Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How much is too much?

I've been doing rather a lot of manual labour recently—digging out a basement, digging out a pond and using the spoil from both to build a foundation for the poly tunnel on a sloping field. As I'm sure most of you know, doing work such as this is a great way to ponder things over: the body is occupied so the mind is free to roam. As such there are often thoughts drifting through my head that I try to file away mentally under the category 'Possible blog topics'. Often, however, they are merely questions for which I have no answer.

One such thought occurred to me last week as I attempted to dig over a patch of turf and turn it into a small area for planting vegetables. Labouring away with a mattock, I first had to break the sod, then turn it over and break it up some more with a few more vigorous hacks. Then I had to bend over and pull out the various bits of grass and weeds before moving onto the next bit. When it was all done I had to break up the large clumps of soil and dig little trenches for the seedlings to sit in, and finally I had to put rabbit-proof fence around it and lay a slug trap (a plastic milk bottle, half full of beer, set into the soil). It was quite an effort, but by the end of six or so hours I had a nice patch of turned earth in which to plant some sweetcorn, peas, beans and turnips.

While I was doing this, in the next field over, a man turned up with a tractor. It wasn't a quaint old-style tractor that you might see on a picture of an old farm—no, this was one of those giant modern ones that looks like an SUV on steroids. Indeed, it was so large that it was wider than the country lane leading to the field—which was only ever meant to be wide enough for two horses to pass—and I later saw that it had driven there with one wheel on the verge, leaving a trail of crushed wildflowers in the process. In a quarter of the time it took me to dig my little patch by hand, the tractor went over the entire 10 or so acres in the neighbouring field, turning and tilling the soil until it was a fine crumbly mixture, and then planting many thousands of potatoes in it.

Which got me thinking: how much energy is too much energy? From the perspective of the agribusiness that owns the land adjacent to mine, their method is obviously seen as the most efficient. After all, they no doubt have fleets of tractors, easy-flowing credit and lakes of pesticides to throw at the 'problem' of getting the land to yield a saleable commodity. My method, by contrast, is highly inefficient. For all the physical energy I put in, I'll probably get back about the same amount in terms of calories—assuming the birds, rabbits and slugs don't jump into the middle of my equation and eat my produce first.  In energy return terms, my method probably comes in at 1:1 or slightly less (although it would be higher if I were planting potatoes or other starchy crops).

But that wouldn't be taking into account all the other factors that, in my opinion, make the low-tech human-powered method the more sustainable. Here are some of the things that I count as benefits, but which would not show up on the balance sheet of the agribusiness 'farming' the next field:

- I am not disturbing the soil too much. More and more research is showing that deep ploughing by machinery is ruining the structure and the content of soil. It takes years—decades even—for soil to find a healthy balance, and by violently disturbing it every few months we destroy the immensely complex communities of organisms that make soil soil rather than dirt. [Taking this further, when my poly tunnel is up I'll be experimenting with no-dig gardening, in which the soil is hardly disturbed at all.]

- I am not killing too many earth worms. Worms are our soily allies. They turn decaying matter into worm casts, which is highly enriching for soil and plants. There are inevitably a few casualties even when digging by hand, but this is nothing in comparison to the millions that must be sliced in half by the tractor blades next door. And no, cutting a worm in half does not make two worms - it makes two halves of a dead one.

- I am getting exercise. No need to join a gym when you spend the day digging!

- It costs me almost nothing (I already own the land, the tools and the seeds) - which is very helpful as I have recently lost the only means of paid employment I had and every penny counts.

- I am fostering a deeper sense of my place in this particular ecosystem. Instead of seeing the land as something I can bludgeon into submission with chemicals and machines, I get to see it as it really is: a community of organisms working together to create the whole. I am but one organism within that rich community, and by working slowly and deliberately my mind has time to adjust to this reality rather than be shielded from it.

- The food will nourish me and my family far more than the chemically-raised mono crop being grown in the field next to me. My food is grown from organic heritage seeds, will be eaten fresh and won't be packaged. The distance it will travel before it is eaten will be negligible.

- I am being part of the human community in the area. By working the land and growing food and fuel I will be able to swap it with others, or even give them some if they need it. By contrast, the agribusiness does nothing but take. None of the local people even know who is driving the tractors, who owns the business or where the money goes to. It certainly doesn't end up in the local area.

I'm sure we could all think of other benefits, but the point is that 'efficiency' is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to growing food. In essence, I managed to dig enough ground to grow some healthy and nutritious food for me and my family, and during the same time the man driving the tractor—probably earning minimum wage—earned enough to buy a few Big Macs (and the company he was working for probably earned a few thousand pounds to pay in dividends to shareholders or purchase some more distressed land from yet another broke farmer). I could summarise as:

Agribusiness: How many costs can we externalise so that the land earns the business maximum profits?
Me: How much money can the land save me, and how many other intangibles can it earn both for me and it?

