Sunday, June 29, 2008

7 Fat & 7 Lean Years

Preparedness Deficit

7 Fat & 7 Lean Years

There is no cheese, no butter, no dry milk powder, no grains or anything else left [in US government reserve] ... The only thing left in the entire CCC inventory will be 5.73 million bushels of wheat which is about enough wheat to make one half loaf of bread, for each of the 300 million people in America... [According to the May 1, 2008, CCC inventory report, USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation].
--Larry Matlack, President of the American Agricultural Movement

Long time ago Pharaoh asked Joseph to interpret a dream about seven fat and seven scrawny cattle, and--double trouble--seven fat and seven skimpy heads of grain. Joseph described the dream as a warning to make preparations for seven years of hardship, to act pre-emptively, during seven years of plenty. He ordered the granaries filled so that people would not starve when crops failed and famine hit.

If such ancient foresight and investment have not yet been implemented by the “bread basket of the world,” America, in the 21st century, where does that leave us? What are the precedents and the possibilities? How do we the people implement economics, as if people mattered?

Boom and bust cycles are natural and recurring events, chronicled back to the Middle Ages by a Soviet economist, Kondratieff. Stalin gave him the task of finding a way to destroy the West economically. Kondratieff reported back to Stalin that the destruction was cyclical, self-induced, and inevitable. Boom years of great crop yields and prosperity were also times of credit excess, borrowing, and mal-investment. Bank failures, crop failures, drought, flash floods, locusts, and blights followed boom years. Debts were called in, properties foreclosed upon, in a great and grinding transfer of wealth to the banks.

Dust Bowl

In 1930’s America, for example, the Plains states all but blew away in severe drought. Terrible winds blasted topsoil to perdition in a farmers’ nightmare called the Dustbowl. When farmers planted crops, seed failed to sprout, or grew a pitiful few inches, shriveled and died. Many banks had gone belly-up, having invested depositors’ savings in the stock market, which crashed in 1929; FDR had confiscated citizens’ gold in ‘33. There was no money, nor credit to buy more seed, nor to pay on mortgages or share cropper rents. Families were thrown off the land by the banks into a long season known as the “Bitter Years.”

The author’s mother remembered walking to school with a damp bandana across nose and mouth to block out the wildly whipping grit. Eyes stung with it, land turned to dust and whirlwind. Windows were shut tight, with rolled towels at their base, in 100 degree heat. Not all homes had electricity; kerosene lamps lit most farms. Nobody had air conditioning.

Men roaming the country looking for work to feed their families, stopped at Grandmother’s back door, hat in hand, eyes to the ground, “You got any work needs doin’, Ma’am?” Grandmother never offered a handout from their garden. So as not to shame the man, she would think of some small chore. Chore done, she’d bring him a plate of food to the back stoop. “Thank ye, Ma’am,” touching his hat brim, he’d fall on the food. Those were lean and hungry times, and we have lost most of the generation who lived through it, and could warn us.

US Response to Boom and Bust Cycles

In our present time frame and its crop failure cycle, there is another story old as time. Alan Greenspan, as a young man, is said to have wished to be Fed Head during the inevitable Kondratieff downturn. Greenspan held the belief that flooding the banks and Wall Street with easy credit could fend off “Kondratieff Winter.”

As Chairman of the Federal Reserve, he implemented PPT (Plunge Protection Team) interventions, allegedly to maintain market stability, but to the benefit of insiders. The PPT, also known as Working Group on Finacial Markets, was mandated by Executive Order following the 1987 market crash. Interventions morphed into such manoevers as bailing out JPMorgan, the monster derivatives holder, by gutting Bear Stearns---to save the system, to save it from the consequences of shoddy practices. Relief for bankers and hedgies only. We will live the results of hubris and preferential interventions.

Here’s another old, old concept: Debt-forgiveness, utterly and across the board, every 50 years, in a “Jubilee Year.” It’s an Old Testament idea: families, widows, orphans could begin anew. There is a “global Jubilee movement” in our day to forgive unpayable debts, loans made to deposed dictators, whose poor people now go hungry in that catch-22. (Given credit card company usury, sub-prime mortgage profiteering, and diminishing ability of the indebted to pay, families may refuse to be destroyed at some point.)

