To Tell the Truth
To Tell the Truth

To Tell the Truth — This Country Is Not Going To Survive Without Draft Animal Power

by Noma Petroff

I just read “State of the World 2005” by the Worldwatch Institute. I’ve been reading the annual “State of the World” off and on for the past 15 years. This year I was particularly interested to see what it would have to say about the impact of peak oil production on agriculture.

In fact, it said just about nothing. This year’s chapter on agriculture, “Cultivating Food Security,” by Danielle Nierenberg and Brian Halweil talks about some important topics. In Africa 7 million workers have died of AIDS in the last 15 years, many of them farmers, resulting in a deep cut in the food productivity of the land. Climate change threatens droughts and further shifts in agricultural productivity. Biodiversity is being threatened. Diseases like brucellosis, foot-and-mouth disease, avian flu and a new strain of mad cow disease called BASE all pose potentially devastating threats. All these topics are discussed in the 15-page chapter. Then there are two paragraphs on the Land Institute’s project in Kansas, which is mainly about developing permanent pasture using sunlight.

These are all important topics, but focusing the discussion on them doesn’t address the fact that – according to numerous experts – we will soon reach peak oil production on this planet, if we haven’t already. For agriculture that means that within the next 20 years, and possibly even within the next 5-10 years, petroleum prices will skyrocket (yes, even more than they have in 2005). At that point petroleum powered agriculture will be finished, and we’re going to have to replace it with something else, if we are going to survive. The article, like so many others I have read on the impending “long crisis of energy” that we face, does not address specifically and head-on the threat to agriculture posed by the rise in price of fossil fuels (not just petroleum, because the price of natural gas and coal will escalate as replacements for petroleum). Keep in mind that, at present, agriculture is more dependent on petroleum than any other industry, depending on petroleum for over 90 percent of its energy needs.

To refresh our minds then, here’s a list that shows how fossil fuel is essential to the modern agricultural economy. It’s a list, by the way, which every school child should be studying right now, because they’ll be living mostly in the sequel to the petroleum era.

We use:

  1. Petroleum to fuel tractors for planting
  2. Natural gas to create nitrogen fertilizer
  3. Petroleum to manufacture herbicides and pesticides
  4. Petroleum to fuel tractors for harvest
  5. Natural gas to dry grain
  6. Petroleum to ship food products
  7. Petroleum products to surface roads
  8. Electricity (often fossil-fuel-based) to process and package food
  9. Petroleum to ship food to market
  10. Petroleum which the consumers use to transport the food home

Now when we hear about the crisis of peak oil production, we hear about a number of possible answers to the problem. Of the array of possible answers commonly proposed, no doubt some will provide a degree of relief. Still, each has distinct shortcomings in implementation:

1. Development of unconventional oil sources – deep sea, tar sands, the arctic, and politically instable areas. *Too risky, costly, and environmentally hazardous.

2. Liquid natural gas (LNG) – *More expensive to handle and transport than oil. Gas facilities cost billions of dollars and take decades to pay off, posing massive financial risk for energy companies. Greater security risks in shipping and processing. Major new sources are politically unstable.

3. Coal – *Too polluting. Scrubbers can remove sulfur, but not carbon dioxide. Coal fired power plants in the US already generate one-eighth of world’s carbon dioxide emissions, contributing to global warming. There is no economical way to control carbon emissions.

4. Nuclear power – *Profound ecological risks and political challenges; nuclear plant costs at least 2 billion dollars to build, requiring massive government finance.

5. Solar and wind power – *Relatively high cost energy, intermittent power supply, lack of dispatchability, leaving 80% of the market they can’t supply.

6. Hydrogen fuel cells – *Most existing supply of hydrogen comes from natural gas; other sources are too costly, undeveloped or problematic. To retrofit 1/3 of US gas stations for hydrogen would cost 30 billion dollars. Cost of fuel 3 times cost of gasoline (in 2004 prices).

These are the alternatives examined by major energy experts. With the possible exception of wind power, all are centralized and highly technological. Some cannot even get on the market without billions of dollars of investment.

(If funding is a challenge for developed countries like the US, it’s going to be impossible for poor countries.)

One last alternative is more easily available:

7. Conservation – *Often opposed or undermined by energy industries; slows but doesn’t stop depletion.

Though some of these alternatives can be used for generating electricity or powering lightweight automobiles, most of them are impossible or prohibitively expensive to use for shipping or agricultural traction. Farming is already so unprofitable that vast areas of America’s Midwestern plains are being depopulated because young people can’t make a living farming.

When you scrutinize the different alternatives being proposed, you start to realize that the only factor taken into account by their proponents is whether it’s technologically possible to implement them. But if anything, Hurricane Katrina surely has taught us that a technologically feasible solution is not necessarily a realistic solution. Economic and social factors must be considered as well. New Orleans planners figured that people could be evacuated out of the path of an oncoming hurricane using automobiles. That was technologically feasible. But the practical reality proved that under the circumstances, people who were in a certain social class would not have the money for that solution to work. The social and economic realities were not taken into consideration in formulating a solution, so many people just died. A technologically feasible solution was not enough.

I read one book on the energy crisis by an engineer. His analysis of the crisis was carefully thought out, but his solution was to design a solar-powered tractor. I thought to myself: Farmers are struggling for survival as it is; how can they afford to spend vast sums of money to convert to a costly new technology?

So the problem presented to agriculture by skyrocketing petroleum prices is not eliminated by the technologies currently being promoted: How can food be produced when farmers can’t afford elaborate equipment or increased energy prices? How will it be transported hundreds of miles to consumers?

