It’s becoming increasingly clear to those who care that the world’s flow of crude oil has already peaked. From now on, even as we humans continue seeding the world with more and more hungry babies, and even as we continue to dream that things are going to get back to “normal” soon, from now on the world will have less and less access to the high quality and energy-dense fuel it has quickly come to see as its birthright. Those of us who follow and understand peak oil know some (but by no means all) of what that means for humanity; those who don’t will be finding out within the next 2-5 years. Welcome to the post-peak oil age, where the women better be strong, it doesn’t matter so much how the men look, and average is a pretty sucky place to be.
Amanda and I will be subsistence farmers, approaching but never quite reaching the point where we look solely to our land for our sustenance. What will peak oil mean for our work and that of those like us? How are farmers and farming about to change? This is the first in what will probably become a series of these posts, as we ponder the ways in which farmers and our system of food production are about to change. There will be more of us. That 100 million figure comes from
Sharon Astyk. She admits, and I believe, that this is just a guess, but I think it’s a decent guess. What’s clear is that we are already reversing the US trend of the last 100 years, during which we’ve relentlessly pushed farmers off their land and into city jobs, concentrating the growing of our food into the hands of two million or so highly mechanized and petroleum dependent technicians. These men (and a few women) often struggle with depression as they keep an anxious eye on those all-important commodity prices. They don’t like the controls clamped on them by the likes of Monsanto and Cargill and they long for some way out, but they see themselves as locked in and don’t know how to escape. It’s not going to be pleasant, but our nation’s farmers are about to get that change for which they have longed. The fuel to drive the massive combines and the petrochemicals needed to grow Monsanto’s way are about to become dramatically more expensive. Petrochemical companies have carefully greased many legislative and judicial palms, so we will cling to the mechanized farming methods as long as we possibly can (long after it becomes clear they make no sense), but eventually we will change the way we grow food. We Americans will grow food organically, not because we’re seized with some insatiable desire for all things green (we will soon look on environmental sensitivity as a quaint luxury), but because it will be the only way we can make food production work. Because large-scale diesel-fueled traction will become less feasible, the production of an average farmer will become much smaller. If we need about the same amount of food we always have and the amount produced by an average farmer drops, that means we need more farmers. And let’s understand what we mean by the term “farmer.” When I use the term, I don’t necessarily mean someone whose only livelihood (or even main livelihood) is farming. For me, the term “farmer” applies to anyone who depends on what they grow for their comfort and security. So I would draw a line between farmers and gardeners, who welcome food from their land but don’t necessarily need it to survive. As food in the supermarket becomes less available and more expensive, many who are now gardeners will cross that line of dependency and become farmers. Many (like us) who are not even gardeners will join them. As our numbers increase, farmers will become again a political force to be reckoned with. Black, white, Asian, and Latino; gay and straight; rich and poor; male and female; all dependent on their land for food, will come to understand that they have much in common and will unite their voices and votes. And their agenda will be fundamentally different from the one mechanized agri-business has pressed for decades. Less about price supports, more about pollinators; less about subsidies, more about seed-saving. Make no mistake: the agri-business complex sees this coming just like we do, and they’re plotting ways to cling to their stranglehold on American food production. Eventually, though, they will be overwhelmed. The intimidation and high-pressure lobbying that they use to control two million farmers growing 1,000 acre fields of corn and soybeans will no longer work with 100 million farmers growing in 1/4 acre plots. It’s going to be a new day.