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Archive for the ‘Farming’ Category

Taking It Slow

I have a lot of very wise people in my life, and I count myself fortunate every day to know them. To them I am constantly posing this question of “how am I going to farm? I can’t afford it.” And have been getting some very wise responses, especially in light of this stupid S.510 thing.

The first made me question my reasons for wanting to start a farm in the first place. I hate making money on things that I love, after all, which is why I’ve never gone full fledged into a sewing business. It ruins the joy of making things. And I can only imagine that the stress of trying to make enough money at farming to keep the land and pay the mortgage, combined with the stress of trying to meet all the FDA regulations and fill out all the paperwork and be prepared for inspectors would just completely ruin the joy of growing things and feeding people. All of that seems rather obvious, but I’ve been in denial about it, because to live in this country, and to live in the manner of your choosing (and many people will disagree with me over this next statement) you need to have some manner of occupation. Yes, I know it is possible to find some land to squat or a place you can crash for very little money. But goddammit I really like having my own space that I can arrange to my liking, and my cats, and my four sewing machines, and being able to afford as much raw milk as I can drink. I stubbornly refuse to give those things up and so yes, I am trapped in the cycle of needing to have some sort of job to pay for it all.

In addition, if I am farming to make money, I am going to end up making all sorts of compromises on the way I want to farm- again, especially with these new regulations that are sure to come out of S.510. And who wants that?

My other reason for wanting to start a farm has always been to give my friends a place to come and live and work and do their thing, even though none of them have ever been the type to ever save up money or figure out how to pay taxes properly or fill out paperwork. I figured I could take on the responsibility of doing those things so they wouldn’t have to, mostly just because I miss all of them so terribly when they are off wandering the world, and I wanted to build a place where I could have them near me. The unfortunate downside of this plan is that the same things they are shunning by wandering the world are killing me, literally, I think sometimes, based on how much my body has been protesting lately. And none of the friends who I have supposedly been building this farm for seem the least bit interested in maybe taking on some of that burden, or necessarily even in coming back home and settling in one place. They have taken to the wandering life. I’m the weird one who loves to settle.

Which leads to the conclusion that if I only wanted to farm (as a career) to avoid a desk job and to build a space for people who don’t seem all that interested in it, I’ve been on this path for all the wrong reasons.

The other piece of advice I’ve recently received was just as simply beautiful: you don’t have to do it all at once. I’ve heard this many times before, but she put it in terms of the diet we’ve both adopted. I didn’t start out eating all local, whole foods. That’s for sure. I started with a few things. I canned some tomatoes. I froze some peppers. And now I store almost everything for the winter, and buy nothing at the grocery store except paper towels (and that’s only for cleaning up cat vomit, there is really no better method) and coconut milk. I’ve still got things to work on- I’m still buying a lot of pasta, even though I’ve learned how to make it, because that’s just one I can’t seem to make the time to get to.

And it could easily be the same way with farming. I’m looking for a place to live anyway, and if I find one with an acre or two where I can start planting trees, I can always just “sell” fruit to neighbors. I bet that would get me around the new stupid laws that are coming into place, as well.

Now I just need to find a place to live…

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All this talk of going underground just makes me want to farm even more. Why do I want to farm? Why do I want to commit my life to a load of hard work and sunburns and probably being in debt for the rest of my life in order to get a little spit of land?

Somebody’s got to do it. Somebody has to figure out how we’re all going to continue to eat. And somebody needs to take the risks, take the steps, to figure out how we are all going to survive this mess. I mean it. It’s not just about happy red tomatoes. This is life or death stuff we’re talking about. The food system we have in this country (and throughout much of the world) is completely unsustainable, and when it comes crashing to the ground, we need to have alternatives in place, and we need people with the knowledge of how to actually grow food without massive petroleum based inputs and trucks and irradiation and the rest of it.

The FDA has declared that it has no interest in those alternatives. Fine. If the FDA wants to declare war on small farmers, and on fresh, unadulterated foods, a war they will get. I’ve always been one of those people who likes to do things just because it will annoy the hell out of others anyway. That’s why I spent half of college with pink or blue hair. That’s half the reason I went vegetarian in the first place. If I can do something that people are going to question, that is probably what I am going to do, because people need to ask questions. People need to learn that things aren’t always what they seem. This is such an obvious statement, but it needs to be said, because there are millions of people out there who eat fast food on a daily basis without thinking twice about it. And it is obvious that they are not asking questions.

