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Author Topic: What Is "Beyond" Organic
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  wvhaugen
  Ferndale
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What Is "Beyond" Organic    (Posted Sat, Jun 8 '13 at 07:29 UTC)

Since I get the usual snotty remarks whenever I interject science and objectivity into a post, I am going to start a new thread. Over the years the use of organic methods has been co-opted by the USDA and Congress so that now if a person uses the word "organic" without paying the graft to the state organization he/she runs the risk of an $11.000 fine from the USDA. I myself received such a letter a couple of months ago, even though I make it clear on my website that I am using the term "beyond organic" rather than claiming to be "organic." The USDA closed their file on me, BTW.

The same problems are cropping up in the use of the word "sustainable" and now the word is going by the wayside in favor of "resilience." I suspect "resilience" will too become passe in the near future. By the way, the real evil here is marketing, which seems to have an infinite capacity to co-opt anything true and good and beautiful. As you may surmise, I hate marketing. Marketing, in fact, is the difference between organic methods (production) and so-called "certified" organic (which is just about marketing).

So just what is "beyond organic?" It is really quite simple: organic methods + low carbon footprint = beyond organic. In other words, using organic methods to grow clean food is not enough. In the world of peak oil and massive climate change (both of which are already here!), it is not enough to use organic methods. A conscientious farmer/gardener must consider how much energy they are using. This includes the embedded energy (the energy it takes to make the tractor or tiller) as well as the fuel use.

A tractor has the equivalent embedded energy, per hour of use, as the fuel use. This means you can just double the fuel use and get a true picture of the energy use. Example: 1 gallon of diesel has 35,000 kilocalories of energy, so if you use a gallon of diesel in your tractor, your energy use is 70,000 kcal. It takes about 4 gallons of diesel to till an acre. That acre thus has a carbon footprint of 280,000 kcal just to break the ground. Once you factor in the number of passes over the field and transportation to and from the field, transport of the crop, etc., the small-scale farmer is unlikely to be as sustainable as the large-scale industrial farmer. He/she may not be as bad as the industrial farmer who uses 7-10 kcal to produce 1 kcal of food, but they are still on the minus side of the input/output ledger.

A walk-behind tiller, on the other hand, uses just 3-5% of the embedded energy as a tractor (based on weight and similar manufacturing processes), but gets the same acre tilled on 4 gallons of gasoline (31,500 kcal/gallon). So an acre tilled up by a walk-behind tiller uses 132,000 kcal - less than half. This enables the non-tractor farmer/gardener to actually be on the plus side of the input/output ledger and therefore sustainable.

You can get similar increase in efficiency by using horses/oxen or even by using all human labor. Based on energy accounting, the whole argument can be simplified into a simple statement: "If you are fiding on it, you are probably not sustainable."

All of this may seem irrelevant to the necessity to provide food right now. BUT in the future, when fuel prices become even larger barriers to making a living, all of the inefficiencies of modern tractor agriculture will become painfully obvious. Without developing alternatives now, you will be in deep doo-doo.

Recommendations: 1) small is better, 2) forget about animals - it doesn't pencil out, 3) use a walk-behind tiller and human-scale cover crops, 4) do more with the most efficient engine you have - the human body.

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 wvhaugen
 Ferndale
Re: What Is    (Posted Sat, Jun 8 '13 at 07:31 UTC)

Corrections:
$11,000
riding

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 idigbeets
 Laurel Highlands PA
Re: What Is    (Posted Sun, Jun 9 '13 at 11:18 UTC)Neutral Rank

I think it is important to note that a carbon footprint shouldn't be one of the deciding factors when working the soil.

For example, a walk behind tiller will not do a great job of breaking new ground, even if it is something like a BCS, which is more a tractor than a tiller. Tilling will create more weed problems, and over time create a small hardpan just below the tine depth. Using a chisel or moldboard plow every couple years will minimize this damage to the soil. Yes, it is more energy intensive, however I believe that all soils benefit from a periodic deep plow below 6 inches. Also, tillers as you know will spread more weeds as they cut up rhizomes and create more plants. Plowing either buries them much deeper or uproots plants that can then be dragged with a spring harrow etc.

I'm not saying beyond organic isn't a great practice, just that energy inputs shouldn't be one's primary concern.

