I am going to start blogging again since I have time in the winter, but it is just too difficult to post both on Local Harvest and on Blogspot. Therefore, if you want to follow my ramblings, go to http://fullattention.blogspot.com.
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention[ Member listing ]
20 May · Fri 2011
My triticale is heading already. This is surprising, given that we have had such a wet spring. The ditches were running with water just a week ago, similar to what we normally get in February. Most of the farmers around here are just getting into their fields. Since I am on a human scale, rather than a tractor scale, I was able to plant some things in the small windows of dryness we got in the last month. My potatoes are up and looking good. My cabbage, broccoli and onions likewise.
Triticale is part of my ongoing grain project. We need to grow our own grain on small plots, especially if we are cutting, threshing and winnowing by hand, as I am. Without mechanized combines, no farmer will be able to grow grain at current prices, which are quite low compared to the labor involved in hand cultivation and harvesting. I became interested in triticale when I was teaching anthropology for a couple of quarters because it is a polyploid (more than two sets of chromosomes), like most of our domestic crops. Triticale is a man-made crop, with four sets of 7 chromosomes from wheat and two sets of 7 from rye. This becomes a chromosome number of 42 (6 x 7), the same as common wheat. Triticale also has a larger grain than wheat and a nice golden color like wheat and unlike rye. I also suspected it would open up the soil like rye, which is known as the "biological tractor."
I got a generic variety of winter triticale from Fedco, which sells it as a cover crop. I sowed it September 29, 2009 and last year, I harvested some for seed and a test bread loaf, and then whacked down the rest of it. It reseeded and came back like gangbusters. When I made my test loaves, I quite liked the taste. The loaves weren’t as flat as straight rye, so there seems to be enough gluten to make a good coarse loaf – the kind I make for our own use.
The reseeding is another part of my grain project. I am harvesting some grain, like my winter wheat, and then watching as it reseeds, due to my primitive cutting with a sickle. So far, this works well. I also left a plot of spelt last year and whacked down one half and let the other half stand. The half that was whacked down reseeded quite nicely, but the half left to stand tall didn't reseed well. It may be that whacking down the stems protects the seed, but I take the stems off the wheat when I cut it, so this might not be determinative. On the other hand, I don't cut my wheat right down to the ground like a mechanical combine, so maybe some of the stem that is left allows the seed to be protected until it sprouts (as long as I whack it down).
For comparison, the winter wheat I sowed October 29, 2010 is doing well, but nowhere near as well as the triticale left to reseed. The winter wheat I left to reseed is about the same height as what I planted, so it is not the technique that is determinative, but the grain itself. In other words, triticale holds out great potential for a grain crop when our weather is cooler in the spring. As the medieval peasants did, it is good to plant spelt as well as wheat as a hedge against hunger. It seems we can also add triticale to the mix.
Posted by Walter @ 10:11 AM PDT
12 May · Thu 2011
As I finished a book this morning, I happened to notice my bookmark. It was a tag from a six-pack of Guinness draught I bought some time ago. In big white and gold letters it said "Guinness only has 125 calories." Since I have repeatedly assessed my work rate on the farm at 125 calories per hour, I was immediately intrigued.
As you know, I assess my farm work based on a 2500 calorie a day diet. Since I put out as much energy as I consume, i.e. I am neither putting on nor losing weight, my energy output per day is the amount I eat. The national average for men is 2500 calories per day, so I start with this figure. A good average for the amount of calories burned in 8 hours of sleep is 500, which leaves 2000 calories for a day's work. Since I work at a variable rate all day long, including a nap, making food and eating it, doing computer work and doing manual labor, I use an average over a 16-hour day. 2000 calories divided by 16 hours is 125 calories per hour. Simple, easy to calculate AND valid once you actually look at human work with an unbiased eye. Even in construction work, there are times of extreme effort, but also a considerable amount of time in setup, breakdown, shooting the breeze with other workers, listening to the boss blather on about codes and workrates, etc. You might also notice that most people spend as much effort on their leisure time or duties at home as they do at work. Thus, I regard 125 calories as a valid rate for human work over the long haul and across the majority of jobs.
So if my work is worth 125 calories per hour and there are 125 calories in a 12-ounce bottle of draught Guinness, then a bottle should be worth one hour of my time. If I was paid a minimum wage for farm work (which I am not, by the way), then a bottle of Guinness would be worth $8.67 here in Washington state. This is about the price for a six-pack however, so a minimum wage worker is getting 6 times the food calories he is using to work. Another way to look at it would be to ask how many bottles a minimum-wage worker could get in a bar. At current prices, a bottle of Guinness is about $4.50 for a bottle, so a minimum-wage worker can get about 2 times the food calories he is using to work. By the way, this 3:1 ratio comports well with the standard 3:1 ratio a bar owner needs to charge to make a profit, so the merchant, or trade, aspect of Guinness calories fits into the modern business model. However, there is still a disconnect between the retail price of Guinness and the minimum wage. Does this disconnect mean that a minimum wage worker is overpaid or does it mean that the Guinness is underpriced in terms of the energy in the actual product?
It is actually neither. The real disconnect is that price is disconnected from energy value. For most economists, price and energy value are like apples and oranges - not comparable. However, if we knowingly disconnect from price by not using money, then we can utilize energy as our measurement of value. Once we make this "conscious" disconnect, we can value the Guinness at its calorie value or even leverage the idea of this disconnect to look at economics from a different perspective.
So, are you willing to come out to the farm and work an hour for a bottle of Guinness? Probably not. You may object, and rightly so, that we need to leverage the energy value in our "reward" or "wage." After all, we are trying to use human energy calories to produce MORE than we consume. [Sidebar: Even though modern agriculture uses more input calories in fossil fuels than it produces in food calories, one of the tenets of postmodern agriculture is that we produce more food calories than our human and fossil fuel inputs.] Therefore, I should give you more than a bottle of Guinness for your time (let's forget where I get the money to buy the Guinness for the moment). Okay, fair enough. Would you be willing to come out to the farm and work an hour for two bottles of Guinness? Now you might be tempted, especially if you were desparate and did not drink the Guinness but just took them home and traded them to someone. Perhaps you worked for 3 hours and got a six-pack of Guinness and then traded it for two packs of cigarettes, which you then traded for a gallon of gas, and then you used your car to take someone to the store and on other errands, and this taxi service was paid for with a bunch of food either purchased or grown by the person who did not have a car. At the end of the day, you have leveraged your minimal labor input into more than you could get by just drinking the beverage.
