Saturday, September 26, 2009


Keeping Farm Machinery Going

An article over on The Oil Drum, “Energetics of cultivation: draft animals vs. combustion engines and the Haber process,” takes up the matter of what will happen to mechanized agriculture if petroleum products, specifically fuel for machinery, become unavailable, and concludes that a shutdown of mechanized agriculture doesn’t have to happen because farms could themselves produce the fuels (biofuels) needed to run their machinery. At first glance, this might seem like a reasonable and reassuring conclusion to most people, but is it?

Realistically, anyone who has worked on a modern farm knows that keeping farm machinery running is more than a matter of putting fuel in the tank. As with any other kind of machine, all self-propelled farm machines such as tractors, and all the machines that they pull, need maintenance. Machines break down, and require repairs, lubrication, and replacement parts. Self-propelled machines such as tractors and combines additionally need to have their engines serviced, which at the least means oil changes, new filters and gaskets, spark plugs, and the like.

Without going into any detail, anyone can now see that claiming we can keep farm machinery going as long as we have biofuels is just simplistic thinking like saying that if we can’t get gasoline, we’ll just switch to electric cars. Keeping machines going requires maintaining the whole array of economic and industrial processes that underpin those machines — everything from manufacturing the parts and assembling them, to distribution and service networks, obtaining and supplying fuel and lubricants, and getting those supplies and services out to the farms. Further, remember that our economic system runs not only on energy, but also debt, so we must also maintain the system of credit used by the businesses that provide and service the machines, not to mention the loans that the farmers themselves need to run their operations.

And how will seeds and fertilizers be produced and delivered? Will these industries also run themselves on biofuels?

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of simplistic thinking and rose-colored glasses among those who assure us of a Glorious Technological Future, in which we will be vacationing in space or on Mars. This is just another of many examples in which the writer fails to take a system-wide view.

The first point in the post, “Farming before powered machinery,” is quite valuable, though, because it gives us a peek at what we’ll eventually return to. And that is why I maintain that we must move a substantial portion of the population back on the land.

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