By now, even the mainstream media widely acknowledges the fertilizer shortage. Between fertilizer shortages, drought, shipping problems, and fuel shortages we face an ugly winter. And naturally, the technocratic class has been using this situation to bemoan the “Folly of Organic Farming,” as Bjorn Lomborg (same Bjorn?) called it in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, pointing to the coming food crisis as another reason why we need to trust scientists and academic experts for everything.
Don’t panic. If you’re interested in growing some of your own food but are not sure where to start, talk of the fertilizer shortages may find you feeling helpless and confused. Don’t let the issues surrounding commercial food production discourage you from starting your own urban/suburban food production scheme.
Organic food production is not as ridiculous as people like Mr. Lomborg like to make it sound. I say this as someone who has been producing much of her own food organically, both in a suburban and a semi-rural setting, for years. But we need to mentally separate the issues surrounding industrial-scale food production from what you’re likely to encounter in planning your own garden.
Large-scale commercial farming does face serious problems.
In my area, it’s already noticeable. I attend a church about 25 miles away, and I drive through farm country to get there. I’ve been going there for years. Normally, there is a mixture of corn, alfalfa, hay, and sunflowers, but mostly corn. This year there’s far less corn. People have been planting more alfalfa because it doesn’t take much fertilizer.
Modern plant varieties have been bred to produce heavily with a lot of chemical inputs.
Correspondingly, the chemical inputs have depleted much of the microbial life within the soil. So, yes, if you develop a system with plants that rely on chemicals and then remove the chemicals, this will badly affect your crop yield. That is happening right now in Sri Lanka, as Mr. Lomborg points out in his article, and used as a blanket condemnation of organic agriculture.
But organic farming is more than just not dumping chemicals on your plants.
It’s a system of feeding the soil that feeds your plants. If you want to learn more about producing your own food, do some research. My personal favorite books on the subject are Howard Garrett’s Texas Gardening the Natural Way and John Seymour’s The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It.
I have practiced this style of gardening both in a humid subtropical climate and in a semiarid steppe climate. Gardening in a semiarid steppe is very difficult. Making compost takes longer because of the low humidity and rainfall. I also need to enclose everything to protect both the plants and the compost heap from the wind. It’s difficult, but not impossible.
Conventional wisdom states that only high-efficiency, industrial-scale agriculture can feed the world. Proponents of industrial agriculture point to the huge gains in crop yields made since the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. They also point to regularly-occurring famines in various parts of the world as evidence that we need to produce more food.
However, famines have many causes besides environmental constraints.
The biggest famines of the past 100 years have been caused not by environmental disasters but by political ones. Both the Soviet famine in the 1930s and the Chinese famine in the late 1950s occurred when Communist governments collectivized agriculture.
The famines occurring in Africa today are political. The Yemenis are starving to death, not because they can’t produce food and not because others don’t have food to share; but because their farmland has been targeted for destruction and the Saudis have only allowed small amounts of aid.
(Looking at learning how to can the food that you produce? Check out our free QUICKSTART Guide on the subject.)
Grain yields have dramatically increased over the past 60 years.
But humans cannot live by bread alone, at least not optimally. Most of us need meat, veggies, and maybe some dairy thrown in as well. The yields for these have increased, largely due to the fact that grain-fed cattle put on weight faster than grass-finished. However, there is a tradeoff here: the cattle themselves are less healthy since they are not meant to eat grain. Grain-fed cattle often need additional inputs in the form of various medications. The system is less efficient than many people might think when you start counting for all the needed inputs besides food.
However, you can raise cattle (and goat or lamb) on grass, water, a salt block, and maybe a little bit of grain if you live in a cold climate. Does it take longer? Yes.
Is it impossible? No. How do I know this? I have raised goats and sheep for meat myself this way, and I’ve watched friends raise grass-finished cattle. If you already have land, you don’t necessarily need a huge supply chain to produce your own meat. It just takes time, effort, and a willingness to learn.
Of course, most people don’t have enough land to raise their own meat, except maybe some quail, rabbits, or chickens.
But urban/suburban gardeners can often grow quite a bit of their own vegetables, which most of us should be eating more of anyway, relative to grain products. And a lot of people did this, in both Britain and the U.S., during World War II.
Now, the technocratic class likes to point to backyard gardens and hobby farms as silly, inefficient, and little more than a way for bored housewives to entertain themselves.
But actual research into what kind of farming produces the most calories per acre is not on their side. Limited “calories per acre” research exists because none of the big groups that can afford large studies would benefit from encouraging people to produce their own food. However, a study done in Britain revealed that, during WWII, home gardeners produced about 10% of the nation’s vegetables on less than 1% of its arable land being cultivated.