The hubris of central bankers—of “Maestro” Greenspan’s sleight of hand—had seemed to have everything under control. Whereas in fact, we face adverse growing conditions—catastrophic destruction of rice crops by the Myanmar typhoon, destruction of the US corn (maize) crop by Mississippi floods, and wheat rust blight spreading at an alarming rate from Turkey. This all too painfully vindicates Kondratieff’s discovery that bad grain harvest years are correlated with economic downturns.

In the interim, the system is unraveling. CEO’s were once touted as mythic in reach, greed-is-good as Zeitgest, the Enron-phenom. We are huddled in a surround-sound theater with few exits, beneath a Ponzi scheme collapse. Many are frightened. Yet heroes of a different sort are stepping free of the smoke and mirrors—inventors at work on alternative energy solutions, whistleblowers of corporate and government malfeasance such as Rep. Ron Paul, repair folk who keep things running, sustainable farmers, bridge-builders, skilled crafters, teachers, and home-schooled young. We will remain rich in solution-driven people, if not in paper debt instruments.

Theory will not now avert food crisis, only sensible action will. As an instance of theory, “our” government gave financial incentives to so-called agricultural corporations to convert food-producing land to the planting of ethanol-corn, much of it genetically modified. Ethanol-corn was presented as "green energy," in a deft PR move, but requires more fuel input than it produces! Insistence on converting arable land to agribiz biofuels has forced world food prices up by 75 percent, according to a secret World Bank report.

.....You mean to tell me that seed there is gonna save the world? Well, I’ll be. And that same seed company will be our climate change savior? Hm! That's the company that tainted my neighbor’s corn, I do believe… Well, Sir… Come to find out, pollen from their pricey-as-sin “modified” corn blew onto my neighbor’s land. They contaminated his whole crop; couldn’t be sold for human food. Nope. Ruined him, or so he thought, till the company up and sued him for stealing their patent! A real knee-slapper.....

Profit trumped common sense, and even common decency. The mid-term election hopes for sensible priorities sank into the Potomac swamp, where borrowed funding, out of actual U.S. “insufficient funds,” holds sway.

Can-Do Gene Pool

The world has looked on as we apparently lay back and resigned ourselves to belligerent government dysfunction, in order to “feel safe.”

Yet despite a perception of Americans as couch potatoes, the “natives are getting restless” and represent a very interesting gene pool--of iconoclasts. Over many generations, waves of peoples fled to America from tyrannies in their countries of origin. We include immigrant entrepreneurs from all over the world. Out of that heritage, we can come to life locally with solutions, as our national focus shifts from flamboyant empire to hearth and home.

As an example, in a variation on the Horatio Alger success story, a few late 20th century pathfinders voluntarily chose frugality as a road to success. In The Millionaire Next Door, which lobbed a shot across the bow of dot-bomb era glitz, the authors interviewed self-made millionaires, who actually lived within their means—they bought second-hand cars, maintained and drove them for years; they shopped at thrift stores and flea markets; their kids went to public schools, had to earn their weekly allowances, and many worked newspaper routes. The parents lived in middle class neighborhoods; they did not build McMansions. These folks were pioneers, aware of the lessons of the down cycle of the Great Depression, making do, making things last, living in community.

During the two world wars, food was rationed. Only farmers and black marketeers were likely to eat well. In each of the two wars the government promoted nationwide planting of Liberty and Victory Gardens, respectively. People planted food -- potatoes, corn, beans, carrots, not lawns or cacti. This may be a concept whose time has come again. Barbara Kingsolver’s, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle shows us how to produce what we eat, support local growers, and celebrate the seasons of availability. If nothing else does, rising oil prices will force us to concentrate on community food production.

victory garden food is fighting

David-Gardens Meet Peak-Oil-Goliath

Cheaply transported food has been a short-lived phenomenon, historically speaking. Can we count on planes and trucks to deliver lettuce from California, grapes from Chile, or any food at all, if fuel costs exceed what people can pay, for food delivered? In living memory, cities were fed from surrounding farms. We have strip-malled and asphalted fertile land with beige suburbia. Can we undo it, and return rich farmland to cultivation?

We may want to give that a hard look. Jim Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and a weekly commentary “Clusterfuck Nation,” views suburban commutes as a fantasy, a wrong-turn, soon to meet the grim reaper of Peak Oil, in an avalanche of abandoned press board and vinyl-sided McMansions.

