Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Why Small-Scale Regenerative Agriculture is so Important

For the last several months, I have been throwing down a whole lot of information. Thank you, loyal readers, for sticking with me. I am going somewhere with this. There are a great number of techniques that can be used to repair our degrading ecosystem, and do so while providing a comfortable living for those doing the repairs. But people need to understand how this all needs to work. We live in a society that is separated to a great extent from nature. In order to fix what needs to be fixed, we need to first bring people back to nature, to help them understand it and learn how to heal it.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. As I mention regularly, this is an engineering blog. I do my best to use engineering problem solving techniques. And the first and foremost among those is this: if you wish to solve a problem, you first have to define the problem. So, what is the problem we are facing? And I don’t mean global warming, degrading farm land, or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Those are symptoms. What is the problem? Let me offer my viewpoint on this.

The problem, as I see it, is an ultimate flaw with the changes made during the Industrial Revolution. Bear with me here. See, prior to the Industrial Revolution, some 90% of humanity lived a pastoral existence on small family farms. When the Industrial Revolution hit, it needed two things to function and grow: it needed workers, and it needed consumers. It is basic supply and demand. So farmers were encouraged, and sometimes forced, to leave their land and move to the cities. They were promised a better life and more prosperity. For the most part, that prosperity was finally realized during the 50s with an expansion of the middle class.

But it proved to be short-lived. As an economy grows, it builds wealth, actually creates it. For the last 15 years, those gains have largely gone to the elite and the middle class has seen no appreciable increase in earnings. Prices have continued to rise, though, so the difference between the two has caused a contraction of the middle class, with millions of people watching their standard of living decrease with little hope of reversing the slide. 

There is also a more insidious problem. The Industrial Revolution taught us that we could be separated from the land and that even our food production could be automated. The consequences have been disastrous. Ultimately, humans are biological beings and are intimately connected to the environment we live in in ways we are just beginning to understand. Land needs to be managed or the biological processes that keep it alive degrade. 

Industrial agriculture is a great example. If you take farmland with excellent soil containing lots of soil carbon and add synthetic fertilizers, the production goes through the roof. Profits increase wildly. But the reason it becomes so productive is that the synthetic fertilizers increase soil biological activity and they use all that stored soil carbon as a foodsource, burning through it in as little as a few years, or maybe a few decades at the outside. It is a perfect example of short term profit at the expense of long term viability.

So here we are. The profits that can be extracted have been. The rich are richer than they have ever been in the history of the world. They are trying harder and harder to find ways to increase profits. Wages have stagnated to the point that large swathes of humanity are barely making it paycheck-to-paycheck. Our environment is forfeit. We are looking at the looming threat of technological unemployment as more companies try to further cut expenses by automating as many tasks as possible. The outlook is bleak.

Or is it? Maybe this is exactly what we needed right now. See, momentum is the biggest obstacle to change. As long as everything is going along great, people won’t make changes. Comfort is hard to compete with. But discomfort and uncertainty, well, that has people craving change. Heck, a presidential candidate used it as his campaign slogan a couple of years back. The trick is for people to get to a very difficult realization: that they are on their own. As long as you rely on those in power for your livelihood, you are subject their whims and have little control. But when you decide to take control of your own life, that’s where the magic happens.

The question is, how? We live in an urban, and largely suburban, landscape. We like our connected, technological lifestyle. Who wants to give that up to move back to the country and pursue a homestead lifestyle? Well, lots of people, actually, but I am talking to the rest of us here. How can we live our modern lifestyle and still pursue some measure of self-sufficiency. Personally, I think that small-scale regenerative agriculture is the key here.

Small-scale regenerative agriculture is the perfect solution for the predicament we have ourselves in. It solves the problems on pretty much every level. There have been a number of significant advances since the last time we were an agrarian society. And I don’t mean in the technology of the tractors currently tearing up vast swaths of farmland. Things like organic farming (if you think this one is ancient, you probably don’t understand it), aquaponics, and mycoculture have all come a long, long way in the last 200 years or so. Technology can be employed in ways never dreamed of even 30 years ago. With careful layout and design, more food than ever can be grown in a smaller space all while regenerating the environment.

So what can small scale regenerative agriculture do to solve the problems at hand today? Let’s tackle them one by one and see.

Climate Change/Environmental Degradation
This one is probably the easiest to justify. Regenerative agriculture is, by definition, regenerative. This means reducing monoculture, increasing environmental diversity, and building soil. The simple process of building soil means adding carbon to the soil, a process also called Carbon Farming. With enough practitioners of this practice, significant amounts of carbon could be sequestered into the soils of the earth. Plus, the restoration of life to soil helps mitigate pollution and further increases environmental diversity, which will breathe life into ecosystems beyond the farming operation.

Stagnating Wages
In a household budget, there are two sides to the flow of money: income and expenses. Most people are struggling through increases in expenses while their wages have virtually stagnated for decades. It can be very frustrating to find more and more ways to cut expenses just to make ends meet. Introducing solar dollars to the household budget can breathe new life into the flow of money. With new methods and technologies, this can happen with only minimal additional effort on the part of the homeowner, but can result in a much tastier and healthier diet.