In a nutshell, the agri-business is exploiting what remains of any integrity the land has at the expense of its longer term viability. By wrecking the soil structure, dousing it with chemicals and growing four crops per year (one crop of daffodils, two crops of potatoes and one crop of cabbages last year) the soil has been reduced to little more than a medium for absorbing chemicals and keeping plants upright in. What's more, the field is being ploughed in the wrong direction, with the tractor driving up and down the contours rather than across them, meaning that every time there is a heavy burst of rain the local roads and streams are turned bright red with soil being washed away. This soon finds its way into the sea, and I saw a large bloom of red in the sea back in March as the soil was washed away.

But, in any case, why should the tractor driver care if the soil is washed away? He is probably a migrant worker and is being paid by the job, so the quicker he can get it done the better. He will move onto a new job in a different area the next day and there is no obvious reason for him to care about the damage being done to the land. He's just doing his job, right? Who can we locals complain to about the soil that is being washed away if it is not 'our' soil and we don't know which companies are responsible for this act of vandalism?

Yet all of this damage is possible because of cheap fossil fuels. Oil to turn into pesticides, gas to turn into fertiliser, oil to build and fuel the tractors, oil to transport and process the produce far and wide and oil to keep the economic model ticking over and provide a basis for leveraged debt-based growth to occur in order that giant agribusiness conglomerations can claim that this is the only efficient way of growing food.

So, the question remains, how much energy is too much energy and at what point does too much cheap energy begin to kill us?


  1. I usually read your posts via RSS, so I see the first version to be published - typos and all. Although you've now corrected it, I thought this typo to be quite poetic: "every time there is a heavy burst of rain the local roads and streams are turned bright red with soul being washed away".

    That aside, the work you're putting in now is a large part of your lifetime investment; using permaculture, no-dig, and forest farming means that you won't have to repeat too much of it - so your return over the long term will be far better than 1:1, I suspect!

    1. Yes, I spotted that typo and it made me chuckle too. Don't you just love auto-correct? I once wrote a cooking article which involved the sentence 'Peel the aubergines and rub salt into the flesh before frying in olive oil' - and it changed 'aubergine' to 'aborigine'.

      And it was for a vegetarian recipe ...

  2. There is so much wrong with everything that 'we' do as a global species. We have been told so many times that it is all necessary to provide for everyone and for those projected to be born (when in fact it is all about corporate greed for money) that we accept it as the only way. This in itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and populations explode.
    It is all predicated, however, on an abundant supply of cheap energy which is rapidly running out.
    What you are doing on your land, along with many others in this land of gardeners, will not alter the status quo but it will provide a platform on which local communities can attempt to rebuild.
    There will be famines and death along the way but that which cannot be sustained ultimately will not.
    We have to regain the mindset of simply living on what our manual, solar-powered labours can provide and whatever size of population that can be fed on that is the population we are meant to have.
    Easier said than done though as growth/collapse is hard-wired into human nature.

    1. Good points, Paul. I've never considered that it is possible to change the status quo as long as there is cheap energy to be had. However, everything we do now changes the *status futurus*. The ways in which out present day actions and communications interact with the future is something we will never know.

      As Kurt Vonnegut said (before he died): '"If, God forbid, I should ever die, the first thing I'll do when I get to heaven is ask St Peter "What were the good decisions and what were the bad ones?"'

  3. "So, the question remains, how much energy is too much energy and at what point does too much cheap energy begin to kill us?”

    Don’t you mean, “When DID it begin to kill us?” ;)

    1. Maybe peak oil, redefined, is the point at which cheap oil ceases to kill us, and expensive oil takes over the job ;)

  4. Petroleum, the anomaly that allowed even the proles to fancy themselves as so many Gods and Goddesses. The fuel that turned our globe into an industrial wasteland, and our brains into cyborg narcissist fed on immediate gratification via distraction amounting to nothing.

    While I was reading your blog, I couldn't help but think that humans need more than just energy. EROEI applied to food growing? That sounds too much like the logic that created that infernal tractor to begin with. A large part of the yield in growing your food with your shovel is the connection you make with the Earth. At least that's true for me. To the point where I quite literally feel that I'm fulfilling my purpose when doing so. I often chuckle at that, that I split atoms and worked on a meat wagon and none of that amounts to planting a food producing tree, or a medicinal herb.