Yes oil is a finite resource.. but tractors can run on other fuels as well.

 wvhaugen
 Ferndale
Re: What Is    (Posted Sun, Jun 9 '13 at 04:32 UTC)

Thanks for your post and your viewpoint. Of course I disagree with you, since I regard energy capture as the primary structural component of culture. In fact that is one of the themes of my recent book, "The Laws of Physics Are On My Side." In a nutshell we have been using culture (sets of behavior passed between generations) for the last two million years. Culture acts as a buffer between ourselves and the environment. However, since the Second Industrial Revolution (post-Civil War, cheap oil, more sophisticated manufacturing processes, etc.) we have been replacing culture with cheap oil energy. Now that oil is not so cheap, we face civilization's collapse since there are far too many humans for the planet to support without massive quantities of cheap oil. This means dieoff and a return to real farming with human labor. Tillers are part of the transition to all-manual labor. I use about 10 gallons of fuel each year to grow 10,000 pounds of food on an acre. I challenge ANY tractor farmer to match that statistic. [Sidebar: Even 150 bushels/acre corn is only 8400 pounds per acre and the national average for wheat of 45 bushels/acre is only 2700 pounds/acre.] My energy equivalent numbers are right around 3 million kcal/acre, which is the low end of the wheat range (3-4 million) but I am growing 60-80 different fruits, vegetables, dry beans and grain. If I just grew potatoes, it would be 8-13 million kcal/acre.

I use a BCS tiller and it is less than 3% by weight of a tractor but tills the same amount per gallon of fuel. Thus my differentiation between the embedded energy in tillers vs. tractors. I have been farming my current ground for 9 years and the soil has become much more fertile and has better crumb than when I started. I don't buy the conventional wisdom that soil needs deep turning. I find that rye (sometimes known as the biological tractor) and other cover crops do just fine in digging down deep for essential soil minerals. I also make soil with compost and sheet mulching. For example, I got 4 wagon loads of free hay and laid the bales out in a large mat. In two years I had raised the soil level by a foot. Compare this to the usual statistic of 1000 years to build an inch of soil through natural means. [A neat benefit of the bales was the twine was sisal so I didn't even have to pull the strings!]

As for breaking new ground, I sometimes hire a tractor and the $100 it costs me every three years or so is far cheaper than buying a tractor. Then I use a tiller for everything else. However, I have also used sheet mulching to smother grass and I was able to till it easily the next year. I recently purchased a Grecia Magna hoe and am currently experimenting with it. Of course it requires more manual labor, but at the energy cost of 125 kcal/hour vs. the tractor cost of 70,125 kcal/hour (1 gallon of diesel plus the embedded energy plus the human operator), there is no comparison. [I discounted the embedded energy of the hoe because it is about 1 kcal/hour since hand tools last so long.]

This is not airy-fairy stuff. These are all real numbers and my viewpoint and my book are all based on hard science and the laws of physics (specifically thermodynamics). Currently we are messing up the atmosphere, the land and the water at an alarming rate. There are no easy solutions and YES it IS all about energy.

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 idigbeets
 Laurel Highlands PA
Re: What Is    (Posted Mon, Jun 10 '13 at 11:23 UTC)Neutral Rank

You talk about walk behind tilling one acre....

How about prepping 200 acres? By the time you finish walk behind that... it will be too late to plant many crops.

What about reseeding pastures, turning in manure.. new manure management laws indicate that any time manure is spread onto a field that it has to be incorporated with 48 hours. Mind you, this isn't how I operate a farm, but many do... E.g. the farm across the street from us brings in tractor trailer loads by the dozen every other year of chicken litter... a walk behind will not get that done.

I think scale is important to recognize as well. Can you speak a little bit about that ?

 wvhaugen
 Ferndale
Re: What Is    (Posted Mon, Jun 10 '13 at 02:45 UTC)

Let's back up a little. What we have right now in farming is an aberration. Farming 200 acres of crops is only possible because of cheap oil, massive doses of financial capital, and a very complicated infrastructure. This is not farming, but rather agribusiness. People like Ezra Taft Benson and Earl Butz worked very hard to foster agribusiness in the 1950's through the 1970's. Orville Freeman (Kennedy's Ag Secretary) just marked time. Clearly the system doesn't work, as 60% of farmers still have gate receipts less than $10,000 and there are more hungry people now than before the so-called "Green Revolution."

