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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Food Energy The Fragile Link Between Resources and Population

Food Energy The Fragile Link Between Resources and Population

Food-Energy: the Fragile Link Between Resources & Population

excerpted with permission from The End of Fossil Energy and Per Capita Oil by John G. Howe of Waterford, ME

Every successful species harbors a genetic drive to reproduce more numbers than can be supported by a stable, sustainable environment. The limitations are food, non-energetic resources necessary as building blocks for life, competing spe- cies (also hungry for food), a hospitable ambience, and adequate physical space. Those who best adapt evolve as conditions crowd out or supercede those that don’t. This is simple Darwinism and most often infers a short, harsh individual life of competition and survival. Changes in the environment by natural causes and/or environmental destruction add additional challenges to the status quo, and favor those species which are fortunate enough to adapt, or smart enough to plan ahead.

THE FOOD-ENERGY BALANCE

Humans acquire their energy from food which at one time came directly (or indirectly farther down the food chain from other plant eaters) from plant photosynthesis of incoming solar energy. As quickly as new offspring begin to grow on their own, increased demands are placed on the food supply although at first it may be as food-energy still supplied by a supportive parent(s). As long as food is available the population will increase to the limits of the species’ range, individual or collective skill (including tools), and individual energy available to procure the food and/or avoid being food for others. It should be obvious that population is therefore limited first and primarily by the ability to access and store food…

To continue our analysis, we will focus on the food-energy balance required for human survival without relying on a temporary surge of non-renewable energy capital, e.g., fossil fuels, or imported food from another location or time (inferring a surplus somewhere else). For hundreds of thousands of years our predecessors lived as hunter-gatherers in a precarious ratio which had to be larger than one, between Food-Energy Returned On (Personal) Energy Invested (FEROPEI).

CULTIVATION AND AGRICULTURE

Then about ten thousand years ago, humans learned to utilize favorable, unique, local growing conditions and crops. The age of agriculture began. A slight improvement of human FEROPEI, combined with reduced energy requirements and risk related to excessive travel, provided a tiny energy surplus to support the beginning of recorded history. The extra energy made possible early civilizations and the construction of ancient monuments many of which have survived to this day. To build anything of substance, the energy has to come from the excess over and above the primary requisite-energy required for personal food and survival. Instead of a hunter-gatherer barely able to procure food for himself and enough progeny to perpetuate the species, a hard-working farmer with favorable ecological conditions could now feed additional dependents plus non-farmers. Energy-intensive travel was still limited by human personal mobility, draft animals, and wind power for sailing.

Because of agriculture, the average FEROPEI improved, possibly up to 6:1. This provided the steady-state support for long-term societies like the Chinese, but could not support continued growth of extensive, non-agrarian expansion like the Roman Empire. Many societies flourished, then collapsed because of the inevitable conflict between growing populations and the limitations and degradation of local food-carrying capacity.

ADDITIONAL ENERGY

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, slow adaptation to wind, water, and draft-animals gradually improved local agricultural output by reducing the direct dependency of food output from human-energy alone. The food-energy return on human labor input (FEROPEI) slowly increased up to the 10:1 or 12:1 range. Still, population was held in check by disease, poor health care, unpredictable diet, infant mortality, and short life spans. But, the new energy surplus made possible multiple layers of non-farm population, societal administration, and cities. Marketing, money, and laws evolved on the backs of peasant (or slave) farmers. There was enough extra energy and manpower to support armies and wars required to wage territorial, resource, and cultural disputes.

A very erratic and slow increase in world population continued up to just several hundred years ago. Additional food sources and room for growth came primarily from exploration and settlement of new lands. Malthus’s prediction of population limits was temporarily proven wrong because the exploitable world seemed limitless. Then, suddenly, inventions of new ways to exploit the convenient vast stores of finite fossil energy, far beyond renewable wind and water, made possible and began the industrial age. As would be expected, the unprecedented utilization of non-human energy escalated the food-energy available for human consumption and population growth.