I want to farm not just because I have my idyllic visions of sitting on the front porch with friends eating loads of fresh food and playing music, and not just because I love food and growing things, but because I am so tired of doing work for organizations that don’t share the same values that get me out of bed in the morning. I am really tired of pussy footing around the idea that we need alternative forms of farming simply because oil is going to run out and if we don’t transition things are going to get really ugly. I am really really tired of people claiming that these alternative forms of ag based on ecosystems don’t work, and that they can’t feed people. I want to prove them wrong.

Of course, this is all difficult when land prices are something around $6000 an acre. If I could figure out a way to squat a big enough piece of land to farm, I’d be on it in about a minute. The problem is that if you then want to turn around and get your produce to people, they are going to ask questions about where you are farming… and then in come the regulators. And the expenses. And the fact that to afford to be a farmer, you or your spouse or whoever needs to have an off-farm job or a trust fund.

AGHGGGGGGGGGGH. Does anyone have at least a lot they’d be happy to pay me to transform into a homestead? I come pretty cheap. I just need enough money to house me and the kittens and my library, and keep buying my raw milk and grass fed beef.

And on that note, let’s look at exciting pictures of cupcakes:

These are my famed pumpkin cupcakes, adapted from a recipe in Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. I say adapted because I no longer make them vegan, of course. Raw milk and butter all the way. I’ll have more photos and stories about my baking efforts tomorrow.

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I was originally going to write a post on all the reasons it is hard to get started in farming if you are a new, young, and relatively poor farmer (or wannabe farmer). This was going to include a bulleted list of all the reasons, mostly economic or regulatory, especially in light of this new stupid food bill that is supposed to give the FDA more power to protect consumers from unsafe foods, but is actually going to result in the FDA persecuting more small farmers, amendment or no amendment, because that’s what the FDA does. If they wanted to go after big processors for violations they already have the power to do so. They just choose not to.

Anyway, in reading all this debate about the food safety modernization act (S. 510), I had a sudden vision of what the future of farming could look like. I should add that I was also reading The Complete Patient when this came to me.

If the Food Safety bill passes into law, it would potentially be possible for the FDA to make pasteurization law throughout the entire country, which would overturn the right of states to decide whether products (and not just milk) can be sold raw or not. Other products that have been under attack lately include raw cheese, almonds, and apple cider. Vegetables are probably next.

But how can you outlaw raw vegetables, you might be asking. Easy. Make irradiation required for “safe” food. Irradiation is the process by which produce is subjected to radiation in order to supposedly kill pathogens. It also kills the produce. When you go outside and pick a pepper and eat it, the pepper is literally still alive. Its cells are still functioning. As long as that pepper is still green (or red or whatever), it is still “alive.” This is how it is able to provide you with nutrition. This is why cooking vegetables reduces the available nutrition (it kills the pepper). Irradiation does the same thing… and adds radiation, just for the fun of it! Because we should all be eating things that have been subjected to radiation.

So raw vegetables might become illegal, as well as making raw milk and raw dairy products illegal nationwide. They could declare all raw juices illegal. They could declare freshly baked bread illegal, for all we know. The fact is, this bill gives the FDA such broad, undefined, sweeping powers that we have no idea what they’ll decide to do next.

Every time I think of this I get an image in my head of people farming underground, trying to escape the notice of the FDA, and distributing non-irradiated green peppers on the black market, meeting in back alleys and exchanging produce boxes of squash. Making surreptitious phone calls with code words and arranging to exchange a few ungassed tomatoes (if you buy a tomato in the grocery store, it was picked green and gassed to make it turn red) for a round of raw cheese.

I imagine people gardening under cover of darkness, in unused lots and abandoned corners of fields, trying to get by without being caught by regulators and suffering impossible fees or even jail time for failing to fill out paperwork (oh yeah- the House version of S. 510 includes ten years jail time for failing to properly file paperwork). I imagine people smuggling garden tools under jackets, hiding produce in secret compartments in the backs of their cars in case they get pulled over. And then I think, wow, this sounds a lot like the war on drugs. And then I think, oh right, this is happening now! Plenty of people are out there smuggling raw dairy and cider and other products, and jumping every time a police officer drives by their house in case they are about to be subjected to one of the raids that have been increasing drastically in the last four years.