Agribusiness is part of the problem that is killing the planet. Therefore, switching one method of farming while still cultivating 200 acres is no solution. What I work on is alternatives for the future. One solution is to get 50% of the population involved in agriculture again. Another solution is to get everyone to grow some of their own food. Obviously this is not going to happen without some catastrophic change. However, this is a near certainty because of climate change and peak oil. As I said before, we WILL have global dieoff and that will destroy markets, interstate infrastructure and most governmental programs. Farming 200 acres with a big tractor and one or two operators is not sustainable now and will not exist in the future.

One solution within the current system would require massive state subsidies of small farmers. [Right now agribusiness gets the subsidies and small-scale farmers get nothing.] In other words, the federal government would have to seize money from the rich and pay people like you and me $40,000 per year to grow 10,000 pounds of food on an acre and distribute it through the local food banks and grocery stores. Obviously, this is not possible.

There is no solution without revolution. Yet that is not possible in the US. So what ya gonna do? Just stick with a failing program, what the ag economists call the "treadmill?" Or work on solutions that feed people right now and that are viable in the future?

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 Wilson
 Cosby
Re: Sustainability vs. Old Age    (Posted Sun, Dec 8 '13 at 01:40 UTC)Positive Rank

Re: "If you are riding on it, you are probably not sustainable...do more with the most efficient engine you have - the human body."
I bought my back-to-the-land small acreage over a quarter of a century ago, but I never bought machinery to work it, since I always did it all by hand. (And I have a great collection of shovels, hoes, scythes, etc. to prove it, too.) But my body is now old and not as efficient as it used to be. It will probably not be sustainable for more than a few years, but I would still like to continue to eat organic food during my "golden years".
However, I am now falling so far behind that it is almost mid-December and I still haven't planted my garlic. And I couldn't put in a Fall garden because I wrenched my knee walking down a hill in the rain to feed my animals. This is my second knee injury-the first was from working in the mud on an emergency electric fence repair where a tree had taken it down in a storm. (Note: Don't wear Crocs on wet grass or in mud.)
I don't live near a big city and there isn't much in the way of organic foods or health food stores around where I do live, so what little is available is horribly expensive. And my neighbors are all old too, since the youth move away to find jobs, so there isn't any reliable help to hire.
So what are my options, if I still want to eat organic?
I have two huge horses-one of which is a Friesian cross-even though I had to stop riding years ago, that would be perfect to train as plow horses. But the locals who used to plow with mules and horses have all died of old age by now, so there's no one left here to train them.
And I just went to an allergist for the first time in thirty years, and learned that I am allergic to almost all my trees and plants-and my animals, too-so I should not be out as much as I as I usually am...it's time to come in and sit in the rocking chair and admire the view of the mountains through my windows.
So I'm beginning to think that I need to buy a small tractor to ride to more quickly work my half dozen acres and sustainably raise my organic food again.
What do you advise?
Wilson

 wvhaugen
 Ferndale
Re: What Is    (Posted Sun, Dec 8 '13 at 07:19 UTC)

You can do an acre with 20 gallons of fuel and the embedded energy of the tractor is roughly equivalent to the fuel energy. (Embedded energy is the energy needed to mine the ore, make the steel, tap the rubber trees, make the tires, etc.). Therefore your energy "bill" would be 40 gallons of fuel for an acre. Can you reduce your yearly gas consumption in your car or truck by 40 gallons?

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 idigbeets
 Laurel Highlands PA
Re: What Is    (Posted Mon, Dec 9 '13 at 11:37 UTC)Negative Rank

Where are you getting 20 gallons of fuel per acre?

My JD 2440 can run at 1500RPM and up, for 18-24 hours on less than 20 gallons of fuel... To plow/till/plant/cultivate an acre would take only a few gallons at best....

 wvhaugen
 Ferndale
Re: What Is    (Posted Mon, Dec 9 '13 at 06:45 UTC)

Do you have numbers? What is your fuel consumption for the past year? Gasoline or diesel or both? How many did you actually grow food on? Having a 40-acre farm with 5 acres tilled and 35 acres fallow or pasture means your denominator is 5, not 40.

