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9 thoughts on “An Experiment In Backyard Sustainability

  • May 10, 2008 at 11:17 am
    Well, I didn’t watch this either (seen too many of these already).

    What most fail to grasp, is that hthey are alive today because of not only oil and it’s derivatives, but ‘thanks to modern chemistry.

    Namely pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, herbicides, genetics, etc. Without access to these (in today’s world) life as you knew it would not have been possible (overshoot would not have happened to the extent that it has). Everyone ‘planning on’ eating the fruits of there own labor had better have a ‘fool proof’ actionable plan for coping with the inevitability of (deadly) infestations, infections, blights, etc. as well as for sourcing every macro and micro elements required for plant growth (all 16). Else, one is engaged in yet another delusional exercise in abject futility. Cover all the bases and prepare for every contingency or don’t freaking bother – IMO.
    Don’t believe it/me? Read the history of agriculture – aka civilization.

  • May 10, 2008 at 11:24 am
    If you grow it, they will come.
    (they being consumers of the 0, 2, 4, 6 and/or 8-legged varieties)
  • May 10, 2008 at 11:56 pm
    This 30-minute video link is a discussion with a guy who has made his own backyard garden behind a house he rents in Oregon. He discusses how one can grow a diverse garden, a sustainable garden that not only provides food (oats, wheat and various vegatables) for oneself, but for one’s animals.

    The gardener has created his garden with the idea of providing food for his family from the food it alone produces.

    Some of his techniques are interesting. He explains how to cultivate clover to provide a natural fertilizer for the land. He also raises chickens for eggs and he uses their manure to provide fertilizer as well (the gardener discusses a chicken coop on wheels that can be rolled over part of the dirt to provide additional fertilizer).

    The gardener also discusses the importance of planting herbs for medicines.

    He does not use pesticides on his garden, preferring to sacrifice 20% of the garden to pests, who he says, if they thrive, will themselves be eaten by other insects. In essence, he prefers to use nature to check nature rather than using pesticides.

    Finally, the gardener discusses how important it is to cultivate seeds and how he cultivates seedlings in a greenhouse that he built himself.

    Enjoy – quite inspirational!

  • May 11, 2008 at 8:51 am
    Just to reduce any confusion with my remarks, I am NOT advocating the continued use of toxins to reduce pest losses in agriculture. I am saying that you (we) are alive today because they have been applied for decades. This too shall pass. Learning of/selecting between various alternatives is not my ‘job’. Good luck with mere 20% losses! ha ha ha ha ha. BTW, F1 (hybrid) seed (varieties) are generally far more resistant (resilient) to pest and disease losses than the so-called “heirloom” varieties. Plan accordingly.
  • May 11, 2008 at 1:17 pm
    You’re right Lonewolf about the production provided by so-called industrial farming techniques (“I am saying that you (we) are alive today because they have been applied for decades”).

    But this paradigm is shifting, primarily because of peak oil and the price of gasoline.

    I’m reading a book now called “Deep Economy” by Bill McKibben (highly recommended). He points out that 80% of our fields in this country contain one of four crops: corn, rice, wheat or soy. That’s it. And to keep these fields productive, we have relied machines powered by oil, fertilizer made from oil byproducts, pesticides made of oil byproducts, and groundwater (aquifers are being depleted and wells are drying up and no one is even taking note in the corporate media).

    For example, according to McKibben, “it takes a half a gallon of oil to produce a bushel of Midwestern hybrid corn, a quarter of it is used to make fertilizer, 35 percent to power the farm machinery, 7 percent to irrigate the field, and the rest to make pesticides, to dry grain, and to perform all the other tasks of industrial farming…. Here’s the math: between 1910 and 1983, U.S. corn yields grew 346 percent. Energy consumption for agriculture increased 810 percent.”

    It is not hard to see that this is unsustainable in peak or declining oil.

    Regards water, McKibben writes, “There is a deeper issue, though, which can’t be addressed without changing pretty much everything about the way we eat: we are running out of the two basic ingredients we need to grow crops on an industrial scale. These are oil and water, and in modern agriculture they mix to provide the giant harvests of cheap food we’ve come to count on. But they’re not to be taken for granted…. Let’s look at water first. Seventy percent of the water used by human beings goes to irrigate crops. Water demand has tripled in the last half century; we have slaked this thirst by pumping from aquifers, underground layers of porous rock or sand containing water, into which wells can be sunk. The diesel-driven and electrically powered pumps that make the extraction of water possible became available around the world at roughly the same time; hence it is no surprise, writes the eco-statistician Lester Brown, that we now face ‘the near-simultaneous depletion of aquifers.'”

    McKibben says that everywhere you look, China, India, the United States, they are all “artificially inflating food production by means of an unsustainable reliance on underground water. The pumping of groundwater has generated tremendous crop yields, even compared with surface water irrigation from dams and canals… but when the water starts to run dry, that free ride is over, and farmers will have to return to growing what they can with the water that falls on their regions….”

    Unfortunately, corporations such as Cargill, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland have a huge stake in keeping us reliant on their production. McKibben illustrates the point: “The engine of this achievement has been, for a century, the relentless consolidation and concentration, a process that is now very nearly complete in the United States and is still accelerating elsewhere. Four companies slaughter 81 percent of American beef. Cargill, Inc., controls 45 percent of the globeâ’s grain trade, while its competitor Archer Daniels Midland controls another 30 percent…. Four firms control 85 percent of global coffee roasting, and a small group of multinationals handles 80 percent of the world trade in cocoa, pineapples, tea, and bananas…. Five companies control 75 percent of the global seed market, and their grip on the market is tightening as the seed companies patent more and more genetically modified varieties and prevent seed saving. As a former Monsanto executive boasted not long ago, ‘What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies; itâ’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.” Frightening, no???

    But despite these attempts by corporations to monopolize food and seed, their control is under attack from an additional factor – the cost of transporting these products to our grocery stores. Growing a head of lettuce and shipping it from CA back east requires 36 times as many calories of fossil energy than the lettuce contains. “Ship it to London,” McKibben writes, “and you use 127 times as many calories.”

    Importantly, McKibben does not throw up his hands and say the problem is unsolvable. He has traveled to Cuba, for example, where, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a tightening of the U.S. embargo (not once, but twice) under that idiot Bill Clinton, Cuba found itself deprived of machinery and food staples that they had exchanged with formerly communist economies for sugar cane. As a result, the average daily caloric consumption of the average Cuban dropped from 3,000 calories to only 1,900 calories.

    It was at this point the Cuban government shifted and began “pocket-sized urban” neighborhood garden production, employing its scientists and people in growing food on small tracts of land. And it’s been successful, restoring the caloric intake back to 3,000 calories per person. While Cuba still requires energy inputs to produce its food, these are minimal when compared to industrial farming methods. For example, neighborhood scientists cultivate fungus or bacterium to deal with pest or soil problems.

    What is required to achieve this kind of “sustainable agriculture?” Labor. McKibben says we should think of oil as labor: “Cheap oil has meant cheap synthetic fertilizer, big tractors, and everything else we associate with modern agriculture. You get more food per acre with small farms; more food per dollar with big ones.” It is the use of labor in Cuba and in other countries that is providing enough food to sustain the population, although, unlike industrial farming, no oneâ’s getting rich in its production.

    He cites data that says not only are sustainable small gardens capable of growing enough food for to sustain us, but “over time, instead of eroding soil or drying up aquifers, as industrial agriculture does, small-scale, low-input farming yields new benefits….” To make his point, McKibben describes a remote village in Honduras where a farmer has intercropped beans with corn, resulting in increased soil nitrogen and improved yields. He now grows 28 types of crops and trees, and provides food for chickens, rabbits, cattle, and horses. The farmers topsoil is no more than a few centimeters deep, and beneath it is hard bedrock, “but in the fields where (he) grows legumes as green manures and uses composts, the soil is thick, dark, and spongy to step on. In some places on the farm, the soil is more than a half meter deep.”

    The key thing according to McKibben, is that this is sustainable. Will it as easy as going down to the grocery store and buying packaged food? No. But it is possible. The video that admin posted gives you a peak at how it can be done.

    This combined with rainwater capture and solar energy points to survivability in an age of increasing scarcity. McKibben suggests that over the decade, experiments going on worldwide prove it can be done. In fact, I’ve read that the typical suburban backyard could be engineered to produce a similar food crop.

    A cautious note of optimism, in the midst all of the doom and gloom.

  • May 11, 2008 at 5:59 pm
    Actually, Lonewolf, a lot of ‘heirloom’ seeds are F1’s. Hybrids have been around a LONG time. The Rutgers tomatoes I’m growing are hybrids, the heirloom spinach and carrots I’m growing are hybrids, etc. I’ll save the seeds, but they are going to produce some ‘intersting’ offspring over the next generations.

    I’ve been thinking about the ‘hybrids vs inbreds’ thing for a while. I’m thinking that the genetic diversity provided by an assortment of hybrid seeds of tomatoes, for example, will be a better thing than having just one or two different varieties of inbreeds. Yes, the spawn of the hybrids won’t be uniform. But that genetic diversity might give at least a few of the offspring a better chance to adapt to whatever the climate changes will be. At least that’s what I’m hoping.


  • May 12, 2008 at 5:31 am
    All of logarithmic’s notes show us why oil will continue to increase in price… even at 10 times the price, there is no cheaper labour equivalent. When it takes 18 minutes for one man to precisely seed an acre of corn using oil-powered machinery, what’s your alternative? We are now dependent on the level of production that this allows.

    The stuff in the video sounds like the usual permaculture stuff — try to build an ecosystem on a small scale that self-sustains itself and takes care of its own pests; build plants in guilds that reinforce each other and protect each other and attract predators that will not harm your crop but instead will take care of the pests. And don’t put all of your crops in one big homogenous group because it becomes a magnet for pests that like those crops. It takes time and patience and experimentation because it depends on your local and even micro-climate, so is hard to teach on a large scale.

    Anyway, it seems that most North Americans only have experience with growing grass — something that is not edible for humans and, even if it was, would not be advisable as a food source because of the pesticide contamination. Dandelions and plantain, on the other hand — the most common weeds in lawns in this area — are edible.

  • May 12, 2008 at 7:26 pm
    I’ve long suspected the so-called advantages of corporate-produced hybrids over open-pollinated heirloom crop varieties is mostly hype. Native Americans have grown drought resistant food crops for centuries, having selected for the best each year. Same with pest resistance. In a given crop, the grower can select the most pest resistant of the batch and that is the seed for next year.
    Further, ACRES, U.S.A., had an article in the not too distant past about how hybrids (corporate produced) have been shown in some research to have a reduced ability to chelate trace minerals from the soil, leaving them deficient in those minerals needed for various plant actions or plant attributes. Give me open pollinated varieties any day.
    Last but not least, according to yet another ACRES article, or interview, pests and diseases attack unhealthy plants and unhealthy plants usually result from unhealthy soil. I have noticed that since we have begun to use homemade compost along with bat guano, wood ash, and slow-acting rock phosphate for garden amendments, that we rarely see tomato worms, whereas years ago we saw, and fought, them constantly.

    Another main reason for pests is the huge monocropping done by agribusiness. The small gardener won’t have that problem at least.

  • May 13, 2008 at 10:18 am
    Thanks for the link (acres usa) Lynda. This gardening thing is all new to me. But like admin says, get with the program.

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