This all may sound ridiculous, but it is happening, more and more every day. There was a farmer just a few years ago (two I think) who was interrogated into unconsciousness by a group of police, state, and federal agents for delivering raw milk to a group of eaters. There’s the now well publicized raid on Rawesome in California, where federal agents, guns drawn, lined volunteers up against the wall and frisked them. The more regulations the FDA enacts, the more we are going to be forced to go underground with our food production and distribution.

Unless, of course, we are all perfectly happy to eat Franken-foods made from GMOs and radiation and god only knows what else.

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There are two big assumptions that need to be addressed in moving forward. Both of them are difficult to tackle, very politically incorrect, and very much related to one another. Both of them have to do with land use, and I’m still not sure which one it makes sense to explore first, so I’ll just go for it and see where we end up.

The two assumptions are this:
1. That we need to keep feeding all the people that currently exist.
2. That the land on the shore (and in general, elsewhere) needs to be put to some kind of human purpose.

Before I explain more what I mean, please understand that I’m not advocating starving half the population. I don’t want people to starve. I don’t want to see half the population die. The problem is, I don’t see any way to sustain the human population at the numbers it currently is, and sooner or later we need to deal with that.

How do you explain this without sounding like a sociopath? It’s the reason the subject is so heartily avoided, I think. How do you explain to someone that no, you don’t want people to die, but if we don’t do something drastically different we are ALL going to die? It was something I struggled with when discussing farm issues all last week. One of the most common responses of farmers, or anyone for that matter, when defending conventional agriculture is that it is necessary to feed people. And I always want to counter with, but is it necessary to feed so many people? Yes, if you have 300 million or whatever it is people in the country, some conventional agriculture is going to be necessary. But that form of agriculture is based on oil, and oil will not continue to exist in the very near future, and then what? When the type of ag we have now starts to collapse because it simply cannot continue to exist (because the resources to sustain it are not there), then what? People are going to starve and die. It sucks. It really does. But it is a hard and fast fact that as sure as things fall to the ground when you drop them, a form of agriculture based on oil cannot be sustained if there is no oil.

Some people seem to think that we can technology our way out of this. I really have no faith at all in that being at all likely. Even if we replace oil with something else, that’s still an awful lot of energy that has to come from somewhere. Not to mention the whole synthetic fertilizer thing. Plants need nitrogen. Unless we find something to eat that isn’t based on plants, we need nitrogen and nitrogen just doesn’t come from nowhere. Right now we’re getting it from oil. Before that we were relying on bacteria to get around to making it. Maybe we’ll come up with some other way to produce nitrogen, and we’ll have another green revolution, but this seems not only unlikely, it seems to me that even if we do it can’t possibly last very long, because the fact remains that there are only so many resources on the planet. This is a limiting factor no matter what technological fixes you come up. There are only so many resources on the planet, and when we use them all up, we start dying. Period.

This is one of those things people just don’t want to hear. But the fact of the matter is, one way or another we need to not have so many people, especially so many people using the ridiculous amount of resources that Americans do. No one wants to hear that we need to DRASTICALLY cut back on what we use. No one wants to hear that having lots of babies is probably a really bad idea. I mean, I enjoy the things we have as much as the next person. I was taking a bath in my mom’s ridiculously oversized bathtub the other night and commented that I was very thankful at that particular moment for the materials it took to make that very large bathtub, and the energy it took to heat the water and the water itself. And I want to have kids very much. But is that a great idea? I don’t know.

If you look at history, you will see that when there was no food, people were forced to let their babies starve. And that really sucks. I’d like to avoid that if at all possible. You also can see examples of pre-civilization peoples who just didn’t have babies when there wasn’t enough food for them. This tends to happen to some extent anyway, because mothers won’t have enough energy to grow a baby, but you also see time and time again cultures where it was not only acceptable but regularly practiced to avoid conception and to abort when necessary. Cultures that didn’t do this died out, because there wasn’t enough food for the population. Or, in the case of the culture that led to ours, they invaded their neighbors and took all their food. And then did it again. And again and again and again. The problem is, the entire planet is now being put to this use, and there will still not be enough food to continue to grow the population. The problem is, we need to cut back on resource use as much as possible (and I mean for real, not just taking shorter showers like that makes the slightest bit of difference), and we also, at some point, need to stop having so many babies. Or the simple fact of there not being enough resources left on the planet will do it for us. And I really, really, really do not want to see that happen.

