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
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 season.
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 plate.
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 and craftsmanship.
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 on oil.
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
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.