Peak Oil, Peak Food, Peak Risk

This is a guest post by Rick Munroe, an Ontario farmer.

There is no substitute for energy. The whole edifice of modern society is built upon it…. It is not “just another commodity” but the precondition of all commodities, a basic factor equal with air, water and earth.

E. F. Schumacher (1973)

As humanity climbs toward the global peak in oil production and the oil industry squeezes out a few more barrels per day, we should all take a moment to view life from the summit.

This is life at the top. If we aren’t careful, this may be “as good as it gets.”

Energy Slaves

Canadians are the most voracious users of energy in the world, and it is estimated that each of us has about a hundred cheap ‘energy slaves’ to serve us. Each barrel of oil provides the energy-equivalent of a dozen humans working for an entire year. With the turn of an ignition key and the flick of a switch, these slaves transport, feed, clothe and water us. They warm & cool us, and even fly us to the moon.

But the days of cheap energy are rapidly drawing to a close, and our extraordinary reliance on fossil fuels puts us at great risk, particularly when it comes to our food supply. Our entire food system is based primarily on diesel fuel. We use diesel to till the fields, plant & harvest. Diesel transports food for processing and delivers finished products to supermarkets.

But although we can use alternative forms of energy to generate electricity and heat our homes, we clearly cannot propel a tractor with solar, wind, firewood or uranium. When it comes to the energy needed to produce food in the volume required by our urban populations, the options are very limited. Nothing comes close to the wondrous power of petroleum.

Biofuels to the Rescue?

As the world rushes to embrace biofuels as a solution, there are some obvious and immediate concerns. For corn-based ethanol, the ratio of energy returned on energy invested is marginal at best. The recent demand for ethanol has contributed to a rapid increase in the price of basic grains and a decline in global grain reserves during the past two years. There are detrimental environmental and social effects from mono-cropping corn, sugar cane and oil palms. Despite consuming 20% of the US corn crop in 2006, the resulting ethanol contributed only 3% (5 billion gallons) of the US gasoline supply. Clearly, biofuels are utterly incapable of replacing petroleum in the volumes which are required.

Overnight Conversion?

Family farmers have a problem: When -- not if -- diesel fuel climbs to $2 and $3 a litre, farmers will almost certainly have to scale back their activities. Farmers are historically on the lower end of the income scale. Taxpayers fail to appreciate that farmers themselves are the number one source of farm subsidies, since most of them rely on off-farm income to support their operations. Very few are in a position to absorb a doubling or tripling in energy costs.
Collectively, Canadian farmers have millions of hard-earned dollars invested in combines, tractors and large implements. This equipment will sit idle if farmers cannot afford to fuel it, and then much of it would be repossessed by the banks.

But if farmers have a looming problem, their non-farming neighbours surely have a much bigger one. When fuel costs skyrocket, intercontinental shipping will quickly diminish and prices of all goods will escalate. Without the steady flow of far-off food that we have all become reliant upon, our urban neighbours will quickly turn to a relative handful of local farmers to start feeding them again.. These farmers, however, will themselves be facing unprecedented costs and uncertainties

Farmers will be faced with practical issues on several fronts. First, they must obtain reliable and affordable sources of mobile energy. Electric tractors exist as prototypes, but they cannot generate the sustained horsepower which is required for heavy field-work. An extreme option is a return to draft animals, but this presents a multitude of obvious concerns. An obvious interim scenario is fuel rationing, where farmers receive some allocation at a subsidized cost, but this would probably be tied to production quotas (which would present farmers with a new set of pressures). Certainly the agri-food sector would be need to be fundamentally reorganized and administered.

Aside from fuel concerns, farmers would also need to consider crop conversion to meet personal and local food requirements. Should hay or corn fields be converted to market gardening? Such conversion often requires irrigation and specialized equipment which most farmers cannot afford. Furthermore, many farmers have limited experience with intensive vegetable production, and there will suddenly be an urgent need for information and resources. Another limitation is that many soils are not optimal for market gardening. Indeed, much of Ontario’s most versatile acreage has been paved over, lost forever.

In short, if people think that there will be a seamless transition from the present diesel-based food system to a local model based on a yet-undeclared source of energy, they are in for a “crude awakening.”

As we approach the peak of oil production, there appears not to be a cloud on the horizon. People still idle their SUVs in parking lots, fly to Florida for spring break and roar around lakes in muscle boats. Politicians and the media apparently have no interest in addressing peak oil issues. But as the great literary works repeatedly remind us, it is precisely at moments of complacency and hubris that mankind is at greatest risk.

Local Vulnerability

We in eastern Canada are surely at peak risk. Like all Canadians, we endure cold winters and long distances. But unlike Canadians who live west of Toronto, we who live east of Toronto rely on overseas tankers for 90% of our petroleum supply. People who think that we will simply switch to Alberta crude in an emergency fail to understand that presently there is no practical way to deliver Alberta crude beyond the refineries at Sarnia and Nanticoke. Indeed, even these refineries are partly supplied by overseas oil.

When it comes to petroleum, Canada has been effectively split in half, with the eastern half now almost entirely reliant on countries like Algeria (presently our #1 supplier). When it comes to petroleum supply, there are few people in the world who are more vulnerable than eastern Canadians. There are none who appear so oblivious to their own plight.

As many analysts have pointed out, we are only a couple of competent terrorists away from an unprecedented “oil shock.” There are two facilities in Saudi Arabia, for instance, which handle over five million barrels per day. Al Qaeda has identified them as preferred targets, and there have already been several attempts to attack them.
Virtually every analyst expects that the crippling of the facilities at Abqaiq or Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia would result in at least a tripling of global oil prices. This would be profoundly problematic for the entire world. It could be life-threatening for eastern Canadians in January. Yet despite our extreme vulnerability there appears to have been no formal analysis or planning for the domestic effects of an overseas oil shock.

How farmers would manage under these circumstances is of course unknown. How millions of low-income citizens would heat their homes at $3/litre has not been considered. But one thing is sure: eastern Canadians need to be informed about their own vulnerability, they need to discuss it, and they certainly need to mitigate it.

Personal Responsibility

As Aric McBay pointed out in the last edition of The Local Harvest, citizens could start by becoming more self-reliant. Grow your own food or make arrangements to be supplied by a reliable local producer. Obtain even a minimal back-up system for heat and electricity.

As the residents of New Orleans discovered, if we count on “government” to provide for us during a major emergency, we may be bitterly disappointed. Each of us must take some responsibility to provide for our own basic needs. It is unreasonable to expect emergency responders to somehow serve millions of us during a crisis, particularly when the problem is as fundamental as a shortage of energy.

To quote James Kunstler,

“The age of the 3,000 mile Caesar salad is coming to an end…. [Peak oil] is not just going to be a matter of not being able to drive to the mall. It’s going to be a matter of not knowing how you will feed your children..”

I read a report that the whole island of Cape Breton lost their fuel oil supply the week before Christmas and still has yet to have full heating oil deliveries available.

That's some 130,000 plus people, without heating fuel, Merry Christmas.

I have not confirmed this yet but it would not surprise me. Spot shortages in the Maritimes would be a 'canary in the mine shaft' for Canadians.

I've been very curious to generate a dialog on TOD about how we are going to farm without fossil fuel. Nate seems to be leading the charge on ethanol=evil.

If that is the case, pray tell what do we use to plow the fields, man power?

Twenty or so men harnessed to a plow, pulling for all their worth?

The western world is NOT going to go back to draft horses, notgonnahappenanytimesoon.

So what is it? Electric tractors? Thats as plausible as flying monkeys shooting out of my butt.

In 1920, there were a total of about 250 tractors, in the whole country (US), farmers were still using horses for the majority of plowing. The tractors were run with ETHANOL not gasoline. The farmers distilled their own fuel from bio material on their own farms, NOT from Rockefeller's refineries. They made just enough to run their own machinery, NOT to run the town near by. The bio=fuels of the early part of the 20th century were just for local farm consumption, NOT the fuel source for the entire country.

It was a Great Idea.

Screw the oil companies.

It wasn't any different than farmers setting aside 25% of their arable land for horse fodder.

There is no such thing as a free lunch in plowing farm land.

You either "pay the horses in oats" or "pay the tractors in ethanol/bio/oil/diesel.


Human powered plowing is NOT and option.

Unless government mandates some laws, in the form of quotas, that allocate and prioritize oil/fuel/diesel for farmers and police and emergency vehicles first, the goddamn "market place" will NEVER guarantee that farmers will have the fuel they need to plow the fields. Period.

Farmers will be out bid on oil based tractor fuel. Period.

The fields are NOT going to be plowed with magical thinking or alternate energy sources because their is not enough "phoney, funny Wall St. credit" in the western world at this point to finance it, Get Real.

Even if you could put up a "Nanosolar solar thin film array" large enough to power one wimpy field tractor, the goddamn SIZE of the array would be enormous and would occupy a great deal of real estate. Nothing would be productive beneath these arrays, too much shade. The solar array square footage would probably equal the 25% of land the old time farmers set aside for horses.

The real bottom line to Post Peak Oil food production.

No food, no economy

No surplus food, No civilization.

That's been the pattern for, oh, THOUSANDS of years.

Nate seems to be leading the charge on ethanol=evil.

There are many levels of peak oil discussions. Adaptation and mitigation mean different things to different individuals, communities and nations. Corn ethanol is a waste of precious time and resources on a national scale. If economies were more localized, they could take advantage of local conditions and some biofuels might make sense.

And why do we need to plow? Certainly for large scale industrial ag, this increases yields, but aren't there no-till methods, even for large fields?

And why do we need to plow?

To get rid of weeds!

Siwmae (Hiya) Nate,

We don't need to plough (and all the subsequent soil cultivation that follows), of course. That’s an option, not an essential. And for those who choose to grow food that way, draft animals are an excellent, ancient, proven, and still highly practical power source.

The above statements are not just drawn out of the air, but are the result of much practical experience, my own, plus that of a big crowd of very much more authoritative others.

My own current experience is instructive. I’m a member of a CSA (community-supported agriculture) scheme; and also I run my own small permaculture operation, which is still in a state of expansion as I continue to learn.

On the farm, we use tractor-tillage. On my place I use no-till methods. Both are organic operations, of course. May I assure urban and suburban readers of these notes that the viability and the productivity of these operations, very typical of lots of grassroots initiatives which are now beavering away, getting started and making their way up the essential early learning curves, are in no way fatally dependent on the ultra-cheap-energy, fossil-hydrocarbon syndrome. Most seem to be using that facility, whilst it’s still widely viable. But the people involved are – usually, it seems to me – at the cutting-edge of awareness not only about the petro-energy crisis, but crucially of the wider, all-engulfing, inter-linked global crises of which it’s part.

We’re making it our – practical! – business to be ready when the fuel famines strike. We aim to have food and other essentials available for ourselves and for our neighbours, at least in survival quantities, despite the oncoming chaos of bigbiz commercial agriculture and food-retailing.

Rather than go on at length about this here, may I offer the two links below, which are densely-packed with practical, time-proven wisdom about these matters. These sites typify many such operations, which can be found easily enough with due diligence. Robert Denlinger and Dave Blume know their stuff from way back, are constant, practical (that word again) commercially-viable practioners of their craft, and are two of very many living proofs chugging quietly along in the undergrowth, out of the attention of big media, big biz and big politics, that another way is possible. Not only possible, but happening.

As a great bonus, from my personal viewpoint, Robert also protects his livestock, as I do on a much smaller scale (no wolves, bears or jackals in Britain, for the time being; back soon, I hope), with our wonderful, beloved shepherd dogs. Typically, Robert has recorded zero stock losses to predators since he got his first two shepherd dogs, the Kuvasz sisters Capella and Callisto, some years back.

Incidentally, Dave Blume is FAMOUSLY very hot on farm-scale ethanol production for home use, as is Danny Day and the Eprida initiative. Google 'em!

Hwyl fawr (Cheers!), Rhisiart Gwilym

re-posted below

No-till? No plowing?

Around here in W. Ky we do a huge amount of no-till HOWEVER not all land and soil types are viable via no-till. So we have equipment that can do both..Planters ,etc.

However ,once more, we do use a large variety of tillage equipment. For instance subsoilers,chisel plows, paravanes , rolling harrows and more.

Creek bottom vs river bottom vs hill ground vs whatever. Each has a differing manner of cultivation and genetics as far as seed varieties and planting dates. It is very complex.

I rarely see a set of bottom plows here. Most are rusting away but there are surely large areas of the USA where no-till is impractical for some reason. Here we use it on hill ground else it would erode rapidly.

On flat ground or very low grades you don't have such problems.

Its not 'one size fits all'.

Speaking of 'plowing' is not very precise.

And you don't get rid of weeds by plowing. Also plowing , real plowing tends to leave a very large area of dry matter between the top of the soil and the subsoil. An area that prevents good water utilization and possible root penetration. More like a layer of insulation.

Chisel plowing is preferrable due to its not disturbing the surface of the soil but it takes an enormous amount of tractor power. Paravaning I have seen but am not that familiar with.


So what is it? Electric tractors? Thats as plausible as flying monkeys shooting out of my butt.

Why not? If there are prototypes about then somebody is surely thinking that they will be viable, and as oil becomes more expensive, they will be. 5 dollars says that there will be one on the market sometime in the next five years.

Even if you could put up a "Nanosolar solar thin film array" large enough to power one wimpy field tractor, the goddamn SIZE of the array would be enormous and would occupy a great deal of real estate. Nothing would be productive beneath these arrays, too much shade. The solar array square footage would probably equal the 25% of land the old time farmers set aside for horses.

How about a wind generator then? Take up practically zero of your arable land, plug it into your spare battery pack to recharge, and then hot swap as the battery pack runs out of power. Sell the generator and the tractor as a set with the slogan "never buy fuel again", and I'm sure that somebody would buy them.

Wind power to ammonia, ammonia to fertilizer and fuel. NH3 bears about 40% of the energy of diesel by volume and it'll work in existing engines with simple modifications any mechanic can be trained to make.

especially with NH3 made from the stranded yet optimal wind resource areas close to the two polar oceans.

NH3 - dirty fertilizer, clean fuel

I think you are onto something here. In addition a bio-reactor unit could be researched/made that would provide enough fuel for the farm.

It's the time ramp up to mass deployment that may be an issue and the provision of the capital to purchase these investments in a potentially crippled financial system.

But given a fair wind and a smack by the government the basics of human existance can be sustained IMO.


There was a post on where someone had built a solar tractor. Here is the deal you're not going to be ploughing a field with power that hits the PV array direct.

First you charge a rather large battery using your solar array then you plough the field.

I would go one step further and allow the tractor to be plugged in not only to it's local solar panel which was quite small. But what would stop you from parking the tractor near the shed that has solar panels on the roof and getting a fast charge.

From what I saw it's feasable, just not sure if we will be smart enough to scale it up to any degree in time.

It is possible to raise oilseeds like rape on the farm and press them to make biodiesel. If this is done ONLY to provide fuel for farm equipment, I do not believe that this would be the disaster for global food supplies that the massive production of biofuels for automotive use threatens to be. By my estimates, the typical farm would only need to dedicate around 5% of its crop land for biodiesel production for on-farm use.

I see this as a last ditch fall-back rather than a silver bullet, but it is perfectly feasible. This is why I don't lose any sleep worrying about how farmers are going to fuel their equipment.

Great point WNC Observer!

The discussion on ethanol/biodiesel needs to become more nuanced in this regard. The current corn/ethanol thing is eclipsing sane debate on appropriate uses of alt fuels in the transition to No Cheap Oil.

Corn/ethanol is evil, evil, evil. "The Omnivores Dilemma" was a nightmare tale about King Corn, as it is, but it was published before the Corn/ethanol death spiral got in the headlines big time.

I would like to see some more definitive numbers (and real life stories), from real farmers (farmer Rick Munroe?) on just how much canola or other oil seed crops (or even hemp seed) they actually would need, for farm ONLY equipment. How much home grown bio-fuel per arce or per yield weight of food crop.

Example: I grew 20 tons of potatoes with X amount of home grown bio-fuel.

I don't farm on a big scale, but city folks are going to need someone growing food on more than the raised bed - hand dug scale to support their life style.

It would also be pretty hard to implement this farm equipment ONLY policy unless real laws existed and were ENFORCED.

Would farm ONLY biofuel be taxed? If not, what's to keep Joe farmer from filling up the in-laws gas tanks when they drop by? 'Off-Road' diesel is already highly abused from a tax stand point. People using back-hoe diesel in the family diesel car or truck on the highway, quite a savings in fuel cost over buying the stuff with a stiff tax on it.

there was a big push right after the first arab oil embargo to develop bio-gas tractors...gasifiers using woodchips for a search on "woodgas".Hell,the Norwegians and other baltic states ran their entire economies on woodchip based,tractors ect.I am surprised this has not received more discussion than it has here on TOD

Farmers will be out bid on oil based tractor fuel. Period.

this is simply not true. farmers are going to be the few who can bid for oil. if they don't get it who will? our food will cost more but the farmers will get oil.

What you say would be true in an egalitarian society. But disparity of income in North America is so great that rich people will be flying around in ethanol-fueled jetplanes long after long after fuel prices have driven farmers bust, and their farms to abandonment.

What will these rich people eat? If it comes to it, they will buy their own private farms and buy their own private farmers for their own private use.

And everyone else will be invited to starve.

And that is the plan that our governments have for North America.

One very big 'glitch' in either the planting or the harvest season could easily take this country to its knees.

The effects of last springs anomaly is still rippling thru the system and causing many effects and that was nothing really as far as what nature could easily serve up if she so desired!!!!

We are extremely vulnerable due to our methods. A big cold snap precisely timed , like last spring? Well you get the idea. Look at the runup in wheat prices, hay prices,etc.

If other non-nature induced events transpired? Akin to some manmade event? I shudder to think of the consequences. For the last two planting seasons there were some mad scrambles over farm diesel fuel,such that we had to resurrect an old tanker and go find and haul our own.

BTW that tanker was ordered sent to Katrina to haul and hold fuel. Order were given to the driver to go armed and not stop for anyone. If stopped take what measures were necessary to proceed.

Yes it was just that bad. The drivers returned with stories of armed to the teeth guards,dead bodies being eaten by gators,and more.

It was a big wakeup call. Most likely disregarded it. I was not tapped to make the run with the tanker and would have demurred if I was chosen. We sent a loser guy instead. One we could afford to lose.


There's nothing egalitarian about that. If marginal farmers can't afford to grow food, food supply will go down, and prices will then rise. If prices rise enough, more farmers will be able to afford to grow crops again. If prices don't rise enough, they'll keep rising until those marginal farmers can afford to grow crops again. This is basic economics, and won't break down until we abandon markets for setting prices. In that case, the government will be rationing fuel to make sure that farmers get their share. Nothing incites revolutions like famine.

That doesn't mean that farmers will become rich. "Dirt-poor" might take on its former meaning, but at least most farmers will be employed and mostly be able to make ends meet, if only barely. They will be far better off than poor people off the farm, who may have a difficult time finding work or food.

Way too many armed ,hungry neighbors for that meal to be quiet.I have noticed government plans change when the people are bone mad...

I read a report that the whole island of Cape Breton lost their fuel oil supply the week before Christmas and still has yet to have full heating oil deliveries available.

That's some 130,000 plus people, without heating fuel, Merry Christmas.

that's not exactly the whole story.

The array has to generate power for short times in harvest and sowing. You need to size the array for peak use. Probably, certainly, cheaper to put it in Nevada and make the electricity into methanol and send that to Canada. Not to mention that we really don't have that much lead and nickel to use for batteries anyway.
When do farmers use their tractors and equipment?

You heard correct with respect to the Cape Breton oil shortage. Ironically the issue was not access to foreign oil but to the oil stored in Halifax facilities. There are essentially no storage facilities in Cape Breton so they only ever have a few days supply. The weather was so foul for a number of days that the tankers could not make the trip from Halifax and safely dock in Sydney. This situation also woke people up to the fact that the entire province is supplied by one company's storage facility - Irving. Every delivery company is reliant on Irving stocks to supply customers. Not only are the people in this region vulnerable to one dominant country supply (Algeria)and all global issues that affect it, they are vulnerable to the corporate strategies and effective management of one supply company. A global incident affecting Algerian supply or a significant management error at Irving hold an entire region hostage.

Although the Cape Breton shortage did not reflect a global supply crisis it is a wake up call to exactly how vulnerable we are on the east coast.

In Cape Breton, They only delivered a little oil to home oil tanks to keep them supplied untill the next oil shipments arrived.

No one ran out of oil, because of this.

copy deleted

copy deleted

"The western world is NOT going to go back to draft horses, notgonnahappenanytimesoon."

The 700 (I think) folks who attended the inaugural Northeast Animal Power Field Days in VT last Sept. may beg to differ. In any event, it's at least one example not far from eastern Canada that there is a movement afoot - or perhaps that should be (ahem) ahoof...

Horse Powered Mass Transportation Opens The Suburbs

The Draft Horse played a significant role in the growth of urban America. From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I, the United States was in transition from an agrarian to an urban society. As cities, grew, so did the need for mass transportation. The luxury of a private carriage or the regular use of cabs was beyond the means of the average city dweller. Therefore, prior to reasonably priced and effective horse powered mass transit systems, most people were forced to live within walking distance of their work. This severely restricted the ability of the cities to grow.

The development of draft horse powered mass transit systems allowed the cities to expand into the new suburbs. In 1880, horse-car lines were operating in every city in America with a population of 50,000. By 1886, over 100,000 horses and mules were in use on more than 500 street railways in more than 300 American cities.

By the turn of the century, at least half of the 13,500,000 horses in the United States carried between 10% and 50% draft horse blood. More than 3 million of these were in use in non-farm capacities by 1910. With the continued growth of heavy industry, and increased European immigration, American cities were experiencing unprecedented growth. New interest in public health, rising real estate values, and improvements in electric and gasoline powered alternatives to horse power combined to mark the rapid decline of the horse's significance in the city.

Within a decade, the horse was replaced in public transportation by motorized taxies, electric streetcars, and subways. Large new gasoline powered trucks had a similar impact on transportation of goods. The new trucks were three times faster (ten miles an hour) than the horse powered drays, took less room to store, and eliminated the problem of manure disposal. One of the last urban uses of the horse to succumb to mechanization was the horse-drawn hearse, which continued to be utilized into the 1930's.

The Horse in Trench Warfare
World War I provided a tragic chapter in the history of the draft horse. In 1913, the year prior to the war, less than one thousand horses were exported to France and England from America. Over the next five years, total exportation rose to more than one million. As the conflict was essentially one of trench warfare, light cavalry horses, which numbered over one million, were virtually useless. The primary demand was for heavier horses, which could pack supplies and ammunition, and haul artillery to the front.

When the American Expeditionary Force entered the war in 1917, they took with them an additional 182,000 horses, Of these, over 60,000 were killed, and many thousands were wounded. Only 200 returned to America after the war. From 1914 to 1918, British veterinary hospitals in France treated 2,564,549 horses and mules for war inflicted injuries.

Farmers Look For Smaller, More Economical Horses

The market for heavy horses went into a steady decline after World War I. The reduction in the number of domestic draft horses, an increased demand for American grain exports, and the improvements in the gasoline powered tractors combined to hasten the replacement of the draft horse by machines. This was especially true of pure-bred draft stock. In 1920, there were 95,000 registered draft horses in America. By 1945, this figure dropped to under 2,000.


The horse: Is this the secret weapon to beat global warming?
The French are mounting a transport revolution led by the humble horse, using it in more than 70 towns to pull schoolbuses and to collect refuse
The Independent
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
Published: 25 November 2007

"Human powered plowing is NOT and option."

I suspect you're wrong about that, but it will take me a few seasons to demonstrate. I certainly agree that no one person could plow 40+ acres that way.

Iraqis are turning to draft animals. Not for plowing (soon all their food will be imported. Say, just to exagerate.)

one example:

I agree with much of what you say. I think farm based fuels will be made by farmers on land set aside for that purpose. If you are a farmer you have to plan accordingly. You need to have an ethanol or biodiesel processing unit onsite or as part of a co-operative. That fuel needs to be funnelled back to the farm. Any excess can be sold and the profit used to get farms of the co-operative out of debt. Going back to horses is not an option, yet. If you think farm machinery is dangerous try handling a big Belgian frightened by thunder or other loud, close noise. Most people other than the Amish groups do not have the skill set.

Historically, farmers have done OK in a crisis. In the hyperinflation of the 30's a lot of diamonds and gold was exchanged for eggs and grain. At the end of WWII in Germany, farmers were in relatively good shape. My fifth cousin in Germany was not a farmer, but he said his family was less hungry than many others because they lived in a rural area.

The post-WW II, post-Occupation West German government taxed, heavily, the only viable revenue source that they had, farm land. There was no popular sympathy for the farmers, who were viewed as profiteers by many.

The East German government just confiscated the land.

Those were not "prosperous times for farmers".


I've been very curious to generate a dialog on TOD about how we are going to farm without fossil fuel. Nate seems to be leading the charge on ethanol=evil.

If that is the case, pray tell what do we use to plow the fields, man power?

While grains in the West are largely farmed with machinery, fruit and vegetables are largely farmed by hand. Here's a picture of a farm in San Luis, Arizona:-

There's no oil there, and the only ethanol is in their drinks after work - if they can afford them, which on their average $5,000-$10,000 annually ain't likely.

Future employment scenario for all those "economists" and finanacial advisors whom choose to continue living in there dreamworld that says "fossil fuels are unlimited and will never run out" and peak oil is a myth.

I don't see much historic evidence for large scale food production that didn't rely on large tracts of arable land being plowed in some fashion by draft animals.

Surplus food is the very basis of 'civilization'. Not surplus technology.

Surplus food has historically allowed some people in a culture to not send all day growing food on a primitive level, but to develop other skills. Like inventing technology. Or being the butcher, the baker, or even the candle stick maker.

Jared Diamond had a number of interesting observations regarding civilizations that did not have draft animals. (New World vs Old World) Draft animal-less cultures were considerably slower in developing any degree of sophisticated technology or even any degree of sophisticated culture on the same time line as cultures that did have 'beasts of burden'. (Aztec vs Rome)

I wonder if Mick Jagger had this in mind when he sang, "I'll never be your beast of burden." Hmm.;)

Cultures that use only people power for farming never really produced enough extra food to allow specialist to invent much technology above and beyond subsistent farming levels.

Given another couple thousand years, western hemisphere cultures might have actually come up to Roman tech standards.

Masanobu Fukuoka is the only original thinker to my mind on farming with a dramatically radical new farming technology that uses little or no 'beasts of burden'. He is a very old dude by now and out of the loop on cutting edge farming stuff.

The permaculturalist Bill Mollison (the 'father of permaculture' wiki) from Australia, I believe, was a big fan of Fukuoka's early ideas and tried to incorporate some of his thinking into modern perma-culture ideas.

However, Fukuoka's ideas were never really tested on a grand scale, like, oh, China for instance. Farming without tilling (or draft animals/ tractors) for a billion people is not too feasible. Sure if everyone in China was forced out of the cities to go back and farm the land by hand...oh wait, they already tried that; Cultural Revolution or something like that?

The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming

Jim Kunstler is fond of saying how many folks think energy and technology are the same thing. He said when we run out of affordable liquid carbon fuel for the airline industry, some people think we can just 'plug in' New Technology and run the existing jet fleet on that.

No, we will Always run the current fleet of jets on liquid carbon fuel or nothing , because of the shear amount of momentum and investment in the jet technology we have in place. We are stuck with it for the duration. (He says it in a much funnier way in his presentations)

Well, food and Technology are the same as Energy and Technology. You don't just 'plug-in' one for the other. (Food Is Energy)

"How about a wind generator then? Take up practically zero of your arable land, plug it into your spare battery pack to recharge, and then hot swap as the battery pack runs out of power. Sell the generator and the tractor as a set with the slogan "never buy fuel again", and I'm sure that somebody would buy them."

And where is the investment capital for all that Alt powered farm equipment?

Well, we pissed away a trillion or so dollars of potential Alternate Energy R&D in the deserts of Iraq. Brilliant move.

Wall St and 'The Market Place' did a Fabulous Job allocating precious resources to the Developing Derivative Death Spiral.


Maybe the current bunch of "Ass Clowns Are Us" presidential candidates will pop for the cash. Ya think so?

It's got to be at least as daunting to replace the whole agricultural infrastructure (in a few short decades) as it would be to replace the entire aviation fleet with something that did not burn liquid hydro-carbons.

Gee, maybe we could call it "The New Improved Alternative Cultural Revolution"

Catchy sound, n'est-ce pas?

Will it be voluntary?

Not that I'm recommending their methods, but the Maya did large-scale food production without draft animals.

Farmers will be out bid on oil based tractor fuel. Period.

the farm sector is booming right now. farmers are buying new tractors and new trucks. why? food prices are up.

if the farmers who you are say are absolutely essential don't have money who will?

The point being that the country is being run for maximum profit, not fuel economy. The Lakers can afford $1000 / bbl, farmer in the dell can't. Our priorities will doom many to misery and suffering. Gentlemen, start your engines!

those farmers that can't handle fuel costs will go out of business, food prices will rise and the remaining farmers will have more money to buy fuel.

Maybe the current bunch of "Ass Clowns Are Us" presidential candidates will pop for the cash. Ya think so?

Yes, I know so. Necessity is the mother of invention, and whichever "Ass-Clowns-Я-Us" are elected will have to cope with it when it happens, allocating money as required.

I don't see much historic evidence for large scale food production that didn't rely on large tracts of arable land being plowed in some fashion by draft animals.

I believe that's mainly because Christian Europeans made it their business to eliminate such systems (and the cultures that produced them) wherever they encountered them, regarding them as both primitive and ungodly. There were certainly some very sophisticated and productive polyculture systems employed throughout much of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa before the missionaries and Conquistadors got there.

Responding to the same point, we didn't have human powered machinery in the past and we knew far less about plants and soils. Don't get me wrong, we also lost a great deal of knowledge about plants and soils when we switched to tractors and ag chemicals. But as far as I know, there weren't that many attempts to farm with bi/tricycle machinery. By the time we came up with geared cycles, we were far along using horse powered heavy machinery, then liquid fueled tractors.

I suspect people have their motoring blinders on when it comes to anything that currently involves a motor. It doesn't require a motor vehicle to get me a couple of miles to work, so why is it necessary to have an upteen horsepower tractor to kill weeds on a small acreage? If I can grow enough food for me on a couple of acres, I don't see why I couldn't weed that with my own power, particularly if I'm on a tricycle that requires only 1/3 as much effort as it would if I did it by hand on foot. We'll see.

Electric tractors can work.

What can not work is business as usual.
Feeding 6 to 14lb of feed to an animal to get 1lb of meat out will come mostly to an end and with it the need to farm massive amounts of land. However, as farmers will be outbid for their fuel; those with money will ensure that many food goes to animals to ensure meat for them.
Small scale farming, lots more people involved will be the future. Smaller tractors or no tractors will be the norm I think. It's harder work than sitting at a keyboard; but there it's not degrading, demoralizing or community/earth destroying.

I've got my eyes on a great little 30 acre property in a small town - just off the river with about 20 acres "undevelopable" - that is to say perfectly farmable - flat with the river right there, sheltered from the north wind with full southern exposure. A wonderful hill (old river bank) facing due south is the perfect place for earth sheltered passive solar homes.

But it probably ain't a gonna happen with the co-housing group we've got and it's not going to happen by myself. $600k is cheap for the land but I'd become a slave - having to commute by car not bicycle and having 2x the taxes I currently pay.

I also started crunching numbers on passive solar heating in this area and we're too cloudy - 10% of the heat required could be obtained via the sun in Dec/Jan/Feb.

You don't have to feed cattle grain in order to get great beef. We forage finish our

The health benefits of grass-finished beef are significant; see

However, it would be much more difficult if we could not plant our winter
finishing forage(typically rye or oats) for lack of fuel or seed. We would
have to change our finishing season to June or July instead of Jan-Feb. Also,
we would not be able to produce nearly as much beef as we do now because of the
increased grazing pressure on the native pasture.

Yeah, that converted Allis Chalmers is great!

From that site..
"When I built our first electric tractor, I had NO EXPERIENCE working with electric motors, and only limited experience working on gasoline engines. That first tractor is well into it's third year now, and still working beautifully on a full-time basis, with NO tune-ups or adjustments necessary (unlike it's earlier gasoline incarnation!)"

I think LostHorizon got a little heady making extreme pronouncements, up there. There will be a lot of room for electricity providing work on the farms, while I also suspect there will be Ethanol production and Methane Digesters that will be options for Ag to use.

While I don't see any huge problem in scaling up Electric tractors, others have suggested that these 'hobby' sized models don't count, even though they outperform a handful of Draft Horses, and all the 'Hay' lives on the roof of the barn... (NOT 25% of your onetime pasture-lands)

But to provide the requisite link, here is an example of a heavy-duty electric vehicle/workhorse of the sort I once got to work around. (600' under some VERY HARD Granitic Gneiss of Brooklyn, NYC with the NYC-DEP) These tunnel-boring machines are cable-fed, NOT battery powered, but then again, are a good bit more powerful than most tools you'd use on even an industrial farm. A cabling scheme for farms would be a challenge, no doubt, but I won't say impossible. I'll leave that for the extremists.

Bob Fiske

Ha! Of course tractors can be powered by wind turbines, but the maggots don't want that. They want to be in charge, they want to sell diesel equipment. Everything is possible, but not with the maggots in charge. That is the struggle we face.

If you are using electricity to power equipment you probably would change the way you do it.

In the case of farming it could make sense for the electric engine to run a winch and use towed or pulled implements in the field with maybe a small motor to run pto like equipment. This approach would allow the motor to be powered by fixed lines or larger batter trailers.

It could also make sense to invest in rails and do intensive agriculture again a cable car like set up could be better than direct power.

It would seem to me at least that intensive farming with rail based equipment regardless of how its powered probably makes sense. Maybe something closer to the large pivot water sprinklers but with rails maybe of concrete.

I could be off base but I'm just trying to say electric farming could be very different from our current methods.

I'm actually thinking of doing something like this for a small farm and I bet I can get old rail and decent ties cheap. So place two short rail road track beds about 40 feet apart hand have like a small tracked crane to run the implements.

This is for really heavy stuff but I think using this approach you could do a fully computer controlled garden.

Good ideas. Actually a track system might reduce erosion too.

I've been thinking along the same line as you on movable equipment for intensive four season gardening (in colder climates).

Here is an outfit making greenhouses that move so that you can rotate the soil under greenhouse through the 4 seasons (or thru and multi year rotation pattern) and give the soil a rest under open skies.

These greenhouses could be adapted to wheels or wheels on rails. The rails could be supported on pylons which have footings below the frost line so they would never heave from ground frost.If the rails were level, it would take very little power to push them around.

Also, I remember seeing a system years ago, I think by Rodale out of PA. that had a small plow being pulled along thru the soil of a medium sized garden by aircraft cable which was attached at the end of each row to a bicycle-like pedal powered winch. The mechanical advantage of the pedal gears was enough to pull the small plow thru fertile soil. I doubt if this would work in hard pan soil.

A 12 volt electric truck winch would also probably work. The winch assembly could be anchored to a rail that ran the lenght of the field at each end. I don't know how scalable this kind of system would be, i.e. how much acreage one or two people could plow in a day. Probably enough to feed a several families per year. It would be an interesting experiment. The pedal powered plow looks like quite a work out, maybe it could be marketed as a new form of fitness equipment for an outdoor 'green gym concept'. Ha

When people tell me I look like I'm in good shape, what gym do I use?

I say: I don't 'work out', I just work.

Yes your thinking along the same lines. And this is for what we in the south call truck gardens.
For row crops biodiesel makes sense but for smaller plots it seems to work out that putting some infrastructure in and using electricity seeems to have and advantage. The fixed costs should be recoverable in higher land values.

The general concept post peak is that we don't want to go back to everybody a farmer type scenario.
Pasturing horses and using draft animals is possible and probably will happen but this same fallow land could easily carry solar collectors.

And outside of the richest farming regions you would rather not set aside a lot of land for fuel crops so this means electrical. And the next step to conserve energy is the same as for transportation move to rail. Worst case is its a very light rail track to carry a power line for a more normal tractor but moving to overhead tools has big advantages. You can plant denser your not compacting the soil. you could harvest just the food portions of the plants. Mixed crops are possible corn/nitrogen fixing beans.

Assuming cheap electronics sophisticated sensors and computer controlled plant manipulation are possible. Also spot irrigation pesticide use etc. Assuming you have the solar panels the overhead could probably make at least one if not several more passes through the field each day monitoring and correcting problems.

Roomba on steroids.

About using horses, I remember reading that England at turn of the century was importing hay for horses (can you say peak hay?). Of course oil took over for the horse. Now, because of poor planning, we are in trouble...

Can people who have looked into these farming techniques estimate the productivity of a farm based on some integrated selection of ideas? How much human labor to run a farm of what size? How much excess food? (above what is needed to feed on farm humans and animals) Evaluate the excess food two ways: Is it sufficient to trade for the farm needs of things that cannot be produced from the land? and how many people, beyond the farm population, can the farm support? What do these numbers imply as to the total population that can be supported by US, or Canada, under this kind of land usage? I worry that US population might be much less than current 300 mil.

So OK as a plan for after the end of civilization as we know it, but not exactly a happy prospect.

Energy Returned on Invested (EROI) and Labor Inputs

Intensive vegetable and fruit production has a high caloric output per unit land area (ca. 4,000,000 calories per acre), but not a high return on labor inputs. Two people can probably manually work an acre at about 1,000,000 calories per year (this is their total food need, not just their work output). So the labor EROI of this system is only 2:1 at most, but it does provide the veggie needs for ca. 40 people, so the farmer:non-farmer ratio is 1:20.

Other potential models have higher energy returns. On irrigated land, it is reasonable to expect 2000 lbs of grain per acre. Since each person needs about 400 lbs of grain per year, an acre can yield enough for 5 people. 2000 lbs is 3,000,000 calories. With fairly simple tools requiring a couple of horsepower to operate during planting and harvesting, 2 people could sow and harvest grains on about 20 acres, yielding enough for 50-100 people (half the yield if not irrigated) or 30 to 60 million calories. Grain farming with a tool set such as disc harrow, broadcast seeder, spike tooth harrow, and a small combine, is not nearly a full-time job like intensive vegetable cultivation, so the human labor inputs are actually low. I suspect the total EROI to be in the range of 10:1. The farmer:non-farmer ratio is 1:25-50.

It might be good to study various agricultural models with respect to EROI and labor intensity, finding tool sets and methodologies that both dramatically reduce energy requirements while also maintaining high labor productivity. Given how few people know how to farm, it will be a challenge to train the next generation of farmers in new methodologies let alone ramp up the percentage of farmers!

It is not that difficult for someone that has never grown anything to learn how to start growing a few tomatoes in a container.

It is not that hard for someone who has been growing a few tomatoes in a container to grow several, and to try some other vegies.

It is not that hard for someone that has been growing a few container vegies to learn how to put in and tend a small garden.

It is not that hard for someone that has been growing a small garden to learn how to ramp up to provide most of their vegies.

It is not that hard for vegie gardeners to learn to plant and tend fruit trees and berry vines.

It is not that hard for fruit & vegie gardeners to learn how to raise small-scale grain crops.

It is not that hard for someone that has cared for a pet dog or cat to learn how to raise rabbits or chickens.

It is not that hard for someone that raises rabbits or chickens to learn how to raise turkeys, or ducks, or goats, or sheep, or pigs.

It is not that hard for someone that raises small stock to learn how to raise large stock.

It is not that hard for someone that raises vegies, fruits, grains, and livestock on a household scale to supply their own needs to learn to raise these things on a larger market garden scale to produce some surplus to market in their local community.

It is not that hard for someone that is already doing small scale agriculture to learn how to ramp up to larger scale production.

It is VERY hard to skip any of these rungs on the ladder.

I can't agree more with what you said! I'm on step 5 and the only think i can add is that i add root cellering, a basic understanding of plant propagation, and good neighbors as being pretty helpful. I figure may goal is step eight, and i could reach it in about 5 years or so depending on how other thing in my life turn out.

Anyway great list.

re electric tractors-- old Allis-Chalmers units have conversion kits to install 5-hp elec motor with stepped speed slider. Great torque at all speeds and bypasses need for transmission/gears. Used for modest planting/hoeing/tilling needs. Forgot link, but can fish on GOOGLE for it.

One successful conversion uses remote PV [panels to charge spare Lead-acid batts for alternate day changeout.Owm=ner decided carrying PV panels too heavy/unwieldy to mount atop tractor for charging while in use.

PV-sourced electric motors might be most workable in conjunction with cable-drawn, rail-tracked implements, as suggested by Memmel, elsewhere. All hardware seems available, while design/invention of improved motors and elec generation systems has unlimited potential.

wind farms are often on farms. we can use that power to power the tractors if need be.

Hi all,

In 97 my computer expert friend scared the crap out of me over y2k, and being open to a change with young children, we bought the farm so to speak.
Having spent now 10 years running towards a small mixed horse powered farm in Ontario, the lessons to date have been quite daunting (I had a lot to learn and a lot left to learn). As anyone who has ventured down this path will attest.

I believe that if we are forced to go without diesal we definetely should be going to horses
with or without electric. Electric motors and bio-diesal don't return manure and grazing benefits.

What's missing in the analysis, of suggesting switching of inputs is that modern agri-business with chemical fertilizers changes the whole production land use model. Because it is not sustainable peak oil or not,it is very important for us to be examining the now 40 year old cheap food agricultural policy. That has brought decimation of the small mixed farm (which is the only semi sustainable farming model known -It can be argued I think rather well that farms should perhaps be reverted to woods (If that was the original state)every couple of centuries for a century or two to remineralize the soils).

I liked the One Straw Revolution and believe that polycultures are a survival strategy to be pursued. I am also very impressed with a man named Freind Sykes, a british organic farmer (author of 'Humus and the Farmer' 1947 a contemporary of Howard). Who kept a huge diversity of livestock on rugged terrain in England. His model of farming was centered around the thesis of improve the soil and the soil will look after you. He accomplished this with a well thought out rotational grazing strategy which I think is worth copying. He boasted that he was bringing foot and mouth diseased cattle on to his farm where they would get better and not infect his cows. (mixed livestock confers higher stocking rates than mono-cultural) He was a big fan of the Galloway breed that does very well in a grass model. I am currently experimenting by crossing my purebred never raised on grain no vaccines) galloway Gals with jersey believing that in 3 years time I will have found a market for good dual purpose heifers for the new suburban farmers (or tasty steers should the LORD deem). A good cow has benefits.

John Deere wrote a book that was supposed to convince farmers of the folly of horses and the need to get tractors. This was quite a challenge as tractors were expensive and couldn't reproduce themselves (so a loud mocking campaign also ensued). In the book he described various jobs performed by hand and then the economy increases of using horse-power (you should compare the efficiencies between spreading manure by hand with a pitchfork and a ground driven manure spreader!) and finally tractors. What was interesting is that there are jobs where horses excel over tractors, (raking for example and they can be on the land earlier)

Tractors in certain jobs like plowing are vastly superior to horses. I also know that I can make hay with my horses but I would much rather use my tractor and baler. The time and labour savings are clear.
When analyzing horses though against tractors, it is unfair and unwise for that matter to set them up in matching farming models.
The model that I favour is minimum till with an extensive rotation of 4-6 years in pasture then to small grains, buckwheat, then alfalfa/clover with an oats nurse crop so back into hay for several years then start again.

Meaning that plowing is kept to a manageable size
and scale. The fertility of temporary fallows and pasteuring is impressive.

This has demanded a huge undertaking of rail fencing which has been both expensive and a lot
of work but is now paying off on the fertility front. Having started with an old dairy farm that
never made the switch to bulk, I had a barn and outbuildings (in rough shape but there none-the-less)the work to build those from scratch is huge and expensive so really think through what your skill set is before undertaking that.

In Ontario it's illegal to raise chickens for market without quota, so I have chickens for peronal consumption (it is also illegal for me to kill and share one of my chickens with non family for dinner). The raw milk that we crave from our Jersey we can't sell as it is illegal period. Pasteurized would require quota which for that one cow would be (at last check around $30,000) and 10's of thousands in stainless equipment etc.
So a subsistence farming model is for the wealthy. That's why they say if we win the lotto we will farm till the money runs out. They are not kidding.
Regulatory barriers to entry are increasing all the time, I don't whether the upcoming clean water act measures will be a death nail. Remains to be seen. The point being that the govt in Ontario is hostile towards farming endeavours and
doesn't want you.

After all my efforts I don't expect to be able to make any money (literally)in fact to cover equipment upkeep some years I expect to continue to lose money (and this never counts my initial financial investment) just provide my own food, and raise my children with the necessary knowledge for the future. Since this is currently farm reality for non quota system farms. It won't matter if tomatoes are $20. each. There won't be money to be had, for my labour. Just for the middlemen. So don't expect high prices to provide relief to food shortages.

People don't understand that farmers have allowed themselves to be taken advantage of by setting up a system where they are price takers. I can't speak to the subsidy game down south, but I can't access subsidies. Perhaps recent price increases will alleviate this but I doubt it. I suspect that at some point people will get it that middlemen don't make the food.

In fact I expect the stores to empty out when things get tough as price takers will not be able to subsidize the huge energy cost increases as Stoneleighs great article infers. And everybody else demands payment, banks, insurance, fuel, taxes, fertilizer, parts, tools, hardware, etc.

This means that moving to secure land is quite a risk. Should major oil be found such as the North Sea in the next few years this would push back the peak and mean that you had gambled and lost.
But you can eat like a king. And you can race with the horses.
Great post Stoneleigh. Are you near Kingston?

What's missing in the analysis, of suggesting switching of inputs is that modern agri-business with chemical fertilizers changes the whole production land use model. Because it is not sustainable peak oil or not,it is very important for us to be examining the now 40 year old cheap food agricultural policy. That has brought decimation of the small mixed farm

I partially disagree. the small farmer has been squeezed out by commodity prices falling for 20 years. only the big farms can survive. when commodity prices go up this will change.

Thanks for the great post Eliyahu - very informative indeed. I didn't write the above article - it was a guest post by Rick Munroe, a farmer from the Kingston area.

We also have a hobby farm in Eastern Ontario (a couple of hours drive from Kingston), but it sounds like you've been far more successful than we have in providing your yourself so far. I'm sure we could learn a lot from you. We have sheep, alpacas, chickens and sled dogs, and grow vegetables, but we have yet to provide a substantial proportion of our own food. There are a lot of things we can't afford to do. As you point out, small scale farming consumes money rather than producing it. Our actual income comes mostly from grid connection work for small renewable energy projects.

Hi Stoneleigh, thanks for the nice comments. My farm is about halfway between Peterborough and Kingston if you drew a line.

I have found the whole process very humbling, the mistakes keep the ego in check. A small slip in judgement can be a show stopper so for
those who believe that there's big changes ahead, I offer that we are all in this together and all efforts to share will help. T.O.D. has become an addiction though and time is short. Refridgerated trucking seems to have enabled non-farmers to escape some of this humbling life learning curve. The winter rejuvenation sport helps one to forget the knocks and the frozen ground takes care of the itch, but not the hunger.

I agree with wnc observer that unless the soils in your blood and you've got the itch then pursuing energy efficient housing, a root cellar and a good garden is a better plan.

I think the path that Cuba was forced down with the oil embargo is the model to learn from. One big lesson that they imparted was that the knowledge that the old timers had about working with oxen etc was valued and they spent efforts to help them to impart it to the younger folks. There is a lot to learn with horses, even when you study. They all have individual personalities and represent different challenges. Not really having much credibility to begin with let me posit that I think they are psychic. But then that's my small brain. When I was growing my garlic intellectually I knew that it represented a small contribution in the global scheme of things but looking over the acre it seemed that itI couldn't but flood the market.

Several of my advisors have now passed away, there are some really neat people with great insights out there. I have learned a lot from the Small farmers journal, acresusa folks, Joe Scrimger, Harrowsmiths etc. Lots to learn. Horses demand a lot of patience and time. One thing that doesn't come to mind to new comers is that they need to be worked regularly. They are like little kids (and teenagers with too much free time)and do well with routine. I have down times where I have spent much effort on other infrastructure and life type of projects that demand my attention. So my endeavours are far from complete, my farm is not a scenic drive by million dollar baby. But a work in progress, and it seems that the people who get it, have lived it.

I am not pretending that the model that I am pursuing fits all situations and lands. The soil that I am on is heavy clay (I would always choose clay over sand in a farm model) and with minimum till this seems to be the best model to my way of thinking. I only have about 40 acres of tillable and some 90 acres of pasture land, the balance in woods and wetlands so the character of the landscape of my farm is more like what Wendel Berry would prescribe to this model.

It seems that those models that don't contibute to increases in soil organic matter will be the most vulnerable to disease and weather extremes. In 02 we had a drought here that left me feeling that I was farming on a mountain in the desert. So I have since tried to increase my knowledge of dryland farming techniques that they used down south.
In short it's more like living the life of Rocky. Hit me again :-)
I always wanted to grow up to be a whining farmer.
Alpaca have great wool, have you convinced the wife that her dream of sitting at the gossip can be realized?

Alpaca have great wool, have you convinced the wife that her dream of sitting at the gossip can be realized?

LOL - actually I am the wife. Alpaca wool is fantastic - warmer and stronger than wool with no scratch. We have a spinning wheel and a loom, and I can knit crochet and sew (by hand). My children (son included) can all knit. If I spent less time hanging out at TOD, I'd spend far more time making things, but time is limited as you say. No time for gossip :)

I have much less land than you do - only 40 acres in total. We do our own hay and rent out some space to a local farmer for corn or pumpkins. I wish we'd managed to make as much progress as you have.

The work is generational so every year you get a few more thing done. Every place has it's own needs and job list. 40 acres is perfect for a huge garden self sufficient type goals, enough for some horses or a herd of alpacas.
I didn't buy for the size as I would have taken something your size, for me it was wanting a combination of fields, forest and wet-lands.
There is a herd on hwy 14 of what could be alpacas, that's not you is it?
Have you been to pioneer village south of Ottawa? Now there's a project list.
We are far from being finished the todo list. Of course the list seems to keep growing. Every year though I feel that I'm improving my soil, and rolling with the punches and learning. For example I lost many hives to c.c.d. last year. This is worrysome as the environment around my place is pretty positive w/r/t chemical use and other stresses. I was using essential oils and quality feed but to no avail.
I put some supers outside from non c.c.d. hives and soon had my neighbours bee's cleaning them up. Putting out some of the boxes that the bees had fled from and these bee's wouldn't go near them. So I left them out to see what would happen, and about 3 weeks later the bees weren't bothered anymore. So the theory of a beetle infesting them seems quite plausable. Clearly something that would be so offensive to them that they wouldn't return sounds like an insect.
The big realization that small farms are not turnkey operations and should we find that we need to increase the numbers it will take a huge effort to do but given the massive efficiency increases of small farms. We should get back to farms around 200 acres or so in this area anyway.

I'm not sure where Hwy 14 is, so that's not me. I'm much further north and east than your neck of the woods (not too far from Ottawa, so I'll have a look for Pioneer Village). My alpacas couldn't really be described as a herd yet, but I'm hoping to have more of them in the future.

My land is all fields unfortunately. I wish we had some good bush as we heat entirely with wood, but this place was the best we could find (that we could afford) when we were looking.

We have bees as well, although the beekeeping is done by a friend of ours who had always wanted to try it but couldn't in suburbia. He keeps hives on our land in exchange for enough honey to keep us supplied for a long time. He lost about half his hives to ccd last winter. I'll suggest to him leaving the empty hives out for long enough to attract new inhabitants.

" I'll suggest to him leaving the empty hives out for long enough to attract new inhabitants."

Sorry if I wasn't clear. This idea won't work. The only thing you can do with this idea is feed other bee's which you want to be careful doing unless of course you know for sure why you lost the first ones.
Foulbrood is very contagious. WhatI was trying to share was the insight provided about what may be the cause of c.c.d. Some had suggested that the bee's may be being disoriented while away from the hives. If exposed to pesticides or herbicides they usually don't make it back. This observation suggests that something invaded the hives and drove the bees away.

Pioneer village is an amazing place to visit. They have a stream powered saw mill on the upper floor of one building which also drives with line drives a myriad of ancient weaving and sewing type machines downstairs. There is one building where the women are sitting weaving at a gossip. Hence the reference earlier. It is a huge operation so there is lot's to see. In this older way of living which may be a permanent fixture of our past. There is lot's of work for everybody, and a large skillset required.

On the heating front if you can insulate like crazy and put sunspaces to the south. You might be able to greatly reduce your annual wood requirements. I am trying to install a drainback thermal water system
but money and time, it is a lot easier to insulate now and burn less every year going out then chopping and hauling wood later.
It was nice chatting


We can't all become farmers. I'm operating under the assumption that living in a small town and raising what vegies and fruit and small stock as one can on a typical residential parcel is going to be the best bet for most people. This assumes that that you can do something marketable to bring in the money to pay for anything that you can't provide for yourself, including whatever fraction of foodstuffs you can't grow yourself. On the average small town parcel, assuming some investments in fruit trees, berry bushes, cold frames, mini-greenhouse, beehive, maybe some rabbits & chickens, etc., you should be able to produce at least half of your food, and maybe better than that. Make the house super energy efficient and develop whatever renewable energy resources as you can (PV panels, solar H20 heating, wood stove, etc.), be able to get around on foot or bicycle as much as possible, get out of debt, downsize your lifestyle until it is as frugal as possible, and your income needs should be low enough to make quite a few local employment options viable.

One employment option could be share-cropping on the yards of neighbors not inclined to or capable of doing their own gardening. Split the produce with them 50:50, and if you do this with enough neighbors you can set yourself up to not just become 100% self-sufficient in food, but to generate enough surplus to become a market gardener for your local town. I am assuming that the hassle factor in dealing with government authorities is a bit less when dealing with garden produce sold in local farmer's markets.

Thanks so much for your informative and thought provoking post.


Thanks for the narrative about your farming adventure. If you could, please drop me a line at I'd like to ask you some questions about how you got started. Thanks.


An extreme option is a return to draft animals, but this presents a multitude of obvious concerns.

Not obvious to me. What concerns?

Re "What concerns". Time, health and a full reversal of life.
I have lived through the change from draft animals to modern farming and except for in a doomesday situation I do not see how a return can benefit.

My father had a 17 acre farm near Copenhagen and two horses. I have myself tried to plough. In 1957 the horses died and we got a small Ferguson tractor (ca.25 HP.) This changed life completely on the farm to the better.

A horse can plough 2400 m2/day in light soil - when the weather allows ( ½ acre a day- 6 hours work-and rest in between). Then people and horse have to rest or there will be no horse shortly.
So ploughing alone is 1 month a year , walking 2 km/h, 6 h/day in the furrow straightening the swing plough (0.2 m width,1 furrow Brand "Fraugde"). Horses have to be fed several times a day or they will die of constipation. Horses and cows /bulls shift- and step on your toes or squeeze you in the stall or kick you. Many farmers in my home town were in varying grades of invalidity from farm accidents often caused by the animals. Horse chart driving can be very hazardeous. People were worn out early.
I cannot see reversal to draught animals except as a last ditch.
Kind regards/ And1

An extreme option is a return to draft animals, but this presents a multitude of obvious concerns.

Not obvious to me. What concerns?

How many well-trained draft horses live in the U.S. now? - (trained to pull a plow, not just haul a load-shifting sledge for 7 seconds at the county fair?)

How long does it take to double the population of such draft horses? and how many would it take, to make a dent in the fossil-fueled tractor population?

A friend in Japan, Tony Boys, makes this point in his seminal study (2000) of fossil-fuel depletion and Japanese agriculture. Before oil and tractors, it was mainly water buffalo and oxen that did the heavy hauling and plowing. It takes a long time to rebuild a nationwide herd of draft animals, if that is to be part of the solution.

Dick Lawrence

How many well-trained draft horses live in the U.S. now?

During the extensive 2001 foot and mouth outbreak here in the UK the majority of the sheep in Wales were killed. I can vividly remember listening to a Welsh sheep farmer on BBC Radio 4 talking about it.

The most amazing part of his story wasn’t the loss of the livestock as such, although that did upset him. It was how these sheep, who over successive generations spanning more than 30 years, had learned where to go and when to go there. The farmer would only have to turn the sheep out of their pens and they would move to the correct grazing for that time of the year. They would also know when to return and the farmer would be ready with the pens open come the end of the day.

According to the farmer, it would take several years to imbue his new herds with this knowledge, meaning he and his dogs workload would rise appreciably.

I was really impressed by the story. The senior sheep would somehow pass on the “knowledge” to the up and coming and this continuity allowed the farmer to raise far more sheep than if he was forced to tend his herds constantly. Of course, it does help that the last wolf in Britain was allegedly killed in 1743 in Scotland. But still, it was an amazing story to hear.

How many well-trained draft horses live in the U.S. now? - (trained to pull a plow, not just haul a load-shifting sledge for 7 seconds at the county fair?)

Not a lot, but more than you might think. If you were in my area, I could show you a pair of working Belgians just 8 miles away from me.

Before oil and tractors, it was mainly water buffalo and oxen that did the heavy hauling and plowing. It takes a long time to rebuild a nationwide herd of draft animals, if that is to be part of the solution.

Given the huge cattle herds we have in this country, I would think that we could ramp up the supply of oxen a lot quicker. Oxen were always considered inferior to draft horses, but they can get the job done. Oxen do have the advantage of being edible at the end of their service life. (I can actually remember an ox roast in my childhood; they used to be common, now a forgotten bit of yesteryear.) (Of course, some cultures would consider horses at the end of their service life to be edible as well. I wonder how desperate we have to be before that cultural taboo goes by the wayside?)

As much as all the little girls in the world might object, horse is edible too. As to the "inferiority" of oxen as compared to horses, I believe that has something to do with speed. Horses can plow faster, but oxen can plough heavier soil. That may just be hearsay, but it's what I recall from reading.

As much as all the little girls in the world might object, horse is edible too. As to the "inferiority" of oxen as compared to horses, I believe that has something to do with speed. Horses can plow faster, but oxen can plough heavier soil. That may just be hearsay, but it's what I recall from reading.

Not only do the horses need to be trained, but they require a skilled hand. Take the best trained horse and pair it with an inexperienced handler and the outcome will be much frustration, possibly injuries (or worse), and an unplowed field.

Another issue, imo, are that horses of today are not the horses of yesteryear. The traits that make a 'valuable' horse are those that win in the showring and those have been selected through breeding practices. Hence, the working traits (good feet, hardiness, etc..) have dwindled in the population. And unlike pets, there are few 'oops' in reproduction. Most stallions are gelded (i.e. neutered) at an early age and those that remain intact are not allowed to mingle with mares.

Returning to draft horses, on a large scale, really isn't feasible. It will work for some but certainly not for all.

Corn $4.50 vs $1.50 in 2005. Soybeans $11.50 vs $4.80 in 2005. There is no problem buying fuel in Iowa with these prices. The corn is sold to the local ethanol plant. Soybeans go to the local crusher and then the oil goes to the nearby bio-diesel plant. So where is the problem? It is in those areas of the world that are sitting on their butts making fallacious arcane arguments about what to do. Time is running out. Building ethanol, biodiesel and wind production takes time. It will all fail in the end just as we all die in the end, but why commit suicide with endless debate that we can not achieve heaven with ethanol and biodiesel. It is pointless. There are no perfect solutions for Peak Oil. Just as there is no solution to the problem of death. All we can do is deal with the situation as best we can and postpone the the inevitable as long as possible. In the end death comes; just accept it and do the best you can with what you have today.

So where is the problem?

Several, too many to be comprehensive.

The massive gov't subsidies that would be better used on electrified rail, among other items. (Spend $1 billion on corn ethanol & bio-diesel and it disappears into smog, spend $1 billion on electrified rail and it is there for a half century to centuries+)

The natural gas (fertilizer & distillation) and diesel used to make corn ethanol could be used directly for transportation. There is a slight gain with soy diesel, but NOT the best use of the subsidies or the soil.

Higher food prices.

Best Hopes for Rational Energy Policies,


The problem is you're not EFFECTIVELY reducing your needed inputs.

It is the classic story of sewing an extra strip onto your blanket to make it longer.. a strip that you had cut from the other end.

Those arguing against it are saying that it IS suicidal to invest in Tail-chasing endeavors.

Profound respect, Eliyahu, for your heroic effort.

Having been out there in the fields myself wih hand-tools last Summer, at the CSA farm, I've had my old remembrance of just how hard practical farming/gardening can be forcefully refreshed just lately. It reminded me of time spent way back digging out cow-byres by hand (sic!) of several feet of tangled, manure-soaked straw, to spread on little rocky fields in Cymru Gogledd (North Wales). Shit, I still quail to think of it! Wish I'd known about permaculture sophistications then.

But now I do. And I have besides Fukuoka's truly wonderful, practical rule-of-thumb to bolster my determination never to be a farm/garden sweated-slave again. Masanobu has operated for years on the rule: "What can I NOT do? What can I leave out, and still get good yields, and keep the land hyper-fertile and healthy?' (My slight paraphrase)

Seems to me that what we have in spades at the moment is a knowledge-and-experience gap; and also the severly practical problem of being tied into an up-and-running farm plan which is at least earning some sort of living, and which like an oil tanker can't just be turned on a sixpence to a whole new set-up. I see it vividly at the CSA farm: Tom and Caz, young and well-educated in appropriate traditional and new methods, desperate to get Tom's dad's farm converted to low-energy, registered-organic, low-till/no-till methods, but under the iron discipline of having to supply eighty scheme-members with their weekly share of vegetables every week of the year. So you change and improve, and lessen the back-breaking labour as possible.

On the other hand, on my permaculture patch, I please myself, make the inevitable balls-ups, learn from them, and aim to increase the subtle inter-relations of all the elements involved, and to up the fertility, productivity and the ecological health of the whole organism all the time.

And I'm damned if I'll ever work as hard as that goddamned muck-spreading ever again.......

The permaculture link near the top is a real eyeopener. Personally, I can see this being a huge part of the post PO food solution, when people really start getting serious above finding alternatives. The victory garden idea from WWI is probably a good model in terms of society getting behind an idea. But if that could be turned into permaculture gardens we'd really have something.

It would surely help if we had some political leadership at the national or state level to push this forward, though. We need another FDR to get us started in a big way.

As has been pointed out before on TOD, TPTB mostly have no interest in promoting anything besides the growth model. But hopefully the local gardening/permaculture movement is/will grow to a meaningful part of the food suppply in spite of that.

This thing about electric tractors is just bullshit.

We will all be dead before it will be off the drawing board.

This is just wistful thinking maxed out.


If it is necessary they would already have to be in the pipeline and available. They won't be. Many here just do not realize the power needed to farm large amounts of acreage. Say 3,000 acres. You have a small , very small window of opportunity to get your planting done. You don't have time to monkey around with weirdo makedo schemes of electric panels and such. Its just not going to happen.


even if electric tractors are available now and plentiful, there are other problems.

wind turbine to electric tractor will only work in gentleman's armchair. and if you are to rely on the grid, it'd better be reliable and able to handle some very extreme peak load. farming is a timing critical activity, if you miss the very narrow window of opportunity for seeding and harvesting, you are ruined.

storable liquid fuel on the farm and on hand is the only way to go if you really concerned about food security. when all is considered, is there a better choice than - NH3?

NH3 - dirty fertilizer, clean fuel

The standard for vegetable production is 10hp per acre, by the time you get past 3 or so acres it needs to be divided between a couple of tractors because of the functional needs, tillage vs cultivation. A vegetable specific multi-functional tractor hasn't been built since the mid 80's, and most being used today were built in the mid 50's, about the same time as most of today's farmer. Even with mechanization it takes at least 50-60 man hours a week of labor per acre. To farm organically (we do) it will take minimally 3-5 yrs to develop fertility, and at least as long to develop a skill set. Also helpful is a high tolerance to pain and lack of sleep. Better to hope you have farms locally, be helpful, guard them well...oh and be willing to pay a reasonable price, probably 2-3 times the current price in real dollars.

Apparently at the end of WWI in Germany they had time to work their electric tractors. that's after the war that was a disaster unlike any war since probably the US civil war.

I could see electric being viable for a hand tractor. These are used in many 3rd world countries, and even in some places in Europe, to work small plots - maybe 2-5 acres max. Most walk-behind rotary cultivators are actually hand tractors with rotary cultivator heads attached; some you can change out other attachments, some you can't.

You would probably need some pretty heavy battery packs, and you would need multiples to change out during the day. Since you would have to probably refuel a gas tank several times during the day, too, that doesn't seem like an unreasonable expectation. I suppose this could theoretically work for someone growing an acre or two of corn/beans/hay, plus a big garden & orchard, plus pasture for a few goats, plus a small woodlot for firewood, etc. Essentially we are talking about your small-holding farmer trying to do a little better than self-sufficiency, producing a little surplus for local sale. If they own the land outright with no debt, there are places in the world where that will work. In the US, it won't as long as property taxes are so high, unless the farmer also does something else to make some income on the side (which some could).

I'm with you, though, when it comes to the big tractors needed for the big acreage. You are going to have to tow a trailer behind you just to carry the batteries needed. At a certain point it becomes a lot like rocketry, where most of the power of the vehicle is needed to move the fuel that is needed to provide the power.

I disagree. I'd certainly admit they depend on multiple "ifs" but that far from excludes the possibility of innovation allowing for them in the next 10-15 years. Given the necessity of farming and the already huge cost of a high horsepower tractor, a cutting edge and/or expensive adaptation doesn't seem unreasonable. We're not talking about running tractors off of solar panels mounted on their roof here.

re. question on difficulties in returning to draft horses, I would list:
- the estimated 25% of crop-land needed to feed them
- much less productivity per man-hour
- number of years required to raise and train the numbers of draft horses which would be required
- loss of horse infrastructure (harness-makers, blacksmiths, horse equipment manufacturers & repairers, etc)
- loss of skills in the above trades and in the art of seeding, plowing, harrowing, harvesting, etc

My understanding is that the Cubans have preferred oxen to horses (more strength but reduced speed) which I find surprising... perhaps they endure the heat better??
I took a draft-horse course here in Ontario 20 years ago and was struck by its complexity... eveners and all sorts of other equipment to accomodate variables (size, strength & willingness of individual animals)... much more to it than I thought possible.
Flip side is that horses are actually not that inefficient for certain tasks: light-duty field work like harrowing and planting, also selective logging as opposed to clear-cutting. The course was an eye-opener. I have great respect for the Amish & Mennonites who continue to prove what CAN be done. Finally, tractors do not give us baby tractors....

I believe that farmers in some places will still be ploughing with diesel tractors long after the oil decline starts - assuming all other systems haven't collapsed, which is a big "if" of course.

Ireland, for example, has a plan to eke out its 90-day fuel reserve for two years in a supply emergency: giving priority to food production and distribution. Car drivers wouldn't see much petrol, I guess.

Here in the UK, farmers already get a form of fuel subsidy because they buy "red" diesel that is taxed less than ordinary road fuel - so called because of the red colourant added to identify the fuel. Spot checks by the taxman discourage fraudulent use by non-farmers or in non agricultural vehicles. They don't catch many people cheating, although with fuel prices rising there's more incentive to take the risk now.

In a sense, red diesel exposes UK farmers more directly exposed to world oil price movements than the general population, even though they pay less overall, because the lower proportion of tax they pay means that changes in the crude have a more direct effect on the price of essential fuel. I don't think many of them would prefer to join the ranks of British drivers and haulage firms, who pay around 300% tax on road fuels, though.

BTW, I'm not saying that it's not vital and urgent to build alternatives to oil-fired farming and gas-powered fertilization. Humans will return to a localised, organic, low intensity, community based way of life: the hard way or the nasty way (there's no easy way). The least hard way is to make sure the farmers are first in the queue for the last of the oil to buy time.

Could happen here. Looks tough in Canada and the US. Good luck to Rick Munroe and your fellow thinkers.

Certainly many interesting and compelling ideas are represented here but I wonder what people's thoughts are on the the effects of the political and social crisis that would occur in this country when economic conditions breakdown. To me, this is the a critical question as the the crisis would have a tremendous effect on "national security" and since so much of our society is utterly dependent on the complex web of industrial/technological civilization one would imagine our friends at Homeland Security/FEMA getting involved in restructuring society, allocating resources and converting to a command economy of some sort in order to maintain the power and control in the short term. Based on their past experience and failures I tend to have a lot to fear.....the criminals that run the asylum are not the most enlighted species....

Before there were diesel tractors on farms, there were a few decades of steam tractors in use. These were marvelous machines, basically small steam locomotives with tires. A steam engine, of course, is an external engine that can run on firewood, cornstalks, or coal. The problem with the 1910-era steam tractors was their weight that made them likely to get stuck in the mud. I suppose a newly engineered machine would be considerably lighter, but still heavier than a diesel. Has anyone considered going back to steam?

Thank you.

A short conversation with a friend:

Me first;
> > Humans have learned to modify their immediate environment and compensate for the
> > changes, so we have created our own filter within the filter, and when we can't filter out the
> > environment's filter, we move to where we fit the environment. Our modern medicine systems
> > have increased our own bandwidth so that we don't really adapt to the natural environment at
> > all, but we ARE adapting to our specialized artificial environments.

> Yes, and there are no physical boundaries between groups of humans anymore. That doesn't mean that >the human race will stop developing. Think about how people adapt to new technology. Those people >that can embrace it will tend to be more prosperous than those that don't. Subsequently, the >characteristics of the prosperous are more likely to be inherited by future generations. It's an >electronic jungle now.

Characteristics like risk-taking, wealth accumulation, dependence upon technology are being developed. How this plays out through future upheavals will determine the survival of the species. Too much dependence on technology, and we won't live through certain events, too little, and we won't predict those events or be able to correct for them.
It's why I came up with the term "Net Creativity". Our survival depends on being able to create more future usefulness than we consume in resources. My recent thought was that the development of consciousness is the tool that Nature came up with to extend her living reach beyond the present time and place. With the development of the human (or alien) Mind, nature receives the ability to predict possible outcomes of various strategies of resource use. Unfortunately, the human mind became addicted to pleasure and became almost completely useless except in rare instances.

What about Peak Warming?

Hi Stoneleigh,

About your lack of bush, do you have any surrounding treed areas ? like wind breaks or neighbours with wood lots. If so just leave the adjoining areas alone and you will soon have all the 'bush' you like. I had an acerage that had been kept mowed forever and as I wasn't using the back half I didn't bother and in a few years had the makings of a nice little stand of alder and suchlike. Alder isn't as good for BTU's as are trees like fir but they grow like stink and do burn very cleanly.

Could I sneak in a question heere about what you might be planning about continuing your work with economics and finance? Also had a question today about the Yen and carry trade but there is now no place I feel adequate to deal with it on TOD now. It was so nice to be able to go to one place where there was an editor that could be depended on to step in when discssion became too unrealistic as well as where anyone with that interest could go and not have to deal with sorting through thousand competing issues.

BTW when you came out with your primer for the credit crunch last summer (sorry don't remember the exact title) I sent a copy to my broker who has a degree in economics and his unsolisited comment was that it was very well written, something hew has not said about a lot of other things I have passed to him.