Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What I Was Doing When I Wasn't Writing This Blog

Something of a dearth of posts this week so far. So let's see... first I was goofing off with college friends, and then I was reading Stuart Staniford's latest impressive analysis, where he takes a shot across the bow of relocalization and the idea that local agriculture is going to feed us here: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3481#more. Then I was writing a 15 page rebuttal that will appear today or tomorrow on The Oil Drum. And then I was required to play 4 consecutive games of chess with chess obsessed Simon, talk to my visiting mother, put various children to bed and deal with my own sleep deprivation. Today is DH's day to put his work life in order, and I'll be tending little people, hanging laundry, making food and reading _Owl Babies_ 150 times or so.

All of which is a long way of saying I've been neglecting the blog for other things. If you are dying for some stuff to read, I'm sure Staniford's piece, plus the 400ish comments over at TOD will keep you entertained! I'll be back for real tomorrow.

Sharon

34 comments:

Imago said...

I was pretty shocked by Stuart's article, it's a good new to know that you're writing a rebuttal.

Keep going on!
It's always a pleasure to read your notes, although sometimes not until the end because they are a bit long ;-)

Anonymous said...

Am I reading Stuart's piece right? I'm chilled by it too. Industrial agriculture, supported by government policies, sounds like no less than Soviet-style collectivization and totalitarianism to me. Is he *advocating* that? Because it seems to me that there is a political/ideological dimension to his analysis that he does not acknowledge. He writes it as though it's "objective" economic analysis - when in fact it sounds like radical free-market ideology to me (the agricultural-industrial complex commissioned the piece? or might as well have?). Note, for example, how Stuart dismisses Kunstler et al as "nostalgic", going back to the "past," etc. - that's loaded characterization, designed simply to marginalize and dismiss alternative, more humanistic points of view. His very male, faux-objective analysis (as it strikes me) seems to justify capitalist totalitarianism (is that so different from communist totalitarianism?). This may be the civil war we are facing in this country - industrial agriculture and collectivization - versus a human-scaled, just society.

So it's not just "objective" economic analysis on one side or the other. It's about belief, about ideology. If totalitarian forces are descending on us, what are we going to do about it?

Greenpa said...

Life intrudes. I'm cutting firewood and trying to get the tractor started so I can plow and get out. And reading Pooh to Smidgen.

Logic is seductive! As anyone from the Talmud and Torah "conversations" heritage has to know! :-)

Anonymous said...

Stuart's not advocating it at all, he's just saying that it is the path of least resistance.

By the way, Sharon's post is up right now over at TOD. Enjoy.

Ani said...

Looking foward to reading your "rebuttal" Sharon- slogged my way thru much of Sturart's article- and some of the comments- really hard to download on dial-up though-
I do have to confess though that I am somewhat in agreement with his general thesis- not from any economic analysis on my part-and I paid no attention to his charts and grapshs(very ODish indeed)-but rather from a somewhat cold-hearted and clinical analysis of our status quo in the ag world. I figure that even though I sympathize greatly with the approach towards relocalization of agriculture advocated by you and Heinberg and Kunstler and others, I have to wonder if it is realistic. By this I don't mean "could local ag feed us all" but rather given the government that we have as well as corporate interests and domination of agriculture in the US.

So although I would be found in the camp of those who would like to see a resurgence of local, and am myself a market-grower- I have my doubts, at least for the early years of PO if this is what would happen. I don't think that looking at Cuba for instance as a model of what our future under PO would look like is realistic- Cuba is Cuba and the US is a different beast.

I would in fact anticipate that if oil supplies grew short, large ag would in fact have priority for them- and small ag would not have any such thing. I wouldn't be surpried to see it based on gross farm income or some such thing in terms of rationing of oil etc if that were the case.

I think that what would be issues would be that of the ultimate cost of ag products which due to increased transportation costs would skyrocket- so affordability would be an issue. This would in fact likely lead to more home gardeners and such- but not likely to more small farms I'd think-at least not in the early years of PO. Large corporate ag is in control and not likely to give it up easily.

