Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Beans for High Protein

Next to grains, beans are often the most important part of the diet, especially if you're a vegetarian. Beans are high in protein, they will grow almost anywhere, and once they've produced a few leaves they need little or no irrigation. Beans and other legumes add nitrogen to the soil; traditional agriculture has always relied on their vital service.

Grains and beans go together. They replace one another in a rotation system. They complement one another in the diet: grains and beans have different but matching amino acids, so they provide more protein when eaten together rather than when eaten separately. And grains and beans are often grown in a similar manner.

All beans and peas are members of the family Leguminosae. Phaseolus vulgaris includes many of the varieties commonly eaten: white (and navy) beans, kidney beans, pintos, black (or turtle) beans, cranberry (or horticultural) beans, Jacob's cattle (or trout) beans, and soldier beans, among others. Scarlet runners are P. coccineus.

A second way of classifying them is by the way they grow. Bush beans grow only a couple of feet high and do not need supports. Pole beans are vines and are generally allowed to grow up poles, strings, or other supports. A garden planted with pole beans will produce 3 or 4 times as much as the same area planted with bush beans. Pole beans are also generally more drought resistant than bush beans. It isn't essential to support pole beans (using poles or nets), and if you're using such supports it takes time and energy to put them up.

A third way of classifying these plants is by the way they are eaten. From the point of view of survival gardening, what is most important is the production of "dry beans": allowing the beans to dry completely before they are shelled and put into storage. However, many people prefer eating beans as "green beans." Then there are beans that are eaten in a sort of intermediate stage as "green shell beans" -- lima beans, for example, are often eaten this way.

You'll need about 1 pound (250 gm) of seed for every 100 feet (30 m) of row, or 120 pounds per acre (130 kg/ha). Under ideal conditions, the yield will be about 1,800 pounds of dried beans per acre (2,000 kg/ha).

Actually, a harvest of about 50 pounds of dried beans should be enough for one person, even on a vegetarian diet. To produce that amount, you'll need about 1,500 square feet (140 m2) of room, about 40 feet by 40 feet (12 x 12 m). That will mean planting about 6 pounds (3 kg) of beans.

Beans cannot handle cold weather, so wait until the date of the last spring frost, or even later, before planting. Make your rows 2 feet (60 cm) apart. Make a furrow about 2 inches (5 cm) deep with the edge of a hoe, and drop one bean into the furrow every 6 inches (15 cm) and cover it.

Pole beans without supports should be planted a foot (30 cm) apart, in rows 3 feet apart. If you want to plant pole beans with supports, however, you may want to make tripods of 6-foot (2 m) poles and plant about 3 beans at the base of each pole.

You can also broadcast beans (scatter them randomly over the tilled ground), if you want to save time and energy. The soil must be well dug, and you should be sure of adequate moisture around planting time. You may waste some of your seed beans by broadcasting, but that method is quicker and easier than planting in rows. Use about 120 pounds per acre (130 kg/ha), as for row planting.

It will take about a week or two for the beans to show themselves above ground. Beans need little water, but they should be well hoed, partly to remove weeds and partly to keep the surface of the ground well pulverized to form a "dust mulch," which will hold in the moisture below the surface. Beans that are broadcast, however, can't be hoed.

Wait until the plants are brown and then pull up the plants and strip the pods. Dump the pods on a clean surface. Leave the pods to dry further, turning them occasionally, until the pods are so brittle that they crumble. It's best to do the drying outside in the sunshine, but bring them in every night so the dew doesn't fall on them. Then beat the pods thoroughly, or stamp on them, to get the beans out.

Winnow the beans to get rid of the bits of pods, leaves, and stems. The process of winnowing is the same as for grains: on a windy day, toss the beans into the air, or pour them from one container to another. Put all the waste material on the compost heap, or dig it straight into the ground.

Now leave the beans to dry for another week or two. Stir and turn the beans as they are drying, and don't leave them piled thickly on top of each other. Be careful: if the beans are not thoroughly dry, they become moldy in storage, and the crop will be lost. Beans may look absolutely dry on the outside, but if they aren't dry inside before storing they will certainly go moldy. When they are completely dry, they should be stored in a cool, dry place -- but not in airtight containers. In southern areas, stored beans may be attacked by insects; if insects start doing serious damage, you might save your beans by boiling or roasting them right away.