If we need to develop local gardening and farming to alleviate the downslide of our economy and lean years to come, and we can’t buy fuel for tractors and tillers, will spades and shovels still fit our hands? Some of our solutions may be Amish or Native American, which remain a living wisdom of stewardship. Will they teach us; will we learn?

.....Come on over, son, and have a look-see here. Pickax will bust up that cement slab. Yeah. No-money down, huh? Teaser mortgage rate they gave the family to dream on; broke now… There’s good earth there still, and it’ll be there when we’re gone. Go to it, boy. Come find me when you’re done, and we’ll plant us a garden.....

Can we muster the oomph to recreate the infrastructure for horse and mule farming, (and our rail system for that matter?) You bet we can. Cuba is a hot button in Washington, but those folks went cold turkey off cheap fuel and farm subsidies into ox-powered organic farming, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

We face a similar challenge. Our government is bankrupt, hiding it, and will soon not be able to dole out farm subsidies. Fuel may not reach farmers or truckers; it may not even be available. Cuba, a small country, has shown what can be done, at need. The US, a vast land on the brink of crisis, demonstrated its federal-level response capabilities in New Orleans, and compounded incompetence by refusing local and international relief. Remember Katrina.

Raising Mentors and Community Ingenuity

Our capacity for local decision-making and intervention will resurge—in Town Meetings, in charity work, in Depression Era soup kitchens, if it comes to that. Food Banks are way ahead of us—already asking gardeners to “Grow-a-Row” in their gardens specifically for Food Bank distribution, as there is little food available for the laid-off, the foreclosed upon, the homeless Vets.

What do we need? How about hand tools and backyard gardens with the children helping out and learning. If we don’t know how, let’s find those who do. Gardeners tend to be optimists; some will be willing teachers. How about community gardens, prison gardens, school gardens, farmers’ markets in a no-car zone, where people can stroll and chat.

gardening tools

Have we forgotten how to can/freeze/store food? Are families scattered and skills lost? Well, let’s seek out those with can-do knowledge—they may be in nursing homes; they may live on small family farms; they may not have English as their first language. Let’s learn from those who know how to tend land and grow food. Let’s dig root cellars to store potatoes, winter squash, pumpkins, apples, at the ambient temperature of deep earth, without electricity.

At the local level, zoning can be re-considered--especially if food is not being trucked in to the supermarket shelves. We could raise backyard chickens or a milk goat, just for instance. In Cuba people went hungry when the subsidies stopped. Townspeople dug up lawns, planted gardens, built chicken coops, set up sidewalk stands. That “urban farming” has brought entrepreneurial good fortune to families, and represents a large chunk of Cuba’s agricultural output!

Many Americans have grown sweet corn for Fourth of July picnics. It’s just as easy to grow field corn, to feed the chickens, with corn which produces seed we can save for next season -- this means heirloom, non-hybrid, non-genetically engineered. The field corn cobs are left to dry on the stalk, then shucked of husk and stored in backyard granaries, also known as corncribs, which can be built in a day. Chickens will peck the dry kernels off the whole cob. Easy!

Eggs and dairy are becoming prohibitively expensive, due to feed and fuel costs. While fuel and chemical fertilizer were cheap, and feed was cheap, and farmers made serious money selling off land to developers, many farmers stopped growing their own feed. Now animal husbandry folk have to pay exorbitant prices for grain and hay, prices which are passed on to the consumer.

.....Now, is manure cheaper than chemical fertilizer? Yup. Is it produced on the farm? Um. But you do have to shovel it.....

Self-sufficient farms and communities are a size which work. Small organic farms are full of variety, not gazillion acres of Roundup-ready one-crop far as the eye can see. Small farms are full of fragrance, fruits, butterflies, birds and ladybugs; they produce food, sustain families, and empower communities.

Image: Preppers: Protect your stash from these four pests 

Small is bountiful.

Pharaoh asked Joseph what to do. Prepare, he said, for hard times. Grow food, store food, to feed your people. Joseph got specific; he said to set aside twenty percent of each of the seven years of bounty. When famine struck, not just Egypt, but the entire Middle East, Pharaoh’s people were well fed from the granaries. Egypt had saved enough grain to sell to neighboring kingdoms. They prospered in a time of famine by Joseph’s foresight and preparations.