So, my brief simplistic scenario above is really a microcosm of how basic economics works - i.e. householder economics. It is also how the "ghetto" economy, or "underground" economy works. It is all about leverage AND it takes interaction. When you see people on the street corner just hanging out, they are really doing more work than you, at your computer in your cubicle, are doing. The key is leverage and interaction.
Okay, can we codify the trade aspect of the underground economy and bring it up aboveground? Yes, and it is tres simple. We simply use scrip. Scrip is just a piece of paper that lists a value for barter transactions. For example, the scrip in Ferndale is the Steiner. A Steiner is worth either 1) an hour of your time, 2) 5 pounds of potatoes, 3) 2 dozen eggs, or 4) 2 pints of beer. The important point in using these 4 commodities is not that they are equivalent, but that they give you four frames of reference for your transaction. You could come up with your own similar scrip scheme. When you make a trade you are engaging in a bilateral contract and you need to have a way to compare your product/service with the other product/service. Money usually serves for settling the transaction BUT money is politically loaded and for many people it is hard to come by. Time and interaction however, are what the poor have in abundance. Thus the trade aspect of the underground economy.
As wages go down and unemployment goes up, dealing with the money system becomes harder and harder. Embracing the underground economy and bringing it up for air by using scrip is a viable way to get an edge AND build community. Community-building is really an offshoot of human interaction. Trade, not just purchasing, is an easy way to build community.
Posted by Walter @ 11:08 AM PDT
23 Apr · Sat 2011
Let's put the difference between energy input and output into an analogy everyone can understand. Suppose you go to your favorite pub and order 5 pints of beer. The bartender puts them up on the bar and you proceed to drink 1 and pour the other 4 out into the nearest sink. After you drink your beer you say, "I'm still thirsty," and order 5 more. Once again, you pour 4 down the sink and drink 1. At the end of your pint you decide to go home. As you pay for your pint you notice that it takes $40 to pay for your pints, instead of the usual $8. Nevertheless you pay for your beer, tip the bartender and get into your automobile which is powered by an internal combustion engine that is just as wasteful as your behavior in the bar. On the drive home you ponder just what "20% efficiency" really means.
Insisting we get more work done by using internal combustion engines without factoring in how much energy is wasted AND refusing to consider where the wasted heat and gases go is an example of puerile thought processes. Ditto for willfully confusing input and output. When we burn fossil fuels we burn up calories. When we walk around and dig ditches and weed carrots and sit in front of a computer, we burn up calories. Since I have delineated my methodology several times on this blog, I won't repeat it here. What I will say is that you burn up around 2500 calories a day for a US male and around 2000 for a US female. If you grow some food with your calories, you get a much better return on the energy invested than if you sit behind the wheel of your car or in front of your computer. In the future, when the real cost of energy will be accounted for in the marketplace, you will realize that deep in your heart and in your hands.
Posted by Walter @ 03:46 PM PDT
18 Apr · Mon 2011
There have been several comments on how much energy is in a litre of petrol since I first questioned Rob Hopkins’ comparison of 1 litre of petrol to 35 days of hard human manual labor. It is amazing to me how many people still confuse input with output. Allow me to make a few simple points.
Posted by Walter @ 03:02 PM PDT
17 Apr · Sun 2011
In regards to Rob Hopkins’ claim of “1 litre of petrol equaling 35 days of hard manual human labor,” I looked at his source, which is FEASTA, The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability. (Thanks to David McLeod of Transition Whatcom for pointing this out to me.) Here is the website link and the relevant paragraphs, which evidently date from 2007: http://www.feasta.org/documents/energy/emissions2007.htm
The energy in a kilogram of oil is equivalent to the output of about 24 working days or just under 200 hours of human work. That makes a day's human work equal to about 40 grams of oil, a couple of desert-spoons full. Another way of looking at it is that a 40 litre fill-up at a petrol station is the equivalent of about four years of human manual work.
Put another way, if an averagely fit person pedaled a generator, they could light a 70 watt bulb though their efforts. This means that, for every hour that they spent in continuous physical labour, they could achieve 3,600 x 70 Joules of work. (A watt is a joule per second - so a 'watt hour' is calculated from the number of seconds in the hour, which is 3,600.) 3,600 seconds x 70 Joules is 252,000 J per hour, the amount the average worker could achieve.
There are no references for FEASTA’s claims and there is a major theoretical problem in their calculations. If we take the first claim of 200 hours of human work for 40 grams of oil, we don’t know whether they mean crude oil or diesel or gasoline. Presumably they mean diesel or gasoline (which are not equivalent in mass, by the way) since they mention a 40 litre fill-up at a gas station. They also state the 40 litres as equivalent to about four years of human work. At 2000 hours per year that calculates to 8000 hours for 40 litres, or 200 hours of work per litre. If we divide this by an 8-hour day, that means a litre of petrol would be equal to 25 days of human manual labor. If Rob is using this method of calculation, he simply made a math error. (The paragraph above actually states 24 days, which is probably because they didn’t round up to 200 hours in their original calculations.)
If, on the other hand we look at the second method of calculating human work used by FEASTA, we quickly uncover their theoretical error. They first postulate “an averagely fit person” pedaling a generator that lights a 70 watt bulb. Their actual calculations are spot on and I appreciate their conversion to 252,000 joules per hour, which is the preferred unit for thermochemical energy. However since there are 4184 joules in a kilocalorie, this calculates to 60.22 kilocalories per hour for the human pedaling the generator and lighting up the 70-watt bulb. [Note: I will use kilocalories for the calculations in this post rather than the usual shorthand of calories.] For those of you following closely, you may already see that FEASTA is focusing solely on the work done (the light bulb) and NOT the energies used by the sweaty human to get the work done. This is a major theoretical problem, as it confuses input with output.
In one of my classes in high school, the instructor had the class tough guy come up and push against his desk, which was attached to the floor. Of course the desk didn’t move. The teacher then flicked his pencil a couple of times and said that he was doing more work than the tough guy grunting and straining against an immovable object. Of course he was right, as work is generally accepted as getting something done, like moving a block of stone or digging up dirt with a shovel. However, the work in this case is a measure of output, not input. In addition to the work done to pedal the generator or move the block of stone or dig the soil, we have to take into account the energy used to keep the engine going, like the energy to contract the muscles or make the wheel go around in the first place. If electric power plants operate at a thermal efficiency of 30% and a car operates at a thermal efficiency of 21%, we know we have a 70% and 79% waste of energy in the form of heat when we run these engines. We get the same result in a human that is reflected in a higher heart rate and the sweat running down the face of the human who is pedaling the generator to light up the 70 watt bulb. In other words, we cannot discount the energy that goes into powering the light bulb that is “wasted” as heat. This is the same kind of fiction that economists use to baldly state that industrial agriculture is a more efficient way to grow food, all the while blithely ignoring the much greater quantities of energy used to power the big tractors to grow the food and the inputs of energy to make the fertilizers. If we use a full accounting of how much energy is used to power the engine, i.e. the input rather than the output, we will have a much higher number of calories or joules or kilowatts or horsepower or the like. In short, the 60.22 kilocalories used per hour to power the 70 watt bulb are much lower than the actual kilocalories of energy used to power the human engine.
Thermochemical energy is a term used in this very interesting website “Thermal Efficiency of a Human Being: http://mb-soft.com/public2/humaneff.html. A better term is internal energy (U), which is explained very well here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_energy. Internal energy is the sum of potential and kinetic energy and the standard measure is the joule, which is the energy needed to move one newton one meter, or pass one ampere of current through one ohm for one second, or to produce one watt for one second. Even though the joule is the SI unit (from the French Système international d'unités), it can be translated into kilocalories or kilowatt hours or horsepower or BTU’s. Here is a very nice calculator so you don’t have to do the math: http://www.convertunits.com/from/joules/to/kilocalorie. There are 4184 joules in a kilocalorie. For another look at this calculation of energy input, albeit even more torturous than mine, check out this post from the Oil Drum here: http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/4315.
The bottom line is that energy must be accounted for, and conflating energy input and output is stinky cheese. The problem arose from uncritical acceptance of a source (the FEASTA webpage) without checking the numbers. That is why I always try to lay out my methodology and sources when I make a statement based on number crunching. If you bear with me, I will go through my methodology one more time.
As I have written many times, I calculate human energy in kilocalories (or just calories or Calories in the usual manner accepted by nutritionists and most popular writers). I know how many hours I put in over a year’s time to grow food - 3000 hours - and I know that I don’t sweat and strain for 16 hours a day in the summertime when I put in my long days. I also take time for lunch and a nap most days. After surveying multiple websites where the number of calories burned during sleep generally ranges from 400-600 and depends on weight, I arrived at the reasonable assumption that the average human uses about 500 calories in 8 hours of sleep. I use a 2500 calorie a day diet, even though the standard is 2000 for women and 2500 for men, as it makes my calculations on how many people I can feed more conservative. Using this higher number also has a conservative effect when calculating calories per hour used in manual labor. Since 2500 minus 500 is 2000, I have 2000 calories to burn up in a typical day, when I work anywhere from 0 hours during 2 months of the winter to 16 hours a day during 3-4 months of summer. Apportioning 2000 calories over 16 hours is reasonable when I observe that I spend as much energy walking out to the mailbox as I do weeding carrots. I have worked a lot of jobs in my life, from archaeologist to circus ringmaster to word processor to college professor to migrant worker to punch-press operator to construction worker to farmer. I don’t sweat and strain very much and most of my coworkers didn’t either. Even working construction allows an average fit human to go out dancing at night if he/she wants to. Certainly my tiredness at the age of 61 has more to do with my age than with the “hard manual labor” I do every day. All in all, 125 calories per hour for manual human labor (it really isn’t that hard!) is reasonable. This is more than twice as much as that calculated on the FEASTA site, but well below that calculated by fitness trainers for bicycling in general (500-600 per hour).
The real benefit of my method of calculating internal energy (U) is that it is a metric that crosses all platforms. I can use it to calculate how many calories in that pound of tomatoes you bought at the farmers market versus the ones in the supermarket, I can compare horse-drawn plowing to a human with a shovel or a tiller or a tractor. I can argue for the positive feedback loop of eating part of what we grow and using those calories to grow more food as a very efficient method of growing food. Finally, I can make the claim that the human engine is more efficient than the internal combustion engine in the amount of work it gets done. Even though there are occasional flubs in general conceptions of “work” and “energy” and “efficiency,” I can actually run the numbers because my method is based on the laws of physics. Under the general rubric of “input/output analysis,” I have constructed a model of sustainable agriculture that can feed the world right now with very low fossil fuel inputs, as well as put people to work in a very efficient manner. In point of fact, input/output analysis provides a method to actually measure sustainability. I can show anyone the numbers of what I produced in the last several years at my farm and in 2010 at the food bank farm I manage. I can state with certainty that I produced 3.5 calories of food energy for every input calorie I used to grow that food in 2009 on my farm, measured in gasoline and human labor. I can state with conviction that we could get by quite nicely with only 20% of our adult population growing food for the other 80%. I know these things because I have done the work and I have the numbers. They are impressive enough. We don’t have to exaggerate the internal energy of a litre of petrol. As I said before, Rob Hopkins’ statement of “1 litre of petrol being equivalent to 35 days of hard human manual labor” is an exaggeration. Rob has the right idea but the wrong numbers.