Beans can also be dried when they are "green beans." Blanch them (drop them into boiling water for 2 minutes) and then carefully sun-dry them. In really sunny weather, the blanching isn't necessary.

It is best not to work among your bean plants when they are wet with dew or rain, because you could be spreading diseases from one plant to another. Beans can also be bothered by some insect pests: aphids, cabbage loopers, corn earworms, European corn borers, or Japanese beetles. The worst insect, however, is the Mexican bean beetle, which looks like a large brown ladybug. Handpicking of these insects is sometimes the best remedy.

Part of your crop will be saved to plant next year. Keep an eye on the nicer plants, and earmark those for your next year's crop. Choose the best, not the earliest; contrary to popular belief, beans from pods that appear late in the season do not produce slower plants the next year. With proper care, dried beans will stay viable for about 3 years.

Other types of beans than P. vulgaris might be more suited to your area. A more southern species is teparies, P. acutifolius var. latifolius. You might consider garbanzo beans (chickpeas), Cicer arietinum. Another Old World legume is lentils, Lens culinaris. An Asian favorite is adzuki beans, Vigna angularis. If you live in the southern United States, you can grow any of the many varieties of V. unguiculata, the southerns: field peas, pea beans, crowders, black-eyed peas, or yellow-eyed peas. Lima beans (P. lunata) need warm soil and a long summer, but they are worth growing in more southern areas; they should be planted two weeks after the last spring frost.

Broad beans (Vicia faba), also known as fava beans, horse beans, and Windsor beans, can be grown in North America in spring or fall during cool weather; in fact, they will only do well if you have a long stretch of cool, damp weather. Plant them 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. They will be ready to pick in 2 to 3 months, but the harvesting period is not long. Broad beans are often eaten as "green shell beans": when the beans are large but not hard, they are removed from the pods. Or you can allow them to dry completely, at which point they are easy to store. Some people, especially of Mediterranean descent, are allergic to broad beans.

Soybeans (Glycine max) have been popular in Asia for centuries, but westerners have gotten to know them over the last few decades. It is unfortunate that most of the soybeans in North America go to feed livestock. Soybeans are easy to grow, even in the southern parts of Canada. Almost any kind of soil will do, although they prefer well-drained alkaline soil. They need 100 days of warm weather but can handle long periods of drought. Use about ½ pound (250 gm) of seed for 100 feet (30 cm) of row, or 80 pounds per acre (90 kg/ha). They can also be broadcast. Soybeans yield well; you could get 3,000 pounds per acre (3,400 kg/ha).

Soybeans are about 40 percent protein, and they can be converted into numerous foodstuffs. To use them as "green shell beans," drop the pods into boiling water for 4 minutes, and the beans will come out more easily. After that, cook the beans for about 15 minutes, or add them to any grain you're cooking. If, instead, you leave the beans to dry fully, you'll have to soak them overnight and then cook them for an hour in about 3 times as much water, like other dry beans. You can also use the dry beans for flour, by putting them through a grain mill. The soy flour can substitute for part of the wheat flour in a bread recipe.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Buying a Small Farm

During my high-school days, I discovered Thoreau's Walden, the story of his two-year life in a cabin in the woods. Walden became my bible, Thoreau my hero. Like him, I wanted to get away from the human race. I wanted to live off the land somewhere, I wanted to hunt and fish and gather roots and berries, or perhaps grow a vegetable garden. I didn't want to sit in an office for 50 years with a necktie around my throat. I wanted to find a way of life that involved, as much as possible, neither earning nor spending money. To live that kind of life would mean getting away from the city, geographically and in every other sense.

Later, while I was living in Ottawa, I got a catalog from a company that sold cheap rural land. I sent in a down payment and managed to buy 78 acres (31 ha) of vacant land southeast of Lake of the Woods, near the Ontario-Manitoba border. I visited the property soon after I bought it, but it took 23 hours of driving to get there from Ottawa -- not including any stops. The soil seemed suitable for gardening or farming, and deer were quite numerous. But I was living in Ottawa, and that first visit was my last for a very long time. Afterward, I was always lacking either the time (i.e. I had a job) or the money (i.e. I didn't have a job) to go up there.

Several years after that, I began to think again about that Lake of the Woods property, which I hadn't yet sold. I started planning to put a house there. When I wrote to the township clerk to tell him of my idea, though, I ran into obstacles. He told me that, according to the bylaws, it was illegal to build a house that was not on a "maintained municipal road." To build a real road I would need the cooperation of all the adjoining property owners, and the road would have to be built at my expense -- many thousands of dollars. Even if all those problems were solved, I would still have to pay for the septic system, electricity, and perhaps a telephone line. Because of the distance to cover, each of these would be very expensive.

I realized that the biggest problem with buying rural property is the laws: the building codes, zoning restrictions, health codes, and so on. Once you decide to live in anything more civilized than a beaver swamp, you are automatically hit by the most amazing variety of laws. In plain English: it's illegal to live in a log cabin. In most of Canada and the US, it's against the law to live in a house that does not meet the requirements of the standard building codes.
For the US, there are about three major building codes, for different parts of the country. For Canada, there's only one code, with some regional variations. But all of these codes are basically the same. They all largely restrict housing to the familiar type of wood-frame construction. They all have strict requirements for electricity and plumbing. Don't think about living in a yurt, a tepee, a geodesic dome, or an octagonal cabin, not unless you're miles from any road or trail. A "log home" (versus a primitive log cabin) may be permitted, but by the time you've conformed to all the laws the house is not worth the bother; it's the same as a frame house but takes a lot more wood. Even mobile homes are illegal in many areas, although even in those areas you may get away with living in a "legal non-conforming" mobile home, meaning a mobile home that was put on the property before the building code was established in that area.

Rural properties nearly always need wells and septic systems, and the construction of these will add another few thousand dollars in expenses, although some areas still allow the old-fashioned pit-type outhouses.

Exactly what is allowed is a difficult thing to say, because the laws vary somewhat from one area to another. In the US, these laws are determined by the county, while in Canada the decisions are made by the township. There is no easy route: you need to check with the clerks or inspectors of any and all areas that you are interested in. But there really are not many places where there are no building codes to deal with.

Such laws put ruralites in an ambivalent situation. People who live in the country are certainly "nature lovers," or they wouldn't be there in the first place. At the same time, because of the horrors of global overpopulation, resource-consumption, and environmental destruction, legislators everywhere are introducing laws that severely restrict access to the wilderness.

It's hard to say whether the present building codes and zoning restrictions do more harm than good for the "back-to-the-landers." They certainly make life complicated -- and expensive -- for the buyer. On the other hand, since my neighbors have to follow the same laws, they ensure that I will not be shocked by the sound, sight, or smell of whatever is going on down the road. And if I buy a house, I can be fairly sure that it will not blow down the next day.

To a varying extent, the laws about rural property are simply ignored. You need a building permit to do major renovations to your house, but not small ones. The difference between the two often gets intentionally blurred, and I know of one contractor who does his work first and deals with any building inspector later. Often an owner and an inspector get into a war of nerves; someone else I know kept up an argument about whether his mobile home was permanent (hence illegal) or temporary, until the inspector decided to try his luck elsewhere. To a large extent, if none of your neighbors complain, it's quite likely no one will ask you to stop what you're doing. For me, however, the fear of getting caught is just not worth the bother. Being an "outlaw" is too much of a headache.

(Or consider what in Canada are called "unorganized areas": the building codes in such places may exist on paper but it's not very likely that they'll be enforced. Pure wilderness is tempting. The Cochrane Southwest Unorganized Area, in northern Ontario, for example, consists of 553 square kilometers and a population of zero. There would be no serious problems with water, firewood, game, and fish, and probably even arable land. The long, harsh winter would be the main drawback, requiring the cutting and stacking of a great deal of wood. In addition, such a location would only suit a physically fit person who enjoyed long-term solitude. Another catch with wilderness life is that the distance to any settled area is so great that it cannot easily be covered without a motorized vehicle; if a long journey were ever necessary, the “simple life” might no longer be simple.)

