Energy Descent and Agricultural Population

I wrote this article over a year ago and was reminded of it by the recent BBC documentary A Farm for the Future. Since it was posted big changes have occurred politically and financially. Credit and commodity markets are disrupting the agricultural sector, and so are droughts and heat waves. Fuel prices are relatively cheap again, but overall input costs for industrial agriculture are generally higher than commodity prices. My radio interview with Ben Gisin covers much of this ground. Meanwhile, home gardening in the U.S. is picking up quickly in what appears to be a broad public response to these forces.

Among the cadre of folks who think about food systems and sustainability in the U.S., there’s a concern about the number of farmers and their age. Only about two percent (5,802,000/295,410,000 in 2004) of the U.S. population is part of a farm family, and the average age of principal operators of farms is nearing 60 years (See the recent release of the 2007 Ag Census for details). Since mechanization and the fuels that power machines are what enable such a small agricultural labor force, is it reasonable to assume that a decline in fossil fuels will require more farmers?

Others, such as peak oil educators Richard Heinberg and Sharon Astyk, have suggested this will indeed be the case, even going so far as to put a rough number on the future farmers of America. Their estimates are partly based on looking at the proportion of farmers in an early to pre-industrial economic system in the United States, when about a third of the population engaged in agriculture and at societal differences today. They then adjust for current population size to arrive at the admittedly tentative figure of 50 to 100 million farmers (or members of farming families) needed to feed a population of 300 million.

As these authors point out, not only is the absolute number very large compared to today, but given the age of the current crop of farmers it implies that a rapid education of youth will be required to keep bread on the table. Given the importance of this topic, I wanted to take a look myself. Just as we use multiple lines of evidence to understand the evolution of life, oil depletion, and climate change, we need to look for confirmation from as many angles as possible. Furthermore, better knowledge potentially gets us closer to grasping the scale and rate of change required to cope with the problem in the same way that depletion rates in existing fields and net exports analyses do in the oil situation, or the timing and consequences of melting ice sheets and release of methane from warming permafrost do in the climate system.

Perhaps we can validate or refute this scenario by further use of the comparative method--for example, we may compare a future scenario to a potentially analogous historic past. In the analysis presented here, I take as a given that the United States (and other high energy consuming industrial countries) will have less energy available in the future, at least of the type currently used in mechanized agriculture. The comparison I use is not historic, but contemporary. I know that today some nations have much less energy consumption than others and anecdotally I am aware that poorer countries tend to be more agrarian. If nations with less energy consumption have more farmers, it would support the notion that a reduction in energy consumption in the U.S. (and other industrialized countries) will lead to an increase in farmers.

Is there a discernable inverse relationship between energy consumption and agricultural populations among nations?

Let's take a look. First, I had to find total population by nation and agricultural population (which I believe means farmers and their immediate dependents) by nation. These data can be downloaded from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (

Simply dividing the agricultural population by the total population gives the percentage that live an agricultural life. The range of this figure is huge, from essentially zero for places like Singapore to over 90% for places like Bhutan. I really don’t know how accurate censuses data are from the 205 countries used (not all places are fully independent nations, e.g., Puerto Rico is separated from the U.S. in these data sets), but assume figures are in the ballpark. Certainly citizens of Bhutan and Singapore have vastly different livelihoods. According to 2004 FAO data, overall about 41% of the world’s people still live in families who work in agriculture (2.6 billion out of 6.4 billion).

Most nations (about 70%) have 40% or less of their population in agriculture. This means that the fewer countries with high percentages of agricultural workers have large populations, e.g., China and India are 64% and 52% respectively and equal about a third of the total world population. In all likelihood, large populations correlate with high population density. As a 1997 paper by Conforti and Giampietro showed, economic forces in poorer nations with dense populations tend to retain farmers.

Second, I had to find energy consumption data. It is difficult to locate data on use of wood, animal dung, etc., but for commercial energy such as oil, natural gas, coal, and electricity the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy has available spreadsheets for download (see table E.1 at While this doesn’t include all forms of energy, it does cover the forms most readily usable in an industrial agricultural system.

I had to do some work to harmonize the two data sets, which meant using 2004 data and limiting the analysis to 205 nations—which I figure is fairly complete. The figure below shows the results, plotting the percent agricultural population as a potential response to per capita energy consumption. (Note: A big thanks to Stuart Staniford for constructing the bubble plot).

Click to enlarge.

As expected, nations with relatively little commercial energy consumption tend to have lots of farmers. The relationship doesn’t appear linear (perhaps putting energy on a log scale would change that, the X axis ranges from 0-1000 and the Y axis from 0-100), and is not very tight. I see some evidence that tropical nations can get by with less energy than temperate zone nations and still have similar proportions of farmers (e.g., compare Cuba to Ukraine and Mexico to Iran). This result could be explained by heating and cooling demands in temperate countries and/or higher crop productivity due to soils or climate factors.

While these results are supportive of the general hypothesis, I find it difficult to use this method and these data alone to get at the scale and rate of change questions. What might it mean, for example, for the U.S. to be using ¾ less energy by 2050? Many places today are already using that much less energy and have just as small of an agricultural population as the U.S., but surveying the spreadsheet it appears that many could be considered special cases, such as small islands swarming with tourists or tax havens for the wealthy, which can simply afford to purchase most of their food. Other large nations with ¼ of the energy use of the U.S. have between 10-20% of their population in agriculture. Considering that such a range is 5-10 times the current percentage does stagger my mind a bit.

Other questions that arise include: Whether U.S. farming can remain as energy intensive as it is today by taking a larger share of resources from other sectors of the economy? Because no modern economy can survive without them, I would expect extraction and production sectors, such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing to decline at a slower rate than, for example, finance, tourism, and real estate. Are dramatic efficiency gains still to be had in conventional U.S. agriculture, or has the farm sector already been through enough energy and financial dramas to have played out the easy options?

As in any good subject for research, answering one simple question provokes a series of more difficult ones.

Though I may have just done so, I am mistrustful of studying this issue in isolation. Nagging at me is the question of whether the globalized industrial system is inherently unstable in the face of multiple challenges, including energy scarcity but also the converging crises spawned by the surging weight of humanity. Climate change, financial wobbles, violent conflicts and related spin-offs can unpredictably disrupt the vast system of trade that moves fertilizers, seeds and replacement parts that keep industrial agriculture humming. I think we are already seeing hints of this scenario in the U.S., as farmers run short of diesel fuel during harvest season and end up leaving crops in the ground.


While I would appreciate more work towards the questions posed here, I also caution against analysis paralysis. There are multiple reasons why agriculture needs to undergo a profound shift and spending too much time trying to circumscribe the problem may delay us moving towards appropriate responses. I believe the broad vision of what needs to be done already exists—food that is more local, organic, produced, processed and distributed by renewable energy systems, and using cultivation methods that put the soil health first. Making that argument to those who are reluctant or suspicious, however, could use some better research that connects the dots credibly between energy depletion, climate change, food security, and demographics.


Hollis, P. 10 May 2005. Demographics study reveals facts about farm operators in U.S. . Farm Press.; The cited article is based on primary data from the 2002 U.S. Census of Agriculture (

Heinberg, R. 2006. Fifty Million Farmers. Twenty-Sixth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures.; Astyk, S. 2006.

Conforti, P and M. Giampietro. 1997. Fossil energy use in agriculture: an international comparison. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 65 (1997) 231-243

Reuters. 12 September, 2007. “Not so Corny: Fuel Shortages May Hurt Corn Harvesting.”,2933,296551,00.html

The talk is starting to become reality. I was just helping a neighbour with some plumbing equipment for a water well to boost local food production. That neighbour also has holiday cabins for rent and the current occupants are contemplating a move from a drying region to an area with larger untapped water resources.

The PTB still need to explain how we will grow grain when there is no diesel, no concentrated mineral phosphate, no synthetic urea and no irrigation water.

The movement of population from inland Australia to the coast has been occurring for at least 60 years.
>90% of grain is grown with zero irrigation, you may be thinking of cotton and a small amount of rice both depending 100% on irrigation.
Tractors have be powered by electricity, CNG, bio-diesel, wood gas while steam farm tractors and thrashers in the past usually used wood. Mineral phosphate fertilizer depends upon sulphuric acid or nitric acid, but lower grade ores can be applied directly without treatment as inorganic rock phosphate. The starting material for urea are energy, CO2, H2O and N2. No shortage of any of these while the wind blows, it rains and the sun shines.

Synthetic urea shouldn't be a problem. The gasification technology proposed for IGCC produces a CO/H2 mixture. Water-gas shift can turn that into pure H2. Feed the H2 to an ammonia plant and then convert the ammonia to urea. The Chinese use this technology today, running on coal. You can run the gasifier on biomass if you like, but it costs more.

Irrigation pumps can be electically powered by nuclear reactors. Wind might also be very suitable, and the Dutch have been pumping water with wind for a long time.

Maybe soybean oil could replace diesel? Or ethanol for corn farmers? I think price and availiability of liquid fuel is likely to be the farmer's biggest concern.

One final point. Look at where the US is on your chart, and then look at the UK. A 50% reduction in energy consumption turns us into Great Britain.

Synthetic urea shouldn't be a problem. The gasification technology proposed for IGCC produces a CO/H2 mixture. Water-gas shift can turn that into pure H2. Feed the H2 to an ammonia plant and then convert the ammonia to urea. The Chinese use this technology today, running on coal. You can run the gasifier on biomass if you like, but it costs more.

Using all that energy intensive technology is a piss poor idea ;-)

Urine from healthy individuals is virtually sterile and it contains about 59% urea per unit volume.

A recent study has shown that the growth and biomass of the plants were slightly higher with urine than with conventional fertilizer (human urine was collected from private homes and used it to fertilize cabbage crops).


There are water free urinoirs which would catch urine without the need to dilute it with water. Which would make the collecting a lot more attractive (and it saves a whole lot of water). The problem is that the general public needs to understand that urine is just a normal fertilizer. It has no influence on the taste or quality of the food.

The daily production of urine in adults is about 2 liters for women and about 3 liters for men. If we do a rough back of the envelope calculation that's about 2.5 kg of urine per day or roughly 1.5 kg of urea per day per person. In the small town where I live we have a population of about 140,000 people. that means a potential daily production of roughly 200,000 kg of urea. Question, how much does it cost us, in resources, water and money to process this as waste? Would it not be much more cost effective to turn it into fertilizer? I can't be the only person in the world to be thinking along these lines.

The daily production of urine in adults is about 2 liters for women and about 3 liters for men. If we do a rough back of the envelope calculation that's about 2.5 kg of urine per day or roughly 1.5 kg of urea per day per person.

Not really. Urea, which is the waste from protein metabolism, is only a small fraction of Urine, which is mostly water. Normal urea concentration values in urine for healthy folks are in the range of 20-40 mg per 100ml of urine. Lets say 30 mg.

So the amount of Urea per person day = 25 X 30 = 600 milligrams per person per day

My bad, not sure how I even thought that was a good figure since I knew that urine is about 95% water.
Of course I couldn't find where I got that figure from.

Oh, just found the source of my error I was looking at this obviously incorrect information when searching on Google:

Urine-Fertilizer DIY Kit
Every batch of pee is different, but on average, human urine consists of 59% urea. Urea is an organic compound with the formula (NH2)2CO. ... - 12k

Teaches me to be more careful about checking information and using some commonsense before I post. However it may still be feasible and cost effective to get useful amounts of urea from urine and use it as fertilizer.

There has been a test done in the Netherlands to recover P from urine (which is even better as it is a mineral and we can not capture it in any other form). The did this test using the urine of pregnant females which is gatherred to extract some hormone to help other people getting pregnant (mothers for mothers. Test by Schering-Plough). Recovering all human urine in the Netherlands would be enough to cover 20% of the P required in the Netherlands.

Problem is that hormones and medicines can show up in urine / faeces.

N is not so difficult to remove from the waste water stream P is much more difficult and quickly running out.

Interesting is that untill the start of the last century it was normal in Holland that feaces would be gathered and sold as a fertilizer / manure to farmers. It was highly valuable. However the problem is acceptance by people that humanure is used in food production.....

recover P from urine ...
Problem is that hormones and medicines can show up in urine / faeces.

A website called Caveman Chemistry talks about using heat and sand - it seems that now you'd need to track down the book. I'm betting most of the hormones/medicines would not make the conversion process. But alot of P doesn't make it out either.

The first clear recorded production of elemental phosphorus was in 1669 by the German alchemist Hennig Brandt through a preparation of urine, which contains considerable quantities of dissolved phosphates from normal metabolism. Working in Hamburg, Brandt attempted to create the fabled Philosopher's stone through the distillation of some salts by evaporating urine, and in the process produced a white material that glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly. His process originally involved letting urine stand for days until it gave off a terrible smell. Then he boiled it down to a paste, heated this paste to a high temperature, and led the vapours through water where he hoped they would condense to gold. Instead, he obtained a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark. Brand had discovered phosphorus, the first element discovered since antiquity. We now know that Brand produced ammonium sodium hydrogen phosphate, (NH4)NaHPO4. While the quantities were essentially correct (it took about 1100 litres of urine to make about 60 grams of phosphorus), it was unnecessary to allow the urine to rot. Later scientists would discover that fresh urine yielded the same amount of phosphorus.

0.9–1.3 grams (g) per 24-hour urine sample

The normal range is 800 to 2000 milliliters per day (with a normal fluid intake of about 2 liters per day).

0.64kWh to convert 1 liter of water to steam.

So that's alot of energy just to get the paste.

Urine is excellent fertilizer IF it's from someone on a low sodium diet.

I did some math on the combination of human urine, feces and straw. Together they make a nearly complete organic fertilizer. The limiting nutrient is going to be P. It is crucial that we don't let that one get away from us.

This is one of the main reasons I see farming as becoming much more local. Human populations will need to put their own organic wastes back onto the land that feeds them or they will eventually starve. Legumes can take care of N, wood ash can be used for K (and other micronutrients), but P is precious.

Having a farming system that includes long rotations in pasture or other deep rooted perennials is very important. Must go through cycles of fungal dominance to bring deep soil layers into the mix, add the minerals to the top soil, which basically get mined by the annuals. If I was head of the USDA I would have the U.S. make a strategic goal of LOWERING its grain production by 50% so that the feedlots go out of business, land is pastured, and meat is once again grass fed and local. Do this slowly and strategically and nobody needs to starve. In fact, it would likely prevent starvation by keeping the soils from being continually pushed beyond their limits.

I live in South Florida near the beach and I see a lot of Sargassum weed wash up on the beach which is then removed for the benefit of the tourists. Apparently there is between a 5 and 10% by weight Potassium content in this particular algae. I think I'll do some checking to find out what is done with it. I suspect it is one more example of a wasted resource. I know for a fact that marine algae, once the salt has been removed, can be added to compost with good results. I'm guessing the addition of this or other seaweed would be very good for its Potassium content.

Kelp meal is a common organic soil amendment. The micronutrients are fantastic. Used mostly for vegetable production I believe.

There is even some indication that straight sea water can be helpful in places. This may be an issue in tropical soils where heavy rains wash out mineral salts. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean apparently caused the rejuvenation of some lands.

Had a neighbor that was constantly covering his lawn in hyacinth (fresh water) when I lived in Florida. He'd cover, let dry, mow over it. Had the greenest, plushest lawn I have ever seen anywhere.


Hi Schrodinger1,

One final point. Look at where the US is on your chart, and then look at the UK. A 50% reduction in energy consumption turns us into Great Britain.

On the other side of this is the fact that UK imports over 50% of its vegetables, 80% of its fruit, an increasing amount of its meat, as this article also shows. Wheat figures suggest that we grow up to 85% of that particular grain, but as increasing amounts of soy and other animal feed are imported, the true amount of food grown in the UK is increasingly hidden.

This problem has been further highlighted by the increasing demand for organic produce and hence certification and traceability of supply, which has, amongst other things pointed to problems with proving imports are free of GMO contamination.

Given the huge amounts of energy required in shipping all this food around the globe, and the appalling land rights issues in the UK: if we can't even agree where we can walk, what chance any consensus on growing things?

Hardly a 'Great' situation...

But to end on a positive note, the Landshare initiative does give a glimmer of hope.


Hi Jason - Nice piece, with the caveat that my figures were always based in large part on present day agrarian populations in lower energy societies. I can't speak for Richard, of course, but I'd tend to guess that the same is true for him.

A couple of things I'd note - one is that number of farmers is also impacted by cultural preference and governing approach to agriculture - for example, in Russia the trend seems to still be towards smaller and smaller farms, and more of them, not for lack of land base, but because since the collapse, people trust small farm agriculture in a way they do not trust large farm agriculture. Japan's government has tended to support small scale agriculture, and thus has more farmers per capita than its energy use would lead us to expect. Those are, of course, just a few obvious examples, but it is worth noting that the energy-land-resource-population equation is complicated by a host of things.

Boof, artificial nitrogen is not the only source of nitrogen available to us - you pee out enough nitrogen to grow about 1/2 acre of food every year, and there are other sources. And large scale grain cultivation is not necessary - nearly half of India's rice, for example is grown on small farms of less than 5 acres. Worldwide, nearly half the rice eaten is grown on small farms, according to the FAO.

One of the reasons I see the "farming" (and I use this term broadly, rather than precisely) population growing so much is that most experiments with deindustrialized agriculture find that small scale farming can match agricultural output with industrial agriculture, or even exceed it, but large scale agriculture can't. Cuba and the former SU both found that without lots of fossil fuels, very large scale agriculture, even with equivalent hired labor, didn't work very well. Small farms, ideally worked by people who profit from them, on the other hand, tend to have higher total per acre outputs.

The other reason is this - farming pays badly - really badly. If we actually manage to create some kind of sustainable (and by this I mean only "can be sustained for a while, and that seems doubtful enough) national health care system, we might make full time agriculture doable, but without that benefit, it becomes a losing proposition for a lot of people. Small scale intensive agriculture/horticulture/gardening in combination with other formal and informal economy activity seems generally more economically
feasible in the transitional phases than a switch to farming for most. Later, who knows. That is, yet another factor may well be the larger economic picture and land access issues that face us. At no point is my own analysis, anyway, assuming anything other than complex and multiple causes.

Thanks Jason - a nice piece, as always.

Sharon Astyk

Optimum scale for cereal cropping must be bigger in low rainfall country. In Australia millions of hectares are sown to wheat, barley and triticale in nutrient poor soil with rainfall at 200-400mm or 8-16". No till planting has become standard practice in the wheatbelt which means the industry also needs lots of herbicide. These farms are just too big (eg 10,000ha or 25,000ac) for mulches and humanures or to use low powered machinery. Yet they produce a substantial fraction of our dietary needs in the form of bread and pasta.

Therefore I don't see the Indian model of small scale cereal production applying to low rainfall country in the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps machinery sharing and frequent fallowing of fields may help. The FAO suggests we get more starch from locally grown potatoes than distant cereal crops.

No till planting has become standard practice in the wheatbelt which means the industry also needs lots of herbicide.

Every time I see no-till mentioned as needing lots of herbicide it's a head scratcher. How no-till got separated from natural farming is beyond me. I've posted before about Fukuoka's method: plant clover as a nitrogen fixer and cut it down -> seed balls as the method of seeding > clover > winter barley > clover.

The mulch is right there in the plants themselves. Each crop harvest sees the stalks returned to the field as mulch. Each clover crop, and there can be three or more per year, is simply mowed down and/or allowed to seed. Little to no weeding or watering - if you are using dry land rice. If you do use water, he has specific suggestions for using the water to help manage weeds, also.

In terms of size, the whole point of the article is lots of people returning to the land. There might need to be, for want of a better term, land reform. However, permaculture/NF methods, and Sharon might be able to address this on a more professional basis, reduce hours needed significantly, so should allow one person to manage more land. Still, it might take coordinated harvesting with neighbors for certain kinds of crops, but only for short periods of the year.


It is VERY hard for a person to make a living solely by farming. Even a lot of those people who are "full time farmers" do not actually rely on farming for 100% of their means of living. Small holders have traditionally always produced hand crafts or done other things on the side to bring in a little extra money; this probably goes all the way back to the first neolithic settlements.

Of course, there have also always been those who make their living mainly doing something else - blacksmithing, for example - but whose household maintains a small kitchen garden and maybe a few chickens.

The idea of a small percentage of people being engaged full time in food production (and more or less expected to make a living doing exclusively that), and most people raising no food at all, is a very recent development, and will certainly join the other failed experiments in the dustbin of history. Our future will be our past: most people will be involved in food production to at least some extent, and most people will need to be doing something else besides just food production to make their living.

Hi Sharon,
Sorry I didn't more thoroughly include your own parallel line of thinking. I am curious about your new book and how much it goes into these sort of topics. Care to provide some overview of it here?

I was looking at the work ahead of me at my little farm and would be so much easier if I was primarily just trying to grow for my family. I could readily cover most of our vegetable food needs by hand without a whole lot of aggravation. For grains and legumes a drill seeder and small combine or at least a quality stationary thresher and seed cleaner would certainly be a great tool set. But instead I am trying to grow for other people, and they don't pay very much. At least in my situation I don't pay property taxes because it is public property, but what if I did? There's no way this would be worth it.

Public land allotments seem like a possible way to go, but it is not easy to manage the land without being there nearly full time during the main season. Where are those allotments going to be relative to where people live?

I am really don't have much clue where this is all headed. People say only a small part of our fossil fuels are used in farming, but what is really key here is the "food system" and once you look at the whole enchillada it is an enormous amount of fossil fuels. I'll likely do another post reviewing this. Anyhow, I don't have faith that we will wisely allocate fuels for the food system in a timely way to avoid some "issues." There doesn't appear to be much wisdom out there that would give me any sense of security regarding the food system.


"Since mechanization and the fuels that power machines are what enable such a small agricultural labor force, is it reasonable to assume that a decline in fossil fuels will require more farmers?"
This is not a reasonable assumption if you ignore mechanization and the possibility of powering by non FF.
I couldn't see any figures for farm energy or fuel use. How do they compare with small scale suburban lawn mowing? How much energy is used in rail movement of grain 1,000 km to a mill, then to a supermarket by 18 wheeler, compared with local transport by half ton vehicle?

In past 100 years food prices have been falling while oil prices have been increasing, this suggests that oil is only a small part of farm costs, more than compensated by increases in farm productivity, such as dairy, grain, poultry, electrification of rural farms and mechanization.

In Australia, 60 years ago, dairy farms had 10 milking cows, now they may have 100 or more. Milking mechanization is the reason, the cows still walk to the pastures, similar energy used for hay bailing, spreading manure. Similarly, chicken farms produce more meat/ grain inputs, more mechanization, better feed conversion saves energy. Beef feed-lots however, do use more energy than range fed beef (similar labor? ).

You have not shown a relationship between farm size and FF use. Did a 100 acre farm use less fuel/acre 50 years ago than a 1000 acre farm today? Minimum till has dramatically reduced diesel use in grain farming, but more herbicide use.

Before combined harvesters were wildly used, a large migrant labor force was employed to stack swaths of grain and then load into mobile steam threshers. Still one farmer, lots of hired hands. Steam power used a lot more energy. Horses even more.

I have written elsewhere on TOD and given some of those figures for on-farm energy use, the amount used by tractors, fertilizer, etc., but not broken down by farm size.

The main problem with renewable energy and large-scale farming is the power density. A lot of work often needs to get done in very short time frames, such as drill seeding or combining when the soil and weather are just right. Liquid fuels provide incredible power on demand without the need to recharge, swap batteries, etc. Only the dependable availability of inexpensive liquid fuels allows equipment of the sizes we see now to cover the areas of huge modern farms.

What do you mean when you say "Steam power used a lot more energy. Horses even more." A tractor might have a 300 hp engine in it. Are you talking about the amount of energy usefully deployed as work per area under different systems? If that is the issue, then fully human powered farming is most energy efficient, and least labor efficient. A good book about this is Food, Energy and Society by Pimental et al.

Farmers are generally careful about how much fuel they use as their margins are so slim, whereas suburban lawn mowers don't seem to care. I am not following the point there, but perhaps it is that larger machines have improved scales of fuel use efficiency? Up to a point that is true, but the efficiency of an old 40 hp tractor is just as good as a new 400 hp one. Gene Lodgson had an essay about that.

I was not referring to the energy of one piece of machinery, the energy for unit production( ie tonne of grain) and what is the scale of farm use compared with US total energy use. For example, diesel rail uses about 200,000 barrels/day (1% of oil consumption) but diesel used for transport 2.8 million barrels( 15% of oil consumption). If food production requires 1% its not a major issue for a long time, if its more like 10%, that's a major amount of fuel to replace by ethanol, bio-diesel or CNG.

In terms of efficiency, electric operated machinery is very efficient(>80%), diesel the next(40%), small mobile steam engines only 5%( because of the low temperatures) and animal power the least, because most food energy is used for general metabolism. Its true that animal power uses less FF but look at ERoEI, its using a significant part of production that could be used to generate bio fuels. This is why very low GDP/capita populations are 90% in agriculture, but they have a EROEI( or a food return on food investment) of <2:1.

You are correct about the need for rapid planting and harvesting, that's one of the reasons mechanized farming is more efficient, even with a large manual labor force, crops often were damaged before harvest. A lot of farm energy use is also stationary, packaging fruit, dairy, drying grain, and while grain farms produce most food calories most food value is from fruit and plantation crops much more suitable to be run on electricity or CNG or on-farm generated methane.

Of the grain farms, most maize and mixed grain/animal farms are relatively small in area, but high in productivity, compared to dry-land wheat. In the EU wheat farms are also generally small in area, hybrid methane/electric would be very practical, as farmers also have to eat, sleep, and harvest operations are often interrupted by morning dew, rain, and machinery is always close to farm buildings.

It's not desirable for most of the population to be full-time employed producing food, using muscle power, it leaves little surplus, peasant agriculture societies are under constant threat of famine. Growing vegetables in suburban backyards is another matter, its inefficient, labor intensive, but gives great satisfaction. A backyard crop failure will not result in famine. Hobby farms are probably the least energy efficient, if you factor in transport to and from city, low production, poor management, weed problems.

I wouldn't be too concerned about the age of farmers, when I started in agriculture 35 years ago, the average farm owners age in Manitoba, Canada was 58. The children of farmers are just waiting to take over, but like any inheritance, it can be a long wait.

The use of FF in farming is high because low energy prices provided the business model for it. With scarcer and higher priced energy and with a move to more sustainable farming methods (like organic farming) some of the FF powered "modern" farming methods will disappear. Some others might not disappear but will be transformed to more energy efficient methods.
Hence I think that the conclusion that all FF powered machanization and FF based fertilzers will disappear is not valid. However I aggree that the future agriculture will require more manual labor than the agriculture of today but I would not expect that the number of farmers rise manyfold.


As someone who is attempting to operate a small scale (currently 3 acres and growing) organic farming operation (described in Campfire last December) I think that we may find that the transition you speak of is more complicated.

Organic farming (vice organic gardening), as currently practiced, is not based primarily on sustainable methods. The National Organic Program rules and guidelines are not based upon sustainable practices, but rather focus on not using pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers. Even on small organic farms such as mine it is very difficult to follow sustainable practices and still be able to produce sufficient product for sale (and profit).

If you examined large organic farming operations (defined arbitrarily for this discussion as more than 10 nacres in vegetable production) I would expect that you would find >95% of them not being operated at anything close to what could be called sustainable. Inded most of them are not even interested in trying to as they are trying to make a living wage for their families.

Sustainable practices, as far as I can tell, require much larger numbers of workers to execute and thus automatically reduce the productivity (in profit terms not survival terms) when compared to the use of large equipment powered by fossil fuels. If I recall correctly the use of horses by my father and his grandfather required about 20-25% of the lands production as fuel for the animals. They, of course, returned some of that investment as fertilizer in return for substantial farmer investment in time taking care of the horses (for example it took about an hour to prepare and harness the horses in the morning in order to use them - a big investment in time when compared to firing up a tractor and hooking up an implement). Tractor and implement maintainance and repair can largely be performed in low work periods and off seasons unlike horses. Total system costs of machinery are not normally included in nost analysis and should be as the cost of manufacture from ore extraction on directly impacts the sustainability issues. But then so does large scale work horse breeding. The current fashionable millions of pet horses have no agricultural value and will quickly be eliminated should hard times arrive (they actually taste pretty good :). But breeding millions of work horses will take a generation of time and lots of expense.

Sort of a long winded way of saying I think we are going to need a dramatically larger farm labor workforce.


Organic farming (vice organic gardening), as currently practiced, is not based primarily on sustainable methods.

A very salient point I've tried to make before. Organic really is not a goal we should be pursuing, imho, as it just doesn't take into account all aspects of the Perfect Storm.

Even on small organic farms such as mine it is very difficult to follow sustainable practices and still be able to produce sufficient product for sale (and profit).

I need to look into how large an area one person can do under P/NF conditions for various types of crops. Have you read up on, gotten any training on, or consulted with a permaculture expert? Everything I get my hands on indicates one should be able to manage a lot of food with one person. The exceptions might be at seeding and harvest, but neighbors/customers should fill in nicely there in a relocalized world. Pre-relocalized? Hmmm...

Three acres is a lot of ground. Perhaps you're discovering a range for the upper limit? I do know I've read some organic (not sustainable) farmers saying 1 acre is actually quite a lot to tackle for one or two people in the beginning.



You're right. If you look at the permaculture or bio-intensive (Jevons) systems they have a record of growing enormous amounts of food on a lb/sq ft calculation. The trouble is how to scale that up to acreage's large enough to produce food for masses of people. Using their methods would require vast numbers of people. Their systems seem perfect for a family trying to grow most of their own food. And they will require a lot of the family's time.

A farmer on the other hand is supposed to be feeding himself as well as a large multiple of others who are primarily engaged in the other occupations of civilization. I have not come across any examples of commercial scale permaculture/bio-intensive operations. If they are out there I would really like to learn how they operate.

BTW: last year I farmed 2 acres by myself and that is the limit of what I can physically handle using the equipment and methods I am limiting myself to. This year I am farming 3 acres but I have hired a young man who wants to learn how to farm and eventually get an education in sustainable agriculture practices. I am already realizing how much more efficient it is having two sets of hands. We can do a lot more than twice as much of some tasks that I was previously doing by myself.


A farmer on the other hand is supposed to be feeding himself as well as a large multiple of others who are primarily engaged in the other occupations of civilization.

If one can grow enough food for a small family on a couple hours a day, what's stopping them from growing for 10 - 15 working full days?

I really don't understand this, so am obviously missing something. I'm going to go scan through Fukuoka...

Longer term, have you yet considered a forest garden as posted about recently? I am enamored of the idea after watching Geoff Lawton's vid Establishing a Food Forest the Permaculture Way. One thing I love about it is that after 3 - 5 years in there's virtually no maintenance, and hardly any before that after primary establishment. It is, after all, a forest. But the best thing? It *looks* like a forest. Great way to conceal the extent of your food if things get dicey and marauders are about. They might come and take all your garden food and completely miss the Food Forest.

Yup, I am utterly in love with the concept.

Off to do some poking on scaling up P/NF.

Oh... one thought is to go semi-CSA and find enough people to help out only very occasionally in exchange for a small, regular share. I'm sure you've thought of that, though.


I think one point that needs to be made is, like crude oil, the cost of food is too low. IIRC (and I could be way off-base), people in the US only pay about 5% of their income for food whereas it approaches 20-30+% in many countries.

The main reason organic produce allows profitability on a small acerage is due to the price premium. When we had our small-scale certified organic "farm". we still made somewhat less than a day wage inspite of a higher selling price.

Real farmers have to be able to make a living off of their land regardless of its size.


I see low cost of supermarket food, and thus our expectations for what food "ought" to cost us as a significant obstacle to "evolving" a sustainable food system in a free market way. Not only are we used to factory farm prices, but also, the disposable income of middle class families has been falling over the years, in real terms and in contrast to increased cost of housing, healthcare and transportation.

So Jason's idea of government somehow orchestrating an orderly transition (see post above about eliminating factory farms) seems more likely to work, even though it is not the "American way" (not to mention, it is not presently under discussion). Still, I could see incentives such as subsidizing local food (at farmers' markets, for example), as being key in any transition. Boulder's farmers' market double-counts food stamps, I believe. Still the average person spends $20 per visit to the market, enough for a single side dish, perhaps, and not even every week in season.

All an interesting discussion, but considering that the total farm product input to a $1.50 1 lb loaf of bread netted the actual wheat producer about $0.08, probably less than the cost of the wrapping, I don't see much relevance in any of this. (based on a farmer being paid $4.00 for a 50 lb bushel of wheat).

Those interested in "going local" should forget about growing food locally, and start worrying about locallizing and simplifying the post-production processing stream. We first need more local bakers and flour millers before worrying about local farmers.

You are right that many more resources go towards off farm processing of foods than on-farm. I tend to think in terms of "food systems" and not just farms.

That's a good point, if you consider all involved in food industry, you may find a much flatter curve, with perhaps 10-15%of working populaaion in US going to 90% in subsistence economies.

Any guess on oil/NG/coal used directly in agriculture? More than 1%??


the almost 6 million farmers number may be suspect. I can't recall in which conversation I heard it lately but I was told that there are possibly as few as 2 million farmers in the U.S. The remainder are 'farmers' for tax purposes but don't produce material amounts of food.

Any thoughts on this?


An interesting point. I wonder what their counting methodology is. If they are counting anyone in "land use" tax bases as farmers then I am certain that you are correct. About 80% of my neighbors are in land use and produce nothing at all beyond letting someone cut a few acres for weedy hay once a year.


This number includes the family members of farmers so it can be compared internationally where farming is a family affair. The actual number of farmers is indeed much less. I believe if you look at the number of farmers working that gross more than $10,000 per year or note that farming is 80% or more of family income the number drops by an order of magnitude (i.e., not including family, not including part-time farmers). Don't make me swear by those numbers. They can be extracted from the latest ag census that was just released.

Yes, in the John Hopkins conference which I'm watching right now, the number of farmers quoted was from the Bureaus of Labor Statistics and the number was 0.03% (2005) or perhaps a million farmers at ~300 million population.

I am likely one of those 6 million farmers, as I raise sheep and produce about 25-30 lambs per year.They are all sold at market, though by some definitions, I'm not a 'typical' farmer.

Strictly from a mathematical point of view there are two ways to get a higher percentage of the population on the farm. One would be to keep total population the same, and move people from cities to farms; another would be to keep the number of farmers the same and reduce the number of people in cities through deaths exceeding births for city dwellers. Of course there are plenty of combinations of these two options that would produce a higher percentage of the population being farmers.

I think that the need for more people on the farm will also force prices of food up. In a free market, price is the mechanism that tells people where to put their productive efforts, so you can look for food to become a more costly part of staving alive. This would be true in a controlled economy as well, but only worse because of the lack of efficiency when the free market does not operate.

My own view is that lack of food will be the rule rather the exception in the post peak struggle to survive. It is not only that human and animal energy will replace machines, but that yields will drop to be more in line with what was possible when a farm was just a farm and not a manufactory.

but that yields will drop to be more in line with what was possible when a farm was just a farm and not a manufactory.

Despite Sharon's statement above that yields for certain kinds of agriculture meet or exceed agribusiness yields? Because...?


I think it is the yield per person-hour that plummets, and then the fact that most people owning large amounts of farmland expect to farm it with conventional methods, or "Big Organic" methods, and that skews the results. Also, one is not comparing potatoes to potatoes, as certain crops, usually grown intensively by Jeavon methods are not the same as the corn-soy-wheat Big Ag crops. I believe a cornerstone of feeding oneself on a small plot is a drastic change in what one expects to eat - not that I am not interested in experimenting with that.

I think it is the yield per person-hour that plummets

Ah, but that's just a stat for economists. It's the real total of food grown we are concerned with.

Besides, idle hands are not good. Put 'em to work.


It may be true that there are some crops that can be intensively worked by hand and yield as much as we experience today from energy, chemical fertilizer, and pesticide farming.

But it is equally true that many such as corn and wheat would not yield anywhere near what we get today. For example, corn in the US now yields about 150 bu/acre. Back at the time of the US civil war (just after oil was discovered) the yield was generally under 50 bu/acre.

Back in the 1970's I saw a report on a farm where corn was grown using organic methods including horse drawn equipment and only organic fertilizer. The yield was about 50 bu/acre and not only that, but in order to practice old time crop rotation, the fields were taken out of corn production every third year to grow alfalfa to build up soil nitrogen. Of course the farmer's profit was as good getting 50 bu/acre as his neighbor who got 150 bu/acre with modern methods because his costs were much lower.

And what about irrigation which would not be possible for most farmers without fossil energy? Wouldn't yields drop to zero for some of those acres given that they would be taken out of production.

Corn yields were very low in the South USA before inorganic fertilizer. Some of the old soil surveys (early 1900's) show corn yields of about 10 - 15 bushels / acre. This was because of soil depletion over the previous century or more, plus poor agricultural practices.

The Cullars Rotation experiment at Auburn University, AL, the oldest such experiment in the US, shows total soil exhaustion after a few decades if no fertilizer is applied. Crop yields goes to near zero. Soils in areas outside the South would not have been as drastically affected because there are weatherable minerals available.

I hear both sides of this all the time. I honestly don't know what the answer is. It may be both are right. Consider that history may not be a good guide.

Proponents of organic style methods say their research indicates same or improved yields over conventional. A recent paper published by an academic group out of Univ. or Michigan supported these claims. It may be that historic practices were poor and hence unsustainable and modern organic methods give high yields without a lot of off farm inputs.

For references check out:

What, so the farmers double their farm-gate prices? That means your $1.50 loaf of bread price goes up to $1.58? Quelle tragedy.

We are stupefyingly wasteful when it comes to energy and there are massive amounts of fat that can be trimmed away from our consumption before we even get close to the relatively small fraction of energy used for essentials such as food production. This is where in my opinion a lot of the doomer arguments fall down. They focus on areas that are critical for survival but ignore the fraction of energy required to maintain those systems in contrast to the fraction used for discretionary purposes.

Why, when land area, population, climate range and gdp/capita, are so similar for Europe and the US do Americans use twice as much energy/capita as Europeans? And us Europeans are still horribly wasteful when it comes to energy. I live in Scotland and have, over the last couple of years, cut my driving in half and my home power consumption by 20%. Simply by being less wasteful. No significant consequences regarding my overall standard of living except that I am now quite a bit fitter. Even my 7 YO daughter has stopped whingeing about having to walk - I think, amazingly, she's even starting to enjoy it!

We need to step back and look at our habits. It's really not that surprising to me that there are examples of developed countries around the World that use a fraction of US or even European energy levels. I've visited some of these countries and the people seem just as happy as here.

It would be an interesting excercise to see how much discretionary energy use could be peeled away before we get to a real pain threshold. I suspect it would surprise a few.


My own concern is that it will not just be a case of 'trimming the fat'. After the peak, fossil-fuel energy available will drop 3-5% per year, _every_ year, essentially forever. Every year will mean getting by with less available energy, until society is more-or-less back to the Middle Ages.

Of course just trimming of the fat will not help us on the long run. However the fact is that in Europe we could easily half the amount of energy we use without the need to really give up anything. As the US uses double the amount of energy as the Europeans they could reduce their enegy needs by 75% and still live a "normal" life which still is substantially better the 80% of the world population. With the use of technology (sun, wind, water, renewables) we could suply part of the remaining need for energy.

We are more technological advanced then in the middle ages and we have other ways to capture and store energy.

But we should start in saving energy and not in investing in new power plants. Use less water and not build expensice desalination factories.

Energy is to cheap.

Your point is taken, but it's not a 1:1 relationship. the parts of Europe I've been in, though it was sometime ago, have much more walkable neighborhoods than most American cities, even small cities. Korea is like Europe, only more so. (If Korea had some resources, could grow its own food and wasn't so population dense, it would be very easy to implement relocalization here.)

The US? Not so much. I'm not sure what the difference is, but it's not close to a 1:1 comparison with Europe.


I've heard Matt Simmons and others talk about the misallocation of resources building suburbia in the US and how it will be need to be demolished. But I don't see it that way. I live in Europe and, yes, msot of the urban areas are walkable, but there's no reason that couldn't happen in the US without the need for the kind of total rebuilding Simmons et al talk about.

Construction of more sidewalks, walkable convenience stores/primary schools/doctors surgeries and other essential services? Improved local public transport, electric trams etc? Yes, a construction programme will be required but it could be done to fit in with the current infrastructure. And yes fuel will be needed to transport goods to shops etc but this is a fraction of the daily routine use by individuals. Then put into place the sensible comments MS makes about more working from home....

There are many ways to address energy consumption without needing to invoke the collapse of civilization!


Most people who talk about collapse are well aware of the alternatives that would avoid it. The issue is not that there "is nothing we can do" it is that "it isn't being done." Some are armchair collapse watchers, and others are actively trying to reallocate investments to avoid it.

The fact is that in teh future we will have to reduce energy consumption. In Russia a lot of families share a 55 m2 apartment with a family of 4 (and a dog) at least in the winter period. Normal "Dutch" a family of 4 would share a house of approximately 110 m2. The bigger the house the more energy you need. Maybe we have to move in to each others house (comunual living) in the future. I don't think that 15 m2 per person is the limmit, but 25-30 m2 per person should be absolutely no problem.

If it is bigger in the US you will have to compensate somewhere else...

Watcher, I agree. If someone were to analysis the use of fossil fuels and put organize the total usage into "slices" of use, each with its own options and alternatives, it would create a pecking order of sorts and allow us to understand the likely progression as we become supply limited, i.e. which strips of demand are "given up". I think that farming will be one of the last precious uses of fossil fuels, whether on a large scale or small scale basis. Everyone needs to eat, but not everyone needs to travel, live in 70def F year-round, etc.


However, as so many of us live off the discretionary income of others (see westexas), every time we slice off some energy wasteful activity (say vacationing in Florida) we affect the lives of scores of people and I don't see what they will be doing with their free unemployed time other than grow their own survival food. However, as their shady depleted backyard and lack of skills won't really allow them to become self-sufficient in a year or two, that's where gloom and doom sets in. Moreover, these unemployed people are no longer subsidizing neighborhood restaurants and trinket stores, just in time to be joined by the next slice of wasteful energy cutback victims.

It doesn't look good to me.

Waste, like war, does not generate wealth. It may appear to, through increased activity and consumption, but it doesn't. People who have become overly wasteful or lazy on the back of abundent cheap energy will have to adjust and retrain or learn to use less themselves.

The simple fact (garnered from looking around) is that we can get by quite happily on a fraction of our current energy usage. If anything living simpler less energy-intense lives will free us from the yoke of consumption and the need for a lot of the pointless jobs we currently engage in. These jobs do not generate real wealth, they have been created and sustained on the back of cheap eenrgy and will vanish just as quickly when that energy is taken away. What will people do? Will they starve or freeze to death? No, they will adapt! And ultimately the World will be the better for it.

It looks fine to me :-)

Hello Jason,
Today, residents of the Wild Wings golf community near Woodland will make a hard choice: Will they revive the now-closed golf course by taxing themselves, or let it go to seed?

..Built during the housing boom, Wild Wings was once a high-flying golf course community, with million-dollar homes lining its links.

In the past year, its residents have watched home values plummet and the nine-hole golf course, operated by an outside firm, go belly up. It closed in December.

..The election has pitted neighbor against neighbor, including some who say they can't afford the cost of taking over the golf course in the bleak economy.

"I'm afraid that it's turned into a little bit of class warfare," said Pam Kazmierczak, an opponent of taking over the links. "There are people who think, if you can't afford to maintain it as golf course, then why are you here?"

Kazmierczak said she would rather see the course become a park or nature preserve. It would be less risky and more environmentally sensitive, she said.
I would advise them to turn this abandoned golf course into permaculture, especially if they have to assume the debts and unpaid back taxes. Moving those Sacramento homeless tent-people [from an earlier weblink on TOD] into the foreclosed properties on the condition that they work to become Master Gardeners could be a win-win for the entire area.

There are over 16,000 golf courses, with most of these doomed to postPeak failure. IMO, it only makes sense to develop a national conversion strategy as many of these courses are in urban and suburban areas. I have posted earlier my speculation on how O-NPK recycling by SpiderWebRiding can do much to leverage the permaculture conversion and Kunstlerization of these areas. We just need to get Tiger Woods and the PGA onboard as it could be short to intermediate term highly profitable.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Some googling has turned up the fact that ridge or furrow forming implements with mechanical weed control only need tractors as low powered as 35hp or 26kw. Unlike a giant machine they could be run on producer gas and would easily plow an ex-golf course. Keep fish and ducks in the pond areas and climbing beans around the perimeter fence.

Of course the once upper middle class neighbourhood may not like it until starvation looms. I envision golf buggies being turned into night soil carriers towed behind bicycles. After half a day's labouring the worker is sent home with a basket of produce. They get the workout they wanted.

When I was a kid, our family farmed 160 acres of clay with one 18 hp tractor (2 x 12" plow, 8' disk-harrow, 5' cultivator, 5' mower, 6' combine, etc. etc.) and two draft horses which mainly hauled product. A LOT of excess production.

I'm not comparing the politics of the situation, but in Zimbabwe, a small number of skilled, high tech farmers using high fossil input farming used to provide all the country's food requirement and more for export.

Most of these farmers have been evicted and replaced either with cronies of the military dictatorship with little or no interest in food production, or previously landless poor with little residual farming knowledge, with zero access to machinery or fossil based inputs. We all know the practical outcome.

In the US (and the UK) we have a tiny, skilled and aging farming population. As they retire a large part of their skills and knowledge will be lost. If we are facing a shortage of fossil fuel inputs, we are going to have to be very organised to train large numbers of new 'peasant' farmers or we are going to very rapidly see a catastrophic fall in agricultural output.

At the end of the Roman empire, agricultural output fell catastrophically, because the farming class were taxed out of existence, and farming became a slave profession, where children were forced to take the farm (and taxation) on from their parents. Farmers simply walked away and left the land fallow.

The picture would suggest that there is an inverse relation between energy consumption and jobs in agriculture in your country of about the same order of magnitude.

So if we are decades past peak oil, and we would have to cut our oil use in half, we also would have to double the people working in agriculture.

In the west, about 3% of the people work in agriculture.

That would be 6% of the population then.

Cutting your oil use in half is very easy to do: relocate back to town, cycle to work and walk your kids to school. And don't take flying vacations.

The need to provide adequate fuel for food production and distribution is why I favor direct rationing over taxation as a way to insure that food isn't too expensive for everyone to have enough. I see those who favor higher fuel taxes as being financially able to keep buying as much fuel as they want for their luxury cars and SUVs.
I have seen the figure of 7 to 10 gallons per acre-year for farm energy needs. Setting aside roughly 1/6 of arable land for biodiesel production is the alternative as is gasification processing of stover, straw, and other 'waste" materials of the fields.


In various comments I have made on this list, I have suggested that farmers, engineers, ag scientists, etc., look into the potential of sea water greenhouses, as presented at The successful implementation of this technology could greatly expand the surface area of land that we normally consider to be "arable".

In this technology, sea water is not used to water the plants directly, but rather is used to create an atmosphere that is much more humid than it would otherwise be. Evaporation is also retarded by making air flow through the system enclosed inside a greenhouse covered with polyethylene sheets, which also may be treated to avoid excess heating with rays not involved in photosynthesis.

Since you do interviews, why not conduct an interview Charlie Paton ( to get his take on his estimate of the degree of success he has achieved, including an estimate of the limitations in terms of nutrients, types of crops, sustainability practices needed to improve soil, use of brackish water, polyethylene requirements, etc?

In other words, will this be the "Messiah Technology" for food production, as the Atmospheric Vortex Engine (Ref: will be, IMO, for economic, decentralized, carbon-free, electricity production)?

That's for those who prefer direct links--sorry about the type-O.