A NEW (VERY SHORT) HIGH-ENERGY AGE

The utilization of vast stores of pre-stored fossil energy, beginning with coal two-hundred years ago, and followed by oil and natural gas, suddenly jumped the ratio of food energy returned on personal energy invested (FEROPEI) to as high as 300:1. One farmer could now feed three-hundred people instead of six by himself or twelve with the help of animal power. Concurrently, in the same short period, as would be expected, world population soared from one-billion to seven-billion. This was due to many factors directly related to the sudden energy bonanza. Access to formerly remote lands, genetic crop improvements, inorganic nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, energy-intensive farm equipment, irrigation, refrigeration, packaging, and long-distance mobility all contributed to the modern lifestyle now enjoyed by the industrialized world. Concurrently, giant strides in medicine and health care vastly increased life span and population. But still, all must eat with the same basic individual requirement(s)…

In the past several decades the “green revolution” maximized food production and made possible the seven-billion humans now needing food. However, this final push is unsustainable and is causing new problems; for instance, genetically modified (GM) foods may be linked to new health risks.

Resilience, an advantage of crop diversification, is absent. New pesticides, monoculture, and herbicides also lead to super-bugs and environmental contamination. The societal improvements promised by capitalism and industrialized agriculture are, in effect, just more examples of temporarily polarizing wealth between the masses and the few who control the system. Finally, and obviously, the mechanization of modern agriculture cannot continue without oil.

THE LINK MUST BREAK

Now, after a one lifetime span of almost free energy and resultant copious food, the entire world faces the imminent decline (and eventual demise) of finite, fossil-fuel capital and therefore must inevitably face a return to the food-production default range with a FEROPEI as low as 6:1 or, at most, 12:1. This assumes individual farmers can retain a semblance of traditional agriculture, knowledge, hard work, and renewable energy, while drastically reducing non-food energy expenditures for travel and keeping warm. This is the “end point” we must return to in the next 60 to 80 years while, in the same one-lifetime span, reducing the numbers to be fed from the present seven billion back to, at most, one or two billion who must also be located very close to their food source. Without fossil fuels, food can no longer be produced in one area and shipped thousands of miles to market. Nutrients must also be returned to their source. To suggest that the world will be able to feed the UN projected population of nine billion by 2050 is totally incomprehensible in the face of declining oil…

CAN WE RETURN TO “SUSTAINABILITY”?

Homo Sapiens will survive. Our ancient ancestors lived off the land and survived ice ages (without metal or plastics). But, in order to avoid total collapse first, we must clearly recognize our predicament in quantitative terms and define exactly what to do. We must get started immediately to allow time for a commensurate population reduction through natural attrition instead of famine, war, and disease. We will not make it without three basic prerequisites necessary in the time and direction available:

  1. Explicit knowledge and broad publicity of what to do, and why we (including you) must get started immediately, especially networking this story.
  2. Negative population growth at a level of not more than one child per female (or male).
  3. A systematic reduction of American per capita energy consumption from 22 b/b/y to 3 b/b/y (billion barrels per year); including rationing, in the next thirty years.

All must be done.

We should avoid wasting and/or fighting over the remaining oil. Never before in recorded history has there been so singular a resource as oil for food, or the urgency for a controlled descent from the ephemeral peak of energy usage we enjoy today. No other species has achieved the feat of anticipating and systematically executing an energy and directly-dependant population reduction.

In my office piled high with pertinent web print-outs I have one, in particular, a comprehensive classic (theoildrum.com, Oct 20, 2008). It is a paper by Peter Salonius, a Canadian soil microbiologist. The title, Agriculture: Unsustainable Resource Depletion Began 10,000 Years Ago, and six parts including Part 4, Intensive crop cultures are unsustainable, cover the entire theme that “human population numbers will have to be brought into balance with the sustainable productivity levels of the local ecosystems upon which they rely for their sustenance”.

In Part 6 is a wonderful concluding paragraph:

Balancing of human numbers to the productivity of their supporting local ecosystems may be accomplished by planned attrition, much lower birth rates and the economic dislocations and hardships that a retreat from classical economic growth will incur, or the balancing of human numbers may be accomplished by a catastrophic collapse imposed by natural resource scarcity. The species with the large brain must make the choice between economic hardship and catastrophic collapse.