Looking at your hours or gas gauge when you are at the beginning of the field and then again at the end of the field doesn't cut it. You have to account for energy use idling, in transit, time spent moving bales, running the PTO, etc.

Energy accounting is not about how much work you are doing, but rather how energy you are consuming.

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 wvhaugen
 Ferndale
Re: What Is    (Posted Mon, Dec 9 '13 at 06:47 UTC)

Corrected post (I wish LH had an edit feature):
Do you have numbers? What is your fuel consumption for the past year? Gasoline or diesel or both? How many acres did you actually grow food on? Having a 40-acre farm with 5 acres tilled and 35 acres fallow or pasture means your denominator is 5, not 40.

Looking at your hours or gas gauge when you are at the beginning of the field and then again at the end of the field doesn't cut it. You have to account for energy use idling, in transit, time spent moving bales, running the PTO, etc.

Energy accounting is not about how much work you are doing, but rather how much energy you are consuming.

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 idigbeets
 Laurel Highlands PA
Re: What Is    (Posted Tue, Dec 10 '13 at 11:43 UTC)Negative Rank

I'm growing corn, soybeans, hay, or pasture with that tractor.. From the time I start it up, til the time I shut it off, I use very few gallons per acre.. I've ran the tractor for days of hauling baleage, wrapping bales, mowing, cultivating, planting etc, and fill the tank back up with 8 gallons or less. This tractor is very fuel efficient diesel, even at 65hp (not the factory motor)

I do not keep strict records on fuel consumption, but can tell you that it uses less than a gallon an hour of use... probably in the .3-.5 range..

 wvhaugen
 Ferndale
Re: What Is    (Posted Tue, Dec 10 '13 at 07:20 UTC)

I don't buy it. I see my neighbors using much more diesel and gasoline than .3-.5 per acre. Here is a quote from my book, The Laws of Physics Are On My Side (2013, available on Amazon). Chapter 10 is titled "Farming As If Energy Mattered" and the quote is on pages 138-139.

For example, David Pimentel estimated the energy needed to produce an acre of corn as 412,146 kilocalories for the machinery (including combines to harvest the corn as well as tractors and implements to till and cultivate) and 406,073 for the diesel to run the machinery. The embedded energy for the machinery was first calculated in total and then prorated over 10 years.[1] Although some tractors do last longer, increasing maintenance costs argue for a 10-year life span as a valid estimate. Since the difference between fuel energy and embedded energy is only 1.5%, you can just measure the fuel energy of a tractor and double that amount. This will be a good approximation of the real energy cost of using a tractor.

[1]Corn production kilocalories per hectare: Pimentel, David, Alison Marklein, Megan A. Toth, Marissa N. Karpoff, Gillian S. Paul, Robert McCormack, Joanna Kyriazis and Tim Krueger, Food Versus Biofuels: Environmental and Economic Costs, Human Ecology, Vol. 37, No. 1, February 2009.

Pimentel, et al use kilocalories per hectare, but there are 2.47 acres per hectare. Pimentel's numbers are usually quite conservative (i.e. err on the low side) but his diesel per acre is still 11.6 gallons. Here is the link for a PDF copy of the footnoted article.
http://www.com.uri.edu/gch104/pdf/pimentel_hum_ecol_foodvsbiofuels_2009.pdf

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 wvhaugen
 Ferndale
Re: What Is    (Posted Tue, Dec 10 '13 at 07:28 UTC)

Ooops - you said .3-.5 per hour rather than per acre. However, my argument still holds. Pimentel's 11.6 gallons of diesel per acre is a conservative number and the embedded energy is equivalent. Thus the other farmer on this thread could justify his tractor use by reducing his overall gas consumption in his car/truck by 23 gallons per year.

Catering to the unique Ferndale perspective.
 idigbeets
 Laurel Highlands PA
Re: What Is    (Posted Wed, Dec 11 '13 at 10:50 UTC)Neutral Rank

I guess I do a good job on tractor maintenance... I know what I see at the pump when I fill this tractor up.. it runs all day, and uses very little fuel..

NOW... the other 2 tractors I use.. will use 1-1.5 gallons per hour of use..hence my use of the JD 2440 as much as I can ;)

the JD Combine uses 1.5 gallons per acre whether it is running really low RPM or at full tilt...

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