Showing posts with label Agriculture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agriculture. Show all posts

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Great Pause Week 39: Amish Mash

" John Miller’s family was not unusually large. It is just that he lived long enough to find out what simple multiplication does"

Recently, on the eve of his 95th birthday, John Eli Miller died in a rambling farmhouse near Middlefield, Ohio, 40 miles southeast of Cleveland, leaving to mourn his passing perhaps the largest number of living descendants any American has ever had. 

He was survived by five of his seven children, 61 grandchildren, 338 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren, a grand total of 410 descendants. 

Shortly before his death, which came unexpectedly from a stroke, I had the privilege of two long visits with John E. Miller, during which I learned the feeling of one man who had personally watched the population explosion of the 20th century. A national magazine had determined that the venerable Ohio farmer was head of what almost certainly was the largest family in the United States. 

A Swedish newspaper in 1958 ran a competition for the largest family in that country and when a family named Hellander turned up with 265 members, headed by a 92-year-old great- grandmother, it asserted a claim to the Swedish and to the world championship.
 
Soon reports of even larger families were streaming in to editors, with an elderly Mormon couple in Utah claiming 334 living descendants taking the lead. However, I was certain that among the Old Order Amish Mennonites, a sect in which families of more than 100 are commonplace, a family larger than this could be found. Through the medium of the Sugarcreek Ohio Budget, a unique weekly newspaper that is read by the Old Order Amish in all their communities throughout the nation, it was soon ascertained that John Eli Miller, with his clan of more than 400, had the largest family among them. So far as could be learned, this family was the largest in America and probably the world’s largest among monogamous peoples. 

When John Miller and his family refused to pose for photographs because of their religious opposition to “graven images,” the magazine gave up the idea of a story about this “largest family” but the interviews disclosed a number of facts about the impact of extremely rapid population growth on this family and the cultural group of which it is a part. These facts merit the serious attention of all students of population problems. 

PERSONAL POPULATION CRISIS 

John Miller actually had seen with his own eyes a population explosion in his own lifetime. His data were not statistics on a graph or chart, but the scores of children at every family gathering who ran up to kiss Grandpa, so many that it confused a poor old man. His confusion can be forgiven for there were among them no less than 15 John Millers, all named in his honor. And what young man, much less an old one, could remember the names of 61 grandchildren and 338 great-grandchildren and keep straight just who their parents were? 

The remarkable thing about this great clan of his was that it started with a family of just seven children. This was actually a little smaller than the typical family among the Amish, who have been found by one researcher to average 8.4 children per completed family. Two of his children died in early life: Samuel Miller, who left six children when he died at 40, and Lizzie (Mrs. Jacob Farnwald), who left four when she died at 28. 

During most of his long life, therefore, John Miller’s family was not unusually large. It is just that he lived long enough to find out what simple multiplication can do. 

One of his daughters, Mary (Mrs. Jacob Mast), had only five children. But all four of his sons had quite large families. His son, John, Jr., with whom he lived at the family homestead, had six children by his first wife, who died in an accident, and nine more by his present wife, a total of 15. Andrew Miller had 12, Eli Miller, 11, of whom ten are living, and Joseph Miller, ten, of whom nine are living. 

Of the 63 grandchildren born to John Miller’s family, 61 lived to survive him, all but six now grown and married. And of 341 great-grandchildren born to the families of his 55 married grandchildren, only three had died, two in infancy, and one in an accident. All six of his great-great-grandchildren were born during the last year of his life and were healthy infants. 

MODERN MEDICINE PROLONGS LIFE 

Thus, a major factor in the world-wide population crisis was vividly evident in John Miller’s family: the fact that nearly all children born in the 20th century, who enjoy the benefits of modern medicine, are growing up to become adults and to have families of their own. A century ago, the ravages of smallpox, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and the many fatalities that occurred at childbirth would have left a far different picture in a large rural family. Even though the Amish live in rural areas, they avail themselves of the benefits of medical care. Now most Amish children are born in hospital delivery rooms. 