Brian M said...

Go down to the bottom of the comments where he defends. He IS assuming radical free markets because he reasons as follows

"My own view is that if we cannot hold our existing social order together, then we will all probably be very badly screwed. Therefore, it is imperative that we find solutions to the problems that the existing order faces and campaign to change those things it is doing that are very dangerous and problematic (food-based biofuels, carbon emissions). Either we are going to get to a mid twenty-first century that involves most of the planet living at least tolerably prosperously in a modern economy mainly powered by carbon-free sources, or all bets are off and no-one has a remotely reliable strategy for coping with what is going to happen.

And I simply don't see how the reversalist vision helps us in that task, since I just don't see any remotely smooth path from where we are back to relocalization."

Basically he says if you give up on free-markets we are all so screwed that all bets are off.

I'm working on some rebuttals. And not everything I have has been covered already BTW.

What the Hell is that "Capital Recovery of machinery and equipment" in the USDA figures BTW, it jumps from almost nothing to a significant cost in 1996, and sure sounds like a bookkeeping dodge to me. In wheat its the MAIN cost, more than land, but ONLY after 1996. Someone is cooking the USDA books bigtime.

void_genesis said...

Hey Sharon

Excellent response, but I suspect like others on the oil drum that you are both right. In other words industrial agriculture for the production of bulk grains probably will continue into the foreseeable future despite rising oil prices and decreasing supply. But once the era of unreliable supply is reached then relocalisation will start to win out. The transition could be five years away, or 25 years away. Personally I am happy to start growing perishables and some staples right now just to get a feel for the process. I figure it is an easier process to go from growing 10% to 100% of your staples than from 0 to 10%.

During the transition all food/transport/processing becomes more expensive so people have more incentive to cook from scratch and to grow their own perishable food. Relocalisation doesnt have to be an ideology that you force on people. The USSR is a good example of that- they just did more of the personal farming that they did all along.

green with a gun said...

And you can find my own take on the issue here, which is both more focused and more concise than either Staniford or Sharon managed. I think you should have taken a day or two to distill it down, Sharon. It was uncharacteristically rambling...

Staniford has spent a lot of time with calculators and a graph-making macro, and almost no time in the garden. He needs to broaden his perspective.

As if you can consider peak oil without considering climate change or economic troubles... pfft. It's like talking about what to do if it's raining while ignoring the clouds and wind.

sgl said...

While he kicked up a lot of dust, there seems to be quite a few flaws in his reasoning. Including believing that everything exists for purely "economic" reasons, ie, that farms don't get bigger due to gov't policy and lobbying, special tax breaks, financial manipulation, and a host of other non-economic influences on the outcome.

For some reason, I had visions of him making this presentation, (in altered form of course), to the rulers of the societies outlined in "Collapse", or to the Roman emperor. "See here Emperor, we've brought the world the arch, and roads and aquaducts, and Roman law, and this is just irreversible. Invading germanic tribes are no problems. The Dark Ages simply can't occur!"

--sgl

Brian M. said...

Ah "Capital Recovery of Machinery and Equipment" is just the inheritor class of 3 different categories "Capital Recovery" "Operating Capital" and "Non-land Capital". Together they are the main expense for wheat farmers, and the second biggest after land for corn farmers. Also notice that the pie graph USDA cost chart doesn't match the line graph data! The pie graph leaves out land, which the line graph shows to be the largest expense! Grr.
-Brian M

Anonymous said...

I'll have to go over there and read the rebuttal, but one thing someone said in the insanely-long comments was in regards to people growing food. Along the lines of 'you have to buy your seed'. Well, um, no you don't. You save viable seed from your crop, and use that for the next planting. Where do they think the --seed companies-- get their seed from??? o.O

Avoid buying hybrids if you want to save seed, because the seeds produced by the plants may be sterile, or they may just produce plants that are throwbacks to the parent stock of the hybrid plant, and not be the plant you thought you were going to get.