We need to keep in mind that this was before the Green Revolution, and crops were not being produced as efficiently on a large scale as they are today. So, the difference today may not be quite as dramatic, but it’s still there. The Green Revolution increased yields, but not by a factor of ten.
Anecdotally, many people know this to be true.
Of course, hobby farmers themselves believe this, but I first heard it from people in academia. I majored in ecology. Many of my professors said that small, bio-diverse farms produced the most calories per acre. I was intrigued because I’d never heard that from anyone else. When I started my adventure in food production, yes, I was just another at-home mom with babies and toddlers, looking for ways to save money and keep the kids entertained. But everything I have observed over the past fifteen years has confirmed what my professors said.
Small, bio-diverse farms do not make any one group wealthy. They provide a nice (though hardworking) lifestyle for families and quality food for small communities, but because of the relatively small inputs, they don’t enrich anyone else.
They also don’t provide the kind of food most of us grew up eating. If we were all supporting small local farms, those of us in cold climates wouldn’t be getting fruit year-round, other than what we preserved ourselves.
We’d have to cook from scratch a lot more, and we’d have to learn to eat seasonally.
This is not the same as starving. This is how a lot of people lived before NAFTA or before the various trade agreements comparable to NAFTA in Europe. I have an older Danish friend who grew up only getting oranges at Christmas as a special treat because they were so expensive. She still grew up eating good food, just mostly food that grows in and around Denmark.
It’s true that many people in poorer nations may starve.
But organic agriculture isn’t the villain. Again, the truth is extremely complicated, involving trade agreements, land prices, and relative levels of corruption. I don’t know the local conditions for each and every country, but knowing many American farmers as well as immigrants from Mexico, I can say that NAFTA has been disastrous for small farmers in both countries. Due to the vastly cheaper labor in Mexico, American fruit producers cannot compete with Mexican fruit prices. Due to American grain harvesting technology, Mexicans cannot compete with American grain prices.
This has resulted in many American fruit growers going out of business and an estimated 2 million Mexican farmers being displaced as of 2019.
But this does not mean that fruit will not grow in the vast majority of the U.S. or that grain will not grow in Mexico!
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We don’t need a million and one new technological innovations to feed ourselves.
We need an end to the price tampering and trade agreements that benefit the few at the expense of the many. We need to stop consolidating food production. We need to change our expectations regarding the availability of cheap processed food. Do not let yourself be discouraged by experts insisting that technological expertise is needed to feed the world.
Technology has given us a wide variety of cheap foods. Believe me, I do enjoy mangoes and avocados as much as the next person. However, the system producing that technology is on the verge of collapse. Food is about to become far more precious, but that does not mean we all have to starve.
Family members during the Depression worked in the coal mines during the day and then tended their gardens after work.
It was hard, but they survived.
We can survive too.
Don’t throw up your hands in despair at the naysayers saying how ridiculous suburbanites are for trying to grow their own food. Could you support your family 100% on an eighth of an acre? No. But can you put a dent in your grocery bill? Probably, and every bit will help. (Here’s our very best advice on gardening in small spaces.)
Successful low-input gardening takes time and mental energy. But why not start now? If you feel inspired to start producing your own food, run with it. Just make sure you start composting when you start gardening so that you have food for your plants. Will your garden be fantastically productive the first year? Maybe, maybe not. Mine wasn’t.
I planted things at the wrong time. It took a few years to nail down the correct varieties and planting dates for my climate and to really build my soil’s fertility.
Few worthwhile things in life come easily.
But what else are you doing with your time? The days of being able to grab whatever you want at the store are coming to an end, whether you want to believe it or not. You can choose to spend your free time this summer streaming shows and goofing off online, or you can begin projects that will enrich your life.
There will never be a better time to start.
What about you?
Are you gardening this year? Are you using organic methods? Share your thoughts on the future of food in the comments.
About Marie Hawthorne
A lover of novels and cultivator of superb apple pie recipes, Marie spends her free time writing about the world around her.
I so agree! The centralized food system never was a healthy option, and IMO we need to get back to basics. Stop eating the processed food and grow what you can! There are several urban agriculture initiatives that are making a difference in their communities. Look up Detroit, for example. Rooftop gardens are very popular and make good use of urban spaces. It CAN be done! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I think many would be astounded to see what a passive Kratky system can produce. Now is the time to go for it!
I’m not demonizing it but I’m saying use sense.