Posted by Walter @ 02:48 PM PDT
16 Apr · Sat 2011
Gunnar - Thanks for the comment and the link to your blog. I noticed you also commented on Rob Hopkin's blog, which is here for anyone else who wants to check it out: http://transitionculture.org/2011/04/15/a-chat-with-the-nation-and-just-how-much-energy-is-in-a-litre-of-petrol/
Contrary to your assumption, I do NOT assume that all our food goes to work. I am calculating energy input based on how much energy a human is expending per hour (125 calories per hour). Whether that person is sitting in front of a TV or weeding carrots is irrelevant. You may observe people all around you at any time and it is quite obvious that they put a considerable amount of time into their leisure activities - very often more than they do into their paid work. (!) I use 125 calories per hour as an overall average because I do things all day at the same rate. I don't necessarily burn more calories weeding carrots than I do walking out to the field or doing my data entry at night. Overall, 125 calories an hour for the 3000 hours I put in over a year's time seems reasonable.
Part of the problem comes from the confusion of input and output. When you say that only 20-25% of human input is output, you may be right. However, both Rob and I were comparing inputs only (liter of petrol vs. energy used by a human laborer for 35 days - how much he gets done is irrelevant). When we eat we consume fuel in the form of calories. We use those calories during the day. If I use more than I burn up, I gain weight. If my calorie input is the same as my calorie output, my weight stays the same. What I get for my output is NOT the same as my input. Modern economists regularly dismiss energy inputs as externals and only measure outputs. This allows them the fiction of saying industrial agriculture is more efficient because each farmer feeds more people, even though it takes 7-10 more inputs (in calories, joules, BTU's or whatever measure you want to use) to produce outputs. Even though I feed fewer people than an industrial farmer, I am more efficient because my energy inputs are lower. This is what input/output analysis is all about. We need a measure of sustainability and the ratio of inputs to outputs is the requisite measure. When I say that I put in 1 million calories input to produce 3.5 million calories of output, it is irrelevant what percentage of my calories go to burn fuel in my muscles and how much lifts up the shovel or the hoe. I am still burning up the calories and THAT is what I am measuring. Rob Hopkins was making the same analogy because he was talking about the thermodynamic internal energy (i.e. capacity to do work plus the capacity to release heat) of a fuel versus the thermodynamic internal energy of the fuel to drive the human engine for 35 days.
Posted by Walter @ 10:38 AM PDT
15 Apr · Fri 2011
One of the comments on my last post asked if Rob Hopkins really meant to use the word "gallon" and also asked if anyone else is using this calculation. I typed in a reply, but the Local Harvest spam watch thwarted me, so here is my reply to the poster's question.
If you watch the video, you will see that Rob is using the words "liter of petrol." In the British Isles, "petrol" usually means gasoline, but it could also be used as a generic term for both gasoline and diesel. Since Rob has been using this comparison for several years now, I doubt he is making the simple mistake of saying "liter" and meaning "gallon." There is also the conundrum of the imperial gallon (i.e. "Rob's" gallon) being 1.2 times the US gallon, so his original use of "liter" would render his comparison more meaningful internationally. In other words, looking at his statement from a speechwriter's point of view, it seems he intended to use "liter of petrol" for a specific purpose. He is just misinformed on the true value.
I sent an email to Rob, via the UK Transition Culture site, asking him to comment, but I haven't heard anything from him yet.
At this point, I seem to be the only one using this metric. I tried it out on a university economist in a public meeting in 2008, but he was quick to see that he couldn't make his statement about the huge energy cost of local food (which is unbelievable if you think about it) if he actually signed off on a system where you can parse a farmers market load going 150 miles one way vs. one going 15 miles one way. He declined to accept "calories as a metric that crosses all platforms," so I seem to be the only voice crying in the wilderness. You probably know that Sweden is doing something similar, but with the macro measure of kilos of carbon. Calories are a localized, decentralized micro measure that anyone can use. It just takes a pencil and paper - you don't even have to have a calculator.
As an interesting side note, I brought up this calculation method at a university guest lecture I did in January and I got only one question and the question was off point. In other words, what I see as a simple method of comparison is either off-putting or incomprehensible to most people. Oh, well. As I have been saying quite a lot lately, "The laws of physics are on my side." We can just weather the coming storm or spend a little bit of intellectual effort understanding what the real energy costs are. Either way, industrial agriculture is doomed and growing food with the efficient human engine is the wave of the future.
Posted by Walter @ 07:59 AM PDT
13 Apr · Wed 2011
In the Rob Hopkins interview, which is part 13 of The Nation’s video series, he makes a couple of glaring errors. These two errors are at 21:00 minutes into the video and immediately after. Here is the weblink: http://www.energybulletin.net/media/2011-04-13/how-climate-change-puts-globalization-reverse The first error is one he has made consistently in his videos over the three years that I have been viewing them. As he has done before, he states that the energy in a liter of petrol is equivalent to 35 days of hard human manual labor. This is more or less a throwaway line to make his point but he overstates the energy value of a liter of petrol by almost a factor of four. This is significant if we really want to get traction with economists and engineers who actually measure this kind of thing. There is a LOT of potential energy in a liter of gasoline or petrol and we can indeed measure it and compare it to human energy by using calories or joules or BTUs or kilowatt hours or horsepower, all of which can be translated one into the other. [Caveat: By calories I mean kilocalories. It is well understood in human nutrition information that we are really talking about kilocalories and sometimes we see it written as Calories. This is just a blip in semantics.]
Unfortunately, Hopkins does not state how many hours of human labor per day, so let's plug in 8 hours. He also doesn't give an energy equivalent for human labor per hour, so I will use my own metric. I am a farmer and do hard physical labor every day, but I don't consume more than other people of my size, which is normalized at 2500 calories per day for a human male. I also don't sweat copiously all day long (it is not like playing football/soccer for 90 minutes for example) and the physical exertion has to be maintained over a long day, sometimes 16 hours in the summer. Thus it is reasonable to apportion my labor output at what it takes to get me through 16 hours. Since we use about 500 calories in an eight-hour sleep period, that leaves 2000 calories spread out over 16 hours, or 125 calories per hour. In my experience, this is a valid measurement that is robust (i.e. you can throw all kinds of bad data at it and still get valid results).
