Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Gardening Then & Now

Two nifty films I've found in the past week.

Sometimes folks use the words "conventional" or perhaps "modern" to describe how most farmers (and gardeners) do things today. "Industrial" sometimes is used, and "organic" especially since it was codified by USDA for use as a marketing term doesn't necessarily mean what many thought it did -- and thus is born the type of farming called "Industrial Organic." Might be an interesting Venn diagram to draw one day!

More then anything else, I guess you'd describe modern (the style that became dominant after World War II) as "high standardized external inputs" -- add self-propelled machines, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides at specified levels to achieve X result (from which commercial farmers also need to pay a decent finance charge to the bank for the money you borrowed to get going for the year.) Many "Industrial Organic" folks do just that, they just substitute different things for fertilizer and pesticides compared to the Industrial Non-Organic world.

WWII had many impacts -- one is mentioned in the first video, alternative pesticides were recommended. Although one specifically mentioned in the video is a mineral-derived pesticide, other synthetic pesticides were increasingly popular. The war had disrupted supplies of what's today considered organic insecticides like rotenone* and pyrethrum, just like it had disrupted supplies of natural rubber and silk. Synthetic pesticides could be manufactured from petroleum, something that didn't have to be shipped through war zones. Similarly, the Muscle Shoals Munitions Plant was built in World War I to supply nitrates for the war effort. Afterwards it was auctioned off to produce fertilizer with the caveat the Government could take control and re-convert it to producing nitrates for explosives in the event of a war; this kept the plant active and maintained instead of being mothballed to rust away. Come WWII it was greatly expanded, and after the war once again a market was needed to keep the plant producing nitrates so at a moments notice it could support a war effort again**.

With the switch to modern input-driven farms and gardens, a lot of the more intensive "brain power" of observing and adapting to local conditions withered. It didn't die, but greatly reduced to pockets here and there. Folks turned to simple answers in charts in pamphlets published by the Universities and commercial enterprises; the complex calculus of nature was reduced to simple, discrete arithmetic that took a lot less time and thinking to figure out.

But there's also something I'm sure about -- the best of our modern thinkers about the "old way" of integrated systems and lower inputs have pushed the state of the art beyond "the good old days." The knowledge may not be as widespread, but at least in a few folks like Coleman and Joel Salatin and the like it's a deeper knowledge and greater wisdom then the best of the best had several generations ago.

And Elliot Coleman today -- the first 14 minutes of the audio is really poor quality, so you may want to fast forward through that. That still leaves an hour of wonderful stuff:

* I'm asterisking rotenone since it's largely being withdrawn from the market as I type; EPA asked for more information from the companies that sold it in order to keep listing it as an insecticide due to concerns about water pollution and Parkinson's Disease. The companies decided not to spend the money on the research and instead asked for several years to wind down their operations. The date the last supplies may be shipped from their warehouses is July 14, 2011.

It will remain listed as a piscicide since it's the only poison fish & game departments consider 100% effective at killing fish -- and it's used to combat invasive species by killing all fish in a body of water followed by re-stocking with only native species.

** We forget how many things tie back to national security. We had a need (perceived at least) to keep up a nitrate manufacturing capacity in case of a future war, so we encouraged farmers to use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to provide a market to fund the plant. We had a need, again at least a perceived need, to build a lot of atomic bombs in a hurry so civilian nuclear energy was guided to using reactor designs that produced feedstock for nuclear weapons programs.

(Oakridge consumed more power in World War II making the fissile material for four bombs then all of Canada! After Trinity and the two bombs dropped on Japan, a fourth was in reserve and it would take Oakridge another six months to produce enough material for a fifth bomb. This was not something the Government could scale up in a race with the Soviets)

We have a nuclear waste "problem" today because it was never intended to be waste -- the spent fuel rods were supposed to have been re-processed into either bomb material or new fuel rods. Jimmy Carter halted reprocessing plans as part of a nuclear non-proliferation strategy, which left the Government holding the bag for what do with the "waste" that they had wanted produced in the first place and now wouldn't allow to be recycled. Private enterprise would've likely chosen lower cost designs that didn't produce as much waste if they had been told from the start they'd be on the hook for it.

The idea for an Interstate Highway System already existed before World War II; but experiences with motorized warfare, Germany's Autobahn, and relative vulnerability of bombing rail lines reinforced the importance of one. With the advant of single weapons that could destroy a central city in a flash, decreasing density of both residences and offices made good strategic sense -- defense by diffusion; and with plenty of land in the U.S. and plenty of synthetic fertilizer to boost yields on what remained in production, we didn't have the constraints of small nations in Europe each trying to maintain enough farmland to be suburban expansion made sense to us where it didn't necessarily make the same sense to Europe.

Oh, and they created this highly decentralized, self-healing computer network designed to survive attacks called the "internet."

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