Monday, April 09, 2007

A Cheery Thought

My several weeks of chaos, guests and madness are still in progress, not leaving me an enormous amount of time for blogging. But I did want to mention something heartening I noticed the other day. This may not mean much for those of you who don't pay too much attention to the peak oil movement, but to me, it is good news indeed.

For those of you who don't know, Richard Heinberg is the person who wrote the first, and still most canonical book on oil depletion and its consequences, _The Party's Over_, and he's probably the most influential person in the peak oil movement. When Heinberg speaks, not only do true believers listen, but so do governments and scientists - he's testified before the EU and congress and has proved himself to be have a remarkable gift for synthesizing evidence from a range of fields.

This year, he's turned a large portion of his focus to agriculture, has been a strong voice for the deindustrialization of agriculture (one of my particular passions). Because I think Heinberg's analyses are consistently good, I was excited to read this particular passage in his recent interview with _Acres_:

"Using the knowledge that we’ve built up over the last several decades about organic farming, about small-scale food production using techniques such as permaculture and bio-intensive and so on, I think it’s possible for us to produce food in a way that doesn’t destroy topsoil, in a way that preserves fresh water and that feeds as many people as we have in the world today. But it’s going to require a lot more people doing the work of producing the food, because truly sustainable agriculture is a much more labor-intensive process."

I think the notion that we can feed the world *as it is* represents something of a turn around for Heinberg. In _The Party's Over_, he says,

"How Many people will post-industrial agriculture be able to support? This is an extremely important question, but one that is difficult to answer. A safe estimate would be this: *as many people as were supported before agriculture was industrialized* - that is, the population at the beginning of the 20th century, or somewhat fewer than 2 billion people." (Heinberg, 196)

Now I don't want to overstate what Heinberg said in _Acres_ - I don't think that this in any way represents a change in his advocacy for self-limitation, including population limitations, nor should it. But I do want to point out that one of the best minds I know, having turned his focus to food production, agrees that even a catastrophic loss of fossil fuels does not have end in hunger (and if Russia is telling the truth about continued indications from the US that we'll bomb Iran, that's good news indeed). We can feed ourselves, if we are willing to do the work of farming and gardening.

Someone recently said, "I'll believe we can feed the world with organic agriculture when we feed 1 billion people." Which delighted me, since a 1995 FAO report points out that we're actually feeding more than 2 billion people already with low input, largely organic agriculture, mostly by small scale farming. And those 2 billion people tend to be poor, and to have been pushed off the best land in their countries. What could we do if instead of export crops, they got to grow their own food there? What could we in the rich nations do on our lawns and greenspaces?

I recommend you read the rest of the interview, and, if it isn't 20 degrees there (like here), you could go out and plant some potatoes.

Sharon in upstate NY


Squrrl said...

Thanks for pointing to that article! You've been saying that a transition like this might be possible for a while now, and I've agreed, but you're right--all this needs to be heard, and it's really good to see someone high-profile saying it. I hope the right people start listening. I feel like maybe there's a better chance of useful preparations being made here than in energy production or industry, partly because agriculture is so marginal as it is that people might be more willing to listen to suggestions for change. Part of the challenge, though, will be convincing those "fifty million farmers" that they might actually WANT to farm. My husband and I believe strongly that the desire to work with the land is still embedded in humanity, but right now farming has such a low reputation that most people never consider it as an option. I think we have a better chance of an equitable and socially positive transition if people can realize that farming is something that they might actually enjoy doing. Of course, all of the issues that you discussed yesterday apply, too, when it comes to massive shifts in labor and infrastructure--they just don't happen overnight. Even so, it's a ray of hope, as you say.

Anonymous said...

It's something that needs discussing for sure. Lots of issues remain however.Here, land is so expensive- lots of second-home owners own all sorts of land- that young farmers-to-be can't get started. Or- they might be able to rent the land but they can never own it- which limits what they are willing to plant or put into it.

Farming has't been respected- around here smart kids are still urged to not consider farming(or any vocational craft actually)- too bad as we need smart famers- and carpenters, etc.

There is also the misnomer that large-scale"industrial" style farming is more productive which isn't true of course. Small-scale production can be more productive on an acre basis- just takes more labor. That presents a problem as farming doesn't pay well and it's hard work- so who wants to do it. Not most Americans it seems- which is why we have been importing people from Mexico to work on our dairy farms, and Jamaica to work the apple orchards and large vegie farms....

So- lots of change still needed......


Eileen said...

Hee-hee! I had a cheery encounter the other day with our next-door neighbor. He always seemed to have that lawn-mania that makes me insane. But we were chatting over the fence as I was setting up some raised beds a couple of weeks ago (before the snow). They just got a massive topsoil truck delivery. They decided the lawn was too much work and they are going to do full veggie garden!


Baby steps....

Anonymous said...

And I'm in touch via email with a woman who posted on freecycle that she was looking for gardening tools. It's her response to the need to eat locally. Drop by drop, the bucket fills.


RAS said...

