Stop Plowing—It's Not Romantic
Is this the best we can do?
Inspired by a question I received on food production, I wanted to discuss this critical topic as our nation fumbles from crisis to crisis. When it comes to making that food, there are folks out there who are adamant that horses and plows will once again be critical pieces of the human project. But is any of this a good idea or necessary? No.
Whoah, nelly, before folks get pissy, hear me out. There is a huge gulf between now and Jim Kunstler's World Made by Hand that the "alternative thinking classes" willingly ignore. In the coming years (or maybe months???), I believe it’s certain we will be experiencing an extremely tumultuous period of starvation, social chaos, and mass death. This period will be similar to Cuba's Starving Time, only a lot worse, with no collectively cohesive way out. This means that all Americans, no matter how wealthy, will be stuck with empty bellies and high-stress environments around them. We will be a lot hungrier and a whole lot poorer.
As a direct symptom of this neo-American starving time, the horse population will dramatically plummet along with most other livestock and poultry populations. Due to most Americans' inability to adapt ahead of time, folks will be “forced” to consume substances once considered taboo. I am referring to horses but also donkeys, rodents, and potentially even cats and dogs. Sorry fluffy. This may sound like an impossibility currently, but I suggest you familiarize yourself with gut-wrenching tales of Europeans starving during World War II, the Soviet Union, The Great Depression, and elsewhere to fully grasp the seriousness of our predicaments. Reading first-hand accounts of starving Appalachians in the Foxfire series will also reorient your mind in a jiffy.
What skills exactly?
Then we need to address the total lack of knowledge or skills on how to raise and breed horses. The average American has no idea how to care for themselves on a lower standard of consumption, let alone a horse. The daily maintenance, tools, feed, and breeding required to maintain a sizable horse population for plowing (or even transportation) is not common knowledge. On top of that, hardly anyone possesses the skills needed to mine, smelt, and smith metals into usable parts for plows, reigns, or horseshoes. What about the leather straps, saddles, or countless other materials? Sure, it's nostalgic to think of horses plowing up fields and dreaming of a simpler time, but we need to base our energies in reality. Not in a romanticized fantasy of what life appeared to be before the modern industrial age.
In spite of industrial societies' foundation in psychopathy, there have been many positive advancements in elevated standards of living. This has come in the form of improved sanitation, health care, medicine, transportation, and easily affordable necessities. The Wright brothers (racists) discovered how to fly, and Thomas Edison (another racist) harnessed electricity. The industrial world put a man on the moon (supposedly) and sent a robot to Mars (a racist planet because “people of color” are not able to live there). If we acknowledge these things as great achievements, why on earth are we ignoring modern advancements in agriculture?
Perpetuating the belief that deindustrialized society’s only way of feeding itself is to revert back to horse-and-plow agriculture is not only foolish but perplexing. I specifically use the word perplexing because some of these folks completely ignore, discredit, or lack the mental capacity to research what other options are out there. Hint, there is a lot.
Passing the Torch
Our civilization’s greatest accomplishment to pass on to future generations is not the internet, critical race theory, or even aviation. It is the culmination of sustainable living practices from past and present cultures, better known as Permaculture. When we take a moment to look back at previous civilizations—the desertified “fertile crescent,” dust bowl China, or the catastrophically eroded Mediterranean region, they would have undeniably benefited from implementing Permaculture design. Each of those regions progressed into environmental disaster precisely because of horse and plow agriculture.
Now I know folks in the managerial classes enjoy diminishing Permaculture as a “fringe science,” but in reality, Permaculture is the key to unlocking abundance in an era of resource scarcity.
Since Thomas Jefferson’s time at Monticello, intelligent minds understood the importance of sustainable agriculture. From interplanting leguminous plants with crops to rotational grazing and forest farming, the scientific community has made great leaps forward in understanding how to create highly productive food systems. Due to these advancements, we are finally able to understand the importance of soil creation and the mind-blowingly complex universe existing beneath our feet, known as the soil food web. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg but demonstrates just how far we have been able to advance our knowledge in sustainably coexisting on this planet. Even if we did not continue with any more advancements in sustainable living, we currently possess more than enough information to design and implement life-saving techniques that would eliminate hunger and idleness in our local communities. To ignore all of this and regress back to the destructive practices of conventional plow agriculture should be considered a form of mental illness.
Permaculture is what Geoff Lawton calls the “toolbox” in which holistic management, agroforestry, keyline design, rotational grazing, windbreak design, aquaculture, etc., are housed. Each of these concepts are excellent tools for the specific area they address, but only Permaculture connects these management strategies into a whole systems design. From town and house design to garden layout, Permaculture contains scientific research and design techniques that make it all work seamlessly.