Now if we calculate Hopkins' statement with our own energy and time values we can see that he is saying a liter of petrol is equivalent to 35,000 calories (35 x 8 x 125 = 35,000). Now, checking this out on the Web, we find that a gallon of diesel does indeed have an energy value of 35,000 calories per US gallon (you may have to convert from joules or BTU's depending on the website). So, if Hopkins' meant to say that a GALLON of DIESEL has an energy value of 35 days of human labor, he would be spot on. [The corresponding value for gasoline is 31,000 calories per gallon, by the way.] However, Hopkins says that a LITER has this energy value and since there are 3.785 liters in a US gallon, he is exaggerating by a factor of 3.785 or nearly 4. Perhaps he should be saying, "A US gallon of petrol has the energy value of 35 days of human manual labor." Alternatively, he could say, "A liter of petrol has the energy value of over 9 days of human manual labor." He doesn't even need to say "hard human manual labor." Every audience gets the point about manual labor, since most people will do almost anything to get out of it.
Which brings me to my second point. A bit after his throway line about the energy value of a liter of petrol, he says that a liter can power a car for 30 miles. Since there are 3.785 liters in a gallon, this would mean that a British car gets over 113 miles per gallon. I doubt there are ANY cars in Britain with this mileage, much less on average, which is implied in his statement.
Rob Hopkins is fighting the good fight, but he needs to polish up his numbers. It really DOES matter, especially if we want to calculate our own energy consumption or compare the efficient human engine to the inefficient internal combustion engine. The comparison is stark. We don't need to engage in hyperbole.
Posted by Walter @ 12:17 PM PDT [ Comments  ]
07 Apr · Thu 2011
Over the last couple of months I have been shifting my agricultural paradigm. I have now concluded it is unlikely farmers will ever make a fair wage. There may be confusion over what constitutes a "fair wage," but what I intend to say is that focusing on getting a fair price or a fair wage is behind the curve.
Over the past 7 years, as I spent over 3000 hours a year in food production and direct marketing, I assumed that as the cost of transportation increased the price of food at the supermarket, the organic/natural produce would settle into parity. That is, as supermarket potatoes rose in price, at some point my potatoes would be equal in price to those in the supermarket grown by industrial agriculture. However, it now seems that price rises will not just drift up. The whole system is likely to crash instead. In other words, there will be no transition to sustainable agriculture because this would mean parity for farmers' wages. I already have a system that would provide a living wage for small-scale farmers, but that is precisely the problem. In other words, giving farmers a living wage would crash the system dependent on farmers NOT getting a living wage. Sounds crazy doesn't it?
Civilization depends on slavery. You can look at past civilizations - Greek, Roman, Aztec, Sumerian and the others. They all depended on slavery for the energy to grow food. The US had slavery until 1865 and Colonel Drake had already dug the first commercial oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859. After the post-Civil War "sorting out," which included the debacles of Reconstruction and genocide on the Great Plains, the US was well-positioned to use the energy slave of petroleum to fuel civilization. The rest of the world soon followed suit and by the year 1900, civilization around the world was run on this new energy "slave."
As our energy slave of petroleum runs out, we will have to make a choice on whether to re-institute slavery or watch as civilization collapses. Actually, I doubt we would even be able to get slavery up and running in large enough numbers to do the job, even if we wanted to do so. People are just too interconnected and unmanageable in this day and age. It is likely we will just have to watch as civilization crumbles from lack of the energy slave that keeps it alive.
Back to our farmers who do not make a living wage. When Cuba had their own "special period" after the collapse of the Soviet Union and they couldn't get Soviet oil, they switched to organic/natural agriculture that was fueled by human energy. This allowed farmers to actually make a comparable living to doctors, merchants, professors, etc. for a short period. (This info is from the movie The Power of Community, 2006.) However, once Cuba got more oil flowing back into the country, along with more foreign investment and tourism, they went back to a somewhat different mixed economy, but based on their old central administration. The "special period" from 1991-1993 had few lasting effects. If you are interested in this topic, you might find this paper interesting:http://www.ecineq.org/milano/WP/ECINEQ2006-52.pdf
Now, if Cuba could actually make a transition to living wages for farmers but then went back to the old inequality as soon as they got a chance - and after only a couple of years of the change - how much more difficult would it be for us to make that change, even for just a couple of years? Since we have less centralized authority and are more estranged from our food production than Cuba, it is not likely we could make that change at all, much less make it last. Indeed, it is more likely that we will be stuck with inequality in pay for farmers right up to the moment when the US as a society implodes into a punctured balloon. This will likely leave regional economies operating somewhat coherently on a more or less tribal level. Regional fiefdoms, if you wish.
Of course, I don't know the future. However, the trend is visible. That trend is that civilization will collapse before farmers are paid a living wage. So what do you, the consumer, do? The answer is simple. You have to start growing 5% or 10% or 15% of your food now, so that you can adjust after the collapse.
Posted by Walter @ 01:43 PM PDT [ Comments  ]
31 Mar · Thu 2011
Posted by Walter @ 11:52 AM PDT
27 Mar · Sun 2011
Partly because of my training in biological anthropology, partly because of my years as a migrant worker, and partly because of my model of low-input agriculture, I am quite convinced of the efficiency of the human engine.
Many years ago, my girlfriend and I set out from Tungsten Mine in the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington state, walking to the trailhead at Irongate Camp. Just after us a party of horse packers left the old abandoned mine to go the same distance. We arrived at the trailhead well before the other party. This was a distance of 18 miles and we had already done the 3 miles down from Cathedral Pass in the morning before we set out from the mine, so our total was 21 miles for the day and we carried all our gear. The horse packers may have done a little sightseeing and the horses probably got a little time for grazing, but it was quite easy for us to cover the same distance as the horses while carrying full packs. Our input (female 2000 plus male 2500 for the whole day) was 4500 calories or less. Each horse's input was 12,000 - 15,000 calories, depending on their load, plus there were riders using up around 1500 extra calories or more per person. Clearly, us humans could do the work of carrying gear and covering the distance required at a much lower energy input than the horses.
