Where farmers and oil connect

By David Kline, Fredricksburg, Ohio — The past week I have been mulling 1874 sketches of two farms in Sangamon County, Illinois.

Maurice Telleen, founder and editor emeritus of Draft Horse Journal, sent them to me along with these words, “When I bought these two prints last April in Springfield, Illinois, my thought at the time was that Now and Then…or The Dream and The Reality comparison might be interesting to the readers. Downstate Illinois being what it is…it is possible that one of these places is a wheat field from end to end and the other a cornfield with a hog factory in the middle. The dreams that the 1874 pictures show us involve a lot of people, livestock, and activity. What do you suppose those same two pieces of ground show you now? Not many people and possibly no livestock. At any rate, I still haven’t figured out how to use them to tell the story of the depopulation of rural areas.”

Maury claimed he wasn’t smart enough to figure it out, so he sends them to me! He is one of the smartest men in the Midwest and I barely qualify to carry his gum boots, but I think he’s very aware of the old saw, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” So here goes.

Dear Maury,

Thanks for the prints. I’m enjoying them, plus trying to figure them out. The top one, “Grand Birds-Eye View on the Stock Farm of Thomas Smith,” shows no fewer than 70 animals – cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs. Most of them on pasture. The pastures are enclosed by split-rail fences. (No step-in posts yet.) There are three horse-drawn carriages on the road in front of the buildings, and one four-oxen team pulling a hay wagon on the farm. What I really like is the two women playing lawn croquet in the middle of what appears to be a week day. How many states would one have to travel to find that today? And both farms have large, well-kept orchards. It is probably just as easy to find women playing croquet as finding a thriving midwestern farm orchard in today’s world. Maury, I’m not a learned man, but I think I can tell you in two words what happened. Cheap oil!

Although Colonel Drake found his gusher in 1859, it didn’t affect the farming communities, besides kerosene for lighting, until many decades later. Even when many farmers bought Ford flivvers for transportation in the first quarter of the 20th Century, thousands continued to use animal traction for their farms, especially for the lighter work, and the scale of smaller farms was preserved.

When World War II came along and with it the end of the Great Depression, agriculture began its serious addiction to oil and natural gas, first in machinery. But then, what really made the livestock farms shown in your prints disappear was synthetic fertilizers and, to a lesser degree, petroleum-based pesticides. Animals and legumes weren’t needed anymore for soil fertility. Agricultural productivity began to increase around two percent annually, about the exact rate of the increase in oil use on farms.

In 1909, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch devised a method for fixing atmospheric nitrogen by combining it with hydrogen to make ammonia. At first the process used coal to fuel the machinery and as a source of hydrogen. However, coal was soon replaced by the more efficient natural gas. Today, ammonia synthesis provides more than 99 percent of all inorganic nitrogen used on farms. The Haber/Bosch process may well be one of the principal inventions of the 20th Century. I have read claims that it feeds 60 percent of the world’s population. And that, Maury, in my opinion, did more than anything else to destroy the Illinois farms in your prints.

But, the question now is…how long can this continue? Again, I’m definitely no expert in these matters, but when I see those multi-acre lots of four-wheeled anhydrous ammonia buggies parked throughout our great Midwest, I can’t help wondering what would happen if there was a major disruption in its availability. How much would the per-acre yields drop in bushels of corn destined for bio-fuel plants?

There is something else that has been gnawing on me for years. It seems the smarter the people claim to be, the less they are interested in the world around them, and the more confident their opinions become. Under these conditions, high IQ becomes almost a handicap. It is almost as if a storm would be forecast and a person would be warned to seek shelter, and his response would be: “Don’t try to scare me – I am too smart to seek shelter. I am confident in my ability to always outsmart the storm.”

A case in point: the other morning’s paper had news from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) that oil will stabilize at $50 per barrel (up from their last year’s forecast of $31 per barrel) and stay there for the next several decades.

Another example is the from-the-top-down argument, which goes something like this: Because our economy requires a lot less oil circa 2005 for each dollar of GDP that it generates than it did circa 1973, therefore it (the economy) is much less vulnerable to oil supply disruptions and oil price spikes than it was 30 years ago. In other words, the price of oil has very little to do with the economy anymore.

To me it is incredible to hear this argument again and again in our enlightened age from diverse groups of seemingly intelligent people, such as agricultural economists. If our economy, for the sake of the argument, doubled in terms of dollars of GDP since 1973, and our annual oil consumption did not change from back then, we have twice as many dollars of GDP riding on the same barrel of oil we consume, do we not? Doesn’t it make the economy twice as vulnerable to the same amount of oil shortage, instead of less vulnerable?

Maury, this reminds me of the Guernsey cow we had that became dependent upon synthetic oxytocin for milk letdown. We finally got her down to half a dose per milking. So we got twice the milk for the same amount of product. Right? Alas, when we quit completely, there was no milk at all.

We’re skating far out onto uncharted ice, which I fear is perilous because our food production has become tragically linked to cheap fossil fuels. There are solutions: we already have knowledgeable and skilled farmers, such as the readers and writers for Graze, who understand that good soils along with abundant sunshine and ample rainfall and grass-based livestock production go a long way in alleviating the follies of heavily subsidized, petroleum-addicted corn and soybean production.

Let’s look at it positively…maybe a rising cost in oil is the only thing that stands between us and a Brave New World.

Your friend, David Kline

David Kline milks cows near Fredericksburg, Ohio.