F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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Calories Produced Per Acre

Since I have been promoting calories as a metric for energy usage, I decided to actually see how many calories I produced on the farm in 2008. The first step was to review my inventory control. What I do is to count and tally everything that comes in from the field, whether in pounds or bunches, into a notebook. I then take the figures into the house and enter them into my spreadsheet each night. The spreadsheet breaks down yield by succession planting, but I also transfer the numbers into a yield summary. I can thus track individual salad mix beds, for example, and also have a year-end summary per vegetable. The spreadsheet has columns for amount, price, total, row feet, value per row foot and value per acre. To check my inventory control, I account for all discrepancies between my actual gross receipts and the dollar value of everything that comes out of the field. This includes the value of what I give to the food bank, the value of what we eat ourselves, weight of the spoilage that goes into the compost, etc. Using these categories, I can account for all discrepancies between what I sell and what I produced, within 3.0%. In other words, I am controlling my error to within 3%, well within the 5% parameter I use for random chance.

Since I am confident in my numbers, I next researched the calories in each food item on the web. The site I used is www.caloriecount.about.com and I chose it because it seemed most comprehensive. It is also conservative, with the calories for winter squashes, for example, calculated at 153 per pound overall versus 176 on another site. (Squashes vary, with Hubbard being more calorie dense than Butternut, for example.)

After doing the research and data entry, I calculated my calorie output for each item by multiplying my yield by the calorie values and totaled the results. My calorie output for 2008, using these methods, came to 2,235,639 calories. The actual amount of land that produced this amount of calories was 1.01 acres, for an index of 2,213,504 calories per acre. I calculated my energy input in 2008 as 365,000 calories for my labor (365 days X 1000 calories per day - this is probably too high) and 775,000 calories for tiller gas (25 gallons x 31,000 calories per gallon). This means that I produced 2.21 million calories with 1.14 million calories of sweat and petrol - this comes to 1.94 calories produced for every calorie of input. The number is likely higher since I tilled and planted 2 acres last year. The extra acre was for cover crops and experiments (like my wheat). I also did not actually put 1000 calories into the farm every day last year, but I am erring on the side of caution. The upshot is that I produced enough calories to feed 2.42 people (at 2500 calories a day for 365 days).

The bottom line is that I can measure my calorie inputs and outputs and I can state with certainty that sustainable agriculture WILL produce enough food to feed AT LEAST 2.5 people per acre, using hand labor and tillers. Since I am not as productive as I want and I can actually till, plant and harvest 2 acres by myself, I can say with confidence that 1 person can feed AT LEAST 5 people using sustainable methods. For those of you who might quibble about 25 gallons of gas to work 2 acres, consider how much gas you use each week in your cars. Since we are in a Transition period, rather than a No-Gas period, minimal amounts of fossil fuels are justified.  I also anticipate my tiller gas usage will continue to drop year by year as I become more efficient. The point is that I can give you production numbers, using a metric (calories) which can be used for humans, petroleum, and even horses.

 
 

Some Common Errors

The April 19th issue of Pacific Northwest, a Sunday magazine for the Seattle Times, featured an article by Tom Watson called "From Farm to Fork." This was quite a good article but  had a couple of flaws, which I mentioned in an email to the article author. Even though I take exception to a couple of statements, the article was quite good and I recommend it. The main points in the email are reproduced below.

1) "Inefficiencies from a single pickup bringing a farm-load of produce for a weekly event." [This refers to Farmers Markets.] This is a common error now being used by mainstream economists to actually assert a semi-trailer bringing produce from California is more efficient than local produce (and I did hear this at the Food Justice Conference in Bellingham on April 18th from a supposed "environmental" economist). The trap is that economists have kept a proprietary stranglehold on "efficiency" for so long because they refuse to use a common metric that crosses all platforms. For instance, a semi for interstate commerce weighs 80,000 pounds loaded and can carry 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of freight (higher weights require special permits, so I am just using the standard weights for convenience - I am sure you get my point). If the average distance produce travels in the US is 1500 miles, a semi gets 5 miles per gallon and diesel is equivalent to 35,000 calories per gallon (all checkable on the Internet, by the way), we can calculate the average calorie load of a pound of produce arriving at the store. This is 300 gallons of diesel, for 10.5 million calories divided by 45,000 pounds of produce. The calorie load calculates to 233 calories per pound - just for the fuel. If the truck has a maximum freight of 50,000, the calorie load is still 210. This does not include the embedded calories in the semi's steel, platinum in the catalytic converter, rubber in the tires, etc. These are hard to measure and one of the actual costs of transportation the nerdboys should be investigating. The point is that an average pound of tomatoes has a calorie load in excess of 200 calories by the time it gets to the supermarket. Tomatoes have a caloric value of 91 calories, so a pound of tomatoes ends up with a calorie value of 300 or more.

In comparison, let's say I drive 12.5 miles (25 miles round trip) to the Bellingham Farmers Market with 1000 pounds of produce on my pickup, which gets 22 miles per gallon and the calorie value of gasoline is 31,000 calories per gallon. My produce now has a calorie load of only 35 calories for the fuel. If I only haul 500 pounds to the market, my calorie load is 70 calories per pound. This is still only one-third of the average calorie load of a pound of produce in the supermarket. Also, note that I sold at the Ferndale Farmers Market last year, which is only 3 miles away from our farm, so my calorie load for 500 pounds was only 17 calories per pound of produce. [This does not include the embedded calories of my pickup, but as I mentioned earlier, I cannot find good approximations of the embedded calories for my pickup vs. a semi.] Of course, we can lower our calorie load even further, such as with satellite-distribution networks, as mentioned in your article. I have been working on this here in Whatcom County for three years now, but there are difficulties - mostly with the modern mindset and the restaurants having their needs catered to for so many years.

My point is that the use of calories (or even joules) takes all the air out of the economists' argument for long-haul transportation, as well as globalization in general. This is not a radical concept anymore, as anthropologists have been using calories in evaluating traditional cultures for at least 40 years and the Post Carbon Institute uses calories and joules in their analyses. For a fuller discussion, you can go to my blog http://www.localharvest.org/blog/15945/entry/the_calorie_cost_of_using


2) "May lead to waste if customers don't like or eat what's in their boxes." [This refers to CSA programs.] This is a common complaint heard by CSA farms, but it misses the point entirely. If I give someone a pound of sunchokes (345 calories) and they don't eat them, their waste is MINIMAL compared to what the average consumer is wasting every day in the normal course of events. Americans are incredibly wasteful, so making a big deal out of not eating a small amount of food that can be composted or given away to someone else is really about scoring points on a cheap shot, rather than a valid ecological question. The packaging on a box of cornflakes thrown in the garbage has many more calories than the pound of sunchokes in the CSA box - and they are among the highest calorie values in a CSA share! The actual "waste" of a pound of New Zealand spinach (65 calories), for example, is much less.

The actual problem here is that the shareholder got something they couldn't use. However, any CSA share program can make adjustments the next week and the shareholders usually get so much more than they paid for each week, it is still a great value - even accounting for the occasional produce not eaten. I even give my shareholders credit for what they didn't like, so they win all the way around. This also touches on another point. I am subsidizing all my customers on the farm with my labor. I do not make a fair wage, nor even anywhere close to the minimum wage. The shareholders and other customers may have an office job, or even work in a factory, but they still get a much higher wage than I do. This is a problem for all farmers and is the real reason family farms are in such short supply. The system of exploiting farmers, peasants, serfs and slaves has been in existence for at least 5,000 years, since the first glimmerings of civilization. It doesn't rise to our attention very often because of the overabundance of material goods in this country. However, once petrol is in short supply, there is a chance for the farmer to actually make a living and be appreciated.

The bottom line for me is that we need to question the academics and the coporate types who have had a stranglehold on ideas for so long. The postmodern business model provides a metric that allows us to actually measure efficiency. I know that my produce has a lower impact on the environment than that grown in the Imperial Valley and shipped across the whole country. I shouldn't have to listen to nonsense that simply reinforces globalization and status quo by kinking the argument.

 
 

Hemming and Hawwing

On April 10th & 11th, Western Washington University hosted a Food Justice Conference. I sat on a panel Saturday morning on local food availability. Afterwards, Toni and I sat in the audience for another panel discussion about the economics of local food. The first panel discussion raised some issues of availability and the need for active consumers, but the lack of engagement to the current economic crisis and the ongoing food distribution crisis was simply alarming. The second discussion was a little more animated, but had the qualities of a classroom discussion, rather than a call to action. The two panel presenters were an "environmental" economist and a book author. Since the economist is a well-known prof at Western and on several task forces dealing with future issues in Whatcom County, I expected a little more hard analysis. Yet, his approach is still based on hemming and hawwing (and I don't mean the actor in the crappy Antonioni film). To my question on applying the calorie measure to energy usage to give a real measure that crosses all platforms, he simply stated that it depends on what you want to measure. Here is my thinking on the use of calories.

We measure energy by the ability to do work. For example, a horsepower is the equivalent of the work done by a draft horse pulling something. [Now before I get any more snotty comments from nerdboys trying to score cheap points - yes I know that one horsepower = 33,000 foot pounds per minute. I am using an example that is readily available to anyone to make a point.] If your car has 400 horsepower, it is the equivalent of having 400 horses under the hood pulling you, and the ton of metal in which you are sitting, down the road. Quite a waste, isnt't it? It is even more appalling if you are just going half a mile down the street to get a pack of cigarettes at the convenience store. But how would you compare the energy usage if you just walked to the store and back? This is where we need a metric that crosses all platforms. ["Crossing all platforms" is a particularly rich rhetorical sound bite I am fond of using lately, since we all know how the Internet is available on Macs, PCs, or Linux-based hardware - i.e. it crosses all platforms.] Calories are a measure of heat and caloric values are available everywhere, even on the packaging of the food you buy. Although this use of calories is a misnomer because they are actually kilocalories (the amount of heat needed to raise 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius, rather than 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius), it is similar to the use of dialects and creoles in language. In other words, consistent current usage argues for just using it instead of arguing over precision. This so-called "large" calorie is the same across all cans of peas or bags of flour, so why not use it, even though the nerdboys will quibble?

A more precise measure of energy usage is the joule, first developed by James Joule in the 19th century as an exact mechanical equivalence of heat (he must have been a nerdboy). It can also be used to measure electricity. A joule is the energy expended by a force of one newton moving an object for a distance of one meter. A newton is named after Isaac Newton and is the force needed to accelerate one kilogram one meter per second. It should not be surprising that the use of acceleration comes from the co-inventor of the calculus, or that it obviates the problem of breaking the inertia of a body at rest. In electrical terms, a joule is the energy needed to pass a current of one amp through a resistance of one ohm for one second. A joule is a more precise measurement than a calorie, simply because the heat needed to raise a kilogram of water one degree Celsius actually increases slightly as the temperature increases. So, the amount of heat needed to raise the water from 14 to 15 degrees is slightly larger than the amount needed to raise the water from 10 to 11 degrees. It should be obvious why Joule developed a measure that used acceleration on a curve rather than a simple linear rise. However, is a large-scale adoption of a trickier method of measuring energy really necessary? Doesn't the calorie measurement work well enough? I think it does. It has not become necessary for the whole world to adopt the metric system, for example. The English and the metric systems have rough equivalents and international commerce moves right along with only minor glitches. So it is with using calories to measure energy. By using calories, we get a better measure than carbon footprints. For example, if I am not burning a fossil fuel to plant potatoes, how do I measure my human labor? The answer is calories. So I have settled on calories as a measure that crosses all platforms. I can get a rough equivalence for human labor, gasoline consumption, horses pulling a plow, pumping water out of the ground, embedded calories in a piece of steel that forms the fender of a tractor, etc., etc., etc.

The problem with economists is that they are very selective in what they measure. Thus, you could have the supposed "environmental" economist on yesterday's panel uttering such nonsense as it is more efficient to grow cucumbers in California on large farms and ship them across the country because the economies of scale lower the cost of producing and transporting the cucumber. The economist and the author both chimed in on the concept of local food being "dangerous" and should not be accepted as a valid environmental benefit without extensive studies. When pressed for a simple measure, such as calories, they both hemmed and hawed.

Here's the bottom line. Everyone who can read has been well aware of the environmental degradation that results from the profligate American lifestyle. Yet there is a simple measurement of energy that crosses all platforms and will actually tell you how efficient human labor is, compared to using fossil fuels to grow monoculture crops. This simple measure cannot even be accepted by an "environmental" economist, nor by an author who writes books on the problems. Yet the economist and the author get their salary check and royalty check at the end of the month. Meanwhile, I grow food and I cannot make a fair wage selling that food.

 
 
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