I am not trying to use this as an argument against transporting food to the western shore, so don’t make that assumption. I am simply pointing out that it is all well and good to discuss what to do about agriculture right now, in the short term, but at some point we’re going to have to face the real reality of the situation, which is that we have much bigger problems to deal with than the relative nutrient run off of farms versus developments. We have to switch to more sustainable forms of agriculture if we want to feed anyone at all, and if that means we can’t feed as many people (and I am not really sure it does), well, that’s something that needs to be addressed.

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And lest you all imagine I have my head stuck up my ass…

No, as I have said before, I do in fact realize that the reality of the agriculture situation means big commodity farms aren’t going anywhere in the immediate future. As several of the farmers we spoke to pointed out, if the poultry industry goes, so does the grain industry. And if both of those go, there are a lot of farmers who are going to be bankrupt with land to sell, and with land prices the way they are around here, they aren’t going to be bought up by small scale sustainable farmers. They’ll be bought by developers, who will grow houses. And then the eastern shore will look like the western and the bay will really be fucked.

I am not going to sit and argue that the poultry industry needs to pack up and leave the shore, no matter how much the part of my brain that also wishes I could understand my cats meows as English would like them to. So long as the poultry industry is here, we are at least staving off some of the development pressure, and believe you me, all the grain farms in the world are better than housing developments (which, if you ask me, need to be regulated as much or more than farms. Let’s shut up about TMDLs for a while and go create some regulations about how much fertilizer suburbanites can dump on their lawns).

The problem is that the poultry industry, as it stands, isn’t sustainable (meaning capable of surviving in the long term). Even most farmers will admit this. It becomes more and more expensive every year to deal with the increased nutrient management regulations, to continue to buy fertilizer and feed and the rest of it (because of rising oil prices), and to exist, one way or another. Sooner or later farms are going to start crumpling under the pressure. It would be awesome if we had something waiting in the wings to swoop in and save the shore from development, but the reality is that no one’s got an economically valid alternative as yet.

Perhaps you are surprised to hear my concern about alternatives being economically valid. It’s true, I don’t give a shit about the economy. What I do recognize, however, is the stark reality that if something isn’t economically valid, it’s not going to do jack shit to stave off the developers. For all that I love local food, it simply CAN’T replace large scale ag on the eastern shore given the current situation. To start, small scale farms or otherwise, it would take at most two counties to feed the entire shore (for those of you from elsewhere, there are 9 counties on the shore). So what would the other 7 do? There aren’t that many people here, which is a good thing. And to be honest, there isn’t that much land that is really suited for ag, either. But I’ll come back to that.

If we’re really going to fight off developers, the farms that are currently producing commodity grain and chicken need to be converted to producing commodity something else. Some people tried to do just that, not that long ago- they tried to get grain farmers out of doing grain for chicken feed and into doing grain for people feed, which can get a much higher price. They weren’t successful. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to transition a grain farmer to anything other than grain, due to the fact that all of his resources (read: money) are tied up in very expensive equipment designed to farm grain. You can’t just walk up to a grain farmer and be like, hey! Why don’t you grow some squash? It’s simply not possible given the current situation. Where would the money come from, to start?

So what’s the answer? I don’t know that there is just one. There are so many factors. Even if we convert farms to something other than grain (for example, if we could use some of those federal economic development funds that they are currently wasting on highways), all that food has to go somewhere. Say we converted all the CAFOs to some kind of pastured animal operation. Even though we wouldn’t have as many animals on the shore, we’d still have a lot. And where would they go? The logical answer of course is to the western shore, where all the people are. But to do so you need infrastructure- trucks to transport everything, and probably some kind of distribution center, and more processing and packaging. This is sounding pretty appealing to people on the shore, who are pretty damn short on jobs, but doesn’t that make it more or less the same as the commodity grain?

There are some advantages. The food would be traveling a shorter distance (who knows where Perdue chicken ends up). Rotational grazing, as I explained yesterday, makes a lot more sense and is generally more environmentally friendly than a CAFO. You’d probably end up with a lot of much healthier food than you have when you are dependent on grain. And having more diversity among our farms will take a lot of the pressure off the bay, not to mention improve the chances of the shore surviving an economic depression. But it’s not what I would define as local. I still want to be able to go up the road to my friend’s farm and butcher a chicken and take it home and eat it. But there’s all those people over there on the western shore, and they have to be fed somehow- right? And if we want to preserve the eastern shore from development, don’t we have to keep it all in agriculture, to feed… someone?

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Capital News Service: Switching to Grazing Helps Farmers, Chesapeake Bay

Well, duh.

The first thing I thought of upon reading this article was: yeah, obviously. Doesn’t everyone know that? But then I remembered that someone recently told me they had been asked by a coworker, quite seriously, what a potato tree looked like, and I shut right up. No, people don’t know that rotational grazing is better for farmers and for the bay.

Big commodity farms such as those described yesterday are always facing the same issue: nutrient run off. Any farm that involves a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) means there are a lot of animals in a very small space, and this means at some point they are going to have to deal with a very large pile of shit. Literally. All those animals produce a lot of manure, and if you are keeping the animals indoors, in a small space, you need to remove the manure and put it somewhere else. Usually this is on a field, in the case of chicken manure, or in a lagoon and then on a field, in the case of cow manure. One way or another, lots and lots of it gets spread around in fields. There are an awful lot of regulations that manage the amount of manure that can get spread around, and where and when and how, and this can become rather onerous for farmers, but the intention is to prevent the majority of the manure from ending up in waterways which lead to the bay (causing algae blooms and dead zones).

Now, it is very true that manure belongs in fields. Plants are big fans of manure, generally. The problem is not spreading manure in fields, the problem is that there is so damn much of it. It usually gets spread in the fields all in one go, and usually before there are plants in the fields, which means there are plenty of opportunities for the manure to wash off. Don’t get me wrong. Most farmers are very conscious of this and attempt to do whatever they can to limit the amount of manure that runs off. But the ultimate issue is just that they are attempting to slap band aids on a system that doesn’t work in the first place.

Compare the above to rotational grazing. Instead of keeping cows in a building, where you have to remove the manure constantly, you keep cows in a field of grass. The cows eat the grass. They shit. You move them before they eat all the grass, so that as soon as the cows are gone the remaining grass goes, wow! Lots of nutrients! And absorbs the nutrients and gets bigger and more plentiful, so that you can later put the cows on the grass again. If managed properly (and there are plenty of ways to mismanage rotational grazing), there should be almost no run off at all. The manure is spread around evenly, and not in such large quantities that the grass can’t absorb it. You also don’t have to move the manure. You just have to move the cows, which are much easier to move because they have feet. You also don’t have to move feed, because the feed is right there (the grass). Feed is probably the most expensive input in your typical CAFO. Grass, aside from whatever work you may have to do to seed it, is pretty cheap. Especially when you have ready made fertilizer that spreads itself.

Here is another example that makes me go, “duh, isn’t it obvious?” One of the farms we visited was a grain/ poultry operation. This is pretty standard for a lot of the shore. Farmers grow grain, and then they ship their grain to a broker, and then the broker sells it to someone who manufactures feed, and then the feed is shipped back to the farm. In the process, a lot of mysterious (seriously- the farmers didn’t know either) ingredients are added to the feed, and it is ground up. From my point of view, this seems like an awful waste of time. All of this happens on the shore, so in theory it is “local”, but it still involves a lot of trucking when the grain originally started out about fifty feet from the chickens.

Why, I am forced to ask, can’t you just take the grain and feed it directly to the chickens? The dairy farmer we visited at least ground the grain on site to feed to his cattle, though he did import a lot of supplementary ingredients to mix with it. The funny thing is, chickens will eat almost anything. They like grain fine, but they also love bugs and tomatoes and watermelons and more or less anything you give them. Chickens who wander around on the grass get all of these things (ok, not the watermelons). They especially get protein, from the bugs, which is one of the things I believe is typically added to grain to make it into “feed.” However, when chickens live in a shed (as they do on CAFOs), they get none of these things. You have to provide them with all these supplements.