Thanks Sharon!
Most of my garden is all ready in the ground -yes, including the potatoes ;-).

Anna Atkinson said...

Hi Sharon!

I just found a lot of your writings through a self-identified "scrappy little left-wing rag" called _briarpatch_ up here in Canada. Thank you for the work you're doing! I'm using it (and Heinberg's work, and a whole lot of other stuff--) in courses where I teach (I'm an un-lapsed English PhD--does that make me a lapsed farmer, perhaps? --grin--no wait! I have a garden!!)

I've been working toward raising more and more of my own food in my backyard, and also toward veganism (as being, in general, more sustainable than even vegetarianism) but I'm constantly re-examining that idea. Geez, this whole social-conscience-critical-thought stuff is a huge energy user! Good thing brains aren't (usually) petroleum-powered.

Anyhow, I've come up against the idea that eggs produced by chickens in small flocks such as my colleauge's (he's also a prof at the college where I work) who do a lot of scratching for themselves and don't eat a whole lot of pellets produced off-site, may in fact be a more sustainable alternative than the egg replacer I've been using, which contains corn products probably derived from GMO corn and transported who-knows-how-far only to be repackaged in non-recyclable bags.

However, I'm still exploring the notion, because even though the eggs are raised locally . . . at least some of the feed is not.

I'm also toying with the idea of having a couple of chickens!

So I thought I'd ask you, since your farm raises chickens, if you had any thoughts on the matter?

How much chicken food is produced off-site, and how much of it *could* be produced on-site, and how might this all relate to the idea of sustainability? I mean, the chickens *do* eat a lot of compost, right? And (like pigs) can clear a patch of ground . . .

It's a complex issue. I'd love to have your input!

from Anna in Canada ;)

Anna in Canada said...

Me again--

I just found the post you wrote some time ago on chickens and their feeding--so thank you for that! But I'd still like to hear you comment some more--perhaps resources for raising them without pellets, since I'd prefer not to have industrial food on site? How much do the little dickenses eat?

Thanks again, Sharon!

Anonymous said...

Anna, I have about 40 hens of various ages, a pet flock really in that I don't eat a hen after a couple years lay although from a financial point of view that is often recommended. I use 50lbs of purchased egg layer pellets a week manufactured 50miles away (although I am sure most of the grains are from the midwest). My birds are completely free in the daytime, I open their coop door each am. They go in on their own at dusk.

There is no doubt in my mind that eggs produced locally from free range birds use less imputs than purchased egg whites. I think the packaging alone may use more imputs.
There are a few web pages with homemade feed recipes, simply type that into a search engine. Most however are made from purchased grains and while cheaper per lb they aren't often more local. You can grow some grains I am going to dabble in it this summer I bet I don't grow near enough. Dry corn is quite easy to grow imo but doesn't take a nice chunk of land. Sorghum is easy but takes as much space as corn. Millet I've only grown a decorative one (It was probably edible) and it wasn'd difficult, dito ammaranth.
I have barley, wheat and hulless oat seeds to try this year. I want some for own use as well.
Imo chickens make great pets that give eggs :). Beth signing in as anonymous for after signing up twice this google/blogger can't seem to remember me :).

jewishfarmer said...

Hi Anna - We try and produce as much of our poultry food as possible, and I would think that a 2-4 hen flock would be *very* easy to grow the food for in a garden, particularly if you are raising older breeds that were initially bred before the large-scale feeding of poultry from "surplus" grains. I have a few Dominiques, for example, which I gather date back to the Mayflower, and they are happy to forage, eat scraps and would happily eat whatever grains I could grow. You might not maximize their production, but that's not the end of the world. They need some grain (I think oats are optimal - you can grow any old oats, don't need to thresh or hull them, and just toss the whole plant, straw and all, cut from the bottom, into their house. The straw will end up as bedding and they'll have fun extracting the oats. Dry corn works, but as I understand chicken nutrition - and I'm no expert - oats are better. Then they need some protein food - dry beans are fairly easy to grow. I find pole varieties easiest - you could grow soybeans, but really anything would be fine. Or you could vermicompost on a large scale and toss them a handful of worms every day (if that doesn't bother you). If your own diet is fairly high in protein, they might even be fine on your scraps.

Ultimately, all of this is experimentation - if they aren't laying, and don't look plump, you aren't feeding them enough. If they are laying and look plump and seem happy (excited to get food but they don't try to eat you out of desperation), they're probably fine. Chickens evolved with people, and like people, optimized diets are nice, but they are adapted to live on fairly variable rations. I'm not suggesting you don't be careful with them, and I do think that for the purpose of starting chicks, you might want to buy a bag of purchased feed (although I've heard of people raising chicks on milk, oatmeal and foraged greens). But I do think chickens can get along fairly well on your scraps and a bit of grains and beans (you do have to cook the dry beans).

