I spent the better part of the weekend cleaning up the detritus left behind the melting snow; where heaps of it had been piled up from plowing all winter there remained random piles of wood chips, abandoned toys, broken garden stakes and the like. No matter how well prepared you think that you are before the first storm hits there are always things forgotten and left behind that are buried in drifts and stay that way until the big thaw leaves them out in the open again, like tide lines at the beach. I moved load after load of wood chips to the sacrifices where the herds gathered all winter to suck up the muck and add carbon to the composting manures, brought out the splitters and added another ten cords of logs to the saw yard to be cut up in blocks. Towards the end of the day I raked out the raised beds and planted seeds; arugula, Russian kale, butter crunch, snow peas and radishes. Our larder had become so bare that the only vegetables we have left from the fall are two butternut squashes, maybe ten pounds of soft and sprouted potatoes and some garlic. We still have the mason jars of preserved dilly beans and the like, but fresh vegetables — nada. The American Indians of the northeast refered to the last full moon as the Starving Moon, for obvious reasons. The preserved stores were either in short supply or gone completely, the game scarce, the earliest plants yet to germinate. The maple sap served as a bridge, the precious sugars something to tide them over until the warmth of spring set in for good.
Americans depend on two forms of sustenance — imported and domestically produced. In some ways we handle our need for food in a manner that makes it readily available year round for a smaller fraction of our annual income than most countires do. In some ways, not so much. We produce most of our own vegetables, but only a fraction of our seafood. Corn and its by products are readily available and inexpensive at the point of purchase for example, but were it not for massive government subsidies, enormous amounts of petrochemical inputs and copious use of genetically modified seed resistant to herbicides and pesticides along with supply chains that reach across a continent, it would be unobtainable for most. Those supply chains, fertilizers, herbicides and distribution channels are also dependent entirely on cheap oil which as many have noticed has not gotten much cheaper even as the price per barrel has declined on a global market reeling from prolonged economic contraction. An interesting side note is that today 98% of our population depends upon the output of 2% for 100% of their daily dietary needs. Most Americans have little or no idea where their food comes from, how to produce it on their own or even — based on the obesity levels of today — how to eat for the purpose of living a healthy life. In any other place or time this would be considered as disasterous for a nation, something worth addressing if not altering. In another place, or time, that is.
The water shortages in California pose an interesting set of problems for the US food chain and the future of the United States. Unlike more pressing social issues, like pizzerias who refuse to host hypothetical gay wedding receptions, where the majority of produce Americans consume comes from is not as alarming or newsworthy, obviously. It is worth noting, however that should the problem continue and it appears as if that is the trend, people should prepare to either live without, or pay a premium for a wide vairety of foods in the not too distant future, like walnuts, plums, celery, spinach, lettuce, carrots, brocolli and citrus. Forget the drought in California for a moment and imagine what the result of something like a war in the Middle East would mean to domestic fuel prices should the flow ever slow down or, God forbid, stop entirely. What would the effect be on the supply chain? On the cost of staples like corn and soybeans and their pass through costs in feeds for things like chicken, beef and pork? The era of cheap food, like the era of cheap oil is a fragile premise, built on a lot of assumptions, supported by a lot of ignorance on a massive scale. The care and feeding of over a third of a billion mouths on a daily basis, 365 days a year based on work and collective knowledge less than 2% of the population when everything is fine is going to be a slightly bigger challenge should any one of the supporting foundations crumbles. The vagaries of climate and weather, supply chains and loss of adequate numbers of people capable of providing the logistical support when it comes to agriculture are the kinds of fragile systems any well thought out society would do everything to mitigate.
An interesting fact: A recent survey of farmers indicates that 97% plan to farm for life. Not until they retire, but for the rest of their lives. 97%. You don’t get that kind of monolithic support outside of a Chicago polling precinct. 90% said that they would like their children to follow in their footsteps. The other 7% are childless I’d guess. For a career that has been denigrated routinely in our culture that should be a surprising number. I don’t imagine there are many career choices that get that kind of enthusiastic endorsement. No one has ever asked me, but I concur with both. Based on the small number of family farms left in the country, my response may have just skewed the results upwards by another percentage point.
There was a good frost out there this morning and the rooster has been going at it for twenty minutes straight, like he’s being paid for his efforts. If you could coax an answer out of him I suspect that he would say he plans on staying with it for the rest of his life and that he would like his chicks to follow in his footsteps. I have bad news for the rooster; our supply of chickens in the freezer is running as low as our stored vegetables in the pantry and I’m pretty sure he isn’t laying any eggs to offset our protein requirements. We’re lucky that we’ve got a head start on how to feed ourselves, when to plant and when to harvest and how to do it with a minimum of petrochemicals and zero herbicides and pesticides. We’re healthy — knock wood — and we’re smart enough to figure things out as we go despite our initial level of ignorance. We chose a place that has more than adequate water, balanced seasons, sparse population and a soil that is healthy and redolent at this time of the year with tilth and fertility. In a few days we can start picking fiddle head ferns and in another week or so spinach and endive will be ready for the salad bowl and if I do a better job this year than last I can start on the planting required to fill the family larder for another year. I suspect that as things continue to play out in this country more and more people will begin to think about the simple things in life, like food and where it comes from, the number of family farms may begin to climb back up towards the 3% number. I also imagine that for some people the world will just keep on going the way it always has until the Starving Moon begins to mean something again.