While the sharp reduction in infant mortality and childhood disease is a happy development of science, it inevitably means that population grows with extraordinary rapidity. The Miller family offers a cogent example. John Miller had seven children; his children averaged nine offspring; and his married grandchildren had averaged six each when he passed away. Six married great-grandchildren had one apiece. These were not unusually large families among the Amish nor among the rural families of other Americans in the past century. Yet this clan numbered 410 when John Miller died. 

Moreover, at the end of his life, the postman was bringing John Miller word of the birth of a new descendant on the average of once every ten days. This rate, we calculated, would have accelerated to one every other day as his more than 300 great-grand- children reached marriageable age. Only eight were married when he died and six had had children by their first wedding anniversaries. 

So great is the rate of progression of population growth that had John Miller lived one more decade he would have seen more descendants born to him than in all his 95 years of life and would in ten more years have counted at least 1,000 living descendants!
 
The rate at which population increases is almost unbelievable- even when a man is watching it happen within his own family. John Miller found it difficult to comprehend what was happening. When I told him that all available evidence indicated that he had the largest family in the United States, the kindly old man passed a gnarled hand before his failing eyes and shook his head in amazement. . . . 

What did John Miller think about his family? Did it worry him to see it growing so large? Indeed it did. Significantly, his concerns were the very ones that the demographers, the economists, the sociologists, and other serious students of world population problems have been voicing. He was not an educated man, for the Amish still believe eight grades of education in a one-room country school is sufficient, but John Miller summarized it in one simple question he constantly repeated, “Where will they all find good farms?” . . . 

Some day, at some point, John Miller’s plaintive question, “Where will they all find farms?” will have to be answered in the bleak negative. They can continue now only by buying farms others will sell them. Some day no more farms anywhere will be for sale. A finite world is of limited size. So, ultimately, at some point, is the population it can hold.

REDUX

The foregoing essay originally appeared in 1961 in Population Bulletin, a monthly publication of the Population Reference Bureau of Washington DC. The author was the late Glenn D. Everett and the essay was later reprinted in Garrett Hardin’s annotated collection, Population, Evolution, Birth Control (1964).

Last week I described the Green Revolution, for which Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. While the technological industrialization of agriculture has to many seemed a major advance for our species, we ignore the disturbance it has wrought upon nature at our peril. It has become a familiar canard that the greening of agriculture as we march into the future, with organic, biodynamic, regenerative, permaculturally designed, vertical, and “sustainable” alternatives making greater market inroads every year, cannot possibly keep pace with population growth and so industrial agriculture must remain much as it is, gradually becoming more efficient and productive, into the uncertain and perilous future.

What seems to be neglected in that pronouncement is that industrial agriculture can no more feed 8 billion people than can organic farming. That was Malthus’s point.

If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make; yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate….

 — Malthus, T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population

Humanity, despite many noble but half-hearted attempts over the past century, has been unwilling to hold its increase in line with the power of production in the earth. That unwillingness appears to be hard wired. So too are the boundaries of what Earth can supply or insults that it can absorb. A reckoning beckons. Push-back from the microbial world is only one of many auguries.

___________

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Great Pause Week 38: Corn Science Objectors

"There are no simple answers, only simple questions."


During the 2020 US election cycle, which now seems so long ago, a televised virtual debate took place in the State of Iowa. The incumbent Senator, Joni Ernst, first gained national attention in 2014 for a televised campaign ad comparing the castration of hogs to cutting spending in Washington. “Let’s make ’em squeal,” she proclaimed. 

Her reputation was then cemented when she delivered the opposition party response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2015, introducing herself to the nation ”as a young girl [who] plowed the fields of our family farm.” 

Iowa‘s deep grassland soils churned out an abundant supply of corn and wheat for two centuries until the advent of chemical fertilizer, which destroyed soil fertility at an historically unprecedented rate — far faster than in the wasting of the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia or the Nile Valley in the time of the Pharaohs. About 90 percent of Iowa’s surface area is dedicated to farming, but its real wealth lay below that, in the meters of black earths built by eons of grazing and manuring buffalo, lightning strikes, and glacier ebbs and flows. 