As a further step toward country living, my wife and I bought a house on the edge of Toronto, with a large backyard. For four years we grew vegetables and even grains there. Each summer we grew about 20 or 30 kinds of food plants, constantly experimenting. But eventually we wanted something bigger and more remote. We looked at many real-estate listings and put together a shopping list that was roughly as follows: a house or mobile home in fair condition that could be used for year-round occupancy in accordance with the building code and other local laws, a few acres of arable land, a year-round road, a well, and a septic system. We thought electricity and a telephone would be nice, perhaps essential. Based on what we'd been seeing and on what we could afford, we decided to aim for a house that would cost about a quarter of the price of a house in the city -- even though the new house would have far more land. Eventually we found a good property: a mobile home on a full basement, surrounded by four acres of mostly-cleared land, with a minor highway at one end and a beautiful river at the other.

Finding the money to buy rural property is always ironic. The people who most need to get out of the city and away from the endless expenses of city living are those who have the least money, while the people who find it easiest to get out of the city are those who are rich enough to be hauling huge motorboats behind them as they travel. Sort of like Marie Antoinette dressing up in a shepherdess outfit. There are a few ways out of the bind, however. Try working at tough but high-paying jobs that no one else wants. Or buy a run-down house in the city, renovate it, and take advantage of the profit that comes from the renovation and from the general increase in housing prices. If at all possible, save enough money that you can buy rural property without having to pay off a mortgage.

When you start looking at properties, one of the trickiest questions is water, and the topic often gets omitted from the advertising. As we discovered, unless a cottage or cabin is stated to have a well, then it probably does not. If a rural house has no well, there is no guarantee that one can drill for water later and actually find it. A hydrologist could come and take a look and then make an educated guess. By looking at surface water and neighboring properties, you could probably make a good guess yourself. A test drill would give a definite answer, if you were willing to pay for it. Other than that, there's always the chance that there's no water at all below the surface.

Of course, one way of ensuring a water supply is to buy land that adjoins a river or lake. Lake-shore property, however, is rarely worth buying. It costs about 10 times as much as other land, and you will be crammed in with other cottages and their attendant motorboats and portable radios, unless the lake is only accessible by canoe -- in which case, you'll find it nearly impossible to build or renovate a house. Property on a river or creek is somewhat less expensive, and if the water is too shallow to be navigated by motorboat then the land is less likely to be crowded.

The land has to be suitable for growing food. That means that you should not buy bare rock; in fact, you should have at least 3 or 4 feet (1 m) of soil, so that the roots can grow long and deep in search of water and minerals. It's possible to grow crops on only a foot (30 cm) of land, but only if you irrigate (add water). Land that is too wet is also unsuitable, because the crops will just rot; wet lands include swamps (roughly speaking, wet land with sphagnum moss) and marshes (roughly speaking, wet lands with cattails, rushes, or reeds). Land covered by shrub willows and alders is likely to be underwater in the spring. In fact, land that is too wet in springtime is far more common than a city-dweller might imagine.

Flat land is fine, if you're sure it isn't in danger of flooding. A gentle slope is really the ideal topography, since the slope will ensure good drainage. Too much of a slope is not a good thing, since you'll find all your soil washing away as soon as you remove the grass; you could devise some sort of terracing, Tibetan-style, by collecting stones from the fields, but to produce a large enough garden by that method would entail an impossible amount of labor.

Land completely covered with trees would provide firewood but make gardening difficult; the trees could be chopped down, but removing the stumps would be a major task. (The pioneers often just left the stumps to rot.) On the other hand, don't be discouraged by land that has tall weeds, since they indicate fertile soil; it's land that has little or no vegetation that should worry you. Whether the soil is clay or sand is not terribly important, although somewhere between the two would be preferable. Even land that has been "farmed out" -- impoverished by misuse -- should not necessarily be avoided, since there are sometimes ways to improve the fertility of land.

More information on soil fertility can be got by studying government maps on the subject. In Canada there are the maps of the Canada Land Inventory, no longer available on paper, but with a little luck they can be traced to various Web sites. The US Department of Agriculture has maps produced by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Before buying land, get a copy of the Rodale Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and read it until you've memorized it. Learn the difference between fertile soil and barren soil. And tell yourself, over and over: "Soil is not dirt." Don't make the common mistake of urban armchair-gardeners and assume that fertile soil is just dirt plus compost. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Fertile soil has 16 important elements, from boron to zinc, and I'm not talking about artificial fertilizer, I'm talking about things that have been in that soil since the creation of the world.

You'll need about 5 or 10 acres (2-4 ha) of forest for firewood. That land can be cut indefinitely, relying on what is called the "annual increment." Even if you don't have a large piece of land, it's a good idea to start getting rid of some of the dead and overcrowded trees on your property (but save a few for wildlife habitat). For firewood, hardwoods are far superior to softwoods such as pine, cedar, or spruce, but any wood is better than none. If the hardwoods include sugar maple, save the good ones for a maple-syrup operation; three or four maples will provide enough syrup for an entire family. What is more important is that you do not burn wet or rotten wood. For your first year of firewood, any dead but solid tree will do, but it's better to use trees that are still standing, not lying on the ground and absorbing moisture. You can use live trees for later fires, but you'll need to cut them down and store them for at least half a year before burning them. You would need about four full cords (15 m3) of wood to heat a well-insulated small house at about latitude 45 in Ontario; other types of houses, or houses further north, might require 10 cords 36 m3).

The house should be in good condition, but it doesn't need to be large. Urban houses today are nearly three times as large as those of the 1950s and hold fewer people; don't get caught in the tide of consumerism. The biggest question is: Are you going to buy a ready-built house, or build a new one? Probably you're going to buy a ready-made one, and there are two reasons for that.

The first is financial. It's generally cheaper to buy a house with land, rather than to buy land and build a house later. That's particularly true if you're buying a fair amount of land. If a farmer is trying to get rid of a piece of vacant land, he can wait until someone is willing to pay his price. If he's trying to get rid of a piece of land that has a house on it, he's in a bit of a bind, because he's going to be paying high taxes on it (well, higher than on vacant land) every year until someone buys it. That problem of taxes can work in your favor; the seller will keep his price low enough that he can get rid of the property fairly quickly. That rule isn't always true, by any means. Obviously the condition of the house is a major variable, for one thing. But you'll probably find that a house and land separately are more expensive than a house and land together.

Having said all that, though, I should point out some exceptions. For one thing, you might not have the money to buy both land and a house, in which case you might want to buy one at a time. Buying the two separately might also give you more to choose from. Here in Ontario, for example, there are endless opportunities to buy vacant land ranging in size from 10 acres (4 ha) to 50 (20 ha), with a good road adjoining the land, and the list price will be about $10,000 in every case . You could camp on the land until you had built a permanent home with some further cash. If you find an area that is tolerant of mobile homes, you might find that the most economical approach is to buy the land and later put in such a home.

The other reason why you would probably buy a ready-made house is that it is difficult for one or two people to build a house that meets the restrictions of today's building codes. I've met men and women who've built their own homes, but such people are not common. If you've spent a few years doing construction jobs, then you might consider building a house with your own hands, but otherwise you're facing quite a challenge. Building codes are complicated. Even if you could follow the regulations, it would take a great many hours of labor to finish the job.

There are a few pros and cons to living in different areas of North America. The general rule is that west of the 100th meridian the US is rather dry, so the availability of water becomes a primary consideration. Anywhere in the Boston-New-York-Washington megalopolis is too crowded. Generally speaking, I wouldn't look for land that was within two hours' drive of a large city, because it would be too expensive. Yet prices can be surprising: land within an hour's drive of Toronto is sometimes cheaper than similar property hundreds of miles further north. Don't buy land right on a seacoast, because it will be too rocky, and the salt in the air won't be good for your crops. You may want to ask a real-estate agent about high-crime areas; in rural areas, it may take a couple of hours for police to arrive, so stay away from an area if a family of crazies is already living there. On the other hand, don't let Hollywood movies convince you that ruralites are dangerous -- generally speaking, the loonies live in the cities.

Buying a house, rural or urban, involves a certain ritual, and to deviate from that ritual can be fatal. If you see a listing that tempts you, call the real-estate agent whose phone number is shown, and make an appointment to look at the property. If possible, book two or three trips in the same area on that same day. When the agent shows you the property, have a good hard look at the house. Start by having a look at the outside: if the walls are leaning or badly cracked, the house cannot be repaired and should not be bought. Look at the roof: if the shingles are so old and wrinkled that they look like potato chips, then there's a fair chance that the plywood underneath is rotten, which means thousands of dollars in repairs.

Go inside: any water stains on the ceiling or walls? If so, are the stains still damp, or have the leaks been repaired? Check the floors: if they sag like a trampoline, they're rotten. Check the plumbing (turn on the taps, flush the toilet). Check the windows (are they single pane or double, and what's the condition of the frames?). What kind of electrical system is in place? Don't worry about dirt -- you're bound to find enough of that, especially if nobody is living in the house -- but pay attention to serious defects that will need to be fixed and that will therefore add to your labor or expenses. There's a mysterious border between "fixable" and "unfixable," and if you buy a house that's in the latter category, you'll just end up reselling the place for less than you paid. (None of that will bother your spouse, because he or she will have left you by that point!)

Then go outside again. Look at the land: is there really enough arable land, enough water, enough sunlight? Don't go on your gut feelings; it's far too easy to fall in love with a property -- it's almost instinctive, that cave-dweller's craving for a place of one's own. The more practical approach would be to start taking notes on the back of the listing page; by the time you get home you'll have forgotten half of what you've seen.

It would probably be a good idea to hire a professional home inspector, if you can find somebody in that area. Unfortunately, the qualifications for that job are often rather vague, so try to get a name from someone you trust. Make sure the inspector isn't also a renovator, or you may get conned into repairs you don't need. If you find someone reliable, make it a condition of the sale that the inspector be allowed to look at the house and submit a written report.

You'll need a good wood-burning stove. You might not need what is called a "wood-burning cook-stove," a 600-pound (about 300 kg) monster with an oven, a hot-water reservoir, and so on. A small, simple, 300-pound (about 150 kg) wood-burning heater can be used for boiling or frying, costs far less than a cook-stove, and will heat an average-sized house, even in the colder parts of the continent.

If you're new to a certain area, it's considered ethical to shop around from one agent to another for a while. Once an agent has taken you on a number of trips, however, it's generally considered your responsibility to stick with that agent. It's hard to say when such a partnership begins, but if you're willing to place your inquiries with one agent you'll find that the benefits are mutual -- loyal customers tend to get better service. On the other hand, if you feel that you're being taken on too many wild-goose chases, it may be better to find another someone else.

Be careful with real-estate agents. Most are honest and efficient, but some are better than others. Beware of agents who try to con you with certain expressions. "This'll sell quickly. You'd better put in an offer fast." "Don't worry about that clause. I don't know about you city folks, but around here we generally settle things with a handshake." "What do you mean, the roof is caving in? What do you expect for that kind of money?" "Gee, you want to see inside the place? What's the matter, you don't trust me?"

In some places, real-estate agents must state whether they are acting as vendors' agents or as buyers' agents -- i.e., whether they are working for you or for the other guy. The distinction is not entirely necessary, since most areas have laws stating that agents must fully disclose all relevant information; they aren't allowed to tell lies or to omit critical facts.

If you find a property that seems to meet all your requirements, go home. Take a deep breath. A day or two later, if you're still convinced that the property is worth buying, call the agent and put in an offer. How much to offer is always a difficult question. Very roughly speaking, a property can be bought for about 80 percent of its list price. But that's very rough. It may well be the case that the owner is desperate to get rid of it, in which case you might even get a 30 percent discount. Or the opposite can happen: maybe the owner is quite happy to wait for ages until someone is willing to cough up the asking price. That question of price involves some real talent at haggling. It gets to be a war of nerves: you don't want to pay the entire asking price, but you may still be afraid of letting a nice piece of property slip through your hands. When you've told the agent what you'd like to pay, you'll be sent a purchase-offer document, with standard clauses inserted, and of course with your name and your offering price.

Be certain to give this paper to a lawyer before you sign anything. Yes, you'll have to pay the lawyer a few hundred dollars to do all the legal work, but it still works out to be cheap insurance. You'll save yourself a lot of suffering if a lawyer can spot errors right away; 6 months later is not a good time to find out that you don't own what you thought you owned.

During the negotiations, don't be shy about calling that lawyer. You're paying him or her to do a job, so you have a right to ask questions. Don't sit by the phone, waiting for the lawyer to call you instead; your phone may never ring. Some lawyers do an excellent job, whereas others seem to think they're being paid hundreds of dollars just to sign a piece of paper. For various reasons, lawyers sometimes take on too many clients, which again means your case might not get much attention if you say nothing. In any case, informed questions get better responses than dumb ones, so read the purchase agreement carefully; if you don't understand the terminology, go to a library or bookstore and get a few books on the subject of real estate.