    Society is screwed. Luckily for the survivors of this Orwellian New World Bravely, there are people like you and I whom treat our place on the Earth as sacred. Whom seek to learn natural ways so as to preserve them and I suppose hopefully alleviate some senseless suffering.

    1. For several thousand years we've had to apply EROEI to food production, although unwittingly. Maybe it is what led us to our current situation ... hunter-gatherers never had to consider such things in such detail - either the land provided or it did not. Maybe it's our obsession with control that has allowed us to lose sight of the fact that we've, er, lost control.

      So, you've gone from split-atoms, to split-heads to split-beds? A wise progression!

  5. I've been doing a lot of manual work lately too as I weeded my herb bed by hand, learned how to mow with a European scythe, found out that a properly sharpened and adjusted reel mower is a serious lawn mowing tool, and used a broadfork to prepare a bed for tomato, pepper, eggplant (aubergine to you), and herb seedlings. Like you, I've had ample time to meditate as I've done so, and to enjoy the sight and sound of birds and the sound of frogs. Like you, I more than regain the effort I've spent in terms of healthy food and a healing property that sustains much more life than it did before my efforts. And like you, I think, the effort has made me fully human in a way which I could not have understood when I was a lab rat (the scientific equivalent of a desk jockey).

    1. Oh yes, a scythe! I could really do with one of those right now but will have to make do with my father's old petrol mower. The thistles got a little *too* out of control last year, so this year I aim to keep at least some areas thistle-free.

      I know what you mean about the healing effect. I used to sit and count the hours in some jobs, now I just listen to the birds as I'm working and feel thankful that I have something useful to do that I enjoy. It's deeply rewarding.

    2. Claire - I have now sent off for my Austrian scythe!

  6. I would add not just energy but all other resources such as iron, aluminum, copper, rare metals.
    When I lived for ten years without electricity (by choice), I had an old farm pump in a small room off the main room and a retaining tank in the ceiling. When friends came to visit, I would tell them to use all the water they wanted, they simply had to pump it. It was amazing how quickly people learned to conserve.
    I have suggested for years a work shop where people were given a listing of the electrical use of various appliances - pumps, hair dryers, washing machines, etc. - and a limited amount of watts they could use a week. They could choose any thing they wanted but once their limit was used they had to wait.
    When after ten years, I got some solar panels and was still off grid, I had to watch the weather to know when I could say vacuun clean or even use my computer on the small inverter.
    As an aside, I have radically changed my mind about so-called "renewables"
    and http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2014/03/reality-again.html

    1. I lived off grid for a couple of years in Spain. It really wasn't that difficult, once you had adjusted to the limits. Enough electricity for lights, a laptop and music was usually enough. We also ran a fridge off it, and on sunny days, we were able to use the washing machine (if not, we just waited).

      Workshops are all very well, but most people go back to their old ways once the temporary limits are removed.

  7. We are starting to grow veg organically, and find a lot of beneficial wildlife moving in very quickly: frogs, toads, ladybirds & their larvae, etc. You just wouldn't get that in monoculture as it is all dependant on petro/mechanical means, with everything else killed off by pesticides.

    However, when I voice this opinion, someone else argues that it's the only way to feed the current population. It couldn't be sustained if everyone did what we did. I found it difficult to counter that argument (as they also didn't believe peak oil is likely). What else can I say to show them it is unsustainable anyway long-term?

    (Mrs Eve)

    1. Hello Mrs Eve. It's a tired old argument that I'm wearily familiar with. Unfortunately modern agriculture is a 'suicide machine' that will kill most people sooner or later. It basically turns oil into food and then turns food into pollution, and ruins the land in the process. If you were evil and tried to devise a better system for killing people and planet, you'd have a hard job!

      In any case, it has been proven that intensive organic agriculture yields far more than industrial mono cropping. Take away the cheap oil, unnatural fertilisers and pesticides and we're in big trouble. The only example I can think of where this has happened and people rose to the challenge is Cuba. Have a look at:


    2. This argument is not so much false as it has an unstated assumption. Making it explicit, the argument would become "there is no way for one person to feed 100-200 other people without modern agriculture". With the possible exception of even higher-tech robotic hydroponics, this is absolutely true. But stating it this way allows us to ask whether this is a good way of doing things. Which is the greater problem, labor shortages or unemployment? Surprisingly, the answer the farmers I know give is labor shortage. They are having a tough time finding people willing to do the work. That brings up the question, why? Is the problem intrinsic to the work itself? Is it the conditions? Is the pay too bad? I think it's a little of all of those. I know with the blackberries I grow, I generally end up letting half or more go to waste on the vine. I couldn't sell the blackberries for enough money to pay someone minimum wage to do it -- which implies if I do it, I am working for less than minimum wage. I'll pick them for the enjoyment of me and my family, but I'm not going to go through the hassle of trying to sell the rest.
      In the final analysis, this is what the argument boils down to: the consumer has to choose between cheap and deadly or expensive and wholesome. If they're not willing to pay the price upfront, then they'll pay later, both in their and the planet's health.

