Historians say it’s been done
In the effort to cut American dependence on foreign oil, the national conversation has often centered on the way we get around. From the gas in our tanks to the tar on our roads, petroleum products have made their way into every facet of our transportation system.
But the majority of oil we use in the United States isn’t going into our cars. It’s going into our food.
For the average American, it takes the annual equivalent of nine barrels of oil to operate a vehicle and 10 barrels of oil to produce food. And while we look to the future to fuel our cars, people throughout the Gunnison Valley are looking to the past for a better way to get something to eat.
Late last month more than 120 of those people signed up to attend the High Country Citizens’ Alliance ninth annual Sustainable Community Symposium, which focused on ways to participate in or support sustainable agriculture in the Gunnison Valley.
According to Duane Vandenbusche, a retired professor of history from Western State College and author of the history book The Gunnison Country, growing and eating locally grown food isn’t a new concept; it’s an often forgotten part of the past.
There was a time, in the 1870s, after the population of Gunnison County saw a spike from miners and ranchers, when a family produced its own food to survive. The bounty surprised the doubters who thought the crops wouldn’t withstand the elevation, the sun’s intensity or the short growing season.
“Every rancher had a vegetable garden and a root cellar,” said Vandenbusche. “There was fruit that would come over from Paonia and Hotchkiss and at one point there were even strawberries that were being grown in Sargents.”
He went on to mention ponds that produced a stock of trout sold locally, a crop of potatoes so large that a spur had to be built on to the railroad line to accommodate trips to market, and thousands of sheep and pigs taken to slaughter every year, and cows that were used for their meat and their milk.
“There were even ponds in the valley that produced ice for export,” he said, adding that the population of the valley was larger then than it is today.
As the Industrial Revolution exchanged human energy for fossil fuel-derived energy, the naysayers reemerged and gradually it was believed that the food local people needed could not be produced locally.
The belief wasn’t confined to this area or to the United States. A video shown during the symposium, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, showed a situation that has become familiar around the industrialized world: food production that had become dependent on a finite resource of oil.
For Cuba, the end of easy food came with the fall of the USSR in 1991, which led to a 50 percent reduction in oil imports and brought the tiny nation’s transportation network to a standstill.
During that time, the Special Period, hundreds of thousands of bicycles were imported and a half-million more were manufactured to get the Cuban people moving again, but it still wasn’t enough to transport large quantities of food from the field to the market.
According to the film, the average Cuban lost 20 pounds in the first four years of the Special Period, and a shift took place in the population from getting food from a truck to growing their own.
The film showed how every bit of arable Cuban land was converted into a garden and every rooftop in the densely packed capital city became lush with vegetation. The skills necessary for cultivating crops that had been lost were relearned.
As a result of the change in diet, the seemingly developing nation of Cuba had a life expectancy and infant mortality to rival that of the United States, even though it spent only a fraction of the amount on healthcare, the film noted.
“You can call those sustainable practices or whatever you want,” Brook Le Van, the symposium’s keynote speaker, said after the film. “But what that is, is an example of how we are capable of adapting.”
That adaptation might be necessary for all of us. The occurrence of peak oil is not just a Cuban phenomenon, but a worldwide one.
Peak oil can be thought of as when the world’s oil production has reached a maximum. Anything beyond that is just using what’s left. The theory began in 1956 with M. King Hubbard, who predicted the world’s oil production would begin to decline in the 1970s with a precipitous fall, equal to the speed that oil production grew in the early 20th century. Current predictions, which account for the reserves discovered in the past 30 years, say there would be a peak in oil production around 2010, unless a vast new reserve is tapped.
“Whether the petroleum is there or not, it shouldn’t be a part of our food system,” said Le Van, who is the director of Sustainable Settings near Carbondale, which practices and teaches sustainable agriculture for the public.
Petrochemicals became a part of the food system only after the United States government subsidized chemical manufacture for the big companies that came to the aid of the government in World War I.
The result, Le Van said, was years of paying those companies back and in the process granting them immense power over government. Over time, the companies turned their attention toward chemicals used in agriculture, among other things, without fear of regulation.
“These companies, with the help of the government, started a new war. This one was a war on the soil, the water and the air,” Le Van said. “Now, the petroleum products needed to transport the food should be the least of our worries.”
Le Van explained how years of using petrochemicals in pesticides and ammonia in fertilizers to enhance crop yields has degraded the organic material in the soil, leading to a lower nutritional value in food and run-off that has contributed to the growing “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere that cannot support sea life.
Using such harsh chemicals, Le Van said, was a trait of the large-scale agricultural businesses, or agribusiness, that focus on food production rather than food quality. Agribusiness operations also centralize the crop, which requires food to travel a greater distance before making it to market.
“These are the systems that are being neglected. We have a food system that is dependent on petrochemicals to prepare the soil, to grow the food and to get the food to market. And all the while the skills people will need to grow their own food after the oil is gone are just one more year, one more generation, removed,” said Le Van.
As the symposium moved into its second day, the idea that working with the natural system, and not against it, makes agriculture sustainable for the long term was revisited repeatedly.
Bill Parker, owner of Parker Pastures near Gunnison, explained how he has used an electric fence to mimic the way predators would move and contain large herds in the wild, and the benefit on the land his cows are grazing.
“By using the fence to move the herd after short periods in one place and also keeping them closer together than they would be in an open range, the cows actually work their manure into the soil and then let the grass grow, instead of always grazing on the young, new shoots [of grass] and over-grazing an area,” said Parker, adding that grass has filled in areas that were bare and the land can support more cows after a short time using the technique.
Parker was one of four local food producers who spoke to a near-capacity room in the Aspinall-Wilson conference center on the Western State College campus.
The expertise ranged from Parker and Dominique Bador, owner of Jack’s Cabin Graziers, beef and dairy producers, to Seth Roberts, who operates a farm near Buena Vista that provides Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to the area, and Nancy Wicks, owner of Round Mountain Organics near Crested Butte South.
Each of the four local producers, along with Jim Goodman from the symposium’s National Panel discussion, echoed the need to have locally available food and to know the people who grow the food we eat to ensure that the food and the land is cared for in a responsible, sustainable way.
It’s a way of eating that is gaining popularity in the United States, as evidenced by the 4,300 farmers markets that have increased by 250 percent in the last 10 years.
Dr. John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri and a member of the symposium’s national panel discussion, pointed out that this new way of buying food is becoming a part of our society and has crept into our language.
Before heading out to tour the operations of four local food producers, he told the crowd, “Locavore was the word of the year for 2007. It can’t be denied that that reflects a fundamental change in the way we see our food.”