Be especially careful with all clauses involving wells and septic systems. Is it a dug well or a drilled well? What kind of pump does it have? Get a potability test. What kind of septic system is installed? How old are the well and septic system? Ask your lawyer to get copies of all relevant documents regarding construction and maintenance.

If both you and the lawyer are satisfied with the purchase offer, sign it and fax it back to the agent. The offer will mention three dates: the irrevocable date (the last date on which the vendor can agree to your offer), the title-search date (the latest date on which your lawyer can check the title), and the most important one, the closing date (when you officially take possession, which can be anywhere from 1 month to three months after you sign the offer). The agent will show the offer to the vendor. If the vendor is satisfied, he or she also signs the offer, and it is sent back to you. There may be some last-minute haggling, but at some point both parties have to decide when to stop quibbling and just sign the paper. Practically speaking, the property is now yours. You must then send a deposit to the agent (whatever deposit amount you stated in the offer). If you need a mortgage, you must be sure that your bank is ready to lend you the money, although the general agreement with the bank should have been worked out even before you started looking for property.

Now that the property is yours, you can start thinking about the future. Ideally, you should have plenty of time to clean the new house thoroughly before you move in. When the cleaning is finished, paint anything that needs to be painted. Keep the paint simple, and don't get involved with wallpaper, because it takes longer and costs more. When the painting is finished, you can move in the furniture. And unless there's snow on the ground, you can start preparing a garden.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Living with Global Collapse: Principles for Turbulent Times

1. The present issues can be summarized by saying that oil, electricity, and metals are going into decline, and that as a result all other goods and services are also in decline. In terms of money, the general effect is "stagflation": stagnant incomes combined with increasing prices. The ultimate cause of all these issues is overpopulation.

2. Dealing with the near future requires two approaches: financial and non-financial.

3. The first approach is to accumulate as much money as possible in the next few years and live on those savings. Of course, there is not so much "easy money" these days. One trick is to find a high-paying job that most people do not have the fortitude to accept.

4. This financial approach means one must stop living in denial. In the first place, many people deny that they are short of money, while in reality their debt-to-asset ratio is atrocious: they are burdened with credit cards, mortgages, car payments, student loans, and so on. Secondly, many people are ashamed of their financial state and therefore keep it a secret; the same thing happened during the Great Depression. But this is absurd: If every family is poor, how can poverty be shameful?

5. The non-financial approach is a low-key version of what the glossy magazines call "country living": learning how to provide oneself with food, clothing, and shelter in ways that do not involve being so connected to the global economy. These skills can vary greatly in the degree to which they are "pre-industrial" ("primitive"). The extreme approach would constitute going off into the bush with only a gun and an ax; less off-beat would be learning not to pick up a telephone and call for outside assistance every time something around the house needs a minor repair.

6. The catch to the financial approach is that money is ephemeral, perhaps more so now than at any time in the past. To use a common expression, money nowadays is just dots on a screen; what do we do when we cannot see the dots? It can be rather frightening to consider that one's hard-earned life-savings are nothing but electronic impulses in a vast and complex network that nobody really understands.

7. In general the word "electronic" should be a danger signal. Although modern industrial society is based on fossil fuels, it is not these but electricity that is the most fragile part of our way of life. Of all the really distinct stages of systemic collapse, the failure of electricity will be the first to arrive. The great blackout of northeastern North America in August 2003, among others, was a warning of things to come. Also, most people have forgotten that in the 1960s the extreme sensitivity of computers to electronic impulses (EMP) from nuclear weapons was recognized as a serious weakness. Our dependence on electronics becomes greater with each passing year: anyone without a mobile phone and a laptop computer is ostracized, alienated from middle-class society.

8. Acquiring independence from the industrial leviathan takes many forms. One good rule of thumb is that every time one learns to do something without spending money, one has acquired a new "survival skill." A related principle is, "Don't own anything you can't fix." Obviously the use of a mobile phone does not follow those two rules of thumb.

