If you were wondering where I’ve been for the last week, I just returned from a trip to Oregon along with some associates from The Oil Drum and the Post Carbon Institute. We went up there to meet with various farmers who are pursuing the sustainable agriculture and farmers market approach to relocalizing food production, several agriculture professors, a restauranteur who buys all of his food locally direct from farmers, and other like-minded souls interested in peak oil and relocalization. As we believe that food production and distribution is particularly vulnerable to the risks of peak oil, we wanted to know how much can be achieved through local food production and distribution using methods that use as little fuel as possible, and without the use of petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer.
The people we met were truly amazing: focused, smart, dedicated, and very hard-working (14-hr days are the norm for these folks). Farming is an incredibly difficult thing to succeed in at any scale, and my hat is off to anyone who does it. Small intensive organic farmers must compete with the economies of scale enjoyed by big commercial agriculture and food distribution in an incredibly low-margin business (somewhere on the order of 5% I would say). Large scale farmers who produce commodities like grain and grass seed (a major product of the Willamette Valley) have it even harder in some ways, with the costs of fuel and fertilizer see-sawing wildly from year to year, while having to borrow enormous sums from banks in order to plant the next year’s crop. And of course all are subject to the weather, which has been growing increasingly unpredictable.
I believe that within the next five years, as terminal oil depletion becomes a tangible reality for the average citizen, backyard vegetable gardens will become commonplace, and more people will seek low-energy lifestyles. However, there is an enormous gap between the demand for food, and the supply from small scale organic farmers operating through farmers markets, which accounts for less than 5% of the total food supply even in the best markets. So there is an enormous amount of work to do to “fill the gap” that will open as oil depletion sets in.
I don’t have a “Plan B” yet, but I learned an enormous amount in just a few days this week, and I am filled with ideas and motivation to come up with one. The future may very well find me with a shovel in my hand, scratching a living out of the dirt along with millions of others.
If you have had similar thoughts, or have explored your own Plan B options, please write me or submit a comment to share your perspective.