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Food Forests, Part 1: Ronald Reagan’s Day Off

Save Ferris! Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a 1986 movie about a teenager, his girlfriend and best mate — all of whom were just about to finish high school and enter the adult world. It represented for them a moment in time; a very hedonistic look into their lives for just one day, where responsibility and long term planning were dismissed. I’ve always felt that it captured the spirit of the times of 1986, which also, by a strange coincidence, was the time of Morning in America, Ronald Reagan and the return of cheap energy for industrial countries. The question that I would like to know, whilst hedonism is fun, is it responsible and sustainable?

As a bit of background, I was born in the early 1970s and during the first two decades of my life, fruit tasted, well, like fruit, regardless of where it was purchased. However, slowly things started to change. Supermarket fruit stopped tasting like fruit should and started tasting like water. At about this time, I stopped buying fruit at the supermarket and moved onto the city markets. Melbourne is lucky to have the Queen Victoria Market just on the edge of its CBD (as well as a few other inner city markets) which sell fresh fruit and vegetables. Nice. It was all sorted, fruit tasted like fruit should again. However, it was not to be that way for long!

Over time the market fruit also started to taste bland and I started to get desperate for tasty fruit. I began visiting and purchasing direct from commercial orchards on the eastern edge of the city. The joke was on me because these were the same people who were selling to the wholesale markets who then on-sold that same fruit to the retail markets! It was the same fruit! I was simply cutting out the middle men. This is when I started to understand that the change was because of economics, as fruit was paid for by weight and not by quality.

So, what the heck, I gave up and started growing my own fruit.

In 1994, I came to own a copy of “Introduction to Permaculture” by Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay. The book was absorbed with great interest and influenced much of my later thinking.

Over the course of the past 18 years and a couple of properties, one fruit tree became about three hundred diverse fruit trees, 12 raised no-dig vegetable beds and a chicken run! During this time, I’d also learned about the concepts of peak oil, nutrient recycling, soil building, food forests, organic agriculture, solar power (some of you may be familiar with my solar power series on this website), and house building. Phew! The list could go on. I think I’ve ended up being a jack of all trades, master of some. Unlike Ferris Bueller though, it wasn’t Chris’s Day Off as it all involves hard work!

Given the political nature of food and food supply, I believe that it is important to start a discussion on food forests by talking about the economics of food. There is a reason for this. For quite a while now I’d been noticing a growing trend in relation to the solar energy discussions. The trend was that people were discussing solar energy installations in terms of: “is it an economic decision?”, and I keep wondering what does that question mean and is it relevant?

The pure economic argument is very limited because it essentially looks at the lowest cost option that will provide the service or product that is required. For example with the solar argument, what the economists mean by the above question is: “If it’s cheaper to purchase your electricity from the electricity grid (regardless of where or how that electricity is sourced) than from any other source, then that is the rational economic decision. No other decision can be contemplated”. Issues such as the carbon pollution, the future, quality and independence currently have no economic value/cost so they are not considered by the economist.

However, I have noticed that generally when people buy a car or a house the last thing that they seem to consider is the economic argument. The decisions to purchase these items are mostly emotive. A lot of people desire that their house or car make a statement to the rest of society about who they are and what their values are. Most advertisers know this and exploit it mercilessly. Advertisements are heavily laden with emotive content and they really work!

You might ask, what has this all got to do with fruit trees and food forests though? Well, I’ve seen the exact same argument being applied to growing your own fruit and vegetables, even on this very website!

The limitation for the economists is that they consider a purchased apple to be the same as a home grown apple. The thinking goes something like this: as long as the purchased apple is cheaper, it is the superior economic decision. Yet, in the real world this is clearly not the case. Questions such as: how far has that apple travelled from the orchard it was grown in; what is its nutrient density; does that apple pose a disease risk to local orchards; was that apple picked green or was it allowed to sun ripen; was it picked by people on award wages with acceptable safety conditions; and is it last season’s apple which has been kept in cool storage for a long time, etc.? So many questions are not answered by the economists and those questions relate to the issues of quality, longevity and sustainability.

One of the other issues that economics doesn’t address very well is that whilst it is considered part of our political and economic contemporary narrative that economic growth will continue indefinitely, it completely ignores finite energy and resources limits. This is strange given that the Dr. Faith Birol at the International Energy Agency conceded that Peak Oil had occurred in 2006. Peak Oil has been and gone without much fanfare. It should be front page news.

When thinking about peak oil, the thought always comes bothers me that with industrial agriculture, sometimes I imagine that we are essentially eating oil! [See also.] How so? There are reasons that the majority of the population are not involved in agriculture in industrial countries, but it boils down to only a few issues: it’s an uncertain enterprise, but it’s also hard, unappealing work. Before oil was utilised in agriculture, 90% of the population was involved in this enterprise. So we are lucky enough to be able to exploit the stored energy in oil in agriculture in various ways. Think about it for a while and you’ll quickly see that oil is involved in every aspect of industrial agriculture: tractors; pumps; parts, repairs and maintenance; transport; fertilisers; cool store refrigeration; and seeds. That’s just what comes to mind without too much thought!

Another aspect of the pure economic argument is that producers are rewarded for cutting corners, which in turn reduces costs. For example, if you can dump some of your production waste for free then you are ahead. Also, if you can source cheap labour, say bringing in fruit pickers from overseas on below standard wages then you are also ahead. Nice work. Fortunately there are legal requirements which make some unethical cost cutting difficult, but where cost cutting is really problematic is that it doesn’t take into account the long term health of the soil, nor the quality and taste of the produce. As any permaculturalist knows, healthy soil takes time and effort to build. Industrial agricultural processes treat soil as if it were nothing more than something which holds the plants vertically and the only inputs to that soil and the plants that grow in it are NPK fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation and the sun. In effect it is treating that soil and the ecosystem like a factory or a mine to be stripped rather than a healthy eco system to be nurtured in its own right.

So what has this all got to do with Ferris Bueller? I enjoyed the 1986 film and have nothing against the character, the actors or the story, but it had a level of hedonism in its content and message that could also be seen in the times. Ferris was living hard for today without a care for the future.

As a bit of history, in 1973 the OPEC oil producing nations put an embargo on supplies of oil to the US, Japan and Europe. Now remember what I was previously saying about how much oil is involved in industrial agriculture, well that is just part of the picture because oil is the central energy source in industrial countries across all industrial and domestic concerns. To add to its woes, the US oil production peaked by the mid 1970s and demand increased to the point that by 2005 imports had to be twice that of domestic production to meet demand. The oil embargo was a significant problem for the industrial economies which didn’t really recover economically until about 1986.

How did the US achieve this economic recovery? By borrowing from the public, the federal reserve and overseas governments and individuals. If you look at public debt, particularly in the US you can see that from about the mid 1980s public and gross debt rose quite rapidly from a level that had been pretty stable since the end of World War 2.

Economists would say this is a good thing because the US is leveraging its future earnings and assets. Is it sustainable? Possibly not, particularly if the country cannot service the debt. For example, recently some European countries have come to the end game and are now facing default on their loans, unless they take on additional debt, which they probably cannot service either. The austerity demands that their financiers are requesting are simply measures to drive down government expenditure.

Are we next? Are there other options that industrial countries could take to avoid this European situation? I believe that if we reduce our oil dependency, we are more self-sufficient in terms of energy, thus reducing our dependency on the global energy markets. How do we become more self-sufficient, energy wise. We could invest in renewable energy systems; improve the efficiency of our houses and vehicle fleet to reduce their energy consumption; and/or we could lower our standard of living. More observant readers will notice that these are long term options.

Yet, as I discussed above, economics doesn’t take into account the long term environment. The pure economic argument is a short term argument. A good example of this thinking is that in 1986 (there is that year again), the President of the US, Ronald Reagan, ordered that the solar hot water panel system installed over the west wing of the White House during the 1970s be removed on the basis that energy was now cheap and going to continue to be so into the future.

Because I have found that cheap fruit is mostly flavourless and I love the flavour of sun ripened fruit, I have had to plan for the future by planting fruit trees in a food forest. So you can pretty safely conclude that I don’t think that the pure economic argument is an appropriate tool with which to critique the quality nature of permaculture. And yet because economics has such a strong influence on our contemporary culture and thinking you can see that there are more than just a few devotees out there. Time and time again you can see in the comments sections to articles on this website that there are those commenters that try to apply economic thinking to methods of agriculture that are non-industrial. I’m not suggesting that the last 200 years of economic thought are in error, but simply that they are an inappropriate tool with which to critique systems that do not conform to economic thought (quality versus cost).

To me any agricultural process or system that is building the health and diversity of the life within that ecosystem is a good thing. Food forests are a great example of this and have much to offer in terms of quality and sustainability.

I welcome all comments regarding this discussion and will respond to each. In future food forest articles I will not respond to people’s economic or ideological concerns and will refer them to this article, where I’m sure by that time most issues will have been addressed or at least explored.

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8 Comments

  1. Interesting read Chris, not where I thought it was going but enjoyed the flamboyance of its critique. I couldn’t agree more that there is a vital lack of critique in economic rationality of what goes into the pricing of a product (efficiency) and what therefore gets lost (quality). However my thoughts took me somewhere else with this. I started to see your food forest as a mutually supporting system where the cycling of nutrients and water and other elements that go into making up life are not siphoned off into a market system but left, with integrity, as an operating whole. The job, then, of the food forest convener is to recognise and assemble the elements that add to this self-sustaining life system. I thought you were going to provide me, the reader, with an rudimentary accounting system for the food forest on how it self-perpetuates. (I’m in the throes of making my own and desire to understand how a food forest thrives).

    It seems that our culture, in the broadest sense of social organisation, does not allow us to think so holistically because of its obsession with making money. I think our job is to describe how easy it is to be sustainable and better understand what we are doing when we act sustainably.

    Cheers

  2. Hi Andrea,

    Both lovely and thoughtful words. Thank you. You are 100% correct. The ultimate goal of the food forest is to be a self-sustaining diverse ecology that also produces food. However, this is part 1 of the series on food forests and I wanted to get the ideologically driven arguments (and there are quite a lot of them) out of the way first before we get into the nuts and bolts of creating a food forest. Please hang in there and be patient, we’ll get there!

    You commented about nutrient recycling and you may be very interested to know that where I am, I’ve closed the nutrient cycling system using very little energy and have since become a net importer of nutrients. Food forests are a massive topic and I’ll get to this aspect in a later post and describe how this can be achieved. Thanks again for the lovely words and feedback.

    In the next article we’ll look at reading vegetation and landscapes (with lots of photos). I hope you find it to be interesting and informative. Please also let me know about your food forest too!

    Regards

    Chris

  3. Chris, I’m looking forward to the next installment. I experienced the the70’s and 80’s……. The Reagan years were baffling to me. I was just finding Permaculture. The politics of those times were not interesting to me but they didn’t fit comfortably in my book of ethics either.

  4. How I got hooked on and began understanding the importance of organic fruits and vegetables. A few years back I picked up, by accident, some organic bananas. I generally indulge in a banana a day. When I bit into it … the flavor! I was immediately transported back to my grandmother’s banana cream pies, in the 1950s. It was my Proust, madeleine moment.

    I also think homemade raspberry jam tastes like preserved sunshine.

  5. Hi Rand,

    I agree with you. The times back then were baffling to me as well. The policies between then and now have largely been that of wasted opportunities. However, the present political and economic situation is even more baffling.

    There are very few tools left that governments can utilise to remedy the present economic circumstances and difficulties. These include (but are not limited to):

    – Lowering official interest rates which hopefully increases borrowing and spending. You’ll find that in quite a few industrial countries already the official interest rates which reserve banks loan funds to merchant banks are now near to zero.

    – Increase government expenditure to stimulate spending. This is difficult given that many industrial countries are already running budget deficits which requires even more borrowing. Greater borrowings quickly become difficult for a country to service and hopefully one day repay. This is what is going on in Europe at the moment.

    – Increase taxes. This is probably the easiest option. There is a persistent myth that increased taxes – particularly on the higher income earners – leads to higher unemployment, but this is simply a myth and has been debunked both recently and historically.

    – Austerity measures. These can be applied to both subsidies for industries (think diesel fuel subsidies for industry here) and/or the welfare and military complex. No one likes having their income downgraded! This is essentially lowering the standard of living in a country.

    – Print money. This is happening in both the US and the UK that I am aware of. However, it is a risky strategy and can lead to inflation and devaluation of the currency. Economists are calling this quantitive easing – whatever that means. Interestingly the euro zone PIGS countries would probably also love to try this tactic, but I’m unsure whether they have access to the printing presses.

    – Default on government debt. It’s not the end of the world plenty of countries have done this – think Argentina. You can’t pretend it will lead to a good outcome but sometimes it may be the necessary thing to do.

    On another point, I saw recently on this website an article called, “The Story of Broke” which was quite good, except that it treated people as if they were economic units, which they most certainly aren’t! This is a very common error. You can’t take someone who has worked all their life in say, the military, or a warehouse and plonk them into a hospital or school (as an example) as the short documentary was trying to suggest. I don’t know? It probably wouldn’t end up in a good outcome.

    A society is kind of like a massive container ship. If you want to change direction in one of those beasts, you have to put the commands in half an hour before it makes any difference.

    So, I am as baffled as you on the topic!

    Regards

    Chris

  6. Hi Lew,

    Mmmm organic bananas. Raspberry jam. yum! Blackberries make for great jam too and we get kilograms of them every year.

    Thanks for the thoughts, I’m hungry now.

    Regards

    Chris

  7. Hi Chris,

    Good synopsis & intro into your series. Like Andrea & Rand, I am keen to get to the “nuts & bolts” of your experience with food forest from a practical point of view, in terms of what’s do-able and what’s not, given different constraints such as amount of land, climate limitations and water availability. I live in SW WA with hot,dry summers and progressively less and and less rainfall every year, most of which falls within a 3-4 month period in winter.

    Thanks,

    Chris C

    PS: I have Geoff Lawton’s Food Forest DVD (as well as all his other DVDs) so am fairly familiar with potential of food forest.

  8. Hi Chris C,

    Thanks. I’m noticing here that the weather extremes appear to be getting slightly more extreme as time goes on. Is this your experience too? I hope you are OK too because of the bushfires over in SW WA at the moment.

    Last year (2010) was the wettest here since records began in 1870, but the year before (Jan and Feb 2009) the summer rainfall failed at the very peak of the drought with disastrous results.

    Australia has a very variable climate from year to year regardless of the extreme weather events this knocks the food forest around so I will cover this issue. In addition to this, I can’t hold water in a dam because of the soil type here so all of the systems are such that they store water in the ground and I try to allow for extremes of both wet and dry weather.

    The food forest DVD is an excellent resource and I recommend it highly.

    Regards

    Chris

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