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A Sack of Corn for the Fire

In the past farmers ran their operations entirely on solar power. For most it was a difficult existence with few luxuries.

July 1, 2010

By Charles Linn, FAIA

It is a strange fact that thousands of people in the U.S. heat their homes by burning shelled corn in their furnaces. Renewable energy? Not really. Bin-busting crops raised so cheaply that people can burn them in lieu of oil or natural gas are only possible because of cheap fossil fuels and plenty of them. They provide the feedstocks for fertilizer and pesticides and the power for cultivation, harvest, transportation, and refining. We don’t usually think of farmers as being energy producers, but they are. Nearly all of the 10 billion gallons of ethanol produced in the U.S. last year came from grain raised at a high environmental cost.

John B. Howard
Photo courtesy of Charles Linn, FAIA
My great-grandfather considered gasoline a luxury. Even in the 1940s he often used a team of horses instead of his tractor.
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Farming has always been about the process of managing other organisms’ ability to transform sunlight and water into some form of energy—grain, vegetables and fruits, meat and dairy, among other things. When a farm with no external energy inputs produces enough food energy for its inhabitants to get by until the end of the next season, the farm is net-zero. When surpluses are raised the farm is net-positive and its inhabitants thrive.

John B. Howard’s diary for 1878 records everything he did on his 120-acre Kansas farm that year: how many days he plowed, what he planted, how much he harvested, sold, and what he was paid. That winter, day after day was spent picking and shucking corn by hand. It would never have been burned. His harvest of dairy products, meat, and grain—his energy production—was net-positive that year. He sold and stored more than he raised. Besides the occasional sack of flour or sugar he bought, his farm had no external energy inputs, not even lamp oil, other than what came from the sun. John was 61 and he worked all day every day. Backbreaking, yes, but on the whole a rather typical existence for a pioneer farmer. His notes do not reflect that he expected or even longed for an easier life.

When John’s grandson Ed, my great-grandfather, came of age thirty-five years later, easy credit and the introduction of new technologies for agriculture—electricity, gasoline-powered machinery, deep-well irrigation, and synthetic fertilizers—made farms 10 times the size of John’s possible, just as the world-wide commodities markets were born. For the first time, one man could raise tens of thousands of bushels of grain in a single year and still wind up flat broke. Ed continued working the same land as John and was not much for innovation. His son, my grandfather, left the farm in the 1920s because Ed refused to borrow money to expand and mechanize. That was probably smart: if Ed had been in debt when the Depression came along there is no doubt he’d have lost it all. But he held on, and in 1937 finally took a 1-percent-interest loan from the Farm Security Administration, and following its advice improved his worn-out land. He bought a tractor, changed what he planted, built a fine dairy herd, and increased production dramatically. In 1941, 63-year-old Ed became a local hero when the Lawrence Journal World did a front page story on him. FSA capital and mechanization had finally raised him and his solar-powered farm above the poverty line. He continued to farm even after a tornado blew away the barn in 1957—while he was milking a cow. It is difficult to say whether his farm was still net-energy positive like his grandfather’s. But on an annualized fossil-fuel-BTUs-in versus food-calories-out basis, he was likely outperforming many of today’s mega-farms.

It is absurd that we are willing to take the kind of risks that led to the Gulf oil spill so we can, among other things, heat our homes with corn. Both Ed and John would have been outraged at the idea. And I think they would not be surprised if lifestyles in the solar-powered, post-petroleum age to come have more in common with subsistence than corn-fueled luxury.

This article appeared in the July 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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