fifty four years, of oil left … if we continue consuming oil at the current rate. But to my mind, that is a very iffy if.

Considering only the fact that China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, are currently embarking on modernization programs aimed at closing the gap between their life styles and standards of living of the western countries, it seems to me that the current rate of consumption might not be a good figure to use.

Presumably one of the first things these two countries will want is more cars on their roads … millions more … and more roads for the cars. To get an idea of the effect this will have on the worlds oil consumption, just look at what has happened to the price and availability of steel since China started playing catch-up in earnest. By the way, China, the world's fastest growing economy, is now using sixty percent of the total amount of concrete presently being used world-wide, which gives some clue as to what is going on over there.

Petroleum geologists have known for more than fifty years that global oil production should "peak" and begin its inevitable decline within a decade of the year 2000. Unfortunately, no presently developed renewable energy systems have the potential to generate more than a fraction of the power now being generated by fossil fuels. It therefore seems obvious that something will have to be done pretty soon or we'll be up the well known creek without a means of locomotion.

The peak in production of any nonrenewable resource is a very critical point. At that point, demand remains the same, but the supply starts dropping off. The result is rapidly increasing prices. Historically, peaks in production of mineral resources have been very close to the halfway point of the original amount of the resource. In the case of oil, once we're past the peak or halfway point, other sources of energy will likely become more economical as additional research and development takes place.

It appears that we have little time before we reach the critical halfway point for oil production. We've used up over nine hundred billion barrels globally, but we still have fifteen hundred billion barrels remaining. It seems to me that ethics, if nothing else, would dictate that we leave the "other half" to future generations. We've enjoyed the good life with our half, don't our descendants deserve a good life too?

Unfortunately, according to some experts, the estimates of the remaining oil are deceptive and unreliable. They're deceptive largely because the major oil-exporting nations have major incentives for exaggerating the estimates—the more reserves they can claim, the more oil they will be permitted to pump.

These overstated reserves could be called "paper reserves" or "political reserves." It is estimated that fully thirty percent of declared global oil reserves are in fact of the paper/political variety. Furthermore, some think that a large percentage of the undiscovered resources should not even be considered resources because they are not economically recoverable now, and never will be. In geologist terminology, a good part of them are much tighter and deeper, that is, they are much harder to find and much harder to extract and refine.

In many oil fields, the amount of energy used in finding, extracting, refining and transporting the oil is approaching the amount of energy in the oil itself. In such cases it becomes more economical to just leave that oil in the ground and look for other energy resources elsewhere.

The peak in global oil discoveries occurred back in the 1960's. Since then, geologists have discovered progressively less oil annually, and at progressively greater cost. In fact, annual oil discoveries are currently only about a quarter of annual oil consumption . Obviously, this a trend that cannot continue for very long. But, on the positive side, this should trigger a boom in sectors of the economy associated with alternative energy sources and conservation.

There will likely be much keener competition for the available oil as it becomes more scarce, which could lead to wars … but our leaders have had no problem in finding excuses for war since the beginning of civilization, so that's nothing new.

Natural gas, another non-renewable energy resource which is key to our present system of agriculture, has been used in various parts of the world for centuries. The Chinese, two thousand years ago, piped natural gas through bamboo poles from shallow wells. They burned the gas to heat large pans of sea water to evaporate it for the salt. I understand that the first commercial use of natural gas in the western world was for street lighting in Genoa, Italy, in 1802.

Natural gas is mostly methane. It is widely used to generate electricity, provide heat for industrial processes, heat our homes, and as a raw material to produce petrochemicals, plastics, paints, and a wide variety of other products including huge amounts of agricultural fertilizer.

In 2000, the U.S. natural gas consumption reached 22.6 trillion cubic feet, a four percent increase over 1999 as well as an historical peak. The decade began with 18.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas consumed in 1990 and increased steadily to 22.0 trillion cubic feet in both 1996 and 1997. By the year 2020, U.S. natural gas consumption is projected to range between 28 trillion cubic feet and 32 trillion cubic feet, with most of the increase being used for electricity generation.

In 1999, the world's natural gas consumption was 84.2 trillion cubic feet. Russia, which consumed 14.0 trillion cubic feet, and the United States, which consumed 21.7 trillion cubic feet, accounted for 47 percent of the total. By the year 2020, total world consumption is expected to range between 110 and 174 trillion cubic feet. Such numbers are incomprehensible to me except for the fact that this rate of consumption obviously can't go on forever.

With regard to alternates to oil and natural gas as our main sources of energy, there are a number of things which can be developed. Among these are solar-, wind-, thermal-, hydro- and nuclear-electric power generation, for our fixed-grid power needs. For our mobile power needs, the most obvious choices seem to be such things as hydrogen and methane gasses to fuel internal combustion engines. But until it's economically feasible—profitable in our capitalist society—to do the research and development that is required to bring these alternate fuels on-line, very little is apt to be done.

The thing that will most likely cause it to be economically feasible to develop these fuels will be the rising cost of fossil fuels as they become scarcer and scarcer. However, if it is left to industrial corporations alone, little development will take place until they have squeezed all the profit possible from oil and gas. Our governments will either have to create incentives for industry to do the job or create public agencies for that purpose. Either way, with every passing day it becomes more urgent that we put some serious effort and planning into the development of viable alternative sources of energy.

With regard to natural gas as a key source of agricultural fertilizer, the logical thing to do is prepare for the day when it ultimately runs out or becomes too costly to use for this use. The present system of agriculture might lead one to believe that farming is not possible without synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. That, of course, is bunk because nature got along just fine for eons without such synthesized chemicals. The rich organic tops soils throughout the world were developed without such chemicals or the assistance of human beings, and if mankind were to suddenly vanish, Mother Earth would get along just fine without us.

Returning to nature's ways from our artificial ways will take time, and that is the essence of our problem. If the transition period—as my personal experience indicates—is twenty to forty years, and, if our supply of oil and gas will run out in about fifty years … well, you do the math.

To be continued next time…

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Have a warm day…