    3. Farmers in the UK tend to employ foreign workers too - many of the job adverts for farm labour are in Polish. I myself have worked on farms in England and Australia, in both cases picking fruit, and the work is hard and boring. People in the UK think it is for poorer foreigners to do, and most people will not consider it.

  8. Have you thought about horses?


    1. Horses are nice but I'd have to feed it for the whole year! Maybe in the future, when I actually live on the land, I'll get a mule or something. We had a mule in our garden in Spain and it was quite useful (not least for getting to the pub and back at night).

  9. Holy heck, Jason! You have a lot of energy. I would never (again) put that much effort into planting something that was only going to yield for one season. If I want to clear an area of grass and weeds, I will just put a thick layer of mulch on it for 6 months or so. All the plants will be gone (except tree roots) and if I do decide to do some digging, the soil is quite soft. If I can't wait that long, I set my "duck-imator" to work. In a pen each of my ducks will reduce about 0.3 square meters of lawn to bare ground per day.

    1. Hi John. I've been making a reasonably large area (probably about 100m2) clear of grass by covering it in black polythene silage sheeting and leaving it for a year. When I peeled it off the grass was dead and I've sown a lot of clover and various other seeds to tray and outcompete the grass before it grows back. I'm also planting veggies in it, but the longer term plan is that it will be a forest garden, and to that end I have planted a variety of fruit and non-fruit bushes.

      The digging patch was just done out of an urgent need to find somewhere to plant a load of beans and sweetcorn I had as seedlings!

  10. I am responding here not so much to the original posting as to the comments. It seems to me that implicit in the discussion is the assumption that the only way to keep humanity alive in a post-industrial environment is via agriculture, that agriculture is the only way to feed enough people to keep the human species from going extinct. There seems to be some quibbling about what sort of agriculture we should be doing post-industrially, permaculture, subsistence farming or what not but basically, farming seems to be it. Farming is the only thing that anyone in the collapse blogosphere seems to be able to imagine.
    I would agree that farming without petroleum is possible. It has in fact been practiced for thousands of years, but there are other options.
    I am currently reading a book called, California Indians and their Environment. The book tells us two things that I found surprising. The first one is that while Indians elsewhere in America prior to Columbus had developed some amount of agriculture, the Indians of California never had. They managed to have a population density exceeding that of most of the rest of America by living off Nature's bounty. But they did so some farming in a sense. They managed what grew in their territories by periodically setting fires that were limited to small areas. Fire is a less energy intensive practice than coppicing and weeding. Archaeologists who studied what plants were in the California Indians' diet found that almost all of them were plants that benefited from periodic fires.
    Of course, living without agriculture was possible in California only because of its particular climate which supports a large variety of plant life. Still, I would guess that some amount of hunting, fishing and foraging can be part of any post-industrial feeding-the-humans scheme and in some places, like the Arctic and sub Arctic, no other way of getting food would even be possible.

    1. Good points Wolfgang. Further to your points, there seems to be an assumption among most people (i.e. not collpaseniks) that the only way to practice agriculture is as it is done today, even though we know that historically this has not been the case.

      If I had to imagine, just for the sake of argument, that I *had* to survive in my 7 acres of woodland with no other way of getting food I'd probably have to concede that I'd starve to death without adequate preparation. Nevertheless, if I really tried to survive I'd have a reasonably varied menu of, amongst other things, whatever vegetables I had grown, fruit from the fruit trees, berries from the bushes, rabbits, squirrels and wood pigeons (as long as the air gun pellets lasted), snails, plenty of chestnuts and hazel nuts and whatever else I could find. Going a bit further afield I could catch fish from the sea, and some small fish from the nearby stream.

      Anyway, all of that is irrelevant because, unlike the Californian Indians I live in an environment that has 65 million other people in it and there would likely be a stage of intense competition and drawdown of all the remaining resources.

      In a better scenario, I'd have the place set up with more trees and perennial crops to ease the worst of the food shortages i.e. exactly what I'm doing anyway. It's an interesting point about using fire, although that option isn't available to me in these damp, soggy isles!

  11. I prefer Aquaponics. In a green house. So you can control the environment the food is growing in. I studied this a bit,after a one minute small hail storm destroyed our small garden. The low water usage is a plus.


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