Published Oct 21, 2009

Fifty Million Farmers

By Teresa Opheim

The year 2035: What will it be like? In preparation for Practical Farmers of Iowa’s 25th anniversary conference Jan. 8-9, 2010, I’ve been giving PFI’s 50th anniversary some thought. At that conference, we’ll have a scenario planning session for those interested in helping shape the future.

To prepare, I’ve been reading a book by Richard Heinberg called Peak Everything. (Heinberg just spoke at the Iowa Environmental Council meeting.)

Heinberg believes we are looking at a forced radical reduction of fossil fuel inputs to agriculture. Our current agricultural system is based intensively on fossil fuel use, from the fertilizers to the planting to the processing to the distribution. “Every calorie of food produced requires, on average, ten calories of fossil-fuel inputs. This is a food system profoundly vulnerable, at every level, to fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices. And both are inevitable,” says Heinberg.

A new system of agriculture will be forced to be more local and more labor-intensive. We will need a minimum of 40 to 50 million more farmers as oil and gas availability declines. “We will need far more knowledge and muscle power devoted to food production, and thus far more people on the farm than we have currently.”

That transition must begin now and will occur over the next 20 to 30 years.

Well, as a staffer at one of the nation’s premier sustainable farmer organizations, I guess I’m in the right place for helping to grow the ranks of the American farmer. It sounds like the challenges are going to be severe, but perhaps the result will be what PFI is working for: vibrant communities, more local food systems, farms that are more environmentally sound.