How Might We Be Fed? Part Two

This is a guest post by Phil Harris, a plant scientist based near the Scottish border in the UK. He has worked for government agencies in such areas as food safety and plant quarantine. Since 1997, he has worked amid the agricultural results of system-collapse in ex-communist countries of Europe.

In Part One, I looked at trends in primary production and their consequences. Here, we look at possible bases for more sustainable approaches, including the biological fixation of nitrogen and the Village Ecosystem approach. It is likely that changes will be hard in a complicated world.

Even within ‘Western’ agriculture where NPK fertilizer is fully available, there are different productivities per acre and the primary yields of calories and protein can be handled in very different ways. According to this USDA booklet:

To average consumers, U.S. agricultural production seems uncomplicated – they see only the staples that end up on grocery store shelves. The reality, however, is far from simple. Valued at $200 billion in 2002, agriculture includes a wide range of plant and animal production systems.

This complicated web of sub-systems, input/output budgets, economics and ‘demand’ has sent ‘Western’ agriculture ‘upmarket’, to promote meat and a-seasonal fruit and vegetables, and has even taken large ‘Western’ acreages out of production. Biofuels are seen as a smart (subsidized) way of using spare land. The system extends much wider than the USA. In the big picture, urbanization underpinned by industrialization continues to expand globally. But just as in the story of the Great Plains: “… they had no strategy for the very long term.” We must again talk about food security.

Agricultural ecosystems

We don't always think about it, but whenever there are cities, it is not just the calories and protein that are shipped to the cities. The soil nutrients are also shipped to the cities, depriving the soil of nutrients needed to maintain its fertility. In the book On the Great Plains, we read that the 1000 year accumulation of soil nutrients was quickly spent:

They applied manure as it was available, rotated legumes when it was convenient. But they had no strategy for the very long term. By the 1930s, Rooks County fields had been planted, cultivated, and harvested sixty times without rest. Soil nitrogen was about half what it had been at sod-breaking and crop yields declined steadily. And now no western frontier remained. From the vantage of 1930s, crop agriculture in Kansas does not appear very sustainable. All the arable land in Rooks County - and in the nation for that matter – had been identified and plowed. Soil nitrogen and organic carbon drifted steadily downward, and with them yields and profits. Faced with this dilemma, farmers implemented a dramatic innovation in soil nutrient management. Rather than adopt one or more of the ancient strategies, farmers (and the industrial nation behind them) created a new option. They appropriated abundant cheap fossil-fuel energy to import enormous amounts of synthetically manufactured nitrogen onto their fields. …” page 219, ‘On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment’, Cunfer 2005; preview in googlebooks

Now, the world faces long term decline in fossil fuels, certainly of the cheap and convenient variety. Looking ahead there has been one very large, hopeful albeit academic claim (Can organic agriculture feed the world? C. Bagdley et al., 2005) that biological farming could supply world needs, in terms of total calories and adequate nitrogen. Not surprisingly, this was greeted with skepticism, and cries of ‘bad science’. The authors though make a good point: “Food security depends on policies and prices as much as on yields”.

Biologically fixed nitrogen, ‘western organic agriculture’ and energy

Despite the overwhelming modern connection with natural gas and coal, and oil for transport, nitrogen fertilizer is not ‘fossil fuel’; it can be recycled and is to a degree, renewable.

Firstly, N fertilizer rains from the sky, although amounts are relatively small. Some N is fixed by free-living soil micro-organisms. If proper care is taken, soils can often maintain yields for many years from these sources and releases from remaining plant residues. If no attention is paid to maintaining nitrogen level, this publication indicates that, for example, in Iowa yields go down to a quarter to a half for corn (maize). On the other hand, in a high-end example, temperate clover/grass sward can fix 200 kg/ha N in a year (see this publication), which is about what is needed for a modern high-yielding cereal crop in a ‘favourable’ location (a crop yielding in excess of 8t/ha or 119bu/acre). Alfalfa can do the same.

There are large systems losses whether using either synthetic or biological sources (see links in ‘village ecosystems’). In the ‘West’, what we think of now as ‘organic agriculture’ started in Europe circa 1650, when ‘clover’ and related swards increasingly replaced the previous practices that had variously combined elements of nutrient recycling with leaving ground idle (fallow), and/or rotating cereals with beans that self-fix nitrogen. In England, from circa 1750, after clover, the soil N is thought to have increased in some areas by as much as three times; the sward input typically being ‘churned’ in situ using livestock and a root fodder break. This was a major factor in raising England’s population ceiling from ~5.7 million to ~16.6 million by 1850 when 22% of the workforce just about fed the rapidly rising urban population. (Food imports were increasingly obligatory.)(Agricultural Revolution in England 1500 - 1850) Farms obtained large ‘leverage’ of manpower by using horses and increasingly ingenious (and cheaper) horse-powered machinery, increasingly originating from North America during second half of the 19th century.

Early on, the new agriculture was one of George Washington’s interests (see diary), but exhausted ground was fairly typical in America. Alfalfa is also an excellent N fixer, but see again what happened ‘On the Great Plains …extract above and pages 212, 217, and Cunfer’s expert account of ‘export’ of nutrients (to towns and cities) and of nitrogen balances. The 1000 year accumulation of soil nutrients was quickly spent.

Also the story of mechanization is critical when we consider present dependence on fossil fuel. ‘Peak Horses’ was 1920 on the Great Plains (page 134). The economics of the fall-back to ‘Old Dobbin’ horses in 1930s, however, seem worth a mention – the cash value of home-grown fuel and spare parts.

It is a different world now. As I quoted in Part One, “A farmer in England tells me that if his John Deere equipment breaks down the parts are flown same day from Texas”. More energy from fuel-oil seems to be used producing and transporting ‘Western’ crops than generally is embedded in the nitrogen application, although the fertilizer can be a very significant ‘energy-cost’. A Scottish example also reiterated from Part One, suggests 10 – 45% of energy input into high-yielding oilseed cultivation on any one farm could be due to N fertilizer ‘energy’.

Recent work in Montana illustrates some USA ‘organic’ wheat potential. From a world perspective, Montana seems not to be an ideal place to grow wheat (usually too hot and dry). But this analysis indicates respectable wheat yields by US standards (>50bu/acre; 3.4t/ha) are available long-term using biological N (… but not every year; data from trials suggests individual farms could expect ‘catastrophic’ losses in some years unless they used pesticides).

There is an important caveat that soil phosphate and other nutrients must be replenished over decades. Trial plots can achieve higher yields >80bu/ac (>5.4t/ha).

In short term, green manures [e.g. winter peas, alfalfa, supplying soil N] may be able to make P more available.

In long term, organic P fertilizers such as rock phosphate, bone meal, or manure will need to be added.

[There is] only about 50-100 years of P left in Montana soils at typical removal rates.

Clain Jones researcher’s power point presentation outlines some of these technical issues, including deficits in Montana of the range of essential soil minerals.

Village ecosystems

‘Subsistence agriculture’ can, under favourable conditions, be both high yielding and need less of both NPK and fossil fuel than required by a modern Western farm.

In contrast to our industrialised countries, up to very recently (Marsh & Grossa 1995, cited by Ellis 2000), almost half of humanity lived in village ecosystems on modest inputs (e.g. biological N, river mud) and recycled nutrients.

Subsistence agriculture villages still feed, clothe, and house nearly half of Earth’s human population …. In densely populated agricultural regions of Asia, 1 million km2 have been cultivated for so long [~2000 years] that natural vegetation patterns are unknown.

… We estimate the 1930s global area of intensive subsistence agriculture to be ~8 million km2, two-thirds the global area of tropical rainforests or nearly half the current global area of cultivated land (Matthews 1983).

I want to emphasize that such villages have rarely been completely ‘self-sufficient’. They must always buy inputs, such as tools from the associated economy, and will trade in high-value local specialities or surplus commodities to enable these inputs. In their traditional settings, with their relatively small ‘craft’ economy, the top-layer of such civilizations can provide ‘security’, and some ‘insurance’ against shortages and local transient crop failures, but must be careful not to routinely extract too much from the agricultural base. Constraints appear to have limited the size of bureaucracy, military, and towns, and often put a ‘ceiling’ on overall population (see England, as an example above). Cities in the past seem to have needed the kind of support available from empires.

Villages in China in favourable areas have always – 2000 years - supported high density populations in the villages on cereal / legumes, for example obtaining yields of as much 4t/ha, by recycling biological inputs, and over the long term were able to sustain losses from the system. Manures always involve system loss of nutrients, particularly nitrogen to air and both nitrogen and potassium to water. Since 1960s, despite the key advantage of keeping up with population pressure (by doubling yields), there have been serious downsides to modern nitrogen fertilizer supplements, see Ellis link above; particularly increased waste of fertilizer: e.g. by eutrophication and contamination of water. The connection between levels of N application to rice paddy and large system losses is also explored here. Efficiency of modern fertilizer N utilization of 30 – 45% seems in line with estimates world-wide.

Waste (‘system losses’) however can be reduced. One village in China in a favourable area carrying a very high density of people was seen (at least until early 1990s) to adapt to very high-yielding production, minimize waste fertilizer and improve human nutrition, while the inhabitants in the village still consumed 80% of an astonishing 12t/ha/year cereals from double cropping. The continuing use of manures in this village reduced the N fertilizer to only 100kg/ha for the high yield cereals crops. (In this example there were net imports of feed materials for pig/fish production that contributed ‘organic’ NPK to manures; although in cash terms ‘imports’ were more than balanced by high cash value of pig and fish ‘exported’ outside the system.) An abstract is found here.

It is worth noting that these places even when producing top yields did not need to use a lot of herbicides (many hands available), nor were they mechanized in a western sense. They also used straw for cooking. The relationships with fossil fuels were profoundly different from ours, but see this discussion of a rapidly changing China and constraints. Mechanization, labour scarcity, upmarket meat and horticulture are very recent trends. If there are mistakes in policy, it is possible, in my opinion, for modernity to pauperize these essential rural hinterlands in China, India and elsewhere.

Food emergencies in cities in fully industrialized countries?

Britain began planning for a food emergency 3 years before entering WWII when “[government] formulated some broad principles that should guide the policy of feeding the nation in wartime." Not a moment too soon, it has to be said.

Industrialized Britain, 50 million in 1939, which could best be considered in those days a set of large cities with a rather small run-down agricultural area, imported 70% of food-as-calories. What we import now days seems hard to calculate, although the more than doubling of pre-1960s yields of home-grown grains to around 7-8 tonnes per hectare, which now includes provision of 80% of bread flour, should make a difference. A very wide range of foods and a very significant proportion of animal feed is imported, however.

The First World War without rationing had brought us close to a food disaster. So in 1939 rationing was obvious (e.g. meat, eggs and sugar), and we cut out imported vegetables and fruit. Numbers of sheep, pigs and poultry fell substantially, although cattle numbers valuable for milk production rose 10%. Land was brought back into cultivation with 50% more under the plow; the workforce was increased 10% by recruiting mostly inexperienced women, but mechanization went from 2 million to 5 million horsepower. The use of NPK fertilizer more than doubled. Home production in calories was doubled and imports halved during the war. This was in effect an almost overnight modernization of British agriculture. The extra fuel and the machinery were heavily prioritized. If there had been serious shortages of these, we would have been desperate.

Citizenry were encouraged to use parks and gardens to raise vegetables in what was partly a morale boosting exercise. Wonderful vegetables were grown for instance in the drained moat of the Tower of London!

The numerate were needed: there was massive recruitment of academics into the civil service. There was a dramatic change in policies and ‘ideology’ for the duration of the emergency, which went on in part until early 1950s and involved subsidies as well as rationing.

“Food for all at prices all can afford”
“Health is purchasable”
“Preferential supplies of certain essential foodstuffs for children.”
“Special restaurants cater for the needs of industrial workers.”
“75% of family purchases are for goods which are price controlled (by 1943)”.
“Regulations impose sentences of up to 12 years penal servitude for black market operators.”
“Science and state intervention combine.”
“[Local] farmers’ executive committees, with experts, have wide powers to bring land into cultivation.”
(Sources; Hobsbawm 1968, Industry & Empire; Gangulee 1943, The Battle of the Land)

A longer term view

Clearly, even with substitute energy that could allow continued use of technological inputs, there must be increasing reliance on sustainable biological inputs. This can take many forms. One hopes China and India for example can protect, and not pauperize, their vast rural hinterlands.

How the USA can protect and enhance all the different farming areas during what one hopes will be a gradual and lengthy transition is certainly not obvious to me as an outsider. The USA however has retained a strong agricultural science base, and given different priorities, could bring detailed knowledge of cultivation and crop responses to management, right down to detailed inventories of natural resources for each field. I guess you could even have enough natural gas for long term fertilizer production, if you put a high enough value on the latter. I suspect even the existing phosphate and potash resources could be optimised for very many decades.

Whether you could see a change in human feeding habits is about as conjectural as seeing a change in driving habits, but a combination of need, subsidies aimed at ‘health’, and a growing culture of urban and suburban personal vegetable and fruit cultivation, and the mutual co-operation needed to achieve that, could only help. I am inspired by the transformation of a suburban street plot into a water retaining landscape achieved by a ToD contributor in a dry climate. It is beautiful.

Hello Phil,

Thxs for Part 2. TODer DickLawrence posted in today's DB a weblink that the First Lady is now putting in a veggie garden in the White House. I am hoping that this can spur additional millions to do the same with their yards.
Compost: Come On In, It's Warm Inside

..An inch of compost represents probably a foot of dry leaves and manure, so it's like a diamond: tiny but valuable...
Have you hugged your bag of NPK today?

That's hilarious. Everybody drops the hand tools after a few minutes to eat sugar cookies. The parents should be setting the example of digging, rather than the children. It will be interesting to see who finishes the job.

Good, now they are ready for Phase II;

Good commentary.

As I see it the weak link in any food producing system is the loss of useful nutrients in human waste. It is surely time this was addressed in a meaningful way.

The Humanure Handbook seems to have hit on a promising technique:

Surely the next question should be - Can we scale up humanure production? The loss of these nutrients is surely a trick we are collectively missing.

As far as human waste goes, at least in central PA, treated waste from the local sewer plant is routinely sprayed on the fields. I believe it is illegal to use on crops for human consumption though. These are corn fields mostly used for dairy cattle feed (silage)

My mother and I are putting in a large garden this year. We used to garden a lot when I was young, but lifestyles changed that. Now it's obvious (to us anyway) that we need to go back to it!

Were trying the Native "three sisters" system of planting corn, peas/beans, and squash all together in a large circle. Years of horse manure are also on hand to help out.

Some of m friends have expressed interest in buying veggies from me. Also looking @ chickens for eggs and meat. With any luck we can get some of this 17 acre hobby farm producing successfully!

I think there is quite often problems with other toxic materials in sewage now. It is hard to separate out heavy metals and the like contaminating the sewage.

Gail is correct. As a veteran humanure composter, I would have reservations about using municipal sewage sludge (even the Grade-A variety) on our land and especially our garden. Heavy metals are just one class of contaminant that make sewage sludge unuseable for many application.

On site humanure composting (ie. using a composting toilet or in a compost bin in the back yard) makes sense from a nutrient and energy standpoint, but try convincing significant numbers of first-worlders to spread their household's bodily waste (composted, of course) on their garden, or even their lawns or flower beds. In the Jenkins system, one has to handle 5-gallon buckets filled with a mixture of bodily waste and sawdust. It's really not that bad, but the mere mention of the practise shocks most people into disbelief or outrage.

Open-minded and dedicated folk should really look into humanure composting. The Jenkins method can be done on a shoe-string budget ($30) and can even be accomplished in a fairly dense sub-urban setting with a bit of thought...and stealth. A composting toilet would make nutrient recycling more acceptable to many (and many neighbours), but definitely has some disadvantages compared to the Jenkins method.

Maybe it's a silly question: would there be enough sawdust available if everyone in a fairly dense sub-urban setting used the Jenkins method? Where do you get your sawdust from?

I agree with the idea, will not ever be able to convince my wife about it, but question whether this could be effective on a mass scale as it is currently designed.

Where do you get your sawdust from?

Obvious: eat wood. How does it get to be sawdust? Obvious: eat termites.

Any high surface area/volume, high carbon media can be used, including dry leaves, straw, shredding paper, etc. Sawdust happens to be one of the best.

Jason nailed it. My experiences are limited to sawdust, wood shavings, leaves, leaf mold, and chopped straw. All work just fine, as they do for use in composting just about anything. Suitable material is plentiful once you know what to look for, but I just happened to be dealing with byproducts of my wood-working habit.

And let me just take this space to say that Jenkins method isn't nearly as objectionable as one might at first think. The only smell issue is when emptying buckets into the compost bin, and it only lasts until the fresh deposit is covered (again with a high carbon media). I've had more issues composting spent grain from home brewing.

aren't limited amounts of wood ashes ok along with more coarse carbons for humanure?

Coarse carbons work well, leaves and such. Joseph Jenkins does not recommend wood ash. A potential problem with wood ash is that it is a strong base and will suppress biological activity. A strong base such as lime or wood ash also displaces nitrogen as ammonia gas, and so you lose valuable nitrogen from the humanure.

NH4+ + OH- --> NH3(g) + H2O


ok, yes. I agree that I don't trust municipal waste. It's much more than just *human waste* that goes down the toilets. I'm not sure how all that is handled. I'll have to talk to the managers of the plant again and see what they say. (I've been conversing with them on other things like H2O output into my creek... Info for my microhydro project) One issue we have here is that in addition to pollutants people put down the drain, our storm drainage system empties into the same treatment plant! Everything washed off the roads etc. goes into the same system.

I guess my point was that humanure IS being used right now to a certain extent. (doesn't mean it's a good thin though?)

Gardening is seeing a huge increase IMO. My heirloom seed companies are selling out of some stuff this year, and I've had 3 people stop oogling my huge manure pile. I've never had anyone ask me for *poop* before :-)

Seriously though, it leads me to believe more people are *starting* to put in a garden... For whatever their own reasons are.

I thing the Victory Garden idea is probably the best. If everyone grew their own vetables on their own, it would take a strain off "production" farming for those who can't.

It appears only municipal sludge may be applied on fields in PA, see:

This kind of story makes me loose heart. It reinforces Dr. Jared Diamond's hypothesis in "Collapse..." that civilizations die not for want of a technical solutions to their resources problems but for the inability to adapt their behavior to implement those solutions.

Gail the Actuary:

Municipal Sludge is nasty. It is getting better. I have worked directly with the stuff for over 30 years. Heavy metals and others such as cadmium are very bad and are taken up quickly by leafy vegatables.

In the sewage treatment process the organics in the sewage is used as feed to micro-organisms. They convert it to biomass and CO2. Nitrogen is used a little but most is passed through the system and converted to ammonia then into the water course, after being chlorinated in some cases. Nitrogen may also be oxidized by specialty organisms that do not use organic carbon but carbon from inorganic sources (Calcium bicarbonate). Once the Ammonia is oxidized to nitrates it is a good fertalizer but when exposed to unoxic conditions and organics the oxygen is taken away and the nitrogen is released as gas. Too bad.

The terrible thing in most municipalities is the water used, intentionally or other, to transport the waste for treatment. By the time the good manure is mixed in with industrial waste and then more energy is put in the system to stabalize and indirectly concentrate nutrients we have turned a good produce (human waste at the source) into an expensive to dispose of liability.

We have to reinvent municipal planning.


Hi Randy,

It would be very interesting to get more detail on this topic from you. How can we clean up our city waste stream to preserve the value of the organics? How might we transform the sewage system? What changes would you make to municipal planning?

Please send me an email. I would like to hear your perspective if you have a bit of time.

Welcome to TOD!

Please keep us "posted" ;-) on your progress. Very interested in the three sisters approach.

Thanks very much Gail, again, for help with this posting.
Regarding recycling soil nutrients and municipal sewage, my understanding from contacts in a UK water company is that the problem here of heavy metal contamination has been essentially solved (in the past industrial effluent got mixed into the waste-water stream). Here, large quantities of solid waste now go to agriculture.
Apparently most of the protein we ingest is absorbed and the resulting net product, which is most of it, is excreted as urea. Certainly saved urine, diluted 50/50 with water is good fertilizer for rapidly growing vegetation. Most of the ingested potassium will also be reycled. Nitrogen losses however are considerable in all manure applications, and minimizing such losses during composting and application to the soil is worth careful study if you are investing time and effort in building your garden fertility.

Heavy metals are an issue but on a citywide scale the drug residue is a huge concern. We've already got Prozac in measurable concentrations in reservoirs and they're finding Atrazine in rainwater. We're conducting a fascinating experiment on our biosphere, no?

You are absolutely on the mark. I would like to see all 250 million estimated toilets (and urinals) replaced by some form of composting toilet, humanure being one form. If we assume the 250M toilets are used 10 times a day at 10 gallons a day (very low estimate), the US alone is using 25 billion gallons a day or roughly 10 trillion gallons a year of "fresh" water that is going down the drain. If we then consider all the humus that could be created and collected from humanure or composting toilets, there must be millions of tons. Add in the energy savings of all the tens of thousands of waste treatment plants that would no longer be needed, and the pipes of a sewage infrastructure that could be left to the rats and the money saved is staggering.

There are two problems, however. One is that Americans turn their noses up at the thought of drinking recycled urine or using humus on the plants they are going to eat. Moving to composting toilets would require an education program.

The other problem has to do with what is in the waste, particularly the urine. Apparently, people flush a lot of big pharma's toxic junk down the toilet, even hospitals which are forbidden by law to do that, and of course millions flush urine laced with every conceivable legal and illegal drug down the drain every day; the types and uses of these drugs can be determined from tests. The problem is that traces of all of these drugs and other substances remain in the water even after treatment, so we are in effect poisoning ourselves and then poisoning the water and soil that sustain us. (See and

I wonder does composting (as in the humanure system) help to remove some of the drugs that make it out a patient's body? My reading of Joseph Jenkin's Humanure Handbook is that composting helps the destruction of nasties that might otherwise remain after waste water treatments. Better go and check again.

I've just started a humanure pile at home. It'll be two years probably before it goes on the garden..... It's funny now when I "go" when in work all I can think about is the waste of all this useful material being flushed away with drinking water! Yet to mention what we are doing at home would be too much for folk in work - they already think my family a little loopy for our other small-holding style eco-stuff!

Humanure would be a massive leap for society. And just imagine the size of the city compost heap!

I also wonder, in the greater scheme of things, how much of an issue waste drugs present at 'forensic detection' levels really are. Gigalitres of industrial toxic pollution is the real issue

I heard of a case where the daughter in a family was taking a powerful antibiotic that wiped out the micriorganisms in the family's septic system.

One needs to be thinking in terms of whole systems and entire cultures. For example, there is a reason why East Asia is such a hot tea drinking culture. Given the extensive use of "night soil" (humanure), routinely boiling all water before drinking it was a good way to kill off any pathogens that might otherwise be transmitted.

Changing people's attitudes about the handling and use of human wastes is only the start of the cultural transformation that is going to be required.

"..... the extensive use of "night soil" (humanure)...."

I think "night soil" is not the same as humanure. Night soil is not composted and therefore contains a lot more pathogens than in humanure, which once composted for a year or so will contain fewer (if any) serious pathogens. Using night soil is not something I would be happy with. Humanure is different in my view. Mind you the tea drinking culture in Asia is interesting.

Our attitudes to faeces and urine are probably based on what "we" (the people) were historically taught in order to stamp out the use of open sewers and night soil practices. We now need to learn new ideas - and coming to terms with those ideas takes a little time. I first read the humanure handbook over a year ago.... but it has taken me until last week to get sufficiently used to the idea to start putting it into practice!

pathogens than in humanure, which once composted for a year or so will contain fewer (if any) serious pathogens.

Pathogen reduction (per some US gov body) happens at the high temps of thermogenic bacteria. A high oxygen environment also helps. Followers of vermiculture would tell you to dump the C:N mix of sawdust/fecal material straight into a worm bin and by the time it made it to the bottom of a flow-through bin you'd be set.

The way I plan on going about my humanure effort is to use an old Stainless Steel 1/2 barrel and otherwise copy the nature's mill concept.
Heat will be provided from the solar hot water system.
(now that I know what solder and flux is needed to join copper and SS all I have to do is build the 2 units. One for using, the other 'cooks' and gets prepped for the next use)

I think other limiting factors to food production will bite well before NPK shortages. Top of the list is reliable water supply (rain or irrigated), avoidance of extreme weather, diesel for machinery, compliant workers, cheap electricity for processing and freezing then phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen in that order. Worry about the climate first and humanure last. I doubt whether 1 in 5 people could grow enough to support themselves. I can't. Nonetheless a short while ago I chased a neighbour's pet goat with a whip. I didn't want it to invade my half acre vegie garden, but the rattled neighbour who saw me seems to think there will always be well stocked supermarkets. Maybe we're both deluded.

Food is going to get expensive and capital should follow that path eg for hydroponics and raised bed farms with gantry tillage. The money spent on bailouts for dinosaur industries will be a mistake in hindsight.

Nonetheless a short while ago I chased a neighbour's pet goat with a whip. I didn't want it to invade my half acre vegie garden, but the rattled neighbour who saw me seems to think there will always be well stocked supermarkets. Maybe we're both deluded.

chased a neighbour's pet goat with a whip?!! I have a better idea, after all it probably ate your vegetables and its only fair that you should be compensated for you loss.


2 lbs. boneless goat
Green peppers
Red peppers
Sm. onions
Sm. tomatoes or tomato chunks


1/2 c. salad oil
1/4 c. lemon juice
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. marjoram
1 tsp. thyme
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 c. chopped onion
1/4 c. snipped parsley

Cut goat into cubes. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade together. Add goat and mix to coat. Refrigerate covered overnight, stirring occasionally. Alternate meat and vegetables on skewers and grill.

Along the Eastern Med. the cooks put thin strips of meat (lamb or turkey) on skewers. The meat was roasted on charcoal braziers and cooked fast as it was cut thin. Vegetables and salads were served separately. They served a plate of hummus topped with a dash of olive oil for people to dip pieces of pita bread into. Rice pilaf or rice with pinenuts, cous-cous, and baklava type pastries were also served.

I've eaten goat a couple of times. Kid tastes better than adult goat meat with yellow fat. Apart from meat and milk goats could in theory turn woody weeds like blackberry into manure. In practice they jump fences, ringbark trees and smell bad.

And in groups of any size they riot in response to even small provocation.

Only bucks -- breeding males -- stink.

Does (females) and wethers (castrated maies) do not stink.

Also, they don't really care for the woody parts of blackberries, which they won't eat unless they're starving. But they love the leaves, and will strip blackberries down to the cane, which eventually kills it.

Some people seem to have the impression that goats will eat just about anything. They're actually quite picky eaters, even from goat to goat. But the important thing is they don't require the quality of forage as (for example) a cow does.

Also, for a family, a couple litres a day from a goat is much easier to deal with than a couple gallons a day from a cow. And when a goat steps on your foot, you don't have a doctor's bill to pay.

I doubt whether 1 in 5 people could grow enough to support themselves. I can't.

Well, I wonder...I wonder, first, how much land someone would need to be able to grow enough food to support themselves (assuming that water, seeds, humus, weather, etc. are OK and understood). An acre is about 200x200 or 40,000 sq ft (it's a bit more, but we've just amateurs here). I read somewhere the following:
vegan food -- 3000 sq. ft.
a few eggs/week -- 3,500 sq. ft.
one chicken/week -- 24,300 sq. ft.
one cow/year -- 67,300 sq. ft.

If we exclude the cow and all meat (except maybe a chicken or two, if you wish) and stick to a vegetarian diet, then 4000 sq ft would be enough for one person, or 10 per acre. Using biointensive methods of growing, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, carrots, and stuff like that should be able to be grown by most people, even greedy bankers, with an IQ over 60. If you want rice or wheat or stuff like that, learn to trade with someone who knows how to grow that stuff. I grew a lot of these and more fifty years ago, though I never thought about using only what I planted for food, and did supplement with food bought elsewhere.

400 corn plants per person plus 400 ft of row of beans ... minimum per person is the most efficient in N. America


The "have nots" of South and Central America and other places along the equator know the answer to your question all too well. Every 2 to 3 years they move to a fresh area of virgin rain forest, burn it, farm out the nutrients and hummas then move on. Northern climes experience 1000 years of topsoil and no rain forest to deal with. We can thank 1000 years plus of winter kills which create hummas rich top soil.

I do not believe we can remove the nutrient or energy reservoirs completely from our systems. Hyprocracy aside this planet cannot sustain this many people and cows and pigs and other livestock, or pets and think we can be sustainable in the true meaning of the word.

I think it makes a lot more sense for most people to be living in a relatively dense settlement cluster, with kitchen gardens and a few chickens and maybe even a pig for each household, and then with grain/legume fields in rotation with dairy pasturage surrounding the settlement's outskirts. This is how most people have lived in most places from neolithic times up until very recently.

Recycling humanure and livestock wastes back into the soil is not just an NPK issue. The addition of organic matter to the soil also boosts its moisture retention capacity. That is directly relevant to your point about the primacy of irrigation water supply issues.

This is so true and in fact grazing provides as much if not more benefits.Grass is the great healer and grazing it or mowing it creates top soil. Carbon with nutrients and sunlight and air to kill pathogens and to support aerobic bacteria along with the myriad of soil organisms helps to build humus. This is why rotational grazing with temporary fallow periods and a diversity of crops or otherwise known as minimum till is the preferred agriculture. (not withstanding permaculture)

Agri-business prefers monoculture,one big flat field with no trees, or shrubs or other habitat for pollinators and other critters it is like a big desert. The damage done to those amazing Ohio fields and soils is such a shame.

Adding organic matter improves all kinds of soils. In my last home, we had hard clay soil (typical for the area). A couple of years of all the kitchen scraps and garden cutting composted, and the soil was the "dark, light, friable" soil you always see in garden shows - a little heavier because of the clay, but good stuff.

Any fruit and vegies from the garden, it's such a surprise when you eat them, the taste is so much stronger than most store-bought varieties, it's very distinct.

Is there going to be a Part III looking at modern natural farming/permaculture practices?


I'll 2nd that.

I was just sitting in front of CNN and they had a clip they were doing at Hofstra Univ. where they told an assembled group of students that careers in agriculture and manufacturing were going to be net losers over the next 7 years (minus 100K for agriculture) and that they should go into service industry jobs and health care. That's what happens when you fire your science staff.

So I get annoyed and come sit down on TOD and once again find something of value. Nice post.


Several years ago I took the general position of "doing the opposite" of what I heard coming from the major media.

Currently, the messages are mixed so I can't say that strategy works anymore--garden on White House lawn, for example.

The image of gardening on the White House lawn is one of personal responsibility enmeshed with community.

The opposite of this is finger-pointing, riots, random acts of violence and destruction, and social chaos. This is not a suggestion for behavior, so much as a warning as to what many other people will find themselves doing.

I recall that back in my college days a teacher ridiculed my business idea of manufacturing turbochargers for small engined cars to provide a mix of good fuel economy when desired with short periods of high acceleration when desired. He thought air pollution laws meant an end to muscle cars. A little ahead of my time.

No discussion of the over-shot 6.7 billion elephants in the room? Or the oil-dependent food distribution system? Or the recent world-wide flirtation with food riots? Ecological problems like wheat rust, or colony collapse disorder? Species extinction?

Laden with single-point anecdotal data (one suburban street plot, one village in China) and hedging phrases ("one could", "how the USA can protect", "one hopes"), this is not on the same playing field nor in the same time frame with what is currently unfolding.

Warning: Don’t plant California rice seed
Worldwide medium-grain rice supplies are extremely tight and, understandably, ... Arkansas state officials and researchers are warning that seed shipments from California are a bad idea for several reasons. .... Today's Top News ...

BTW-I shot three roosters this week. I'm not
hungry enough to eat 'em, yet.


This is the story you were trying to link to

Warning: Don’t plant California rice seed

“There’s a quarantine against seed that might harbor bakanae, a fungal disease. For the last few years, California has had that disease, which is exclusively a seed-borne fungus and a big pain if you get it. We don’t want it in the Mid-South.”

Plus, the California varieties aren’t adapted for the Mid-South. If grown in the region, “blast will wipe them out anyway. Farmers here that might try to grow them are at an incredible risk. And if anyone is caught growing (such varieties), they’ll take a hit — the quarantine means the crop could be destroyed plus major fines.”

On paper the idea of bringing in medium-grain seed from California looks like a good one, concedes Terry Walker, director of the Arkansas Plant Board’s Plant Industry Division. “It would seem to fill a need and be a way for farmers to get some premium prices. The risks aren’t worth it, though. There’s no going back — once bakanae is here, it isn’t going anywhere. We must be very cautious on the front end to keep it out.”

It really doesn't work to plant seed that is adapted for another area, even without the fungal disease. That is why we need open-pollinated seeds for a variety of food crops adapted to many US areas.

"It really doesn't work to plant seed that is adapted for another area, even without the fungal disease. That is why we need open-pollinated seeds for a variety of food crops adapted to many US areas."

First, thank you very much for replying and setting
the link.

Second, I believe that moving seeds around is going to happen.
Like radiation everything eventually spreads evenly
around the planet.

GM, IMHO, is a much greater threat.

But I do plan on planting my own seed.

James 8D

Having home gardeners save their own OP seed sounds good in theory. There are some practical problems, though. Let's say you want to save tomato seeds. Sure, easy to do. Unfortunately, if you want the varieties to breed true, you need to isolate your seed stock plants from other varieties. If you are also trying to produce much or all of your own food on a small amount of land, that is a problem. If you are like me, what you want to do is spread your tomato harvest out across as much of the season as possible, rather than have it all come over just a couple of months. One of the best ways to do that is to plant several different varieties - early, midseason, and late. One might also want to plant the beefsteak/slicing type for fresh use, and the paste type to can or dry. Hard to do all that and still find a place to isolate your tomato seed stock, especially for each and every one of those different varieties. Tomatoes are not the only thing where you might be growing several varieties either. What about beans, or squash, or lettuce? Then you have the problem of some vegetables being biennials. You have to leave your seed stock in the ground over the winter, and then harvest the seed next spring. This really complicates rotation plans, which are essential to preserve soil fertility and minimize plant pathogens. This is especially an issue with brassicas (cabbage family), which are biennials and must be rotated on at least a four year plan to avoid clubfoot.

I think that seed saving is a great idea, don't get me wrong. But I think that what this all means is that it might be more practical to be thinking in terms of distributed specialization - different people in each community specialize in saving different seed varieties, rather than each and every person trying to do it all themselves. Then do a swap or barter each year.

Your point is well taken, but keeping most plants breeding true is not that hard. Many (including tomatoes and beans/peas) do not easily cross-pollinate. So you can do nothing and be fairly certain that the mature fruits were pollinated by the same flower that created the fruit, e.g. the original parent. For others, some simple techniques, such as bags over the female flowers and manual pollination solves the problem.

There are a few good books that detail which techniques (if any) are needed with which plants. "Seed to Seed" is one that I have found useful. For most vegies, it is not that hard of a problem. But you do need to know what you're doing.

Nobody in the world today is going hungry because the world as a whole lacks food; I discuss this here.

People are going hungry because they're poor, or because their subsistence farming is interfered with by floods, landslides, storms, civil war, or a brutal tyranny of a government.

We have the means to feed the world twice over. The world has a bit under a billion people with food scarcity threatening their lives and health. The world also has 800 million obese people. These two numbers are not a coincidence, nor are they unconnected.

People go hungry because someone chooses for them to go hungry.

I tried to cover this background in Part One.
Inevitably it was a sketch, but there were expert sources quoted.
I noted there that competition for resources (we compete of course) does bear heavily on the poorer countries.

Jeff Vail who introduced the ToD piece about a transformed suburban plot in a dry climate made the important point that it was 'scale-free' and could be implemented at the personal, community or national scale. The same is not quite true of the intensively studied nutrient and energy flows in a Chinese village that I quoted, but this study seemed to provide an indicator of the best, in terms of density of production and 'carrying capacity', you might expect from a village ecosystem under very favorable agricultural conditions, when production was augmented by synthetic N fertilizer, but where this and other costly inputs were minimized. I am not advocating an absence of technological inputs.

phil harris:

Never mind China. Go to Cuba. Out of necessity and the supreme power driven embargo they have been forced to evolve closer to sustainability than most, if not all countries. There climate is tropical, they started with little or no top soil, and yet their nutrient cycle is nearly complete.

One size doesn't fit all. Each locality is going to have to come up with its own approach - entire culture, really - that is adapted to its own local conditions.

It is not a coincidence that different areas of the world have different ethnic cuisines, and that each of these is built upon the foodstuffs that grow well in those areas. We need to be thinking whole systems, culture-wide.

There is a lot to learn from each traditional culture, and of course we have learned a few useful things lately that can even enable us to improve upon some traditional culture. What I would not advise, however, is thinking that one can just rip off pieces of a traditional culture from one place, apply it to another with no thought as to whether or not it is really well adapted to the locality, and expect it to work.

Firstly, N fertilizer rains from the sky, although amounts are relatively small.

N inputs have doubled worldwide, due to anthropogenic activity. This is an uncontrolled experiment of epic proportion. We need two Earth's, identical in every way, except that one receives only natural N input while the other receives twice that amount. That would be the only way we could assess the consequences of our actions. As the situation stands, we have no way of determining what the consequences of our doubling of N inputs to the biosphere may be. Guess we will find out. We may also find out too late that the consequences are catastrophic.

Nitrogen fixation does not have to be from fossil fuels - renewable derived electricity (wind, tidal, geothermal, run-of-river, hydro) can make H2 from water, and this H2 can be converted into ammonia. NO FOSSIL FUELS are required for this. It has been done on an industrial scale since the 1920's, and can be done at predictable prices with no use of fossil fuel, enough to readily supply this country. But not at $150/ton for NH3..and it is being imported from Trinidad for less these days. Oh well, Trinidad has less than 10 years before their once plentiful natural gas suffers the same fate as in Alaska's Kenai peninsula...and runs out of gas.

Prices for renewable ammonia (ammonia made by renewable energy) may be a little more than with natural gas, pet coke or coal,- at present - but that really depends on what the price of natural gas is, (also coke, coal), and what pollution tax is charged for their CO2 pollution. Pretty much everyone here at TOD does not believe that the absurdly cheap present day natural gas prices (50% of the cost to replace the gas consumed) will last for long. Or that CO2 pollution for no cost will be allowed for long. Or that mass quantities of el-cheapo petroleum will be the name of the game for much longer, either.

And if ammonia goes up a bit in price, crop prices (different than food prices, apparently) will have to follow that. That will also lead to more efficient use of NH3 and derivatives, but that's OK, as long as farmers can recoup the NH3 cost. For example, if NH3 is $500/ton, this adds about 25 cents/bushel to corn's cost (allowing the 150 to 250 bushel/acre yields). At $1000/ton, this adds 50 cents/bushel, or less than 1 penny per pound. That NH3 is the difference between 25 bushels/acre and 150 to 250 bushels/acre.

If you go the no NH3 route, and instead use clover and crop rotation, you will need much more than twice the acreage to get the same quantity of food. The result is also more petroleum input (or whatever oilseed/NH3/EtOH fuel is used for the farm equipment) per quantity of corn harvested. And this applies to just about every crop except for soybeans and other legumes (which use a bit of a boost, anyway). Oilseeds, wheat, rice, sugar beets, barley, oats, even cotton, flax, cellulose crops -- even oil producing algae --...they all need some fixed nitrogen. Just think- no synthetic NH3 means more expensive that's a dreadful thought...

So, if you've got existing fixed N - manure (really dilute in N, however), or can afford the alfalfa/clover or unharvested peas, great. But using some fixed N from renewable energy derived ammonia also works. And when you consider that more than half of the protein consumed in the world comes from man-made NH3, miscellaneous claims that it can be done without man-made NH3 need to be carefully examined.

And this BS that fossil fuels need to be used to make synthetic NH3 also need to be debunked. What is this website - superstition central with regard to the NH3-fossil fuel necessity? Fossil fuels are used to make NH3 because they are presently improperly costed, and the CO2 pollution from that ($85/ton according to the Stern report) is allowed to be emanated for free.

If yields of major grains/beans drop by 50%, food prices will need to at least double just so farmers can recover their costs. Of course, food prices will double if crop yields drop by around 5 to 10% - prices can be quite unrelated to the cost of production when supply can't keep up with demand, and we know from last years petroleum pricing. And getting 25 bushels/acre for corn versus the 2008 average of 154 bushels/acre...that's going to call for a big price increase. Farmers just don't have the resources to take that kind of financial hit. As for the carnivores out there...who is willing to eat a less illogical diet, and go vegetarian? It's more efficient in protein usage, after all. Odds are, they (carnivores) would prefer that many starve rather than give up their meat, but I'm sure they will rephrase that to make their food habit...more palatable. There's 6.5 billion or so people in this world, and the "natural" nitrogen fixation rate will support between 2 and 3 billion. That math alone says that doing away with synthetic NH3 will have some nasty consequences.

The question is, are people willing to pay for NH3 made without pollution? At present, probably not...and lots of people may have to starve to death before the movers and shakers of this world change their minds on NH3 pricing, and allowing farmers to pass this cost to consumers. Maybe it's time to change those movers and shakers out, too.


The question is, are people willing to pay for NH3 made without pollution?

I don't think the correct word is "willing". I think the correct word is "able". Look at this chart of $ per BTU for major energy sources:

That difference between NG and Electricity is going to have to be made up by the food consumer. Plus, when food, driving, heating are all electric they will all compete which will drive electricity prices up further.

Many of the worlds poorest will not be able to afford these higher prices. Check out Stuart Staniford's post on biofuels and food costs.

As energy declines, the economy will contract. As the economy contracts, more people will become poor. As more people become poor, more will starve.

According to Part 1, China is making nitrogen fertilizer from coal. If natural gas supplies get short, I would expect we would also. That doesn't help the pollution issue, though.

Our annual global production is in the vicinity of 140M tons of anhydrous ammonia. 70% of that is from coal, the rest from natural gas, and a tiny amount of renewable product is made in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe using hydroelectric power. I hear tell of renewable production near the Aswan dam and in Peru but I can get no details on those plants ...

Thank you both! I will dig into it further.


Nice chart. I guess your electricity price is near 8.5 c/hw-hr, which is reasonable for bulk electricity.

However, ammonia is only a small portion of the crop production cost, and crop prices in turn are just a tiny portion of food prices. That $2.50 bag of Doritos (10 oz) might have 6.5 cents worth of corn in it (@ $3.60/bushel), which in turn might have 0.28 cents worth of ammonia in it...a really tiny fraction, close to one tenth of one percent of the bag of deliciousness. But unless farmers can recoup that small fraction of the corn price (another 25 c/bushel), or another 0.28 cents per Dorito bag, they won't use the renewable ammonia and will instead use cheaper, pollution based ammonia. So, for lack of the ability to get less than another penny per bag of Doritos, we must continue to burn through natural gas to make ammonia, instead of using renewable electricity to make it. And once the Ngas reserves are tapped out, we can trash our planet's climate control system with coal derived CO2 that was made to make NH3 to grow the raw material for the Doritos.

Like I said, energy pricing is way out of whack to what it needs to be.


Ah, you put your finger on where our mental models are colliding. I guess I am not very worried about starving Americans. I am much more concerned about those people who earn below $1.50 a day and eat mostly staple grains.

Clearly, by leveling the US income playing field a bit, the poor could easily afford renewable generated nitrogen. World wide? I don't see how to make that happen. And thus why I worry we are headed for a major famine as energy prices rise.

The poorest people in the world are subsistence farmers who already can't afford any diesel, ammonium nitrate fertiliser, or anything like that. About half of world food production is already "organic" and fossil fuel free. Thus, rising energy prices won't affect them.

Who it does affect are the small class of subsistence farmers who are trying to rise out of that poverty. For example, they may decide to irrigate their fields to improve production, so they produce more than they need, and can sell it for cash - maybe $500 a year. But irrigation requires a pump. This can be a kid pushing a treadle pump all day, or it can be a small diesel pump using maybe a gallon a week.

The treadle is more "ecologically friendly", and indeed there's a carbon offset programme associated with British Airways which buys diesel pumps off Indians and gives them treadle pumps. But the latter means the kid can go to school instead of pushing the pump all day. And if they go to school, even a couple of years of high school means they can go to the city and become a clerk in some government office, and suddenly each month they're earning that $500 which they could have got in a year of extra field production.

So the mass of subsistence farmers are unaffected by fuel prices. It's those who are trying to improve their lot who are affected.

I think it's also worth comparing what a gallon of diesel a week means to that family compared to the gallon or so of fuel a week for a Western family, so they don't have to walk half a mile to the shops.

Why can't we "waste" excess renewables off peak to H2--NH3 production. Whenever demand drops send it to h2 plants. The population centers in the north could easily have several new nuke plants installed just to make electricity, waste excess as discussed above then use waste heat to pipe heat to communities. The ammonia production would add to the profitability.

If the goal is to move from Industrial Nitrogen to Organic Nitrogen then soil tilth must be greatly enhanced.

The amount of organic material(carbon)) in the soil needs to be increased dramatically for the Carbon - Nitrogen cycle to work effectively.

Currently most farm soils are too deficient in organic mater and have to use Industrial Nitrogen.

Soil with the proper tilth can capture Nitrogen from the air if the C/N ratio is optimal.

Ammonia gets biologically fixed when two molecules of glucose are consumed by certain bacteria, and in return they fix one molecule of nitrogen into two molecules of ammonia. Most plants consider this worth the price, since plants can't fix their own N. But if the plants are not "fast enough", other bacteria chew up the NH3 and make nitrate ions, which plants tend to prefer in spite of the extra work needed to convert NO3- to amino acids. And then there are the bacteria that use NO3 as their oxygen source, and return the N back to the atmosphere as either N2O or N2.

Somehow, it's the trade of light--> sugar for NH3 that makes this happen, and when the crop being grown blocks out light to N fixing plant/bacteria combo, like clover, well, that's pretty much it for N fixing. Or you can avoid growing the crop, and grow the clover instead. But not all of what is fixed will stay put, and after all, the clover plants are doing this because it is in their interest, and not that of the food crop being grown.

Yields of crops that are gown organically will be lower on a year by year basis, and will require higher prices to achieve the same net income per acre. Hopefully, other costs are lower. And if there is lots of land, and customers to pay the higher prices, great.

But there are lots of places where some NH3 will be needed in excess of what can be naturally fixed. Or countries like China and India, which do not have a prayer of self-sufficiency with respect to protein production - one "Great leap Forward" was enough for them.

It's a mass balance thing. Fixed N in = Fixed N out plus/minus accumulation. High protein yields per acre of crops other than N fixers like soybeans (canola, for example) need to have their fixed N made for them, and if it is not in the soil, they won't produce the protein. And if it takes 2 years to put in the fixed N that gets pulled out by one year of canola...the net effect is canola yields one third of optimal. Less oil, less protein and/or 3 times the area needed for the same yields. And at least 3 times the price needed to make it worthwhile. Maybe that's OK if money is not in short supply, or that canola oil being made into biodiesel does not have to complete with hydrocarbon oil at $3/gallon. But those tend to be exceptional circumstances, which is why a trace of ammonia "plant candy" can go a long way.


Yields of crops that are gown organically will be lower on a year by year basis, and will require higher prices to achieve the same net income per acre.

You seem to know your chemistry. Do you farm? I posted a quote from Fukuoka's classic recently. How do your rectify your statement above with that?


Mostly I know the chemistry part, and the simple relation that ammonia puts the AMINO in amino acids - though it's also good for RNA/DNA and enzymes like chlorophyll.

If it takes 1 year of alfalfa growth to add ~ 100 lbs/acre of N to soil, and another to pull off ~ 100 acres of corn per acre (thus using up most of that N), your average corn yield would only be 50 bushels/acre. But those are optimistic numbers.

Before widespread use of N fertilizer (basically, before WW2), average corn yields in the US were about 25 bushels/acre. Crop rotation was generally employed; otherwise, yields would even be lower. Yields of ~ 150 bushels/acre corn corresponds to about 100 lbs of N per acre, or about 122 lbs of NH3/acre. Of course, usage is not 100% - about 90% is common, unless floods wash it all away. So you need about 136 lbs NH3/acre just to get a measly 150 bushels/acre. It works out to be about 7 tons of ripe chicken manure per acre, too.

Plants really don't care where it comes from, they just need their fix of fixed N. You can pretty much calculate how much protein/acre and how many bushels/acre will be obtained by the N content of the soil. And allowing the soil to go fallow each year means the net yield is half of that.

So far, our country does not want to pay for corn that has an average yield of 75 or 25 bushels/acre, or to get by on half or less of the ~ 13 billion bushels/year, as was grown in 2008. Maybe sometime in the future, minds will be changed, but so far, that's not happening.


Legume-based grain systems do not have to give up an entire growing season to N-fixing plants...For example, one common rotation in organic grain systems is corn-->soybean-->wheat/red clover then back to corn. The red clover is seeded into the wheat. After the wheat is harvested the clover grows and is then plowed down to supply N to the corn the following spring. So that is 3 cash grain crops in 3 years. It is simply not correct to say that legume based systems have reduced yields.

Also, saying that you must add C to soil to use legumes doesn't make sense. Increasing the use of legumes in a cropping system (as green manures) tends to increase soil organic matter over time. There are a number of mechanisms that cause this to happen. The longer a farmer uses legumes or other organic inputs, the larger the soil nutrient reserves will become. Building these reserves has many benefits in addition to improving the nutrient use efficiency of the cropping system.

Lastly, synthetic fertilizers are about 50% efficient. Half of the N added as fertilizer is lost to the environment. Normally for corn, nearly 60% of the N in the crop comes from the soil organic matter. Of course, some of that N cycled into the organic matter from fertilizer in earlier years but the bottom line is that when we do mass balances or trace N using 15N, about half is lost(from grain systems). There are a lot of inefficiencies inherent in the use of soluble inorganic N sources and the loss of these nutrients from agriclture has had devastating impacts on the environment (including cascading effects on fisheries and other food sources).

There is a huge potential to make some major improvements in how we use legumes in agriculture. Not a lot of effort has gone into this approach due to the availability of cheap fossil fuel based N fertilizer.

I'd confirm the observation that it isn't necessary to cede a year's food production for nitrogen fixing crops -
here in the Cambrian Mountains (50 N, ~900 ft) a traditional 4 yr rotation (that we aim to restore) was: Oats; Field Beans; Barley; Jerusalem Artichokes & Pigs - which apparently gave good yields that were, BTW, sustained.

The comment above that Organic farming imposes declining yields is patently untrue - the writer should perhaps get out a bit more and see how things are done in other countries.

While the article is informative of some of the isues around NPK for agriculture, it is maybe worth noting two points -

First, few people round here, in a rich western farming tradition, could justify the cost of artificial fertilizer last year -
with the result that more people have gone back to traditional cattle-raising now the dung is a yield of significant value.

Second, the rich western farming traditions of California and Australia's Murray-Darling Basin, under extreme and potentially ruinous drought,
surely put the relevance of NPK supply in persective as a remote priority compared with that of achiveng an effective & durable (efficient and equitable) Treaty of the Atmospheric Commons ?



Again, I suggest reading Fukuoka to all of you above. I posted before the 1 year cycle. You don't need to give up *any* years.

In the same year: clover > Spring rice > return all plant material to field > clover > winter barley > return all plant material to the field > repeat.

That's grossly oversimplified. The clover is co-planted at different times, cut down at various times to regrow, etc.

By the way, he also was getting at least 22 bushels/1,000 lb.+ per quarter acre. My wife's grandmother gets 100 kg. of rice per 110 sq. yds. using regular practices. So, and area of about 100 - 200 sq. yards will do a family just fine. With double cropping each year, you'd have a surplus, weather permitting. Of course, this would depend on how dependent your diet was on grains, whether you were feeding animals with it, etc.

The point is, all this is doable. Hunger is socio-political, not agricultural.


"Plants really don't care where it comes from, they just need their fix of fixed N. "

Hi Nb41, I have been enjoying your great contribution. I would like to however challenge this one posit.

Plants do care about what form they source and receive their nitrogen as well as other chemicals like sulfur for example.

Sulfur delivered from say potassium sulfate versus an organic function in humus rich soil is creating funny proteins and is causing health problems for those consuming it. Sulfur falling in rain water for example is bio-available to plants. Where as agricultural sulfur acts as pesticide and is not considered a great soil amendment.

In organic systems sourcing enough ammoniacal form of nitrogen can be a challenge. Conventional urea or ammonium nitrate is known to kill earthworms and commercial phosphorous according to Dan Skow from International Ag labs provides an energy release but actually kills off the micro-organisms responsible for making the phosphorous bio-available to plants.

Organic systems that manage their organic matter levels 'humus' can receive an additional benefit of nitrogen from lightening. When the soil o.m. level is high enough it retains moisture (like a sponge) and this allows nitrogen to find its way when lightening hits the ground. Conventional farming with it's less than 3% organic matter levels tends to not get much of this bonus nitrogen.

You can test whether plants see a difference between organic and conventional fertilizers. A simple one is that commercial fertilizers impose a ceiling on the taste, are more prone to disease and insect predation. It is in fact the reason for choosing 'organic' (real defn not the usda input b.s. defn)

I think that this would be a good place to interject that corn yields are steadily rising (154 bu/acre this year vs. about 75 bu/acre in 1980, vs about 40bu/acre in the forties) and are expected to be around 164 bu/acre in 09', and are projected to be in the neighborhood of 300 bu/acre in twenty years.

This has been accomplished at a time when fertilizer use has fallen, erosion has diminished, and petroleum usage has fallen dramatically. Peak oil is going to cause us a lot of problems when it takes hold, but we're Not going to starve. Many people in the former "breadbasket of Africa," Zimbabwe, will; but that has everything to do with a homicidal dictator, and nothing whatsoever to do with agriculture.

An important point to figure into this line of thought, is the corn plants' efficiency in converting soil N to plant protein.

Per Pollan ("Omnivore's Dilemma") and others, while new hybrids have greatly increased the per acre yield in bu/A, the net protein/A harvested has stayed largely the same. In the mean time, the N requirements of these new corn hybrids has gone up dramatically. Put another way, the corn plant's efficiency in converting soil N to fixed protein (N) in its harvested grain has decreased.

Now if you are using the grain to make corn sweetners, or fattening up livestock or silage, total yield per acre is a reasonable measure. And perhaps the additional N used on these new hybrids is justified (I don't know the comparative figures for N usage on other sugar/starch crops). But clearly from the point of view of N as protein returned per unit N fertilizer, we have taken a big step backwards.

In a restricted acreage and a restricted N fertilizer environment, could pose issues for raising the best quality food (highest protein).

In a restricted acreage and a restricted N fertilizer environment, could pose issues for raising the best quality food (highest protein).

This is why we want to eat food raised in an organic fassion. The chemical fertilizers are the culprit. The plants grow and are nutritionally weak. The 'pests' come and try to save us from ourselves and we have launched chemical warfare with them some 50,000 chemicals to date. We can also see who's winning and who's losing.

Albrecht (the Freud of modern agronomy) was already doing back flips over hybrid corn 60 years ago and the decreased protein profile. He would be stunned at how stupid this system is.

An aside that is encouraging is Vandana Shiva's small organic farm movement in India. We should join her in a North American response. (The least we can do as it is Monsanto and others from over here who have unleashed a form of hell on earth for the small farmers in India) Their mission statement is found here:

It is more multi-dimensional than that, though. Water is also going to become an increasingly expensive input. Soils which have had large amounts of organic mater incorporated have greater "tilth", and can absorb and retain more moisture, and thus can get by with less irrigation. This is especially true if a layer of organic mulch is applied to the soil after the seedlings have emerged and become established; the mulch is eventually incorporated into the soil as well, further boosting organic matter content and tilth.

Eat the rich.

My doctor told me to cut back on "rich" foods. :)

But the poor are more numerous...


Sam Kass, the Obama personal chef and great advocate of food sustainability as well as awareness of fossil fuel dependency and depletion, is coordinating the planting of a vegetable garden on the White House lawn.

New York Times coverage can be found here:

Kevin Walsh
Chicago Peak Oil

This site made this their goal and so is really keeping track of the news:

Thanks Jason,

I like the "Obama Gothic" portrait on the first page.


An extremely relevant post. I know very little about agriculture, but it's going to become ever more obvious that the soil (along with water) is the key and ultimate resource, and that using it in a sustainable way is the key to our future. Perhaps industrialism's greatest negative has been in detaching billion or two of us from any consciousness of our total dependence on this resource.

Wonderful, useful, positive input - thank you!
Not every "silver BB" post has to restate all the obvious qualifiers about population overshoot, getting the recalcitrant on board, the Tragedy of the Commons, or whatever. Some days we need to focus on the positive - like heading into the weekend, for example!

One small comment: It's not only sewage reuse that leads to bioaccumulation of heavy metals - there's cadmium, lead, and even arsenic in phosphate rock. And, -

While the US EPA has promulgated standards for sewage sludge and some industrial by-products, there are no Federal limits on heavy metal contaminants that are generally applied to all fertilizers.

IMO there's an inherent benefit to recycling wastes locally, in that you'll minimize the unknown-unknowns that end up in your food. Who was it in this forum who said that his Dad taught him to never buy or sell hay? - i.e., to never export soil nutrients, nor import weed seed.

Thanks for a very informative post, Phil.

I'll be planting my potatoes in my little London garden plot tomorrow. The fertiliser is composted food waste and bought in pelleted chicken manure (plenty of ammonia in there judging by the stink!).


In the midst of this important discussion, I just wanted you all to know that today (March 20) is Gail the Actuary's birthday! She's 62 today.

This note is from Gail's little sister Lois.

Everybody wish her a happy birthday!

Lots of love,


Glasses raised and wishes sent


Glad to hear you are still so young! Looking forward to many more years of your excellent posts. (My wife is almost 63, me 68).

Lois, does little mean smaller or younger? :)


Gail eats a lot better than I do (all the tofu, etc) so she's a little smaller. But I'm 20 years younger. She's the oldest of 7 children. Can you tell?


happy, happy b-day gail!!!

Happy Birthday Gail and hope for many more for you and yours.

I am 76 and just starting to garden. Thanks Phil for the information. Something bothers me about the title of the thread.

"How will we be fed?" This seems to imply one who will feed us and how they will do it. This also implies to me that someone is responsible to feed us.

My idea is more like "How will we feed ourselves?" Whether my family or I eat is not the responsibility of anyone else. I may buy from a store if they have anything, or a grower if he has some food to export (See WT ELM for food) or grow it myself which I am learning to do. If you don't have food, don't say you were blindsided like an economist in a recession.

I worked in commercial agriculture for several years doing aerial IR photography primarily on pivot-irrigated potatoes in Washington and Oregon. I held patents for IR crop analysis. I also did hydro-probe work determining the movement of irrigated water through the soil. Later I owned a soil and petal chemical laboratory though I did not do the actual analysis.

What I learned was that fertilizer applications are not a simple as described above. An amount of nitrogen (say 100 pounds) applied with too much water will leach down below the crop’s root base in sandy loam. This nitrogen will not be available to the crop since it is out of reach. I have seen potato crops grown with half the N applied and less than 2/3 the water for better potatoes than other fields with similar soils that the grower consistently over watered. Over watering is not so much a function of pivot gallon size but a function of pivot speed. Slow speed may over water the crop and leach most of the fertilizer while faster speeds will optimize the fertilizer but keep the crop is drought stress. It is a very complex equation to optimize a potato crop. Some pivot irrigated fields with both heavier soils and lighter soils had to be fertilized for the heavy soils and additional fertilizer flown on the crop where the lighter soil was.

Though my experience did not include dry land farming, I can see where an excessive rain at the wrong time could double the fertilizer requirement. Quoting the US crop and averaging the acres does not hack it if you are talking about growing a crop on a piece of land. One has to know the soil, the crop, the weather and be lucky as hell to grow the optimum crop for a piece of land while depending on Mother Nature. The saying “Nature is a Mother” applies most of the time.

Thanks for those points Lynford.
The title for the two-part series was deliberate, because that was my assessment. I guess the USA as a whole has fundamental capability and resources for a long time to come, provided the 'systems' hold up, but taking the long term view, they must change. (The Soviet example was scary - quote from Dyson, 1999, see Part One: " 1990 the Soviet Union had a near-record cereal harvest of 227 million tons, but by 1995 the component countries of the FSU produced only 122 million.")
I tried also to cover in Part One some of the complexity of responses to fertilizer by pointing to publications , for example to the document by Iowa State Extension Service Up thread (above)I caution the need for careful study to learn how to minimize inevitable losses from manures and fertilizer. Also in the body of the Part Two text I suggested that you (agricultural science services) could help estimate crop responses down to field level. I hope there will be concerted adaptive responses over a long enough period.
best wishes for good gardening - it is time I did some of mine.

It's true that the FSU produced much less grain than the SU had; but it's also true that there was no famine. All those backyard gardens made the difference, and they're not well-counted in official statistics in any country.

Happy Birthday, Gail. Wishes for many, many more.

So, after you gave Gail her B-day spankings did she turn around and give you some for telling the planet how old she is?


Happy Birthday, Gail!

Congratulations Gail! Thank you again for sharing all your wisdom and insight so clearly presented and carefully reasoned.

The garden on the White House lawn may not necessarily be a boost to the home food movement. It could turn out that half a million dollars in salaries was needed. Thus carrots end up costing $17.50 and potatoes $10 apiece. A bug outbreak could require gallons of some nasty organochlorine. The garden's food supply has to be bountiful, wholesome, year-round and cheap.

On a side note I see that the major shareholders in the world's largest ammonia plant (.76 Mtpa NH3) also have a chain of vegetarian restaurants. I wonder what they think of using NG for electrical generation.

A First Lady who breaks out the fork and spade to make a garden on a White House lawn is precisely the sort of leadership the United States needs in the face of what is coming at us. It may be symbolic but if it inspires ten million other women who wouldn't have put in a garden this year it's going to be a huge win.

We got 40% of our food out of Victory Gardens during WWII ... and can do so again, if we muster the will to try.

SCT WWII 40% should not be used as even a possibility of today's performance. In 1941-1945 most everyone knew what a vegetable was and what it looked like. Today, a cow (sacred of not) is a plastic jug or a paper container. Peas are somehow created in a can. What does all this have to do with American Idol?

Nope, most will starve before they figure it out especially if the grid goes down hard.

"Nope, most will starve before they figure it out especially if the grid goes down hard."

Not sure there is a connection between growing food and a functional grid. Are you thinking of electric rotor-tillers, harvesting greens with a hedge trimmer?
Why will the grid go down?
Most 3rd world countries have a grid, sometimes power is off for an hour or 2 or a day, but they don't seem to go down more than that.
If you mean we will always have 100% reliable power, its already too late massive blackouts started in 1967? seem to have one about every 20 years since, most survive a week without power, even in winter! certainly not going to cause starving.

I think you underestimate the intelligence of population, most can read and assemble Ikea furniture, so should be able to grow vegetables, it's not rocket science unless you are growing rocket tomato's or rocket leaf.

Growing your food is not that easy.

Growing some of your food will give you some calories.

It could come down to hoes and wheelbarrows ??

Thanks for the reply Neil:

The concept of the grid going down hard is part of "Hope for the best but plan for the worst". IMHO the grid going down hard for an extended period is the ‘worst’. Mainly that there will be no money except what you have in your mattress and most people don’t have $200 at home.

We think of the grid as invincible but at what point of economic decline will a commercial (not public) power company be forced into bankrupsy due to non-payment of ever raising electrical bills and higher maintenance costs? I don’t know but to say “Nevah Hoppen” is like saying the stock market will never go down 50% in less than a year.

"We got 40% of our food out of Victory Gardens during WWII ..."

Link ??

"We got 40% of our food out of Victory Gardens during WWII ..."

Link ??

Slight clarification: 40% of produce

Still a great deal of food, though.

This is actually a response to Jon Stewart's interview, but put it here so I could show someone the article/comments without them feeling akward at me mentioning them ;).

void genesis, you have an interesting writing style. You should check out the band "Bright Eyes" if you haven't. It's prolly good music to blog to, although i typically just drive to it.

(I am so american. I still savor driving.)

Twelve minutes just wasn't long enough. And then he threw the gauntlet down. My wife is always right in her assessments of people (useful both pre- and post- peak). Man it bothered her to be at her dad's house and him come on. She'd be like "turn that screaming maniac off" (but she wouldn't make us because he was funny and she was mildly amused at watching her dad watching him while we talked economics. He knew that he (Cramer) was full of [stuff]. That his track record was getting colder. and watched him anyways. May be his way of seeing things in post 2007 da da.) anyways

it's interesting to watch people form opinions within the context of the national conversation. I have found that many people don't have umm fully formed opinions (outside of general (General?) Bush dislike). But everyone that does, does so from his/her specialized point of view (ours being peak oil) based on who they are, what they know, and who they hang with.

Being able to manipulate that point of view is real power, real money.

A polite person would not use this power, or would use it in ways that would be kinder to the TV audience, somehow?

Thus the lop-headed morals of the fantastic 4 and transformers appeased a few, and satisfied the consciences of the rest, while amusing the best and brightest. polite. but i digress.

I work in the Central Services area of a downtown trauma hospital, cleaning, sterilizing, and arranging medical instrumentation for surgeries. And this hospital is expecting increasingly more from its employees. The management structure has been flattened, tenured employees from outside management have lost their jobs, and people with advanced degrees (outside medicine) have supposedly started to apply for about $10-$15/hr jobs there, waiting for this economy to turn around.

Everyone at work watches TV but me. So I get to see how it transforms them. It frames their perspective

1. by transforming their vocabulary,
2. through influencing their understanding (interpretation?) of the roles people play
3. by influencing peoples' understanding of crucial mechanisms.
(ours being peak oil).

it was very exciting to see John Steward boldly berating Cramer for calling him on all three. ;). What a bold challenge. I certainly hope Cramer turns out to be a Superhero, because I still kind of like him, but I think he will probably prove a better comedian than investigative journalist (like I said, my wife is almost always right about people, and she didn't just outright reject him. More grumbled, like I'm effectively doing.) cheers. here's to hoping. goodnight.

p.s. As always, thanks to everyone here. sorry i lurk. I wish i was hit by an idea that would actually help that was relevant to peak oil. go science!

p.p.s. chemists and materials engineers are like so cool. How people manage to get degrees, i'll never know.

Hello TODers,

Please see charts included in the link below:
Weekly Fertilizer Review for March 20, 2009

Farmers face final tough decisions on fertilizer purchases

Farmers making final planting decisions face a tale of two fertilizer markets, and for most, prices remain stuck in “the worst of times.”
Huge disconnects remain between inventories, wholesale prices and the costs farmers actually face at the farmgate level as planting rapidly approaches...
Nitrogen Fertilizer: Agricultural Breakthrough--And Environmental Bane

A new report citing drawbacks of the corn ethanol craze casts a pall over the centennial of a Nobel Prize-winning discovery that transformed global food production..
Indonesia to sell LNG export cargoes to domestic industry

Indonesia plans to supply eight liquefied natural gas cargoes originally bound for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan this year to a local fertilizer plant in Aceh province to meet domestic demand, an official said.

PT Pertamina, the state oil company, and PT Pupuk Iskandar Muda may sign an agreement next week for supplies of the cargoes from the Arun LNG plant, Mashudianto, Pupuk's president director, said in an interview yesterday. The Aceh-based fertilizer plant paid US$5.8 per million British thermal units for a cargo of equivalent gas from Arun last month, he said.

"We need another eight cargoes of LNG to operate our plant," said Mashudianto. "We are ready to pay the market price."
Recall that Indonesia, along with Pakistan, have stated that they wish to build their strategic reserves of urea [carbamide], which is sourced from natgas run through the Haber-Bosch Process.

Hi Phil,

Great article. Gives a good overview of the current concerns. I was wondering if you had come accross the new science looking into the soil food web. The book "Teeming with Microbes" (Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, 2006, Pubs: Timber Press) has some fascinating insights into the hidden ecosystem that is living soil. What most people do not realise, is that a natural forest produces several tonnes/acre of biomass each year without recourse to 'NPK' fertilizers.

It is somewhat ironic that with our supposed 'scientific' hammers of chemistry and biology and industrial agriculture, we have inadvertently been destroying the living thing that is soil; that in turn is the very basis of the rich diversity of life on land. As Paul Stamets (2005, Ten Speed Press) points out in his "Mycelium Running", on a blank page, just before the index:

"The greatest achievement of science to date: the acknowledgement of our ignorance."

But as you also rightly point out, trying to change human feeding habits will indeed be like trying to change the driving habit.

Given how new this science of the soil food web is, I think only the loss of the car will make old toad think again about his driving habits... if he lives to tell the tale - Poop poop!

As for the comments so far on recycling human waste (as mentioned often on TOD) - urine contains 95% of NPK recycled nutrients and is sterile (from a healthy person), and is, as James Lovelock (2006, Penguin) points out in his "Revenge of Gaia" (P.19), maybe the reason animals produce a 'waste' of urea - it allows for more plants, which of course by implication means more animals and so more urea. Isn't nature wonderful?

There was a call for a third instalment on 'other' ways of doing things - if you want some help on this, I'd be only too glad to offer.


One of the things which distresses me about these discussions is they do not look at food production from a holistic point of view. Rather, people posit their own favorite scheme. Further, there is, usually, no accepted agricultural research to back up the claims. By "accepted" research I mean, replicated plots in a variety of locations over a long time period and, including, appropriate soil analyses.

I'll use terra preta/biochar as an example of what needs to be done. But, let me say at the outset that I am a fan of using charcoal as a soil amendment so I'm biased. Here's what we don't know about it:

1. How does it impact soil pH
2. Does the source of the charcoal make a difference.
3. Does it add trace minerals
4. Does it impact the rhizosphere and, if so, how
5. Does the particle size matter
6. Does it really hold nutrients
7. Is there an optimum amount that should be added
8. Does the depth of placement matter
9. Is it "energy efficient" compared to other options
10. Does the temperature at which the biochar is produced make a difference
11. Are crop yields impacted
12. Are pest pressures impacted

The list goes on. My point is that one cannot say that dumping biosolids, for example, can be done on an ad hoc basis because there have been few research programs looking at all the variables.

Similar arguments can be raised about adding straw. For example, is it really "energy efficient" to do so.

My suggestion is for people to, first, read The New American Farmer published by The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Project, I'd also suggest reading Gene Logsdon's book, The Contrary Farmer. And, I'd spend some time at the New Farm link at the Rodale Institute site.

It's well to throw out ideas but they must be backed up by data.


Is there any data on growing all your food anywhere on the globe ?

or.... Any (current or otherwise) projects/experiments ??

I have not found any ?

The data suggest that you should get out into your yard and try it. Each area has different soils, different climate, you the grower have different time and knowledge available, different tastes in food, and so on.

Get out there and try. Plants aren't machines, there's no one true way that'll work everywhere. For example, here we have two Japanese maple trees. One is flourishing, the other struggling. They are only two metres away from each-other, but one is against a wall which shades it from the harsh Aussie sun and sits in the soil next to the compost, and the other is in the open in a pot.

Get out there and try!

effects of a charcoal powder-wood vinegar compound solution in piglets for raw pigeon pea seed meal

I am pursuing this because I think feeding bio-char thru a pig is a better way torwards terra preta then plowing bio-char into cropland

I think there is a movement against bio-char

I think honeywell plans to include trees with tarsand

bio-char needs to be pursued to create sustainable agriculture
bio-char needs to be pursued to create carbon negative agriculture

I am worried about hr 875
a law to make all food production regulated by monsanto

Hi Gail and Phil! Thanks for these excellent posts. I too hope that you will do a 'Part III', looking at permaculture/fukuoka-farming/forest-farming. Apropos of those closely-linked topics, may I post this -- I think -- crucially-relevant quote in full:


"The Fundamental Reality that Underlies Fukuoka's Principles
By Emilia Hazelip
a Fukuoka Farming Website exclusive

Soil is created by living plants working with microorganisms, and by the plants' residues and the microorganisms' corpses after their death.

Soil is drained of nutrients by cultivation, NOT by plants.

Tilling and cultivation of any sort diminishes the natural fertility of the soil in three ways:

· Mechanical grinding of the soil particles reduces their size and smooths them. This greatly reduces the size and number of micro-cavities between the particles, which are the habitats of balanced bacteria breathing out gases essential to mineral absorption and plants' health.

· Tilling kills vital microorganisms in the soil by exposing them to excessive oxygen in the air.

· And tilling exposes the organic matter in the rhizosphere (soil around the roots) to the atmospheric gases, precipitating the combustion of the humus turning it into soluable mineralized nutrients . This provides a quick fertilizer for the plants, but at the cost of destroying permanently the texture and tilth of the organic, humic, rich soil, which accelerates erosion as well as contamination of the watertable with nitrates.

Minerals and trace elements, although present in soil, may not be accessible to plants due to the absence of the micoorganisms (killed by tilling, pollution, or the use of herbicides or pesticides) that participate in the plant's mineral nutritional process. Just as microflora in our own digestive systems are needed so that our bodies can absorb and use the nutrients of the ingested food, microorganisms in the soil perform the same function for plants.

In crops, if the edible parts of a plant are harvested and the rest left to return to the soil, the organic mass left by the decaying plants will be superior to the volume of nutrients taken from the soil.

A plant gets up to 95% of all the nutrients it needs from the sky (gases and sunlight), NOT the soil. Of the 5% taken from the soil, half of it is the essential nutrient nitrogen, which, if the plant is grown in combination with a legume, can also come from the air.

ONLY 2 1/2% of the total nutrition of a plant IS COMING EXCLUSIVELY FROM THE SOIL in the form of soluable minerals and trace elements.

That is the fundamental reality that underlies and supports Fukuoka's principles of No tilling, No fertilizer, No weeding, and No pesticides or herbicides. Natural agriculture refutes and disproves the foundation of current agronomical logic, and because it does it is seen as heresy by most of the agronomic community. Fukuoka proposes, and supports with evidence, the first fundamental agronomic reform since agriculture was invented."
-- Emilia Hazelip


I've been running my permaculture operation in line with this principle for some time now, with dramatic results. In particular, I NEVER disturb the soil, once a bed is started, by any kind of tillage. This is strictly a permanent no-till place.

The other main things that I do to maintain permanent -- and apparently growing -- high fertility and system health include:

Humanure -- all output goes into my composting john, or the included can to collect pee, and then goes to compost, or in the case of the pee goes to feed the roots of my extensive comfrey beds (phenomenally useful as both plant and animal food, and as a deep mineral miner). I use a combination of wood-ash/charcoal, soil, sawdust, pine-wood floor duff, broadleaf-wood leaf+ litter, and any other innocent organic soak-up material to hand, in various combinations, to throw a scoop of it into the john after use. No distastefulness, no distress.

Ultra-free-range poultry-flock manure -- I'm just now growing my flock of Muscovy ducks and Sussex chickens, with manure already coming from them. These birds are selected and reared to encourage total freedom of ranging around the surrounding local landscape. No wing-clipping; birds need to be free to fly, to avoid predators. If reared close to home, they tend to return in late afternoon for the evening feed (pretty nominal in size) which lures them into the night coop. Not all come in every night, preferring to free-roost. But the coop collects a pretty good flow of manure for the growing beds, from food foraged within a roughly half-mile radius of rather neglected land, including a lake and waterways. The birds also supply eggs, meat and young replacement birds, very much on their own initiative, with minimum interference (as policy) from me. Sink or swim on their own efforts.

The predator-risk balance for the birds is tipped substantially in their favour by my three dogs, including one of a ferociously-dedicated flock-guardian breed, the Turkish Shepherd's Dog (aka Anatolian SD).

White Clover --All my beds are permanently undersown with White Clover, as both N-fixer and ground cover. Patches of soil shaded out by food plants growing above the clover are regularly re-seeded WITHOUT tillage; simply broadcasting WC seed as and when needed.

The secret superweapon: biochar! -- All my cooking and heating comes from my DIY modified Winiarski Rocket stove, which can be run precisely to make a lot of quick-fired, low-temperature charcoal (the best sort for biochar, according to current hypotheses on this re-emerging art). I guesstimate that I've already made and re-sequestered in my soils enough biochar to substantially reverse a large part of my personal all-sources lifetime carbon footprint. And this continues, of course. Fresh charcoal is broken up a little to fairly small sizes, then 'charged' with microorganisms and plant-food by soaking in drums of a compost of urine/humanure/kitchen vegetable-waste mixture, before broadcasting on the vegetable beds. Some layering and mixing in is done at the time of setting up the beds. Otherwise, fresh charged char is simply surface scattered and left to soil-churning organisms to mix in.

Comfrey tea -- made by soaking cut comfrey foliage in tubs of water for some days/weeks. Super plant food for spot-watering.

In keeping with Emilia's Fundamental Principle quoted above, all growth materials in the beds not actually harvested for use are simply left in situ to enter the soil community as they rot down. No removal, composting, processing, etc. The harvest from the sky stays where it grows.

Practical results are very good. This is just a partial snapshot of the whole permaculture system that I'm developing -- gropingly, with much pause for thought -- here. Try it and see what you can do! Good luck. RhG

What is the basis of your diet ? Grain ?

Any pics or web site ?

Some years ago Fukuoka came to america and I met him ... he loved rice cakes and almond butter.

Thanks for this. It's an excellent beginning overview of what sounds like a nice permaculture-based farm. I'll bookmark it for later reference.

What sort of climate do you live in?


RhG, thanks for an informative post
I'm leaning towards the no-till method - however, does you strict policy of 'no soil disturbance' mean that you don't grow any root vegetables, or if you do, how do you harvest?

Thanks for comments and questions. Some answers and clarifications:

Climate is British: 30-50 inches of rain a year, in different areas; mild winters, nowadays very short; Autumn goes to Spring without a lot in between. Forget the yearly media screeching of 'Omigod what weather! Never seen anything remotely like this since -- oh -- last Winter.....' It's a compulsive, meaningless bullshit ritual of the mainstream media here, designed to obscure the fact that our weather is so mild that we never do any proper investment and preparation for Winter-readiness, so the whole country grinds to a halt with half an inch of snow and five degrees of frost persisting for more than a single night.

I keep meaning to experiment more than I have so far with no-till, no-fertiliser micro-plot grain growing, following Marc Bonfils' approach, but other things keep sidetracking me. However, I do have grains -- spelt and oats -- in my diet, because I'm also a member of a CSA scheme here, and can buy newly-harvested, unprocessed grain direct from the farm. I have converted liquid-gas bottles -- the four-foot-high kind -- for secure, almost air-tight grain silos for my own use. The birds get little grain-feed. Mostly wilted comfrey, dumpster bread from my local store, but above all: forage. They don't seem to want much else. Asking for and getting a bit from me seems more of a comfort ritual for them: received with enthusiasm, but often not all cleared up. (Forgot to mention that another harvest from the birds is down and feathers)

Because of my strict intent to treat the birds well, I'm setting up to do jerky/pemmican/biltong dried meat in a smoker-dryer. But I regard it as a limited-quantity food, sort of an ultra-flavouring addition for mainly vegetable foods, since I aim only to kill surplus drakes/roosters, and then only when they're nearing natural life's end. I even have a killing system learned from on old local cat-witch, when I was a kid, for killing painlessly and without psychological distress to the creatures, involving atmosphere control within a special tight night lair, in their sleep. A carbon-dioxide gas chamber, bluntly. Also, fresh meat from chicks and -- especially -- from the Muscovys (like veal, or steak, or venison, people say) I see as an occasional treat, rather than a staple. Eggs I take only moderately, leaving the birds to brood, hatch and rear mostly. (All chosen to be good, successful parents) As well as fresh eggs, I also do pickling, as pickled eggs are a rather under-noticed Winter food store, it seems to me.

I do grow roots, and obviously harvesting involves some limited soil disturbance. I tend to follow the old idea, now proving viable again in this kind of operation, that roots are designed by nature to stay in the soil over Winter, so leave them there till needed. (I build in to all my operations the basic idea that I have NO RIGHT whatever to ALL the food that appears each year, and that I should actually expect and welcome other creatures taking their share. This saves a lot of unnecessary demonisation, and work, and heartache. I had a spectacular success with this idea over the past Summer/Autumn/Winter, when my cabbage-family plants were slaughtered by a riot of Cabbage White Butterfly caterpillars. (This was before the Muscovy numbers were up to strength) But instead of doing the whole 'zap the pests!' mindset, I just left things to do what they'd do. Some of my cabbage-tribe were reduced, literally, to skeletons. (Interestingly, though, others were untouched) Following Emilia's ideas, I just left them standing, rather than the hyper-tidy gardener's knee-jerk of 'pull up and burn/compost'. Now, EVERY SINGLE ONE has regrown to a big round bush of fresh, vigorous foliage, ready for cut-and-come-again leaf-harvesting right through the worst of the Winter.

The basic rule of thumb, which seems to work extraordinarily well, is that you try to fit in to the whole system, of which you're just one part, rather than 'owning' and 'dominating' it, taking your share, giving back your input (crucial for closed-cycling of nutrients!), and leaving all the other companion lifeforms to keep each other in balance and keep the system rich and fecund.

I can't pretend that this particular permie design is as labour-saving as a full-blown forest-garden, where skilled permaculturist forest-gardeners reckon quite normally to need to input about 10 days-worth per year (SIC!) of work to cover everything they need to do to get their shares. But certainly it's as low-labour as Ruth Stout describes in her published handbooks. I use a lot of general mulch material, following Ruth's methods, my main gathering tools being a scythe, a pitchfork and a barrow. I get good crops of potatoes, using Ruth's no-till, thick-mulch methods, directly planted on top of scythed-short turf; tubers come up very clean and disease-free, with little soil disturbance. Last year's stored crop is still supplying a staple right now, near the end of the Hungry Gap.

Mainly, the crops I plant are perennials, and frost-hardy, so that there's always a lot standing in the beds at any time of year, including now, the HG. Naturally, in our climate, this means quite a lot of cabbage-family and spinach, all of which are showing masses of fresh green right now. Leeks and garlic are two more favourites, for the same reason. Really, with successional planting you can have ready plants standing in the beds all through the year. This year too, I'm planting two more tasty perennials: Fuseau (Jerusalem Artichokes), and Crosnes (Chinese Artichokes), which are rated a gourmet food in France. More to the point, they're weed-like in their tough persistence, so don't need any coddling. Speaking of sunflowers, I also grow them too, for a storable seed-food.

I do peas and beans a lot too, also dried for storage as much as for fresh use. There are lots of good varieties of both now that will actually sun/air-dry on the vine and just need shelling before going straight to storage.

I take the view that subsistence permaculture in these Interesting Times is necessarily only fifty-percent about actually growing food. The other half is about STORAGE, for the lean seasons. Also, as they know excellently well in cultures like Russia, harvesting and storage of wild food is still, even all these millenia after the onset of the Agrarian Revolution, a vital supplementary source of best-quality, naturally-grown, perfectly-organic food. For this reason, I'm busy this year with passive, lo-tech, sun/wind-driven food dryers, for both meat and vegetables; a hand-driven press for the masses of wild fruits that grow around me; and a big glass-jar storage bank for pickled foods. I've been experimenting a lot this past nine months with krauts and kimchis, whose pickling medium is natural wild lactic acid ferments, rather than salt or vinegar, and which can be phenomenally tasty, as well as very health giving (no cooking of food involved in the preservation process; lots of kombucha-like beneficial micro-organisms grown in the lactic-acid cultures).
Traditional krauts were sometimes rather high in salt, but recent variations are ultra-low. Literally any kind of vegetable or fruit can be experimented with in krauts and kimchis, on a cabbage-family base, greatly enhancing their tastiness. Korea has multitudes of kimchi recipes: something for all tastes.

I should make clear that the actual area of land that I control myself, over a long term, is very small: about the size of a suburban garden. That's why I can't do full-blown forest gardening here, because that requires secure control of at least a few acres over a period of decades. (I do plant as many fruit and nut trees as I can, though, and not just on my own plot) However, there is a great area of wood-land, derelict quarry land, long runs of neglected ex-railway tracks, and waterways all around me. For this reason I'm able to do guerrilla permaculture, combing in lots of assets from these neglected lands, which are mainly in the nominal ownership of absentee corporations who only care about the minerals that they can extract quietly, with as little engagement as possible with the local community, and no care whatever about the land unless money can be wrung from it.

I keep meaning to set up a proper website and post lots of pictures; but that particular idea never seems to make it to the head of the priority-queue; always other, more pressing things to do first. Later -- maybe!

Excellent work! I'd love to see a website detailing your efforts!

Hi Phil, great article..i wonder if you're aware of the use of rockdust as a fertiliser?
Also the use of diluted seawater is an exciting development.
Ultimately all nutrients return to the sea, it makes sense to use this resource, in a responsible way.
I too would love to see an article about permaculture, and all the "outside the box" ways of growing, rather than focusing solely on mainstream agriculture..