Today the state’s top 5 agricultural products, in order of cash receipts, are corn, hogs, soybeans, cattle and dairy. So, it came as no surprise that a candidate for statewide office would be asked about the casuistry of commodity prices. Ernst’s challenger, Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield, who also grew up on a farm, was asked to estimate the “break-even” price of corn.

“It’s going for about $3.68, 3.69” Greenfield said, reciting from memory the latest per bushel price on the Chicago commodities exchange. She added that “break-even” would depend on how much debt a farmer was carrying. 

Turning to Ernst, the moderator asked the same question about soybeans. The Senator answered $5.50, well below the actual price of $10.05. Soybeans had not sold for $5.50 per bushel since 2006. They had not sold below $8.50 since mid-2007. Although Ernst won the election a few weeks later, the misstep was a political setback for her at the time and probably cost her some votes.

The underlying story, a tale of lost fertility and lock-in consumer addiction, with Earth’s climate and human extinction hanging in the balance, is far more interesting.

Let’s begin with the price of a bushel of corn. The reference bushel — not whole corn, cob and all, but shucked kernels — weighs 55 pounds or 25 kg. A homesteader farm family in 19th century Iowa would perhaps spend 100 man-hours, on average, to till, sow, cultivate, harvest, transport, shuck, store seed, and cover crop to obtain each bushel. There might be variations in output depending on the quality of land, rainfall, whether the family had a horse or mule, whether they owned a mechanical shucker, and so forth, but chances are the fertilizer was applied by a family cow browsing the stalks in the field in the winter and there were no bank loans involved in operating the farm. Certainly the same would be true for the indigenous peoples — Ho-Chunk/Winnebago, Missouria, Otoes, Kaw, Omaha, Osage, Ponca, Hidatsa, Ioway/Baxoje, Mandan, Dakota, Arikara, Pawnee, Shawnee, Illinois, Kickapoo, Paoute, Mascouten, Meskwaki, Sauk, Wyandot,Potawatomi, Ojibwe/Chippewa, Odawa, and Comanche — for whom bank loans, machines, and chemicals would have been alien concepts when it came to planting corn.

Of course, 100 hours labor for $3.68 would have been a real bargain for the corn’s consumers, but money did not always change hands. Part of the harvest, or even all of it, never left the family farm. Even in years when it was not profitable to sell, the corn could be fed to livestock and/or made into cornbread and porridge. The price of Iowa corn in 1898 was $0.29/bu, or $8.99 adjusted to today’s dollar. Today the bushel price is half that, thanks to industrialization of agriculture.

In 1898, no one used corn to make floor wax, plastic toys, diapers, or drywall. It was too valuable. It was food. It took the Green Revolution of the 20th Century to turn it into the ubiquitous material feedstock we know today.

Before the 20th Century it was not a normal routine to transport and sell the part of a crop needed to be saved for seed for the following year to a grain storage elevator, and to use a portion of those receipts to pay off a bank loan so you could take another loan to buy the seed back from the elevator when it was time to plant again. Of course, all of that was made possible by cheap fossil fuels that allowed large grain trucks to travel to and from every farm and for silos to dehydrate the grain with hot air blowers. No one paid for the damage to the atmosphere.

By far the best book I have read on the Green Revolution is The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. It tells the story through the careers of two individuals. Norman Borlaug worked relentlessly to start the revolution, for which he won a Nobel Prize in 2005. William Vogt was one of the original thinkers behind the environmental movement, at one point the director of Planned Parenthood, and a strong proponent of population control and rewilding. They lived at the same time, looked at the same problems, even met once, but came to opposite conclusions about what was needed. Vogt was a ‘prophet’, averring that technological solutions are ultimately hubris, that humanity should try to live in harmony with nature, scale back, and strive for sustainability and regeneration. Mann means ‘prophet’ in an almost derisive sense — the old man in the sackcloth and sandwich boards railing against the sins of the world. History may well prove Vogt a prophet in the other sense — a man well ahead of his time, accurately forecasting what would later come to be. 

Borlaug was a technophile. He found ready support from the Rockefeller Foundation and many governments for his cornucopian vision of a limitless human prospect. He almost never wanted for funds to carry out large scale projects and was in part responsible for spreading to factories around the world the Haber-Bosch process of making nitrogen, rapidly hybridizing seed into genetic monocultures, and modernizing agriculture to resemble an automotive assembly line.