Energy conservation is one of the key features of this design science and should be the primary focus of our lives moving forward. Given that the root cause of our civilization’s decline is from resource scarcity, it would be a wise move to familiarize yourself with the energy conservation of Permaculture design. The energy I‘m referring to is not only natural gas, petroleum, or wood but also human and animal energies as well. In order to truly be successful in the coming years, we need to dramatically increase regenerative human, animal, and plant energies and reduce our dependence on non-renewable energies.
Fast-Tracking Sustainable Agriculture
In order to fast track this process, the two Permaculture books I recommend are - Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay and Permaculture: A Designers Manual by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The first book is much more affordable, but regardless of which one you start with, reading from the source itself is extremely important. The reason is that many mediocre people have hijacked Permaculture (like any other topic) for their own ego-centric gains and have perverted the message in the process.
Both of these books go into great detail on how to easily incorporate animal systems into your whole design, especially pigs, goats, cows, and poultry. Pigs and chickens do an excellent job of tilling the ground at an appropriate scale. As a personal example, with the help of my 16-chicken flock, we were able to manage them so they would prepare a large plot of ground for sowing winter wheat. In less than two weeks, the flock had scratched all the weeds away and made an excellent bed to broadcast the seed. The flock was then rotated out to a new pen to continue working while the wheat seed germinated. It’s important to note that these chickens were consuming a large part of their diet—eating weeds, grasses, worms, and seeds while “working." They were also producing eggs and fertilizing the soil while living their best life in the fresh air scratching away. This means we were obtaining multiple yields simultaneously, thus reducing energy consumption and enhancing the health of our system (healthy chickens eating bugs, seeds, and plants, reducing pest pressure, fertilizing the soil, and producing nutrient-rich eggs and wheat).
Notice that I am not suggesting the abolishment of domesticated livestock? What I am doing, however, is advocating for the intelligent placement of species into our systems for the most productive, sustainable yield. Successfully directing the intrinsic characteristics of our animals for sustainable food production is the ultimate expression of human intelligence. In many ways, implementing Permaculture design is much like directing an orchestra. When we correctly place and instruct elements in our system, the result is harmonic excellence in the form of soil creation, nutrient density, elimination of pollution, and well-being of people, animals, and the planet.
Conversely, when we ignorantly place elements in a system, like industrial ag’s CAFOs, for instance, the result is chaos in the form of energy waste, abuse, and pollution. Even with horse and plow agriculture, we find massive soil erosion, water pollution, and endless toil that proponents of such systems ignore. Ironically, proponents of these systems see the elimination of work as “ideal” while unwittingly creating more work for themselves by depending on annual agriculture. This desire to eliminate work is one of industrial civilization’s biggest pursuits, and the results are anything but ideal.
Here we have the industrial entitlement mindset that the elimination of work is the ultimate sign of progress. This can be seen in the fanatic techno-industrialization of everything around us. We are programmed to believe that convenience is god, and our intrinsic self-worth and passion are irrelevant. In the best-selling book Small is Beautiful, author E.F. Schumacher goes into great detail on how this perverted ideology is one of the biggest delusions of our time. Everyone in the industrial world has bought into the myth that less work and more free time is the ultimate goal.
Let me be perfectly clear—work is not evil. Humans are made to work. Like chickens, we have an intrinsic need to accomplish tasks. The key is we need to do the right kind of work. A work that is self-nourishing and fulfilling; that benefits not only ourselves but the world around us. In regards to food production, the right kind of work in the words of Bill Mollison “...is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating elements as a single-product system.”
”I think harmony with nature is possible only if we abandon the idea of superiority over the natural world. Levi Strauss said that our profound error is that we have always looked upon ourselves as “masters of creation”, in the sense of being above it.” -Bill Mollison
Here, the thoughtful and mutually beneficial work ethic of Permaculture yields long-term ecologically sound and economically viable cultures. Whereas tractor and horse agriculture ultimately yields endless toil in a perpetually self-destructive cycle. In order to create the abundance we deserve, we need to reorient our minds away from the dominating and controlling mythologies of consumption. The longer we cling to such outdated views, the longer we perpetuate our misery.
Let's Get Real
The stories in the Foxfire series make it clear that large livestock (the wealthier folks had draft horses, and the poor had oxen or mules) require an immense amount of food just to exist. This adds even more work cultivating, harvesting, and storing feed for them year-round. An adult draft horse consumes roughly 40 pounds of hay per day, 5 pounds of grain, and 25 gallons of water 365 days per year. A farmer who owns a draft horse is required to grow this amount of food just to keep their "equine tractor" alive without cultivating land for himself yet.
Smaller breeds obviously eat less, but my point is, why even go this route in the first place? Whereas the chicken or pig is efficiently producing multiple yields while simultaneously working, your plow horse, by comparison, is absurdly inefficient. You will be required to plow acres of land, cause soil erosion, and continue to lose soil fertility every single year (for life) just to keep your hoofed tractor fed. Then in order to keep yourself alive, you are presumed to plow even more acres of land that is dominated by annual crops, which contributes to even more soil erosion and fertility depletion. How is this strategy seen as anything other than absurd?
What about the Amish?
Although Amish and Mennonite communities have many positive attributes for living fulfilling lives on considerably less energy than you or me, they leave a lot to be desired when it comes to food production. Depending on the order, the Amish use genetically modified seeds. They also use modern synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. Yikes! The fields they plow year after year are progressively made worse through erosion and soil fertility loss. Adding manure is a temporary fertility “band-aid” that can never replenish what is consistently taken through strip mining annual agriculture.
If we truly want to replicate successful farmers from the past, we should instead look to the Parisian market farmers (La culture maraîchère) of 1800’s France. These men and women grew almost all of Paris’ produce annually from highly intensive small plots around the periphery of the city. Each farmer used appropriate technology, such as cold frames and compost heat, to enhance production and prolong the growing season. Check out Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower for more information on this terrific system.
Permaculture Design in Action
Sustainable systems need to be dominated by tree crops—fruit, nut, forage, medicine, fiber, etc. to the tune of around 70% useful tree species and 30% "open" perennial/annual crops. We have excellent examples of tree crop-dominated systems from past cultures in Sri Lanka, Corsica, the Yucatan Peninsula, the Amazon basin, Africa, India, Vietnam, Hawaii, and beyond. In each of these places, we see a merger of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennial and annual crops into a unified productive system without the plow. The people designing such systems did not have the luxury of fossil fuels to cover for any failures or mistakes. They had to sustain themselves and their communities from the onset, and they succeeded spectacularly.
Permaculture systems have been implemented around the globe in all climate analogs. No matter where we find ourselves, we can replicate the successes of others to our benefit. Smaller properties in the U.S. will see a reduction in large tree cover, but this is only to enable the maximum amount of light to penetrate the lower levels. On our 1-acre house site, we currently have twenty Chinese chestnuts, twenty-five+ grafted apple trees, eight peach trees, and ten pear trees. Additionally, we have two coops with intricately designed pens around the main coops to enable the flock to be rotated through with crops planted after them. We have the main house garden beginning right outside our door and broad beds further away. Always making sure to put the most interacted elements closer to the house than the less interacted elements. Yes, we grow annual crops but in highly intensive beds close to the house, not acres of corn or wheat in large monocrop fields.
For those living in colder climates—USDA hardiness zones 4 or 3—folks need to seriously reconsider. Personally, I believe those climate zones will be much too harsh for people to remain in year-round once fossil fuels become scarce and unaffordable. For those who want to “tough it out,” your dependence on animals (wild and domestic) for sustenance will exponentially increate the further away from the equator you go. This means that cattle, sheep, llamas, and goats will be counted on for food, fiber, and clothing, more so than plants. You will need to familiarize yourself with rotational grazing and fodder crops such as willow and hybrid poplar to help keep your herds fed during those long winters. Mollison spoke of “rolling” permaculture design in these expansive systems where low population density means more land for grazing animals. I encourage folks in these climate zones to use their time wisely while fossil fuels are available to make their land as productive as possible.
The main goal of this conversation is to dismantle the illusion that the primary way to feed ourselves must come from tractor or horse agriculture. This is simply not true. The information on how to design, build, and replicate sustainable systems is available to anyone with a library card or access to the internet. We are incredibly blessed to have access to all the research and techniques essential for feeding ourselves just a click away.
We do not need to bog ourselves down with the impossible burden of “feeding the world” or allowing ourselves to be victims of fear porn propaganda sponsored by corporate interests. We do not need tens of thousands of acres of gmo corn, wheat, or soy to keep us sickly and malnourished. We do not need industrial agriculture to sustain us, nor do we need to revert back to outdated methodologies of production. Instead, keeping our systems small, highly intensive, and appropriately designed will enable us to thrive in these changing times. Most Americans have access to the remarkable advancements in sustainable agriculture design, and it is up to us to pass this knowledge on to future generations.
For the horse enthusiast out there, I am not trying to persuade you from enjoying your passion. I am only discussing the realities of our time and the need to implement advances in sustainable agriculture instead of perpetuating the failures of conventional agriculture dominated by annual crops. The only thing left is for each of us to educate ourselves, design, and act on growing sustainable systems around us. Will you pass this torch to future generations or let convenience get in the way?