BoysMom said...

How do you define the difference between a small farm and a home garden? The Path to Freedom folks, they grow a large percentage of their own food, more than many comercial farms do, but are they a farm or a garden? They don't have even an acre.
I think maybe we need some clear definitions as to farm and home garden before we're going to get very far with the relocalization discusion.
A farmer grows at least half of what his family eats? (This would eliminate a lot of corn/soy farms.) A farmer has at least ten acres? A farmer sells more than half of what he produces to feed others?
A gardener has a main form of income that is not crop-related? A gardener has less than one acre in production? A gardener produces less than half of what his family eats?
What makes sense to you? Do we need a third term, something in the middle between the folks who have hundreds of acres and can't eat any of it, and the folks who have 1/10 acre and can't grow all their own needs?
When I read about relocalizing food production, I'm not thinking bulldozing the suburbs and putting in fields. I'm thinking digging up lawns and putting in gardens.

a said...

Defining a farmer is an interesting one. If I had to make a stab at it, I'd start with the premise that a farmer is one who raises an agricultural product with the intent of selling it to others for a profit.

Ani said...

well-that was my comment but the computer ate the "ni"....

Brian M said...

In the past Sharon has argued that there isn't any real difference between a home garden and a farm except in scale, and that there is no real dividing line even there.

Many many US farmers have a main form of income other than their farm. Contrariwise, many "market-gardeners" raise agricultural products with the intent to sell it to others for profit. (As for that matter do foresters, ranchers, florists, nursery workers and others).

Size doesn't work well either, a groundskeeper with charge over a large area may still be called a "gardener." I would guess that we call some plots of land gardens and some farms, based on a combination of size, whether what is being grown is ornamental or for consumption, how sale works, and if it's indoors or not, but I would guess that the words in English just don't have a lot of precision, and we aren't going to have luck getting them to be more precise than they already are.

The boundaries between gardening and "landscaping" are pretty fuzzy too, come to think of it.

BoysMom said...

Brian,
I think it's really important to define what we're talking about when we talk about relocalization of food production. Perhaps each author needs to define their terms at the begining of the article?
I like Sharon's definition, but I wonder if Mr. Staniford is operating off the same definition when he writes about relocalizing? I don't believe anyone surveys gardens/super-small farms about their production/income/expense information. Certainly no one's ever surveyed me about my garden. Ani--that's an interesting idea. By using that definition, we'd have any theoretical self-sufficient homesteaders as non-farmers (Is there such a person? Certainly some are aspiring in that direction). I think it does make sense in some ways, because such folks are not contributing to the economy or the food supply, and there aren't very many such.

Stephen B. said...

I have to beg to differ on gardeners and homeowners not contributing to the economy or food supply. Anybody such as myself that grows hundreds if not a thousand pounds or more of grain, fruit, and veggies (never even mind the school garden I keep at work) significantly impacts the economy as it greatly cuts down my supermarket purchases, especially purchases of food grown from thousands of miles away. Then too, there are my equipment and seed purchases, which, though somewhat smaller now that I'm stocked up and save some of my own seed, were fairly substantial not too long ago.

If a few million people did/do what I do, it would certainly make a mark in the economy.

I'm reminded of the story in the introduction of Dirk van Loon's book, "The Family Cow" where the author tells of a time he went to his agricultural extension agent in the 1970s for information on keeping a single, family or "house" cow, and the agent pulled out a computer printout of area farms, looked it over, found the last time a single cow farm appeared on his census data, and declared the family cow dead, somewhere around 1958. Mr. van Loon left the office with no information. Only thing was, after he told of his trip to the extension office to his rural neighbors, they immediately suggested several families in the area he should talk to because this neighbor of his knew of several families that were still keeping house cows. I grant you that was circa 1975 and the cow situation might have changed some by now, but I think the principle still holds.