There are other factors not mentioned. Sri Lanka for instance failed because it lacks the size and resources to accomplish it.
Your gardening but not producing tons of corn/wheat/soybeans/hay etc. Big difference.
We garden organic but we farm different because that’s what is required to accomplish it.
We grass feed but grain finish because we like the marbling especially on breeds like Belted Galloways that have a lower percentage of body fat. There are specialty markets, butchers and farms for those who want only this or that but major consumption wants marbling in their steak.
I agree with you Matt. While I agree with the spirit of the article it should be digested with some common sense.
As far as animal husbandry is concerned. For example; I’m grass a fed/finished operation, no grain at all. Ever. but I’m not organic. Reason for this..? it is my opinion that organic animal husbandry practices are tantamount to animal cruelty. If one of my girls gets sick and needs therapeutic antibiotics you can bet your bank account balance I’m going to treat her to get her better. Then if she needs culled I will go through the length of the withholding before she is culled or processed. I know of organic dairies that won’t treat a hot quarter in a cow, so, she’s sent down the road to become someone else’s problem. I see sheep dying in the same pastures because folks don’t rotate the parasitic lifecycle and the organics wont let them be treated with prohibit or cydactin.
No, organic is wonderful, but this world needs food right now. One can do it for themselves and sell or trade excess, but horsepower feeds the big market.
I agree with a lot of what Matt in Ok and ~Jim say.
I think, if things continue as they are or if they get even worse next year, we may not only have to re-think how we farm on all scales (i.e. going with out fertilizer and the reduced crop yields), but how we eat.
A meat for every dinner might have to become 3 or 4 days a week only. I predict the return of the casserole and left over night.
I am lucky that I deep pack the livestock over winter. Muck that out in the spring, and then let it compost. This year we got into the compost mound from 2019.
I do the same thing for cows and sheep. Keep adding to the deep straw pack weekly and let it bake and compost in place. I let the sheep pack cook for two years in place but clean out the cow barn late spring every year. Spread it onto the the compost pile (this acts like turning one’s compost bin) and take off the lee side (the previous years heap)to spread after first cutting hay is taken.
Deep straw bedding is the only way to go for me. Healthy dry animals and really nice composted manure for the land.
The militants of the organic movement had no faith that farmers and ranchers would do right by their land twenty years ago and tried running farms from a computer on a desk. I looked at it this way. Make an appointment, Come to my farm. If you like what you see, great. If not keep looking. I have no idea why someone would lie about a product they produce when it’s so easy to disprove that lie. Just my opinion.
Right you are!
I do the same with what I call “waste” hay, the stuff that falls into the breeze way. There is enough there to keep the beasties warm and dry even in the single digits temps. Generates a degree of heat too. When mucking out, you can feel the heat coming off the compost.
Oh, good point about breaking the worm cycle. I move everyone every two days. Dont rotate back to a paddock for at least 45 days if at all. I do my own fecal testing, and it works great.
Jim you get it.
First off I’m not losing thousands of dollars for feel good sitting on a reed mat thoughts. Second I care enough about the animals and plants, even though they are food, to care for them.
I don’t think there is a solid understanding between gardening, hobby farming and bulk farming and the same for real ranching vs hobby goats and stuff.
I know of one true certified organic FARM. They even use a certified organic butcher down in Texas. An uncooked whole chicken last spring was $35-40. Yall can do the math on 1200lbs of beef. Then you can do the inflation math.
Doing 80-200 sale cattle or bringing in TONS of wheat/corn/hay etc. is wayyyy different than a backyard garden.
I’ve got backyard chickens and garden, then I’m helping build a homestead with my niece and husband and then I help my buddy with a major cattle operation. There are similarities but more major differences.
Everyone needs to operate in their capacity and capability but as you stated THE WORLD NEEDS FOOD and right NOW. This ain’t the time to play games.
Matt in OK,
Right you are about the world needs food.
Unfortunately food security is going to be an issue in the coming months and I fear years for some countries and even here in America, as a number of the poor are feeling the pain of inflation now.
Watched an interview with a farmer, and he said some thing to the effect of, “You do not need a dentist, or a lawyer, everyday. But you need a farmer, everyday.” Many do not consider that, but every time you plate up that evenings meal, it came from a farmer. Might be a farmer here in America, might be one from another country or the other side of the world. Regardless, it came from a farmer.
As for organic or conventional gardening, for every thing you can plant, grow and harvest yourself, keeps more cash in your pocket, and that much food secure.
I think there is room for everything in the mix.
I have a small flock of laying hens and a garden, all organic. I try to buy organic grains for baking my own bread.
