In light of recent economic turmoil, with government bailouts and banks "too big to fail", we can see more plainly that greedy bankers and investors are using our money to gamble. They're not taking our cash to the casino, rather they're betting our retirement and pension contributions on the stock market and shady mortgage deals. Of course they're trying to bet on "sure winners" so they, I mean we, get the largest possible return. Here in the state hit worst by the collapse of the auto industry, I'm not pretending there will be much of a retirement fund when I get there. I won't be putting cash in jars and buryin' it in the backyard, but my savings will end up in the ground.
Then we add another great folly of our time: biomass fuels. Recently, we discovered that when you burn food for fuel, the food, corn in this case, becomes a commodity. Well, OK, corn already was. Our American appetite for motor fuel almost took the corn tortilla out of Mexican culture. Our local power company is in favor of a biomass conversion plant, where who-knows-what would be burned to heat water to make electricity.
In another column, soil fertility has been declining for years. That corn probably wasn't worth eating anyway, so poor was its mineral content. Thanks to the Haber process, we have a handy way to make nitrogen fertilizer out of, guess what ... natural gas. Thus, our soil fertility program is tied to the price of fossil fuels, and subject to international disputes (see Russia vs. the rest of Europe). While nitrogen fertilizer gets more and more expensive, we mine the mineral apatite as a phosphorus source. While you're waiting for Peak Oil, keep an eye out for Peak Apatite!
I have another idea. Listen carefully 'cause I'm only gonna say this once, "Invest in the soil!"I repeat, "INVEST IN THE SOIL!"
Here in northern Michigan, one does not need to look far to find a farm that would have benefitted from the advice of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the founders of permaculture, instead of the advice of John Deere, the inventor of the moldboard plow. It all comes back to those teeming millions of bacteria in the soil. When soil is disturbed (plowed, disced, rototilled), the foods for the bacteria get homogenized. It's like a dirt smoothie, and they can get all they need very easily. They grow like crazy, and as they grow, they consume organic matter. When the forests up here were logged and the land sold to immigrant with dreams of farms, the plows mixed the soil and the bacteria ate that precious 2-3 inches of topsoil. The potatoes yielded less and less, and the immigrants left for town, my ancestors among them. Nature has been trying to repair the loss ever since, with spotted knapweed and autumn olive, among other remedies.
Let's learn from history. We are living in an exciting wave of new agriculture: small farms, local markets, caring people. Those of us with gardens are right there with them. We are going to succeed in an era of high energy costs by our willingness to work at it. I offer one basic principle that farmers in India and China have been using for thousands of years: compost, compost, compost.
Organic matter in the soil increases water holding capacity, adds mineral ion exchange capacity, and provides homes and food to billions of microrganisms that provide plants with slow-release mineral nutrition in just the right form. Translated, this means, if your soil is rich in organic matter, you don't need to water as often, any nutrients you apply will stay in the soil instead of leaching out with rains, and you probably won't need to apply fertilizer anyway. On the balance sheet, soil organic matter adds up to work you don't have to do!
Here's my great investment idea: on the tiny cultivated fraction of my 6 acres, I'm going to work on building soil organic matter. Household food scraps and garden trimmings go in the compost. The compost will, of course, go on the garden. The worm bin gets shredded paper and junk mail (no shiny inserts of course). The worm castings will be made into high-quality compost tea and potting mix. Leaves, lawn clippings and such get piled in windrows on ground that will someday be garden. Soon, we'll have some cute little furry manure producers (a.k.a bunnies) who will add to the garden soil. After much permaculture reading, I've adopted a greater tolerance for autumn olive, a nitrogen-fixing shrub. I also plan to add more of the soil-building plants listed by Toby Hemenway in Gaia's Garden. If I can swing it, nothing organic will leave this place!
We shouldn't burn biomass for energy if we can help it. Since burning adds yet more CO2 to out beleagured atmosphere, we shouldn't burn ANY plant material, paper, cardboard, etc. that could be used another way. As individual landowners, even small ones, and as communities, we need to invest in the land that might sustain us. I say "might" because we've neglected this savings account for more than 50 years, and we're paying the price. Our land is our best investment. Carefully tended, it will provide riches in the form of good food for years to come.
So start a backyard compost pile or worm composting system. Everything, I mean EVERY thing that will rot needs to go in a compost pile, or be spread lovingly on the land in a sheet mulch. If we produce more compostables than you can use, we need to find a way to get them back to the farms that support us. In an ecosystem, all matter is recycled within the system. So must it be with our communities as well.
[image: Cartoon of the insides of a LNG carrier. A combination of two images by Peter Welleman (2012).] The most curious natural gas story of the year so f...