Not to mention that when chickens are on grass, and you move them around a lot, their manure gets spread around and you don’t have to do so much shoveling.

The point is, there are some clear issues with conventional farming, and one of them is the relative sense of doing an awful lot of work to “manage” manure and run off, when you could just as easily (actually, much more easily) let them manage themselves. The difference, of course, is the same difference between using solar energy and petroleum energy. You can’t charge as much money for the one, because it’s just there. Not to mention that in a conventional farm, it is all about the inputs: add x to y to z and you get a. Rotational grazing requires an awful lot of thought and creativity, and there is no one answer.

Nor is the answer simply swapping out conventional farming for rotational grazing. But we will get to that more tomorrow…

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I really want an ice cream maker.

But every time I think about this I think, wow, what waste of energy. And then I think, what will I do when we run out of oil? What will I do when there’s no more electricity?

And so I’m hoping to find a hand crank ice cream maker that doesn’t require electricity- except, of course, for the freezer that freezes the ice cream. There are many things that will no longer be possible for me to make so easily once we really start feeling the effects of peak oil. For example, my magical yogurt maker, that will make yogurt in eight short hours, without me doing anything but plugging it in.

There is a concept that I’ve recently learned the name of, called “transition.” This, apparently, is what I’ve always been talking about without ever knowing there was not only a name but a whole movement based around it. The concept is that at some point we are going to start feeling, to the very depths of our daily lives, the effects of peak oil. We won’t be able to make food from fossil fuels any longer. Something will happen to prevent us readily having processed foods on the shelves in the grocery store. Long distance travel will become prohibitively expensive. And so we will be forced to find other options- namely, food grown locally, by our own communities.

I spent last week traveling around to a variety of farms for work, which means I can’t really write about them the way I would if I had traveled to them on my own. A number of these farms were very large scale and produced commodities, which, if you aren’t familiar with ag terms, means things that can be mass produced. Chickens, corn, soybeans, milk. You can also produce these things for retail, meaning on a smaller scale, where you sell direct to consumer, as opposed to selling to a broker or some other kind of intermediary, who pays you one price for your goods (for example, $4 per bushel of corn), and then turns around and sells it to someone else (for example, a company that makes corn syrup) for another price.

One of the things that came up in all the conversations, however, even the ones with small scale farmers, was oil. How are the rising oil prices going to affect your business? Well, obviously they are going to make things more difficult. All of the commodity farms rely on tractor trailers to haul their products away. They rely on diesel fuel to run their fancy farm equipment. They rely on oil based synthetic fertilizers to make their crops grow, and more tractor trailers to bring them the rest of the inputs they need to make their farms run. More and more, large scale farms are relying on computer systems to make their operations more efficient. GPS tracking in tractors monitors exactly where in the field yields were highest and lowest, so that additional testing can reveal deficiencies in the soil. Soon there will be technology on the market to also monitor the health of the plants as the tractor drives by, so the tractor, or the computer in the tractor, will know how much of which chemical to spray on that particular patch of ground. At a dairy we visited, cows were all monitored with wireless transmitters that recorded how many steps each cow took and compared it to their average so that the computer could determine which cows were healthy, which were in heat, and which were normal. A computerized system measured how much milk each cow gave, and gave commands to a series of gates to isolate cows that were giving less than their average so they could be checked for illness. The farmer could check all of this information on his iPhone as he drove around the farm doing his daily chores.

This is all well and good, especially the idea of spraying less because a computer can determine what does and does not need spraying. However, it assumes two things: one, that this type of farming is best for everyone involved, and two, that there will still be the oil that is needed to power all these things in the future. I’ll deal with the first in another post, but as for the oil one- well, walking around these farms, I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to them when the oil finally dries up. They won’t be able to farm, that’s for sure.

Transition is all about moving away from things that won’t be possible in the future to things that will. Learning how to grow your own food, for example, and how to prepare food without the help of electric devices. Learning how to make your own cheese, and spaghetti sauce, and chicken stock, and bread. Most importantly, learning how to produce food in a way that can continue without the help of oil, because honey, I’m here to tell you it’s not going to last. It CAN’T last, no matter how much some people may wish it can. And if we don’t work on puzzling out how to transition, things are going to be royally fucked when the time comes and there is no longer any food on the grocery store shelves.

So, no electric ice cream maker for me…

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