The human engine is very efficient. As you step out, neurons fire and muscles contract. Then the pendulum action of your step moves the mass of your body forward. As you step down again the muscles contract again, but also use some of the energy stored by the pendulum action. As you continue in motion, alternating right and left legs, you use the kinetic energy in a rhythmic motion that moves you forward in a very efficient manner. The pendulum is the key to the efficiency of bipedal motion. Efficient quadrupeds, like wolves, can travel greater distances in a day's time - up to a 100 miles per day in winter - but they need large quantities of high energy foods, like moose meat, to do so. Horses are pikers compared to wolves and humans.
The human hand is a very efficient tool, especially with the opposable thumb. Because of the length of our thumb and its position on the hand, we can do all kinds of things our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos cannot. With our grotesquely-enlarged brain we can invent all kinds of tools to help us manage our daily lives, but the arrangement of our digits means we start out with 10 tools at our disposal - 5 on each hand.
Let me provide an example of how efficient the human engine really is. As many of you know, I farm using tillers and human labor, because the quantities of gasoline and diesel needed for tractor agriculture makes it unsustainable. In other words, my inputs from human labor and the 15-20 gallons of gas I use in my tillers per year to grow food on 1.5-2.0 acres is much lower than my outputs in food calories. Tractors use even more fuel than tillers, so the general rule is if you are riding on it while you are working, it is unsustainable because the fossil fuel calorie inputs will exceed the food calorie outputs. Sitting while working becomes the tipping point in sustainability.
Three days ago, I tilled up about 15,000 square feet, or a little over a third of an acre, in 3 hours. I used a gallon of gas, which has a thermodynamic value of 31,000 calories per gallon. My human calorie value was 375 calories guiding the self-propelled tiller as my overall work is calculated at 125 calories per hour. Total inputs for 15,000 square feet were 31,375 calories or 2.09 calories per square foot. Rounding to 2 calories per square foot for convenience, the question is: "How much soil could I till up in one hour with a shovel, hoe and/or cultivator at 2 calories per square foot?" Since I work at a rate of 125 calories per hour all day long and I am not even breathing hard and barely sweating, I calculate I should be able to dig up 62.5 square feet of garden and rake it to the same consistency of a first pass with a tiller in one hour. It should be noted that this is not sod, but half bare ground that wasn’t covered over the winter and half with a cover crop on it. The cover crops were favas and wheat, which provided a range of tilling difficulty.
62.5 square feet of ground is less than an 8 x 8 foot square, so the question is, “Can I dig up an 8 foot square in an hour?” That’s easy! Of course I can! Two days ago I and one other person dug up the soil in two hoop houses in less than an hour. Each hoop house was 30 x 10 feet, so the total area came to 600 square feet. One of us used a hoe and the other a bent-tine cultivator, what I call a potato fork. The ground in the hoop houses had been planted with a vetch/rye cover crop last fall and we had whacked it down to ground level a week before to make it easier to dig. Some rye had grown up again, but it wasn't jungley at all. The digging was fairly straightforward - just whack at it and turn it over. A shovel would have taken longer, but using the right tools, the calorie load for two people for one hour - 250 calories - and a conservative estimate of one hour for 600 square feet, the input calculation comes out to .42 calories per square foot to work up ground with a mowed cover crop on it. We should add in a little time to mow the crop down with a scythe or for chopping the cover crop in (the reason some people use oats, by the way, as it chops in easily), so rounding up to 1/2 calorie per square foot using hand tools seems reasonable.
So . . . 2 calories per square foot using a self-propelled walk-behind tiller and a human to guide it versus 1/2 calorie per square foot using human labor and hand tools. Quite a difference in the overall picture isn't it? The human with a shovel or hoe is 4 times as efficient as a tiller and probably many times more efficient than a tractor. [I will have to get some data on tractor fuel use for a more rigorous comparison.] In the future, as we run out of fossil fuels and are gasping for breath in a carbon-laden atmosphere, we will still be able to till up ground, prepare seed beds, plant, weed and harvest using the most efficient engine on the planet - the human organism. Right now, we could put the unemployed to work digging up land and growing food by hand to feed the starving masses, but we would have to have a massive redistribution of wealth to pay their wages. Even though it makes sense and is doable right now, it is unlikely because of the inequities built into our modern life. In the future, after the American empire has collapsed, maybe we can get it done. The model is right in front of you. You just have to pay a fair wage to people to do the work.
Posted by Walter @ 11:01 AM PDT [ Comments  ]
17 Mar · Thu 2011
This is the fifth in a series of "Who, what, when, where, why and how." As for the lead question, notice how I didn't ask, "Why Should I Become a Farmer?" That's because the real key to solving our food crisis is many people growing food on small plots. In other words, "Many hands make light work." Focusing on mainstream views of what farmers do, what agriculture is, and how you can compete will suck you into the mainstream growth business model, and that is quite the opposite of what we need now. Modern industrial agriculture has failed and postmodern sustainable farming/gardening is working, right now, as we speak.
From a hunter/gatherer perspective, the ideal is to just harvest what is already there. However, there are too many of us on the planet so we have to grow food. In order to grow food, we have to prepare the ground, control the water and weeds and put our labor into production. Modern farmers also have extra responsibilities. If they are doing direct-marketing, they have to spend a significant amount of time and money doing farmers markets, delivering their product and developing more markets. If the farmer is selling commodities instead of selling right to the customer, they have to take what the market gives them. Direct-marketing allows you to become a price-maker, but the downside is the time and money spent on marketing and selling. Commodity, or indirect, marketing means you have to be a price-taker. Either way, you are at a distinct disadvantage, given the way markets are controlled by corporations who are not only driving UP the cost of farm inputs, but driving DOWN the price of farm outputs. The farmer is caught in between.
The easy way to get around this dilemma is to grow your own food and then see if you have extra. In other words,change the focus from growing for market to growing for yourself. If you have extra production, you can then shop it around to your neighbors or at the nearest farmers markets. This is one of the reasons I have been involved in starting three farmers markets here in NW Washington in the last five years. In the modern business model, the farmer has to assess the market and then grow what he/she can sell. In the postmodern business model, the farmer will be able to sell all he/she can grow. The dynamic of being able to sell all you can grow might be upon us as early as this summer, if I read the problems coming out of the Middle East and North Africa correctly. It won't hurt to be ready AND growing your own food has immediate benefits.
am giving a presentation to beginning gardeners at the end of this month and I
am going to start out with the following question, "Why grow a
garden?" The short answers for this presentation are:
There is another aspect to gardening that is underappreciated. When you are using your own labor to grow something that you eat, you are actually leveraging your energy. The calories you use in weeding carrots can come from the carrots you are eating, or the raspberries you had for breakfast, or the wheat you grew that was in your toast that morning, etc. This is significant. For example, I grow about 55% of the food Toni and I eat. I found this out by keeping store receipts for several months, inputting the data and then trimming it in a statistics program to get rid of outliers, and then doing an average. The average was right around $275 a month, or $3300 per year. I arbitrarily assigned the value of what I provide for the house at $4000, so this works out to 55%. You might note that this includes wine, beer, ice cream, chocolate, and other simple luxuries, so if we had to we could lower our food costs quite a bit. Also, our food costs are about 16% of our combined income, well within the ballpark range for our "progressive" social status and above the overall US average of 13% for 2010 (US Dept. of Labor statistics).
But I digress - back to leveraging. If I spent $4,000 a year on food, or 8-9% of our combined income, that would be a significant cost. BUT I am not spending $4,000 on food because my costs are only about 10% of the value of the food I grow, so I save $3600 right there. That is a leveraging factor of 1:10. Also, the calorie aspect is significant in leveraging, as I mentioned above. In 2009, the dollar value of food for the house was about 12% of what I produced and the calorie value was about 464,000 calories. To produce those calories for the house required 12% of my energy calories in production, which were 3000 hours for the year at 125 calories per hour, or 45,000 calories to produce 464,000 calories. This is a leverage ratio of over 1:10. [Sidebar: I have written at length on how I calculate this 125 calories per hour, so I won't go into it again. Suffice it to say that I start with 2500 calories per day, subtract 500 for 8 hours sleep and then divide the remaining 2000 by 16 hours for 125 calories per hour all day long.] So, using two methods of calculation - dollar value and energy value - I can leverage my time and energy at a ratio of 1:10 by growing my own food.
final point about the value of growing your own food involves risk analysis.
There are four levels of risk analysis in thinking about food safety and they
are based on how close you are to the source of your food.
The bottom line in this blog post is that you gain significantly by growing your own food. As I said in regards to my upcoming presentation for beginning gardeners, it is pleasant, economical and nutritious. Once you are growing your own food, it is but a simple step to grow a little more.
Posted by Walter @ 04:35 PM PDT [ Comments  ]
16 Mar · Wed 2011
This is the fourth in a series of "Who, what, when, where, why and how." The quick answer to when we need to worry about our food was yesterday. Thus, if we are trying to catch up to food supply concerns we should have developed forty years ago, we might want to consider a quantum leap forward to get ahead of the curve. In other words, instead of trying to educate the public, trying to secure a clean food supply by consumer pressure, or setting up buying clubs and co-ops, we might want to consider going right to the source. This is the soil itself. A line from an old Grateful Dead song, "Mountains of the Moon" (Aoxomoxoa, 1969) is relevant here, "The earth will see you all through this time."
I started questioning my eating habits and the food supply in general over forty years ago in 1970. At the time, I was running a head shop and selling underground newspapers. I was also leafletting and selling books and buttons for the first Earth Day. I had been involved in the antiwar movement for two years, since I got out of high school, and I clearly understood the ramifications of Kent State. In May, 1970, it became obvious Nixon and his thugs were more than willing to kill anyone who opposed them rather than bow to pressure to end the War in Vietnam. Even white suburban college kids were not immune. During that summer of 1970, it became obvious that going to a demonstration or working on alternatives to the mainstream death culture didn't go far enough. Marching against the war and then retiring to a McDonald's for some fries and a coke afterwards seemed foolish and hypocritical. Articles in the underground newspapers I was reading weekly gave me new information about the link between the power structure of empire and the food system. It was all part of the same sickness. So I decided to make a change.
I saw a nutritionist and she gave me the usual mainstream view that I needed a gram of protein for each kilogram of body weight per day. That meant I needed 72 grams per day. I started doing some research and found varying interpretations of what I actually needed in terms of protein. One research article even suggested us Americans consume too much protein. This was something I could see all around me. At the time, it was common to have meat three times a day, much more frequently than the rest of the world. I decided not to worry about protein. I still ate some milk products, so I was probably getting enough protein. The real key, however, was when I started eating whole grains. This was made easier by a group of people who had started People's Pantry in Minneapolis (where I was living). These folks bought grains and dried fruits and nuts and beans in bulk and sold them by the pound at a slight markup (10% I believe). You just went there with your pennies and nickels and some paper bags and got brown rice for 12 cents a pound. Other items were just as cheap. This was NOT some organized effort. It was just a few "dirty hippies" doing the right thing.
At this time I also joined the Eco-op, which focused on organic produce. This was a basic buying club that required coordination and some capital but relied on volunteer labor for distribution. I was happy to help sort out the orders each week and we got an awful lot of good food that way. Later on, in 1971, my roommate and I (and lots of other people!) worked on setting up the first food co-op in Minneapolis, North Country Co-op. This integrated the cost plus 10% bulk food concept into a storefront. The co-op also served as a gateway for folks to learn how to eat properly, as well as a gathering place for integrating the separate strains of the Movement (yes, I do mean the Movement - even though Steve Martin did a very funny skit about it on SNL some years later). As one of my friends said at the time, "See that guy over there digging rice out of the bin? If it wasn't for the co-op, he'd probably be dead of an overdose by now."
Over the years, being a vegetarian and eating whole foods became integral to my health and well-being. It kept me sane and increased my awareness of how the political becomes the personal becomes the professional. I moved to the country in 1971 and went on the road in 1973, eventually becoming a migrant worker. I dropped vegetarianism in 1981 after 11 years because I was tired of turning down free meals and it didn't seem so bad to have the occasional meat dish. However, forty years later, I still eat little meat. It is mostly for flavoring. The real gain is the intersection of the soil and what I put into my mouth. This started with becoming a vegetarian in 1970. Even though I grew up on a farm, I didn't really put things together until 1970. Cataclysmic changes, oppression and recession, expansion on the road and contraction in the time of Reagan - all had their part to play.
So what's the point? One of the criticisms of the food co-ops from the early 1970's was that we were working backwards. Instead of starting with retail, then a warehouses, then co-op farms, then a trucking collective, we should have started with farmers, like the Finnish co-ops from the 1930's used as a model at the time. This was a valid criticism, even though us "dirty hippies" didn't have much to work with and had to start wherever we could. Stuck in the city with pennies and nickels in our pockets from selling underground newspapers or candles and beads on the street, we could fit in the interstices of the mainstream culture. The counterculture had creativity and human capital, but little money capital. The best way to do it was they way we did it. However, we cannot forget the lessons of the past.
Now we have some capital and some land. We have the ability to organize and utilize vacant lots and backyards of our neighbors (our neighbors don’t hate us anymore, for one thing). We can do things from the ground up. As we grow food, we are creating new wealth and new capital. The primary economy is where capital is created. [Sidebar: The secondary economy is trading goods and services for money. Zero-sum economics is a valid concept in the secondary economy, as well as in the tertiary economy - using money to make money.] Farming/gardening creates food from the soil. The other ways to create capital, like logging and mining and oil drilling, are not sustainable and are running out. Growing food can be sustainable, although mainstream industrial agriculture certainly isn't.
Since we are in a worldwide downturn that will probably continue to descend into global recession and then global depression, it is our responsibility to come up with solutions. One thing we can do is make the quantum leap forward. We don't have to relearn the lessons of the last forty years. We can go right to the soil. The time to worry about your food was yesterday. The time to grow your own food is now.
Posted by Walter @ 10:30 AM PDT [ Comments  ]
12 Mar · Sat 2011
This is the third in a series. The first two were, "What Will I Eat?" and "Where Will I Get My Food." For this installment, the obvious answer is, "I will grow my own food." However, that is not too helpful for those of you in condos, city apartments, who are shut-ins, or even in a fortunate situation where you have more cash than time.
In point of fact, the dividing line between growing your own food and paying someone else to do it for you is your time. If you have time, you can grow food and thus turn your labor into food capital. You don't have to be a Marxist to understand surplus value, which is simply adding value to the products owned by someone else by putting your time in, for which you are paid less than the value you added. Nor do you have to be an economist, nor a Marxist, nor a Marxist economist to understand creating new wealth - or new capital - from the soil. Simply put, you can take your labor, add some soil and seeds and water, and grow something you can eat or trade or sell. [Sidebar: This is probably a better explanation of how farming started in the first place 10,000 years ago than complex theories of overpopulation, abundance of water, etc. - all part of the anthropological view over the last 100 years.]
If you don't have time, but you have cash, you can pay a farmer (or even your neighbor) to grow your food. Notice that this idea is entirely outside the modern business model of someone farming as a business, someone else processing food as a business, someone else transporting the food to a market, and someone else selling the food to you. It is simple and direct and cheaper.
As I have asserted many times in public over the last several years, a good target for feeding ourselves in the post-peak oil future is for 20% of the adult population working as full-time farmers. At present, 1-2% of the US population are farmers and most of these are only part-time. Obviously, whether or not you buy into my rather conservative estimate of 20% full-time farmers, we will need a massive infusion of people growing food. How is this going to happen? Well, it certainly won't happen if we continue expecting farmers to work at less than minimum wage! So . . . it would be to your advantage, if you have more cash than time, to pay someone to grow food for you that has more time than cash. Simple, direct and cheaper than buying from a supermarket. Once again, this does not require buying into the modern business model, nor does it require re-forming modern society and the oil economy. It works because someone takes individual action.
If you are a shut-in or disabled, the cash/time equation is not applicable. However, here is where basic human charity comes to the fore. Those of you who have disposable income should betithing at least 10% for those unfortunates around you. Also note that tithing does not require a complicated system that gives you a tax break (hah!) for participating in a quasi-philanthropic system that has an incredible amount of overhead so that only a small percentage of gifts actually go towards helping people. You can help those around you in a direct manner. Expecting low-income farmers to take care of it while those of you with disposable income shirk your responsibilities is certainly not fair and assuredly won't work. Yes, let me say it again. If you have a good job and disposable income, you have a responsibility to take care of those around you who are not as fortunate. Forget this nonsense about "I've earned it by my hard work." I have seen and heard a lot of this over the last 60 years and I have yet to find someone who has a comfortable life who did not get some advantage from their society that was withheld from others. So just accept that you got lucky and do the right thing. Tithing is easy.
For those of you who do not own land, there is an awful lot of it available in vacant lots, rooftop gardening possibilities, container gardening, community gardens, adding a greenhouse/solarium to your house, buying shares in a farmer's enterprise, etc. Some of these alternatives require some cash, but a lot of them can be had for just labor. I work with community gardens and a food bank farm and we always give people food when they come out to do volunteer work. There areplenty of opportunities out there, especially in metro areas. You just have to get off the couch or out from behind your computer screen and do the searching.
To recap, first make a decision about time versus money. If you have plenty of time, you have time to research the possibilities. You also have time to help someone else who already has a functioning garden or farm. If you have plenty of money and not much time, there are a lot of farmers and gardeners and gardener wannabees who could use a little capital to get going.
Posted by Walter @ 12:36 PM PST [ Comments  ]