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Oil and the American Farmer

When We Finally Take the Off Ramp

by JIM SCHARPLAZ

When I was small, my family lived in a little community not far from where I live now. Often I drive the two-lane blacktop through the remains of that town. Past the cemetery where my parents lie, past the school where I began first grade (now a private home), past the site of the township hall where we schoolchildren recited poems and performed skits for the Community Club, then over the abandoned railroad and across the creek.

My journey is peopled with memories. But only memories, for now I don’t meet anyone on the road, nor do I see anyone in the fields or farmyards I pass.

When I reach the small farm where my aunt and uncle lived, all that changes. An interstate highway cuts across what was once their land. And on it the traffic is ceaseless. One side is a torrent of cars and trucks rushing west, the other an equal torrent rushing east. The contrast with the deserted road on which I travel is jarring.

When the freeway was built, residents of our village and others believed that it would bring commerce. Gas stations and restaurants sprang up at every interchange.

They soon failed. People got on the freeway, but none left it. Those interchanges could have been built with no off ramps.

But perhaps they will be used someday. As world population and demand outstrip fossil fuel supply, our present industrial farming practices will no longer be possible. No alternative fuel has the qualities — portability and energy returned for energy invested in production — that make fossil fuel the lynchpin of industrial agriculture.

Thanks to cheap fossil fuels, farmers today can treat every acre pretty much the same. Diesel powered machinery can till any soil type. Fertilizer produced using natural gas compensates for variations in natural fertility. Pesticides manufactured from petroleum kill weeds and insects for the whole growing season.

Very few farmers are needed to manage this industrial process. And consumers can live far from the field, as trucks transport the average bite of food 1,600 miles from farm gate to dinner plate.

Good crop yields can be achieved without fossil fuel, but much more care is required. Every farm, every field, every acre requires individual attention, with careful consideration given to just the right crop for the land, and the best cultural practices for the crop. Operations must be carefully timed to control weeds and pests, and years-long crop rotations must be planned to assure fertility. It will take many more farmers on the land to supply the necessary knowledge, care and craftsmanship.

If you are in one of the cars rushing by on the freeway, your efforts are just as important as mine as a farmer to develop post-fossil fuel agriculture. Part of the solution is political. To a large extent, the present rural landscape in much of America is the result of federal policy that subsidizes massive production of just a few, easily industrialized crops — corn, soybeans, wheat. This policy has caused the loss of soil, biodiversity, localized food markets and farmers, resulting in a fragile system dependent on increasingly tight and insecure supplies of petroleum.

Agricultural subsidies must be unhooked from production and tied to good farming practices. This will preserve the soil we all depend on to eat, and make our food supply less dependent on oil. Even if you live in a city, your legislator votes on farm legislation just as mine does, and your taxes pay the subsidies. Let your legislator know what you want.

On a personal level, you can seek out craftsman farmers and support them by buying and eating what they grow. These farmers have the know-how we will need more of. Live too far from the farm? Try farmers’ markets and food co-ops. Yes, it’s more work. Post-fossil fuel consuming will require more care and effort, just as post-fossil fuel farming will.

Better still, use that off ramp. Wherever you are going, remember that someone in the oncoming lanes is rushing away from there. It’s probably not that great a place. Exit now.

JIM SCHARPLAZ raises cattle in Ottawa County, Kan., and is on the board of the Kansas Rural Center. He wrote this essay for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan