Hell, before the War we was all organic farmers.
-- Overheard between two elder farmers in the 1960s
Forgetting How to Farm
One of the themes I yammer on about, here, is that things are different this time... that history is not a reliable guide for the collapse of modern civilization. And forgetting how to farm is one of the main reasons I believe this to be so.
I stipulate that more food is being produced, today, by fewer people than ever before in human history. Furthermore, I accept that modern transport and preservation technologies help maximize distribution and minimize scarcity.
So how, you may ask, can I argue that we have forgotten how to farm?
In a very real sense, human agriculture and animal husbandry are new on the scene. As homo sapiens we have only been farming for a tiny fraction of our existence. Nevertheless, some thousand generations hammered out their ways and means.
Only in the last eight millennia – a mere slice of deep time – did civilizational farming emerge. At first confined to flood plains and favored pockets. Later irrigated by labor and mechanical means. The horse harnessed and the plow perfected. Cultivars developed and breeds bred. Crop regimens and rotations increased yield. A host of supplementary technologies sprouted alongside, gradually improving the efficacy of farming within the budgets of sun and land (though not always the case).
And we thrived on its abundance. Our numbers grew in steady, exponential increase. Malthus famously plotted population growth versus the growth of food production and (correctly) warned of famine if trends continued.
Also famously, they did not. The discovery of the New World and its crops (especially potato and maize (corn)) and nitrate deposits bought some breathing room. The Industrial Revolution and fossil fuels brought new, mechanical muscle to the land. Dams and deep well technology allowed irrigation far from surface water tables. Chemistry brought pest- and herbicides and, best of all, the means to liberate vital nitrogen from the atmosphere.
And now, monoculture, 'marketable' hybrids, GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), slash-and-burn practices and other profit accelerants are displacing ever more traditional varieties.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well... there are costs. Arable acreage lost to 'development'. Topsoil loss and salination. Accumulating toxins in soil and environment. Fresh water and aquifer depletion and pollution. Evolving resistance among pests and infectious agents. New diseases leaping via crowded domesticated species to ourselves. Climate impacts. Ecosystem infringement and collapses. Our own burgeoning numbers as other species fade and fail. Systemic stress across the spectrum.
Each of these, individually, undermines the conditions for agriculture. Collectively, they undermine the very foundations of agriculture. Still, that's not the problem, per se. Societies have faced combinations of these factors in the past, and variously thrived, transformed or fell with trauma relatively local in time and space. Hence the notion that the past is a guide to the future..
But, in the course of only two or three generations, we have all but lost the means to farm without industrial technology. Should we stumble in our course – should the inputs from the grid, industrial chemistry, seed, fuel and machinery, transport, cold storage, processing and canning pause for longer than we can live from food on hand... if we collectively miss a planting season... what then?
Every two farmers feeding each hundred of us would be hard pressed to feed themselves in such a case. Hybrid seed is only worth a single crop. Plowing, planting and harvesting by hand (to name only three steps)? Water must flow by gravity or locally-powered pump. How to store the harvest? How to distribute it? To whom? Some jury rig is possible... modern understanding may ease the reinvention of some practices... but we'd be in deep doo doo.
Could something bring the global economy to a halt? I and others argue (elsewhere) that yes, it could, and sooner or later, will. Like the human body, any complex adaptive system is mortal. Blunt trauma, infection and 'normal accidents' go with the territory.
History does guide us in this; all civilizations come to an end. Ours is now global.
My great-Grandfather knew how to farm the old way. In his lifetime, truck and tractor replaced horse and wagon. He saw harvesters and later combines run the hands from field to city. By the end of his life, he was a living anachronism.
The Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites still carry the torch, but their entire output can feed no more than a small, modern city. Third World farmers are often much closer to traditional ways, but taken together can feed no more than a small, modern country.
Peoples of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, the first farmers, those who came after through WWII... they all carried with them knowledge and tools that we have scattered or lost. For some thousand generations, the ways and means of agriculture and husbandry carried survivors forward through thick and thin. But it is different this time...
We have forgotten how to farm.
PS. Even worse, we have forgotten how to live as non-farmers in the wild. How many of us thrown 'naked into the wilderness' could survive, much less thrive? How many could build a shelter or make fire? Gather wild forage? Hunt or fish with DIY tools? Dress our wounds? Find our way?
But all these things can be learned. If nothing else, they comprise a fascinating hobby!