The answer to this problem is not being discussed by any major publication, so it seems incumbent upon us, the readers (and also the editors) of Small Farmers Journal, to point out to our local papers and news stations and to our government officials that there is one crucial element of the solution which is being completely overlooked by the current press.

Let’s put it another way. In 1989 Cuba had the most highly industrialized agriculture in all of Latin America, with tractors, chemical fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides – the works. In 1990 the Soviet Union fell, and suddenly Cuba’s access to cheap petroleum was cut off.

So how did Cuba feed itself? Did it turn to tractors powered by nuclear power, solar power, wind power or hydrogen cells? No, it didn’t have time or money for solutions like that. Cuba’s solution was to train 500,000 oxen to take the place of petroleum powered engines. It trained its farmers to work the oxen, and to learn the techniques of organic agriculture, so it didn’t have to rely on fossil-fuel dependent inputs.

For Cuba, draft animal power was a key component in continuing to feed a nation which was suddenly cut off from cheap petroleum.

The Cubans know this very well. Oddly enough, even when Northern writers write with admiration about the turn-around in Cuban agriculture, the role of ox power is really downplayed. A person can’t help wondering if they just consider draft animal power too primitive to be even acknowledged, too primitive to take seriously. But the Cubans are taking it seriously. They know that they are eating because oxen plow the fields and oxen transport the food into the nearby cities.

But somehow, the Northerners just don’t seem to get it at all. Unfortunately, there is an ominous dynamic between draft animal power and oil prices which could prohibit our country from adopting Cuba’s solution, when the crunch comes to us.

The way it works is this: The cost to produce one pound of meat (or one pound of live muscle) escalates exponentially in relation to the cost of petroleum. The larger the animal, the faster the price escalates. For example, let’s assume it takes 2 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of chicken, 10 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of pork, and 22 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef.

In the context of petroleum-based agriculture, each pound of grain represents a certain amount of petroleum that must be used in planting, cultivating, harvesting and shipping that pound of grain. That means that a dairy farmer will feel a much sharper impact from higher priced petroleum than any of the other farmers around him. In practical terms, he’s likely to send a much higher portion of his cows to slaughter, because he simply can’t afford to buy the feed for them. Oddly enough, although the consumer may see many food items increasing, he will sometimes see that the price of beef actually falls – because too many farmers are slaughtering their cows at the same time, and the retailers and fast food outlets have to lower prices just to move the meat out of their coolers fast enough.

Generally, when fuel prices fall again, farmers will increase their herds again over the next few years and bring them back up to the previous size. But, peak oil production is a different economic dynamic. It means that since the demand for oil exceeds what can be produced, then the overall movement of oil prices is simply up-and-up-and-up. If that happens, today’s farmers will not be able to re-expand their herds.

That’s most unfortunate, because one element of the dairy herd, which is practically regarded as a waste product, is the bull calf. That calf could be trained to be a hard working ox, plowing the fields and shipping grain, milk and produce to nearby towns. But, the irony is, unless the public wakes up, that solution to the impending petroleum shortage will not be possible. Instead, farmers will flood the market with cheap beef, representing cows and bulls slaughtered as feed prices rise. Eventually, probably within the next 10- 20 years, we’ll reach a point when petroleum simply costs too much to be used for agriculture. That would be the logical point for this country to turn to ox power – but we won’t be able to do it if we’ve already eaten most of the cows and bull calves. In essence, we’ll have already have eaten our non-petroleum engines (and engine-factories in the form of cows).

But, what about horses? On one hand, even though oxen are slower than horses, experts dating back to Ben Franklin have noted that “pound for pound an ox can pull more than a horse.” Because an ox pretty much just stands there when not working, he is more “fuel efficient” so to speak. Also, in terms of economics, any person could afford to buy a bull calf to train, but not everyone can afford to purchase a horse. Nevertheless, both horses and oxen should have an important role to play in post-petroleum economics. At the same time, horses who are fed on commercially produced grain fall in approximately the same muscle-to-grain ratio as cows – or perhaps they take even more grain to produce one pound of muscle.

Thus, unfortunately, horses probably will be subject to the same dynamic of increased slaughter rates as petroleum prices rise and their owners can no longer afford to feed them. The solution for providing continued support for both work horses and work oxen is partly to use the animals to produce (and process) their own grains for feed, and the other part of it is to increase our expertise in rotational grazing and intensive pasture management, so we can provide them with excellent nutrition that is not based on petroleum inputs. On the whole, many potential draft animals will probably be sold at bargain rates, as commercial farmers and hobbyists decide they can no longer afford to feed them. Draft animal farmers should be prepared to take advantage of the situation, keeping in mind that trained animals may eventually be sold to neighbors, once they decide to shift from petroleum to draft animal power.

But all this assumes a comparatively orderly transition from petroleum powered agriculture to draft animal powered agriculture. It’s also possible that the exit from petroleum powered agriculture will be chaotic and violent. In that case, things could be quite different. There may be a spike in animal rustling. People may steal and kill trained draft animals, simply in desperation for something to eat. So, the important thing now is to instill in our communities the understanding that such acts would be suicidal in the long run. We need to get the word out now that our nation needs its draft animals if it is to survive in the impending post-petroleum era. If that can be done, it may prove a time with full employment, stronger spiritual values, and stronger community values. We just have to start to get the word out now: draft animals are not just a hobby, they’re a key factor we’re going to need for survival in the coming era.