It is said that when the ships of the Old World first approached the New World, they were sometimes invisible to the indigenous people of the Americas because the latter could not imagine such a thing as a fleet of large sailing ships, and simply did not believe their eyes. In the same way, when a large enough change looms in our future, we tend to dismiss calls to pay attention as the talk of eccentrics or screwballs. If the magnitude of the change is beyond our historical experience, we simply cannot imagine it. The end of the industrial era as we know it is one such change. This essay is an attempt at persuasion – that the ships of change really are on the horizon.
In this series I will attempt a preliminary vision of a relocalization of food production designed to feed the population of Tompkins County, New York. A project of this scope implies a reorganization of food processing and distribution that, while not included in this first iteration, will need to be integrated in a later, expanded overview.
Some of the most durable and productive low external input farming systems in history are designed around animals that can accelerate the growth and conversion of plants to fertilizer. Because they are highly multifunctional, ruminant mammals rank highest among these. Beyond their manure production function, they can consume fibrous perennials unusable for human food. These perennials can grow on hill land too rocky or too erodable for many types of food cropping. Used as work animals, ruminants multiply the energy input from human labor many times.
How relocalized does a food economy need to be in the energy descent era? Throughout history, food security everywhere has been heavily dependent on a reliable supply of staple foods, especially starch staples like root crops, pulses (beans, peas, etc.) and grains. Our region once was self-sufficient in staples but gradually imported most of them. To regain food security, we must establish a measure of food sovereignty as local policy, especially in staple foods.
The high institutional and population density of urban areas promotes labor-intensive production methods, community regeneration through cooperative management, and transport efficiency for agricultural inputs and products. The ability to have more farmers/acre permits the kind of management-intensive system that maximizes productivity achieved by close monitoring and good timing throughout the growing season. It allows a division of labor to manage diversified production integrated into one system.
Ideally this process would be part of a general physical redesign of both the urban and hinterland communities according to the model that emerged in Europe, where centuries of higher population densities have dictated more careful land use planning. Even today, European towns large and small are characteristically dense clusters of buildings that end abruptly in agrarian vistas.
Urban and peri-urban gardens can provide quantities of fresh vegetables and fruits, but only rural farms have the space to grow enough of the starchy staples like potatoes, grains, beans, and rice that have historically supported urban population densities. Moreover, only rural farms can supply enough of the materials like oils, fibers, and wood that are basic necessities in our cold climate. Agrarian villages, not the urban center, will again become the heart of a relocalized county food system in the coming years.