Friday, June 29, 2007

Numbers don’t lie, but the people doing the counting do, and sometimes they can’t even count…

I am amazed at how much press the distance that food travels from farm to dinner plate is getting on the web these days. “Slow food”, “the 3000 mile caesar salad”, “the 100 mile diet”… guys (and gals), you have got your eye on the wrong ball. The liquid fuel energy expended in shipping or trucking food is the absolute LEAST of all of the energy inputs, perhaps a couple of percent of the total BTU’s of agricultural inputs.

The real risk to our food supply is an insufficient supply of hydrocarbon based FERTILIZER, followed distantly by an insufficient supply of PESTICIDES. Hold on, Lefty, I’m not going to gore your sacred cow… in addition to my real job, for fun and profit I run an organic farm in Middle Tennessee where we raise dairy goats for market, and chickens, pigs, vegetables, and fruit for our table. My organic credentials aside… I want to share with you an experiment we did on the farm this year.

We took 2, 15-feet by 30-feet plots and planted corn. On 1 plot we added several inches of composted manure from our horse stalls, straw, grass clippings, leaves, wood chips and other organic matter and worked it into about 8 inches of top soil giving us about 12 inches of loosened soil on planting day and sowed with corn. On the other, we added no organic material, tilled the soil, and planted the same seed of corn. Neither plot received commercial fertilizer.

As of June 28, 2007, 8 weeks into the project, the corn in the improved soil is nearly twice the height of the corn growing in the unimproved soil. The plants are a dark, healthy green, while the corn in the unimproved soil is a sickly pail green.

We will do an exact measurement by weight and cob count at harvest, but I have a good idea of the outcome.

BTW, we did a similar experiment with tomatoes... same outcome.

The risk to our food supply is falling production per acre due to a lack of nitrogen fertilizer, which, as many of you know is made from natural gas feed stocks, not a lack of transport fuels (at least not for several decades). And, no, we don’t have enough cows, horses, goats, etc… to provide enough manure to replace the nitrogen we now get from fertilizer. So don’t worry about how far your food has traveled; worry about how far the fertilizer traveled, from where, and how much nitrogen fertilizer is available, because we can’t go organic fast enough to make up the difference.

Now, this brings up another issue: If we consume our “crop waste”, switch grass, wood chips, etc… to make cellulosic ethanol, how are we going to maintain the food production capacity of our farm land’s soil? It follows that if we don’t have enough hydrocarbons to run all of the world’s vehicles then presumably we will be in a similar predicament regarding hydrocarbon based fertilizer… is the answer then to take the organic matter out of our top soil to produce ethanol? Sure, as long as we prefer driving to eating.

Yours for a better world,

Mentatt (at) yahoo (dot) com

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