Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Homestead Solution

One response to various global energy/global warming crises is homesteading and/or local food production.
There are a number of efficiency issues with this solution.  However, on a basic numbers level it looks fairly reasonable: at least at the level of the individual.   A family of four can easily feed itself on an acre of land: an acre being originally determined by  the amount of land that one ox can plow in a day using intensive farming/gardening methods.
But simply tallying the expected annual calorie output per acre versus the calorie input per person is not going to get you the whole story.  The last time period that the United States worked at non-mechanical intensive farming methods was during the late 19th to early 20th century. It can be instructive to look at the historical record.
The homesteads were small grants of free land from the public domain for people willing to bring them under cultivation, was developed by 19th-century reformers as a cure for social problems and corrupt land speculation.
The five year success rate from 1900 to 1915 was just below 40% (344,444/893,111=38.6%).  link
Three problem areas:
·         Issues of sociology/group dynamics
·         Issues of Scale combined with
·         Issues of variable output

You don’t think of group dynamics as being an issue with farming, but it is important to realize that farming communities develop over time and in a specific geography, and that instanting farming communities are not always going to be viable.
[In Canada ] Jewish settlers established agricultural settlements in the Canadian Prairie Provinces from the early 1880s through the first decade of the 20th century. Without exception these settlements were eventually abandoned by their founders. Today there are no Jewish rural agricultural communities in western Canada. ..Jewish pioneers abandoned their farms when they were unable to reconcile the demands of religious observance with the dispersed pattern of settlement mandated by the Dominion Lands Act of 1872. Poor coordination of aid by Jewish philanthropic institutions and their failure to strive for the concentration of Jewish colonization in a single geographic area exacerbated the social and religious problems faced by rural Jewish settlers. For many, relocation to a Jewish urban community was the only way to remain observant to Jewish religious law.
[By comparison, Mormon groups were in general successful]… characterized by its great stability. .. A comparative analysis of the two groups suggests that this difference in agricultural stability may not have been a reflection of prior experience, nor was it necessarily attributable to vagaries of the physical environment. Social structures, religious demands, and institutional backing, along with the geographical concentration and inter connectivity of settlements were critical elements in determining success or failure in agriculture colonization.

There were underlying issues of variable output due to periodic adverse weather, and the misunderstanding of the appropriate measures needed to farm in the Upper Great Plains (Great American Desert).
As American settlements pushed further west past the 100th meridian, dry farming techniques were promoted that were designed to deal with the dryer climate found in the area.
Unfortunately the lack of accurate information led the Great Plains to be settled too densely in farms that were later found to be too small, undercapitalized and insufficiently diversified to be sustainable.  The initial problems were found to occur in Western Kansas when droughts in the 1890s reduced homesteads from a peak of 3,083 to a low point of 907 with only very slow growth into the 20th century.  But at the same time farm sizes doubled from 221 acres to 461 by 1900.  link4
Eventually these issues were worked out, but they worked out into the form of our modern agriculture system:  the result that todays homesteaders/local farm producers are trying to get away from.

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