Now in my eighties, I speak as a retired engineer but with a lifetime of farming experience. I would be happy to send a copy of my book to anyone who provides a mailing address: 298 McIntire Road, Waterford, ME 04088. A ten or fifteen dollar donation would help but is not necessary. See www.solarcarandtractor.com.

Spotlight On: Equipment & Facilities

New Idea Manure Spreaders

New Idea Manure Spreaders

from issue:

There is no fixed method of loading. The best results are usually obtained by starting to load at the front end, especially in long straw manure. To get good results do not pile any manure into the cylinders. The height of the load depends upon the condition of the manure, the condition and nature of the field. Do not put on extra side boards. Be satisfied with the capacity of the machine and do not abuse it. Overloading will be the cause of loss of time sooner or later.

Multi-Purpose Tool Carrier Equi Idea Multi-V

Multi-Purpose Tool Carrier: EQUI IDEA Multi-V

Building on the experiences with a tool carrier named Multi, consisting of a reversible plow interchangeable with a 5-tine cultivator, the Italian horse drawn equipment manufacturer EQUI IDEA launched in 2012 a new multi-purpose tool carrier named Multi-V. The “V” in its name refers to the first field of use, organic vineyards of Northern Italy. Later on, by designing more tools, other applications were successfully added, such as vegetable gardens and tree nurseries.

Box Jaw Tongs & the Cow Poop Theory of Blacksmithing

Box Jaw Tongs & the Cow Poop Theory of Blacksmithing

by:
from issue:

Making a pair of tongs was a milestone for a lot of blacksmiths. In times gone past a Journeyman Smith meant just that, a smith that went upon a journey to learn more skills before taking a masters test. When the smith appeared at the door of a prospective employer, he/she would be required to demonstrate their skills. A yard stick for this was to make a pair of tongs.

Ask A Teamster Tongue Length

Ask A Teamster: Tongue Length

My forecart pole is set up for draft horses. My husband thinks we should cut the pole off to permanently make it fit better to these smaller horses. What would be your opinion? Like your husband, my preference would be a shorter tongue for a small team like your Fjords. The dynamics and efficiency of draft are better if we have our horse(s) close to the load. A shorter tongue will also reduce the overall length of your outfit, thereby giving you better maneuverability and turning dynamics.

Walsh No Buckle Harness

from issue:

When first you become familiar with North American working harness you might come to the erroneous conclusion that, except for minor style variations, all harnesses are much the same. While quality and material issues are accounting for substantive differences in the modern harness, there were also interesting and important variations back in the early twentieth century which many of us today either have forgotten or never knew about. Perhaps the most significant example is the Walsh No Buckle Harness.

Homemade Cheese Press

Homemade Cheese Press

by:
from issue:

On the Gies farmstead we occasionally wallow in goat milk. From it we make our own butter, yogurt and cheese as well as drink some. This has prompted me to build a little cheese press to help with the extra milk. The press is made from inexpensive 1/2 inch thick plastic cutting boards used for the top and bottom plates and pressure disks, white pvc pipe, and a plastic floor drain cap.

Fjordworks Plowing the Market Garden

Fjordworks: Plowing the Market Garden Part 1

In a horse-powered market garden in the 1- to 10-acre range the moldboard plow can still serve us very well as one valuable component within a whole tool kit of tillage methods. In the market garden the plow is used principally to turn in crop residue or cover crops with the intention of preparing the ground to sow new seeds. In these instances, the plow is often the most effective tool the horse-powered farmer has on hand for beginning the process of creating a fine seed bed.

Cultivating Questions The Cost of Working Horses

Cultivating Questions: The Cost of Working Horses

Thanks to the many resources available in the new millennium, it is relatively easy for new and transitioning farmers to learn the business of small-scale organic vegetable production. Economic models of horse-powered market gardens, however, are still few and far between. To fill that information hole, I asked three experienced farmers to join me in tracking work horse hours, expenses and labor over a two-year period and to share the results in the Small Farmer’s Journal.