Technological Unemployment
As most are aware, machines are going to be taking all the jobs. I have heard projections as high as 60% of jobs will be lost over the next 20 years to automation. Personally, I think this move is highly shortsighted. While there will be a huge savings in production costs, that doesn’t really help if everyone is unemployed and can’t afford to buy gadgets at the new low cost. Regardless of how bad this move will allow companies to shoot themselves in the foot, it is coming. So, what can be done about it?

Simply put, people are going to have to become more self-sufficient. They will need to stop relying on employers for their livelihood. This used to be the way nearly everyone lived before the Industrial Revolution and they did so by living primarily off of solar dollars. Sustainable agriculture allows a return to this paradigm, allowing individuals to reduce or eliminate reliance on employers.

Urban Malaise
I read a comment recently that I thought was spot-on: You don’t hate Mondays. You hate capitalism. Maybe it is capitalism. Maybe it is our lack of connection to the natural world. Maybe it is a lack of meaning in our lives. Maybe it is knowing that we spend our days toiling away to build value for someone else. Maybe it is pollution. Whatever the cause, a general feeling of malaise, discontent, unhappiness, and restlessness are prevalent in our society. Small-scale regenerative agriculture hits pretty much all of those causes head-on. You are building value for yourself on your own land. You are working with and regenerating nature. I don’t think it is that hard to understand why gardeners are a happy lot.

As the nutrients are increasingly extracted from farmland, our food loses its nutritional value. We become disconnected from the nutrient cycle. By regenerating our own land and building nutrient-rich soil, we increase the nutrient content of the foods we eat. And by doing that small-scale, we reconnect ourselves to our own nutrient cycle.

Gardening is a great way to keep active. There is definitely work involved. This can help with fitness and flexibility. Reconnecting our bodies to the natural nutrient cycle will also help as our bodies will be getting all the nutrient-rich foods they need.

The best part of all this is that we don’t need to drop our modern lifestyle to realize all these benefits. Technology can play a big part in reducing the labor on gardening while still improving output. Universal availability of the internet means you can still ply your trade or profession by working part time online throughout the week to bring in additional income. We really can have the best of both worlds.

So, tell me, what did I miss? Are there other ways small-scale urban agriculture can change the world?


  1. Just stumbled across your blog. This post is the best written rationale I have read so far for why we need sustainable, small scale food production. My question is, how is it possible to spread the word about this? Right now, so many people realize things are not right, but they struggle for solutions in our broken political system. You captured the point very well that we are in a paradigm shift of automation resulting in reduced need for labor, which is leaving people economically distressed. The problem is that few realize they are living in a paradigm shift as significant as the Industrial Revolution, which totally changed the entire economic landscape. Attempts to deny this or turn back the clock will only fail and maybe end badly. Furthermore, the environment cannot handle much more of "business as usual" either. The sooner folks realize and accept the truth of the situation, and a peaceful path forward, the more chance we have of staving off negative consequences. So again, I wonder, are there ways to get this message out, in a persuasive way, to the greater public?

    1. That is the question, isn't it? It seems like everyone is just floundering about. We are going to need a new paradigm, and this seems like a good one. But getting the word out is definitely the hard part. For my part, I wrote this post, and to a larger extent, this blog. But there is only so much I can do to drive traffic here and keep the conversation going anything you can do to help would be greatly appreciated.

    2. So I posted it to the St. Louis Permaculture facebook page ( However, that is really just preaching to the choir. I spend quite a bit of time (probably too much) reading articles and blogs about issues threatening the environment, as well as the economy, and how the two interact (saw your post in reddit). I think your post just about nailed it by tying a number of threads together, which I cannot remember seeing done elsewhere. If I can think of other ways to get this message seen I will try them out. I really think there could be a book lurking in this post.

    3. Thanks! I do try to find the connections between things. That is really where the magic is. But yeah, I get it. But preaching to the choir isn't a bad thing in this case. There are a whole lot of people trying to figure out where to go from here and solutions are few and far between. If we can help them, they will spread the good news. And yes, I agree that there is a book lurking in here. I might just write it. Problem is, that book kind of needs to get in line. I have two others in the works already. But based on the response to this post, there might just be enough demand that this one would need to jump to the top.

    4. I also just found this blog and I have a bunch of tabs open from the links in this post. It nicely, concisely captured many of my own thoughts.
      In many ways this paradigm shift represents a change of path, like the change from adolescence to adulthood, I think its hard for people to stop everything and change their lives in a radical way when they don't see the value, and fear the loss of security and comfort their current lifestyle offers.
      I think we simply need more examples of people switching paths and loving the change. I'm happy to have found another reference point and will read on.
      Thank you!

    5. Well, if & when you start writing a book on this topic, feel free to ping me for feedback (tely5 at yahoo dot com). I have been thinking a lot about technological unemployment in the past few years, reading some related books: "Lights in the Tunnel" (Martin Ford), "The End of Work" (Rifkin), to name several. I liked those books but was not totally impressed with any solutions put forward (to the point where I started outlining a book myself, though didn’t follow through).

      In the past several years, I have also become very aware of the impact of civilization on the environment. So now I see there are several possible paths forward (excuse my reductionism): one possibility involves misguided attempts to negotiate/legislate/drill/etc. our way back to a 1990's style economy, based on a failure to fully appreciate the structural changes taking place; the other way comes from the realization and understanding of the paradigm shift which is underway, along with the urgent need to lessen human impact on the environment. I cannot help but think that there are solutions which address both economic and environmental concerns.