But most of the meat I buy is conventional, unless I can find organic meat on sale.
I like knowing what is in my food, which is why I grow organically. I also like to have some degree of food independence. I don’t trust that the system will function flawlessly, especially now. And I do save money by raising a good chunk of my own food.
But I am retired and on a fixed income, so I have to go with conventionally raised food on some things. I am grateful to all the farmers and ranchers, organic or conventional, who work so hard to put food on my table. Ditto to all the folks in the supply chain.
God bless you all!
I have been gardening for over 50 years and have never gardened any way other than organically. We only purchase organic kelp, diatomaceous earth, and this year we started using mycorrhizal fungi. Most of our “soil food” is chicken manure (from our chickens), grass clippings, and autumn leaves. This year we plan to grow at least 90% of our caloric intake on our acre and a half. We also don’t use tillers or tractors in our garden.
Although organic farming has lots of merit, there are some downside to its widespread use if not slowly integrated into the farming culture. Look a Sri Lanka right now. The government there basically outlawed use of commercial fertilizer last year. The result? Inadequate crops and famine is coming soon. They have riots already and the people are going after those who are in charge. Look it up.
Putting in terraces on our hillside based on what we grew there this year.
We use the “deep bedding” also. Make an awesome soil additive along with compost (or mixed in). Learned a lot this year based on our soil types…
Long ways to go…Gosh I hope Ant7 adds some “pearls of wisdom;” no post would be complete without that!
I read an Acres USA article about terraces in India and how well it worked. They also retained water that much better. Thank you for bringing that up.
And than you for the laugh! 🙂
To anyone whom is interested about “deep pack” manure beds and have livestock, I highly recommend the late Gene Logsdon (RIP) book, Holy Sh!t, How Managing Manure Will Save Mankind. Disclaimer, I get no monies from recommending his book. I just think the man was on to more than many give him credit for. I did trade a few emails with him. He truly was a great soul.
If people are hungry enough they’ll eat without asking if the food is GMO or organic.
Just look up Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. Anyone who thinks organic farming is a joke or “hobby” will eat their words.
Look, I like Joel. I’ve watched him for years, read his articles, and attended a grazing seminar specifically to listen to him. Furthermore, he is right on so many things, and I respect him immensely. His operation and mine are very, very similar.
But! Don’t mistake. Joel is a good businessman, author and speaker/activist first. What Joel can do in Virginia, is swell where a man can get 9 months of grazing in. Here in northern Pa we get 5-1/2. The rest of the year is spent dealing with snow ass deep to a giant giraffe or mud so thick it’ll float a skidsteeer. I’d like to see Joel plug in his system in western Montana or North Dakota where the winters are so cruel they would bring the wicked witch of the west to her senses.
And, one more thing on Joel. I’d like very much to see his operation sustain its current numbers and production without all his “interns”. Production goals are a piece of cake when you’ve got 5-10 kids rotating through the farm quarterly to tend the herds, flocks and bunny barn.
Every system has its advantages and disadvantages. Joel’s system works well. So does mine. But I’d wager Joel couldn’t make the books balance if he had to tend that land and livestock solo with his wife. My operation peaked last year at 210 ewes and 60 cows/calves. I’m 51 and after a life of hard labor am downsizing to a max of 50 ewes and 10 cow calf pairs with three dopey dairy cows. I’m ready to concentrate on providing hay for my neighbors while they’re young and strong so they can succeed. I’m ready for a challenge that’s is forward looking now, which is why I’m building a small slaughter operation.
Holistic farming is far more labor intensive than modern farming. I know because I do it every day. It’s 05:15 I’m going to run fences now with my first cup of coffee topped with fresh skimmed raw Jersey cream.
Well I’m the only one who said hobby so: Hobby Farming is a term used for small acre farming with folks that have regular jobs but still raise livestock and grow crops.
No one called his farm or any other a “hobby”.
In fact there is a magazine and website called Hobby Farming dedicated to these.
This right here is part of the problem. Definition
I’m attempting to use organic methods in my tiny urban food garden, BUT when it comes to survival and producing the volumes we need we have to be realistic about using less organic inputs if needed. I don’t keep animals yet, but when I do get my chicken coop set up, I will do whatever it takes to keep my chickens alive and healthy and productive.
As a general principle though, I see regenerative farming at much smaller scales than those huge monocrops.
We’ve only got one true certified organic farm that I know of in our area. They use a certified organic butcher down in Texas. A whole chicken ready to cook was $35 last fall. You can do the inflation math from there.