Delivery Wagon Plans

Delivery Wagon Plans

from issue:

While the low down delivery wagon is an improvement, the objectionable features are increased. But with all those objections the low down wagons increase every year. Their convenience outweighs all other objections. They are handy for country delivery and are fitted up inside to suit either grocers, bakers, butchers or milk delivery, or a combination of the four.

Parker Soil Pulverizer

Bring Back To Life the John P. Parker Pulverizer

by:
from issue:

Meanwhile, my senior year was approaching fast, and all of us students began to contemplate what our final project would be with a bit of urgency. Our capstone project tasks us with identifying a need for a product or solution, bringing that product through the design phase, then building that product and displaying at the Technical Exposition. So I had the harebrained idea to embark on recreating not only a scale model of Parker’s Pulverizer, but to also recreate the real thing in full-scale, complete with fresh new wheel castings.

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

LittleField Notes: Spring 2013

by:
from issue:

If we agree that quality of plowing is subject to different criteria at different times and in different fields, then perhaps the most important thing to consider is control. How effectively can I plow to attain my desired field condition based on my choice of plow? The old time plow manufacturers understood this. At one time there were specific moldboards available for every imaginable soil type and condition.

Timber Wagon

Timber Wagon: The ÖSTERBY SMEDJA SV5 Forwarder

New equipment for draft horse use in silviculture (growing trees) is commercialized in Sweden at present by five companies, mainly specialized in forwarders and logging arches. This equipment is primarily adapted to the needs of forest enterprises in Scandinavia. Thus the forwarders are designed for short and small wood, for loading via hydraulic crane or an electric winch, or for manual loading without tools. This equipment is also adapted to the local topographical conditions. The rocky forests require strong off-road capabilities.

The Tip Cart

The Tip Cart

by:
from issue:

When horses were the main source of power on every farm, in the British Isles it was the tip-cart, rather than the wagon which was the most common vehicle, and for anyone farming with horses, it is still an extremely useful and versatile piece of equipment. The farm cart was used all over the country, indeed in some places wagons were scarcely used at all, and many small farms in other areas only used carts.

A Pony-Powered Garden Cart

A Pony-Powered Garden Cart

by:
from issue:

One of the challenges I constantly face using draft ponies is finding appropriately sized equipment. Mya is a Shetland-Welsh cross, standing at 11.2 hands. Most manure spreaders are big and heavy and require a team of horses. I needed something small and light and preferably wheeled to minimize impact to the land. My husband and I looked around our budding small farm for something light, wheeled, cheap, and available, and we quickly noticed our Vermont-style garden cart.

Mini Horse Haying

Mini Horse Haying

by:
from issue:

The first mini I bought was a three year old gelding named Casper. He taught me a lot about what a 38 inch mini could do just by driving me around the neighborhood. He didn’t cover the miles fast, but he did get me there! It wasn’t long before several more 38 inch tall minis found their way home. I presently have four minis that are relatively quiet, responsive to the bit, and can work without a lot of drama.

New Horse-drawn Side Delivery Rakes from Europe

New Horse-drawn Side Delivery Rakes from Europe

In Northern Italy the two agricultural machinery manufacturers MAINARDI A. s.r.l. and REPOSSI Macchine Agricole s.r.l. produce a vast range of haying equipment with pto and hydraulic drive, also hay rakes with mechanical drive by the rear wheels. The majority of the sold machines of this type are currently used with small tractors and motor cultivators. The technology of these rakes is based on implements which were developed in the 1940s, when animal traction still played an important role in Italy’s agriculture.

Planet Jr Two Horse Equipment

Planet Jr. Two-Horse Equipment

from issue:

This information on Planet Jr. two horse equipment is from an old booklet which had been shared with us by Dave McCoy, a horse-logger from our parts: “Think of the saving made in cultivating perfectly two rows of potatoes, beans, corn or any crop planted in rows not over 44 inches apart, at a single passage. This means double work at a single cost, for the arrangement of the fourteen teeth is such that all the ground is well tilled and no open furrows are left next to the row, while one man attends easily to the work, with one team.”

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT