Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Small farms for the 21st century survival

From time to time I’m told  “progress” is one-directional, towards a better society, that science and an evolution of ideas is leading this human race out of barbarism and poverty.

Except, of course, that there are “too many people.”

The trend into cities and off rural lands is supposed to be part of this progress. Cities are “where it’s at.” This trend has been well documented by Louis Mumford in The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, a 1961 National Book Award winner. I found it a fresh read about 45 years after first publication.

There is no doubt the movement continues, or that the organic nature of modern cities will make them more fantastic within the near future. To some extent, and for some segments of human populations, the city “works” and is livable. That tens of millions of people will begin and end their lives without traveling more than ten miles from their birthplace I have no doubt. This has been true of places like New York City and Mexico City for decades.

However, the same technology that has allowed and stimulated growth of mega-cities has great potential to disperse very large numbers of people back to the rural areas from which earlier generations have fled. I believe the future of humanity depends largely on this happening.

Yes, I know. Small farms, and a return to the backbreaking work of mule-based farming that enslaves whole families to a small plot of land, barely able to eke out an existence? Oh, yeah, another fringe-nut with old Utopian Society ideas already tried and proven to fail. Go harvest your wing nuts from your orchard . . .

Here and now, in this autumn of 2011, thousands of tons of crops in the Southeast and the Northwest have gone unharvested for lack of labor. Georgia’s Department of Agriculture reported that 11,800 jobs went unfilled, causing crops to rot on the ground, and contributed to escalating food prices. Will this trend continue?

It’s recently been reported that George Soros, the president’s primary financial backer, has been collecting farmlands like a trash hoarder collects community discards. Meanwhile, his ideological Internet “rag” AlterNet attacks the Monsanto naked agenda to incrementally gain control of the world’s food crop seed supply. Attacking Monsanto’s devious agenda is a good thing. Add to this one T. Boone Pickens, miserly billionaire, who has been buying as much underground aquifer acreage as he can, especially in West Texas. There is a pattern building.

Step back to 1979 and the publication of an extremely important book: Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, Frances Moore Lappé (with Joseph Collins), Houghton Mifflin, 1977, Ballantine Books. It will not take a reader long to realize that premises upon which mega-cities are built and populated are flimsy, and faulty. The Green Revolution touted from the 1950s to the present was a failure for several reasons, yet it created its own myth by edict of governments supporting future billionaires involved. Critical analysis tells us that per-acre yields have dropped significantly, typically 30% or more under the food revolution, yet high-yielding small farms were forced to close, merged into mega-farms.

Thus began the modern debacle of monoculture and industrial agriculture. Lack of diversity in crops is major high-stakes roulette. Hundreds of millions of lives depend upon a narrow set of factors that may well lead to massive crop failures. It only takes one to cause a global famine.

The alternative insurance policy against global famine is small acreage farming and a return to family farming. Not only over there, but here in America. Consider this insurance that pays immediate benefits to the family involved in farming without a disaster hitting. It gets better. A five-acre plot, or even a one-acre place, is enough land to feed a family of four. In most places in the United States, a small piece of land prudently managed can free a typical family of much of their current dependency on the electrical grid, most heating or cooling bills, and a greatly reduced food bill. The cost of living can and should be greatly reduced; most families with one to five acres and a diverse selection of crops will find it easy to build a surplus at the end of most months and certainly at the sum of the year.

Raised-bed farming, permaculture, high-tunnels, earth-bermed or solar-block greenhouses, composting, goat-keeping . . . these are a few of many available options that make small farms viable today. Add to this solar and wind energy sources combined with the latest generations of storage batteries and energy inverters, and selling surplus power back to a grid utility becomes another option for many.

Still, the best reason to take steps away from the city, in addition to the above life enhancements, is that doing so gives a family far greater control over pressing issues that make all of us vulnerable. An imploding global economy, expectation that the Euro will tank, the dollar will fall, and who knows what follows all of that? To become self-reliant is the greatest gift you can give yourself and your family this year and in the near future. It also helps your community, your state, and all other inhabitants of this planet.

Things can change that fast. It is prudent to be prepared.