Once you understand the concept of carrying capacity, it becomes clear that there are two ways of addressing the problem of finite natural resources. One is to limit population growth and improve the efficiency (reduce waste) of resource utilization. The other is to artificially increase the availability of resources, for example by using science to increase crop yield. But physics is a zero-sum game, and so, therefore, is biology. A sudden benefit to one species is an assault on another. Chemical production of nitrogen unemploys nitrogen-transforming microbiota, effectively sterilizing soil. As farms lose those bacteria they also lose an entire food chain, an unseen ecosystem, and also the myriad unrecognized benefits other elements of that system provide and receive. In place of the natural world, the product of co-evolutionary processes of billions of years, you get a mechanical laboratory experiment, made possible only by the one-off abundance of cheap fossil energy and the reliability of a benign climate. 

Borlaug assumed that once oil ran out, and it was by no means certain in the 50s and 60s when his revolution was unfolding that oil would ever run out, it would be replaced by some other technological leap — fusion perhaps, or genetically engineered biofuels. The balance that held back these alterations was derided as limits to growth, which were inconceivable. His vision was blinkered by the seeming success of the industrial revolution.

Social costs went unnoticed. Chemical fertilizers, GM seed, herbicides, and pesticides work miracles in the first few years they are applied, multiplying crop yields and cutting labor costs for those who can leverage large bank loans and hope the weather cooperates. These chemicals come with a suite of mechanical devices that favor more massive farms. When banks foreclose, small farmers are dispossessed, fenceposts are knocked down and fields are graded for the larger players with larger machines. 

Government policies encouraged farms to make the switch, as Borlaug intended, but once the fiscal casino owners were in the system, the newly-minted large farm owners found themselves on a financial treadmill. Each year newer machines, more chemicals and patented seed were needed just to keep production stable. Sterilization of soil, favorable conditions for weeds and predatory insects, and mounting debt to lenders compelled even large farmers to default and banks to foreclose and sell to corporate operators. Generational patriarchs committed suicide and lands became no longer productive enough for further investment. Even a fair amount of good lands were abandoned to residential and commercial sprawl to pay inheritance taxes. That was the epidemic Borlaug unwittingly unleashed. Vogt had predicted it.

If you believe consumer affluence is the goal and science and technology have the answers, you’re with Norman Borlaug and the wizards. But there are no simple answers, only simple questions. While science and technology can speed energy throughput to increase food production, there are always costs. Speeding energy throughput speeds entropy. The Green Revolution has done more than destroy farmland and dissolve family farms. It is concentrating financial wealth, driving species to extinction, warming the planet, depleting non-renewable resources, acidifying the oceans, damaging the ozone, and wrecking vast ecosystems beyond easy recovery. 

Likewise, while conservation and environmental protection programs have been valuable, by themselves they have never been able to compete with planet-destroying human impulses for a very simple reason: they don’t produce the food or energy needed to supply the ever-expanding global population of humans. Which introduces us to the central player in this tragedy.

Next week we will take a closer look at an Amish farmer in Ohio named John Eli Miller. The Amish take their name from the protestant reformer Jakob Ammann (1644–1712) who broke away from the Swiss Brethren movement and required his followers to “forsake the world” by practicing separation not only from mainstream society, but from more lenient divisions of the Anabaptist Christians, such as Mennonites and Hutterite Brethren. Ammann stood opposed to long hair on men, shaved beards, and clothing that manifested pride. He demanded social avoidance — shunning — of those who had committed offenses such as lying or prideful behavior. He insisted on conscientious objection to military service. Today we associate the Amish with their limited use of power-line electricity, telephones, and automobiles, as well as their distinctive “plain” clothing. Ammann did not, however, insist on moderation in family planning and for that reason, the 350,665 present-day members of Old Order Amish churches in North America — up from 166,500 in 2000 — are experiencing a farming crisis in 2020.

While they would have differed mightily on issues of technology and finance, on the question of human population, Borlaug had much in common with Miller.

 _________________________________


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

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