So, given US preparation thus far, and wealth-hemorrhage abroad, what’ll it be? Katrina?

.....Step right up, folks! Get your half a loaf of bread, to tide each and every one of you over.....

Until what?… The Rapture?

Or will we go for community, and local can-do? What will we create, returning to the common sense of township and state governance? Fuel costs may stop shipments of gulag-goods across the Pacific. Large "oops" there, in the building of BigBox mega-emporiums. If they stand empty, what's the opportunity? Well, we might spare some diesel for bulldozers, and return to mom & pop businesses in walk-able neighborhoods! How about bike lanes as a plan, cluster housing, parks and community gardens?

Communities know that "we all live downstream;” bureaucracies fund studies and pork-barrel projects, as levees and bridges and school buildings crumble. There's work needs doing, and that means employment.

Let's give Americans a task with heart in it, while the Potomac Titanic plays on… glub glub. We built bombs; let's repair our bridges, across rivers, and across chasms of policies of destruction.

American immigrants dared everything, to choose freedom.

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  1. Absolutely inspiring...more a hymn than a post. I am a municipal communications manager who has been wrestling with the idea of sitting down with our mayor (this is NOT a small community) and begging him to accept the political risk of moving in this direction. These words have convinced me the time to do it is now. If we are ultimately saved, it will not be due to our technological prowess or a run of good luck. It will be because of people with a vision like this...implausibly full of both dread and hope for us.

  2. I'm out here scratching around in the dirt and after three years of fairly serious work can call our piece of dirt 80% self sufficient. Of course, if the power went out I'd kick my ass into high gear and be at 99 next season. But I doubt suburbia, let alone the cities, could get it together at all. 300+ million people is a lot of potatoes, man.

    Anyway, nice post. I sure hope for slow transition so that a local structure can be put together.

  3. Wayne, have posted your moving comment, thank you, in the hope that others in positions of municipal responsibility will take action.

    Simba, congrats on your foresight and sweat equity. Am not sure about the slow transition; there is concern we might see $500 oil this year.

  4. Great research, well chosen words, but just how good is your timing?

  5. Timing? Good question. In a market trade, it's better to be early, and secure profits than wait for the big lotto in the sky, losing profit and maybe more.

    Is it premature to be in what-if mode, when after the fact may be too late to quietly prepare food supplies and infrastructure?

    Even cutting closer to the bone, can already bankrupt govt meet its social services obligations? Like, just supposin', Social Security? Largish what-if there.

    Not a bad year to plant a garden or look into CSA, community supported agriculture.

    Thanks for checking in.

  6. I did not know about the widespread adoption of kitchen gardening in Cuba. There is also a precedent in the developed world. When German U-boats threatened to starve Britain into surrender in the Second World War, the government introduced a "Dig for Victory" programme. Overnight, suburban residents turned their gardens into vegetable plots. Needs must when the devil drives, as they say.

  7. Hengist, yes!! In the US, wartime rationing led to meager eating for those not living in farm country, nor could many afford the cities' black market treats. The government urged citizens to plant their yards with "Victory Gardens."

    The growing local trend toward inner city and community gardens is deeply encouraging.

    Thank you for your comment.

  8. Hello My name is Joshua and I am working on a granary receipt based money system for the people of the earth. Please visit our network to learn more about creating a transparent, sustainable, resource based, interest free and fee free medium of exchange created by the people for the people available to every human on the planet earth.

    May peace be with you,

  9. Re Kondratieff and his role: Kondratiev was a Russian economist, but his economic conclusions were disliked by the Soviet leadership and upon their release he was quickly dismissed from his post as director of the Institute for the Study of Business Activity in the Soviet Union in 1928. His conclusions were seen as a criticism of Joseph Stalin's intentions for the Soviet economy: as a result he was sentenced to the Soviet Gulag and later received the death penalty in 1938.

  10. Yes indeed, Anon., and thank you for this timely comment. Truth-tellers and whistle-blowers, in police state realities, face threats to well-being and to longevity.

    It starts with aggravations, e.g., no-fly list, loss of research funding, a sudden pink slip for speaking out.

    Implemented by petty bureaucrats and grunts, who are just following orders.


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