My point is, government farm data only says what is reported to the goverment, and small, rural, agriculturally-minded folk aren't inclined to report every last tomato plant, chicken, or cow to the government. With this in mind, I bet such small, personalized agricultural endeavors add up to far more $$ than we at first might suspect.

Certainly, a few generations ago, the contribution of millions of familes, but especially the housewives toiling in kitchens, gardens, and working by the spinning wheel and loom, while maybe not too economically impressive on an individual level, was certainly an impressive part of this nation's economy and well-being once upon a time.

Sharon has written extensively on this subject and perhaps she can better point to her blog archives where some pertinent essays might lie.

Stephen B.
suburban MA

Brian M. said...

I whole heartedly agree that gardens and very small farms are probably already part of the picture, and ought to be a bigger part of the picture as we re-localize. Further, I am unaware of any good statistics about them, and would be suspicious of such statistics. How much of the US diet comes from gardens and very small farms today? .1%? .5% 1% 2%? I have no idea, and I'll bet no one really does. How much money is done in small ag, and under-the-table-ag, and doesn't get reported to the govt ag? I have no idea. So if your point is statistics are unreliable on these issues I agree.

But I'm not convinced that we need careful definitions. For one thing I don't we could get reliable statistics even with careful definitions. What I want when I am working for re-localization of food-systems (not just production!, my wife works mostly on local distribution systems) is more people eating a higher percentage of their diet from more local sources. I'm not sure that it helps to get bunged up about how local is local? Or does this dish count? Take the 100-mile diet rule. Its an ok starting point, but grown yourself is still better than grown in the next cities over's food-shed. Grown in season is better than grown close by in an expensively heated greenhouse. Eating 50% from local is better than eating 30%. There are so many issues and nuance, that careful definitions will bog us down, where as trained judgements on better and worse are often easy. Localizing food-systems is a goal not an rule, and the folks I mostly interact with aren't close yet, but are trying. I like Sharon's Bullseye metaphor, for example. We can always do better than we are, we can always talk about what is better and worse, without having some kind of magical cut off line between "fits the definition" and "doesn't."

-Brian M.

BoysMom said...

Brian,
Don't you think for the purpose of the discussion about whether or not we can feed people enough locally we do need to define what we're talking about?
We can't very well put 1000 acre corn/soy farms in the middle of LA and NYC, if that's what relocalization means. Not without moving vast amounts of people by force, destroying infrastructure at great expense, and putting up infrastructure at greater expense somewhere else to house them. (Now, I'm a libertarian, I don't support government making people do things.) But if we say well, what we're really talking about in relocalization is not farms (Mr. Staniford's graphs were all farms, however we end up defining them), but gardens, or micro-farms, or whatever we want to call the yard crops, then we're talking about a different scenario. Different data. Tractors are never going to be efficient in around houses. Tractors are most efficient in straight lines. Combines (at least the big ones I've seen) won't even fit! (My sis-in-law lives on Long Island, my best friend in LA. You could not get a combine in between their homes and their neighbors. That's why I, a rural westerner, like to pick on those two cities as examples, I've been there.) So looking at cost efficiency of tractors has no relationship to cost efficiency of growing crops on their land. Now maybe cost efficiency of hand-held tillers vs. shovels vs. pet pigs has some bearing on the situation.
In that case, however, Mr. Staniford's data has NO bearing whatsoever on whether or not relocalization is feasable. It's looking at apples, thinking they're potatos, and not looking at potatos at all. Yeah, we can grow a potato plant in space we can't fit an apple tree in, and get a crop off of it. So saying because we can't grow apples we can't grow anything is wrong if we want to grow potatos.
I guess that's what I'm getting at: he doesn't define what he's talking about with relocalized agriculture, just runs data from big, non-local ag, and says, see, won't work.
Stephen--I was thinking in terms of buying and selling and GDP--you aren't buying food others could otherwise buy, you aren't selling food. You've effectively removed that part of your life from the economy, where as someone who hasn't is generating profit and paying taxes. If enough people were doing what you do to have a noticible effect on the economy, I would expect the IRS to find a way to tax it like they do barter. I suppose that's how we'll know when the home garden has really arrived!

