Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Wealth of Nations, the Fall of Empires

At some point in the not-so-distant future, when historians set out to chronicle the Fall of the American Empire, they would do well to reference this post*.

Last week I spoke to a tree tube customer in Georgia.  Among other farming enterprises, he grows pecans.  He told me that many farmers in his area are ripping out pecan groves – perfectly good and highly profitable pecan groves – to install center pivot irrigation systems and switch to corn (that would be maize to you, Ian ;-)

Why?  Because at today’s corn prices it is even more lucrative than pecans (and, I'm guessing, because they are getting great incentives/loans to purchase all of the necessary equipment).  And why are corn prices so high?  Yes, in part it’s because of last year’s Midwestern drought.  But in large part high corn prices are due to the ethanol – in the words of my customer – “boondoggle.”

We have created a system of perverse incentives under which it makes sense to rip out a highly productive perennial woody crop which requires very little in the way of energy inputs and results in very little soil contamination/erosion, and replace it with an annual cereal crop that requires huge inputs of fossil fuels (both in the form of plowing/planting/spraying/harvesting and in the form of fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides) and results in massive soil erosion… to grow a crop intended to replace those very same fossil fuels in the tanks of our cars and trucks.

That groaning sound you just heard is the sound of the brilliant J. Russell Smith, author of Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, spinning in his grave.  Smith advocated replacing annual crops that expose our precious soil – the true wealth of this or any nation – to erosion and depletion with perennial woody crops, especially on highly erodible hillsides.  Tree Crops was originally published in 1929.  Keep that in mind as you read the following quotes:

“Forest – field – plow – desert – that is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures…” p4 of the 1950 edition.

“Plowing corn is the most efficient known way for destroying the farm that is not made of level land.  Corn, the killer of continents, is one of the worst enemies of the human future.” p4.

“We in America have another factor of destruction that is almost new to the white race – the thunderstorm.  South Europe has a rainless summer.  North Europe has a light rainfall that comes in gentle showers.  The United States has the rippling torrent that follows the downpour of the thunderstorm.  When the American heavens open and pour two inches of rain in an hour into a hilly cornfield, there may result many times as much erosion as results from two hundred inches of gentle British or German rain falling on the wheat and grass.” pp4-5.

“In this way we have already destroyed the homelands fit for the sustenance of millions.  We need an enlarged definition of treason.  Some people should not be allowed to sing ‘My Country.’  They are destroying it too rapidly.” p6.

“Must we continue to depend primarily upon the type of agriculture handed to us by primitive woman**?... Present day methods of cultivation but dimly recall the sharpened stick in the hand of primitive woman.  But we still depend chiefly on her crops, and sad to relate, our methods of which we are so proud are infinitely more destructive of soil than were those of the planting stick in the hands of Great-Grandmother ninety-nine generations ago.” p12.

It has been much, much too long since I have quoted from the Holy Verses of Tree Crops.  As always it feels both good and deeply saddening.  Good, that there was once a man among us of such piercing foresight and almost Biblical eloquence.  Saddening, to see how little his words have been heeded.

I don’t know how many gallons of fossil fuel are consumed in order to produce a gallon of ethanol.  Do you?  Please add your comments.  I would say that the ethanol “boondoggle” is the perfect example of the Law of Unintended Consequences (a program meant to reduce reliance upon fossil fuels that a) increases reliance on fossil fuels, b) puts more and more acres under the plow, c) raises corn prices to the point where it makes sense to rip up Brazilian rainforest and plant corn), but I believe that would be giving lawmakers too much credit for having good intentions in the first place.  It’s sheer, rapacious stupidity.

Meanwhile we fight about the marginal tax rate on the top 2% of income earners in this country.  Good grief.  See historians?  This is how the American Empire fell.

How to fight it?  With your wallet and with your stomach.  Buy pecans.  Eat walnuts.  Eat pistachios.  And most of all, eat acorns.  Eat anything that does not require ripping up the ground year after year.

* Note to historians in the future:  To aid in the accuracy of your footnote citations the correct spelling is “S-i-e-m-s.  You're welcome.”

** Smith’s reference to “primitive woman” – while probably historically accurate in terms of the first cultivators of the soil and sowers of grain seeds – is also metaphorical.  In other writings Smith believed that the Genesis story in which man and woman were cast out from Eden to live by the sweat of their brow literally recalls mankind’s transition from living off the natural bounty of tree crops like acorns to its ever-increasing reliance upon annual grain crops.

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