9. We should keep in mind the old lie perpetuated by Marshall McLuhan: that the medium is the message. The Internet probably uses about 5 percent of the global electricity supply, and about 10 percent of the US supply, although nobody knows for sure. Yet there is an important distinction between data and information. Most of the data carried by the Internet could be deleted with no loss to our species. We can no longer distinguish between quantity and quality. In reality, "more, bigger, faster" just means "dumber, dumber, dumber." One should get rid of the TV set and try having a conversation.

10. There are not many problems that cannot be solved with a good knapsack and a few mountains. A look down any city sidewalk will reveal another form of denial: that most human beings in modern society are fat, pale, and pimply. The future will belong to those who are both mentally and physically fit.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Peak Oil and Mechanized Agriculture

When will mechanical agriculture be abandoned in favor of manual labor? One way of approaching an answer is strictly economic: the point will be reached when it costs farmers more money to use machinery than to do the work by hand. In an early study of Mexican labor mentioned by David Pimentel (1984), "a total of 1,144 hours of labor was required to raise a hectare of corn." Pimentel then compares that labor with the mechanized corn production in the United States, telling us that in the US "600 liters [3.75 barrels] of oil equivalents [for fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides] are required to cultivate 1 ha of corn." At a 2008 price of $100/barrel (to pick a year with a nice round number), the production of that hectare of corn would therefore cost $375. Yet the yield per hectare with mechanized agriculture is three times greater than with manual labor, so the same actual amount of corn that is grown with manual labor can be be produced by machinery for $125. At the moment, it cannot be said that corn is an expensive crop.

To discover whether mechanization is cost-effective, we must also consider the hourly wage. If the laborer is self-employed, however, the figure for hourly wage seems purely imaginary: If costs are rising, for example, can a laborer not simply pay himself less? Yes, but only to a certain degree. The laborer’s wage is often as little as it takes for staying alive, and anything less than that subsistence wage would make farming impossible.

The rise in the price of fuel, compared to the hourly wage of manual labor, then, largely determines the cut-off point for mechanized labor. When a farmer pays himself a certain amount for his work on that hectare, but the price of fuel is still rising, eventually it is no longer reasonable for him to use machinery requiring fossil fuels.

Two other factors must be included if we are to compare manual labor with mechanization. Capital costs are higher with mechanization: a tractor must be paid for, there are repairs to consider, and eventually the tractor must be replaced. Let us assume, however, that the laborer is working with a minimum of equipment. Secondly, in spite of what was said above about subsistence wages, farming income is higher in some countries than in others, and the same can be said of fuel costs. Farmers in Mexico, with high fuel costs and low wages, might be inclined to abandon mechanization sooner than farmers in the United States.

Food can also be produced with the labor of horses or oxen, and in fact many hours of human labor can thereby by saved. Even if animals are fed only on forage, however, a good deal of land is needed for that purpose. It is also questionable whether large numbers of horses or oxen could be bred and distributed in the next few decades.

What will be the price of oil in a few years' time? For most of the last few decades, oil prices increased only at the same rate as the median income, with the exception of some small deviations during periods of warfare. As noted, the price of a barrel reached about $100 in 2008, and since about 2002 there has been a rise of about 10 percent annually. With such a growth trend, a hundred years from now a barrel of oil will cost more than a million dollars, although number-juggling of that sort becomes rather ridiculous.

The other way of estimating a cut-off date for oil-based agriculture is to look at predictions of the decline in global oil production. According to the most estimates, the world's proved reserves are only a little over a trillion barrels. A trillion barrels is not enough to stretch for more than another few decades. A lengthy continuation of a 10 percent annual increase in the cost of oil may seem an impossibility, since it is more severe than the likely downward curve for global oil production: a decline from 30 billion barrels in the year 2010 (perhaps the peak of production) to 15 billion barrels in 2030 would be an average annual decrease in production of 3 percent. Neither the curve of oil prices nor that of production, though, can be considered good news for anyone who still has faith in a civilization based on fossil fuels.

It is not only oil prices and estimated reserves that have, to some degree, a chronological relationship. It is surely not merely coincidental that in the last few years there has been so much government support for ethanol and other bio-fuels, in spite of the economic and ecological absurdity of such forms of "alternative energy." The general attitude seems to be that anything is better than facing reality.


Pimentel, D. (1984). Energy flows in agricultural and natural ecosystems. CIHEAM (International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies). Retrieved from http://www.ressources.ciheam.org/om/pdf/s07/c10841.pdf

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)