Posted October 12, 2006: When I was small, my family lived
in a little community not far from where I live now. Often
I drive the two-lane blacktop through the remains of that
town. Past the cemetery where my parents lie, past the school
where I began first grade (now a private home), past the site
of the township hall where we schoolchildren recited poems
and performed skits for the Community Club, then over the
abandoned railroad and across the creek.
My journey is peopled with memories. But only memories, for
now I don't meet anyone on the road, nor do I see anyone in
the fields or farmyards I pass.
When I reach the small farm where my aunt and uncle lived,
all that changes. An interstate highway cuts across what was
once their land. And on it the traffic is ceaseless. One side
is a torrent of cars and trucks rushing west, the other an
equal torrent rushing east. The contrast with the deserted
road on which I travel is jarring.
When the freeway was built, residents of our village and
others believed that it would bring commerce. Gas stations
and restaurants sprang up at every interchange.
They soon failed. People got on the freeway, but none left
it. Those interchanges could have been built with no off ramps.
But perhaps they will be used someday. As world population
and demand outstrip fossil fuel supply, our present industrial
farming practices will no longer be possible. No alternative
fuel has the qualities—portability and energy returned
for energy invested in production—that make fossil fuel
the lynchpin of industrial agriculture.
Thanks to cheap fossil fuels, farmers today can treat every
acre pretty much the same. Diesel powered machinery can till
any soil type. Fertilizer produced using natural gas compensates
for variations in natural fertility. Pesticides manufactured
from petroleum kill weeds and insects for the whole growing
Very few farmers are needed to manage this industrial process.
And consumers can live far from the field, as trucks transport
the average bite of food 1,600 miles from farm gate to dinner
Good crop yields can be achieved without fossil fuel, but
much more care is required. Every farm, every field, every
acre requires individual attention, with careful consideration
given to just the right crop for the land, and the best cultural
practices for the crop. Operations must be carefully timed
to control weeds and pests, and years-long crop rotations
must be planned to assure fertility. It will take many more
farmers on the land to supply the necessary knowledge, care
If you are in one of the cars rushing by on the freeway,
your efforts are just as important as mine as a farmer to
develop post-fossil fuel agriculture. Part of the solution
is political. To a large extent, the present rural landscape
in much of America is the result of federal policy that subsidizes
massive production of just a few, easily industrialized crops—corn,
soybeans, wheat. This policy has caused the loss of soil,
biodiversity, localized food markets and farmers, resulting
in a fragile system dependent on increasingly tight and insecure
supplies of petroleum.
Agricultural subsidies must be unhooked from production and
tied to good farming practices. This will preserve the soil
we all depend on to eat, and make our food supply less dependent
Even if you live in a city, your legislator votes on farm
legislation just as mine does, and your taxes pay the subsidies.
Let your legislator know what you want.
On a personal level, you can seek out craftsman farmers and
support them by buying and eating what they grow. These farmers
have the know-how we will need more of. Live too far from
the farm? Try farmers' markets and food co-ops. Yes, it's
more work. Post-fossil fuel consuming will require more care
and effort, just as post-fossil fuel farming will.
Better still, use that off ramp. Wherever you are going,
remember that someone in the oncoming lanes is rushing away
from there. It's probably not that great a place. Exit now.