The other option would be a pair of geese - geese live pretty much wholly on grass, and will forage for themselves in fairly vile weather. They do need hay in the winter (but the small quantity required for a pair would be pretty easy to put up with a scythe) and probably a few oats or some corn to get them through the coldest periods and keep them laying. Geese lay *big* eggs, and mostly in from late winter to early summer, but you could waterglass or fat-preserve the eggs for some time. It might not get you year round eggs, but it should keep you in eggs for a good portion of the year with fairly minimal effort.

Does this help? If you've got more questions, just let me know. I've experimented quite a bit with this, but because we have a larger-than-sustainable flock for CSA purposes, I haven't fully done it - we wouldn't try to keep as many hens if fairly local feed weren't available at some future date. I'm thinking of putting up a small coop next to the house, though, and using it as a scale model for a feeding program this summer.


Anna in Canada said...

Thanks to both of you!

I've grown quite a few of my own grains before--hulless oats, barley, some heritage wheat--and dry beans and chickpeas (which I personally think are the most beautiful plant I've ever seen!), and this year I'm trying another variety of wheat, plus some millet and quinoa and amaranth, but space is certainly a limiting factor. I live in a (large) city lot, on an island . . . and I'm not *quite* sure I'll be able to get away with chickens, given the city bylaws (and geese, sadly, are Right Out! Too noisy, I should think . . . unless there are small, silent varieties? :)). The bylaws state that you can't keep "poultry" on a site less than an acre (although, weirdly, you can keep up to 50 racing pigeons! and up to 3 hives of bees), but they also provide for the keeping of "household animals" which are defined as "a domesticated animal kept by a household, which is used or the product of which is used primarily and directly by the household and not for sale or profit, and includes dogs and cats, but specifically excludes livestock"--where livestock is defined as four-hoovers. Now, I'm not sure what part of a cat or dog's . . . um . . . "product" a houshold might use, so it seems to me that chickens, if kept as "pets," should work here!

I think what it boils down to, though, is whether I can produce enough grain to actually have some surplus to feed to the little darlings. When I have my dream home (on a couple of acres, with one of those "earthship" deals, off-grid, etc.) I'll likely have enough space, but I'm not sure it'll work on my current lot. But then, absolute self-sustainability on a city lot is a bit of a pipe dream anyway, though it's kind of amazing how far you can move toward it!

In that vein, I think you're right that "not maximizing their output" (the chickens' that is) certainly isn't the end of the world. In fact, it's exactly that kind of "maximized output" that is bringing us inexorably closer to the end of the world as we know it! I'm wondering, though, if having the chickens--if I can feed them with something locally produced--would actually benefit the ecosystem and be more sustainable than vegan living. If I can find anything locally grown that will feed them. Certainly I'm becoming more convinced (especially with what Beth has said above) that egg-replacements aren't the answer. Other factors contributing to this ideology are the documentary _The Future of Food_ and information I've read on the 100 Mile Diet. If what chickens do is extract certain nutrients that are headed to the compost pile anyhow, and then make those (plus any grain grown that is "surplus" as well as beans etc) into more useable food, while still producing what ends up being compost . . . well, that just seems to me to be a "value added" concept I can live with (and on)!

Certainly, until I see real evidence to the contrary, I'll continue to buy eggs from my colleague here whose hens just hang out in his back 40.

I'm wondering what you mean by "vermicompost on a large scale . . ."

Anonymous said...

Two links to raising city chickens. Lots of folks raise illegal chickens :), two hens in a large rabbit hutch no one would ever know. Let them run when no ones looking or simply feed them greenery in their hut.

I do small scale vermiculture, I've not been great about using the compost its a bit pesky getting the worms out, I don't want to hurt them :). Here's a link I have three of the plastic bin ones.

You are ahead of me with your grain growing. Do you have a grain mill? If so what kind. Sharon what brand do you have?


Anonymous said...

The link isn't complete, don't know why. Hopefully this is ok

anna in canada said...

No grain mill--just a crock pot. I eat lots of pottage/porridge and soup in the winter. It's much less work!

I don't grow much of any one grain, since I don't have the room. But it's sure fun trying!

Beth, you must have quite a spread, to have your chickens (all 40 of them!!) out in the day, I envy you. Around here, the dogs would get them. I live in a bit of a redneck area of town. Leashes are *not* popular. They're considered "unnatural," as is controlling your pet cat's movements in any way. Like in a way that would involve said cat NOT pooping in my spinach. Grumble.

I personally deplore the idea that one "just can't confine" a cat because "it's not natural." 13 cats in a city block isn't natural either. It's awkward. Particularly for the birds, most of whom are actually native to the area! grumble again. I'm going to get me some chickenwire and try to exclude the poopy cat from my spinach patch.

Oh--back to grains--I'm going to try buckwheat this year too, under the miniature cherry tree. I get a lot of shepherd's purse (and there's only so much of it I can eat), so I'm going to try buckwheat as a dual-purpose smother-and-grain crop . . .

And on the chicken front, I'm wondering if you've ever heard of "Chanticler" chickens--they're a Canadian breed (she said patriotically!) and are bred to withstand cold, as well as be good layers etc. I'm in the Pacific Northwest, but I'd still like to err on the side of caution where the weather is concerned.

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