Anonymous said...

Unless I missed something, it seems that both Stuart and Sharon missed a very important point:

Our current centralized agricultural system is dependent upon a very energy-intensive distribution network. You have to look at the whole food production and distribution system.

Stuart's argument that as farm profitability goes up, farmers would be able to outbid city dwellers for oil, while perhaps a valid point in isolation, it's an incomplete argument. Food is no good to anybody without the ability to affordably transport it from producer to processor to consumer.

The question that needs to be answered is: Will there be enough affordable oil to keep the current food distribution system running? As global supplies tighten and export capacity falls, it's doubtful.

The way I see it, localization will still be necessary. This will require a lot of farms to diversify what they grow and raise rather than just monocrop.

Now perhaps someone who is more knowledgeable can answer this for me: Isn't it rather difficult to diversify on a farm that's thousands of acres? Is it more efficient to do so on a smaller scale?

Brian M. said...

"Can we feed enough people locally?" Not even remotely in most places. Terre Haute is small and in the middle of farm land, and WE can't feed ourselves locally. This is the wrong question, because the answer is clearly no.

"Could we feed enough people locally if we changed things?" AHH that is a much better question. But again the honest answer is ... it depends where we are talking, how many people we are talking, how much we get to change things and how "locally" we are talking. And clear definitions won't help.

"Could we get a lot more people to eat a much higher percentage of their diet relatively locally?" Yes, and we are working on it in lots of different ways. Sometimes via gardening, sometimes via micro-farms, sometimes via small farms. Heck, around here occasionally you can even get BIG farms that are will to sell locally rather than enter the industrial commodity stream. I'll bet there are a couple of 1000+ acre farms selling directly to the LA or NYC markets, even though the real estate price pressure on them is probably very great.

Corn and soy will be among the hardest crops to re-localize even in places like here where you could put 1000 acre soy or corn farms in near by. And some of Stanisford's data WAS for farms under 10,000$ of sales a year, which is pretty small. Not all farms use tractors. I think the data was probably totally inaccurate, but he did have some. I agree with you that his data is so unreliable on the small end, that his argument carries little force. But it is a data problem, not a definition problem.

Also tractors aren't THAT bad around houses. It depends on the size. Our church leased its back-lot to a small farmer for the next two years, and he is going to be using a tractor in and around houses. But in nothing like the giant rows way that the mega-combines are used. But I'll bet his (minimal) use of the tractor will be pretty efficient, even on our small lot. If you can get a riding lawnmower to work, odds are you can get a small tractor to work, and there are plenty of suburban plots in the NYC or LA area that use riding lawnmowers I'll bet.

What I don't want to do is get sucked into theoretical questions about what is or isn't a farm, or what is or isn't "local." Those things come in lots of shades of grey. I don't want to say "farming isn't what we are talking about with re-localization." Because farming, gardening and raising chickens in your yard all seem like different strategies for re-localizing food-systems to me. Farming IS what I am talking about, but it is only part of what I am talking about. I also don't want to make it sound like re-localization only counts if you can feed 100% of the population 100% of their calories from within the city limits. If you use statistics to argue that that project is bound to fail, I have to agree, but we can feed a lot more people, a lot more of their calories, from a lot closer. So I think talking about how many people we could feed locally in some ideal situation is kinda overstrict. We aren't close yet. We are working on getting more people to eat more of their food from closer. Those are all incrementalist ideas, not absolute on/off switches, so a definition won't help. BTW Stanisford's argument wasn't that we couldn't feed LA or NYC, but that the farming trends will be in the opposite direction as oil gets more expensive, he was making an incrementalist point to, just one that I (and it seems you) disagree with.
-Brian M

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