Oh, How the Mind Wanders

Today I got a wicked good workout on a landscaping job.  I bid it out at 5 hours of labor and I was to mulch two large areas.   The areas worked out to about 11 Cu yards of material for good coverage which is two short loads with B.A.R.T. (Big Ass Red Truck).  Dropped the kids off at school and emptied my municipal site of chips – about 7 yards.  They were wet for the 2” of rains and heavy as hell.  Also, the bed on B.A.R.T. is about 44” up so that is a hefty throw.  Took a solid hour of throwing chips with a manure fork (.5 cu ft a throw) with a few breaks to push the chips deeper into the bed.  Then it was off to the job site.  I had forgot my mulch barrow at the farm which has a 10 cu ft payload and dual wheels – for reasons I don’t understand I choose not to get it and use my rock barrow with its 5 cu ft metal barrow.  Those of you good with quick math now realize that  I just doubled my trips, but I wasn’t real keen on a 25 mile detour in a 7 mpg truck.   I literally thought “it’ll be a good workout” ad its not THAT far.  Got to the site and realized my memory had played tricks on me – the gardens were 75 and 125 yards from the driveway.  Oi.

The long and short of the story is that 11 cu yards is about 300 cu ft.  That is 60 trips in my little wheel barrow.  200 yards per trip for 60 trips is just shy of 7 miles of walking.  11 cu yards of wet chips weighs in at about 6000#’s.  Did I mention that the gardens were all down (thank goodness!) a hill with a 20’ drop?  I climbed 1200’ of elevation to boot.

Truth be told I had a great time – good honest work.  Very little thought – this was grunt work so my mind could wander and I was able to sweat out a lot of good ideas (as well as the math in this post) whilst I was literally sweating out liters of water.

The job took about 5.5 hours, but prolly would have shaved an hour with the mulch barrow.  5.5 hours of fairly intense work – I figure about 450-500 cal an hour based on my heart rate and sweat levels compared to the gym.  5.5 hours.  JESUS!  That’s almost 3000 calories!  Methinks that 6” Veggie Delight at Subway didn’t cut it and that also explains why I hit a “wall” at hour 4.5.  Jared should give me a call if he REALLY wants to lose weight!

3000 calories.  That got me thinking.  When we plan average caloric intake like the USDA says on the cereal boxes, we figure –at most– 2500 calories.  Even if I am rounding up a bit, that is a crap ton of energy I burned and given I kept working when I got home, it is entirely possible I hit 4000 calories today.  Energy I need to eat again.    Many of us have seen the caloric needs of a person touted in attempts to calculate how much acreage is needed to grow enough food to feed a person for a year.  I’ve seen figures ranging from 750,000 to about 900,000 calories per person per year.  In only a few cases (pretty sure John Jeavons mentions it) have I seen the author take into account that the caloric needs of someone farming (or insert physical trade of choice here) by hand has significantly higher caloric needs.  Sitting in a cubicle all day and watching my daily allotment of TV, I have proven I will gain weight at 1800 calories.  If I had to grow all my own food, or more likely enough for several families of 4, I will be burning significantly more calories and will likely need more land.  12 people at 850k equates to 10,200,000 calories.  If we are all burning 3000+ the land needs go up by 30% as we’ll need closer to 1,100,000 calories annually.

This is why I have stressed repeatedly on this blog the need to learn to efficiently grow calorie crops without inputs.  An acre of potatoes will produce at least 40,000#’ if well managed.  Potatoes have about 20 calories per ounce.  That works out to about 13,000,000 calories per acre.  Of course man can’t life on spuds alone, but that is enough to feed 12 hungry sustainable farmers.  A 5 acre farm set up to rotate cucurbits/corn/beans, onions/greens/brassicas/roots, and solanaceae (1 acre each) combined with fruiting hedgerows, and an acre in cover crop rotationally grazed by chickens could support the caloric and nutrition needs of 30+ people.  The eggs from the chickens alone would add about 4,000,000 calories per year (230 hens, 200 eggs per year, 85 calories an egg), so that 30ish person figure is likely fair even without running the math on the winter squash (20,000#’s), onions (15,000#) and hedgerows.  Plus you could add a cow or some goats to the pasture with no loss of eggs and we are running mono crop rather than permaculture design in most acres so we are wasting solar energy – but that is another post!

There are 470,000,000 acres of arable land in the US.  True, many of those depend heavily on irrigation so lets run it at 300,000,000 acres.  Divide by 5 acres and multiply by 30 people. 1.8 billion people.  Add in the Ukraine, Europe, Brazil, India and China and we *can* feed the world – we need about 1.5-2 billion acres, but its gonna be close and distribution is gonna be hell to get our surpluses to India and China not to mention that Africa is already a mess.

Plus we need to build soils like crazy as the only fertilizer in 50 years will be manure and compost.  Oi.  Maybe next time I’ll bring an iPod to keep my thoughts from rambling…

Build soils.

Be the Change!



11 Responses

  1. The thing about potatoes is that as long as you eat them with the skins on, they can sustain life as we know it. (I did a study on the potato famine and looked into the nutrients – they really are just about a food complete.)

    viv in nz

    • I’m with Kate – if you have an electronic copy of that study it sounds right up my alley. I was blown away by the vitamin C content – 45% in a med sized heirloom! Thrown in some protein, iron, and minerals and they’ve got alot to speak for them.

  2. Wow, that’s an impressive workout! I definitely shed my extra winter pounds in spring with the extra workload. Looking at my pattern from a sustainability perspective makes me nervous: Just when the winter stores are at their lowest point, a huge surge of labor is needed. This is why I’m working really hard – NOW – to get my tiny backyard plot into prime condition: with soil amendments, perennial plants, and heavy mulching to reduce weed pressure. I’m hoping that work done now will lighten the spring workload in subsequent years.

    I do think it’s important to remember that we don’t need 4000 calories every day of the year, but this is a really important point you raise, Rob. Our caloric needs are going to be different in the future. On the other hand, plenty of Americans never abandoned the 1500 calorie farmer’s breakfast even as they turned into couch potatoes. We have the obesity to prove it. That doesn’t mean that those running the numbers have realistically accounted for our future caloric needs though.

    Viv, I’d love to hear more about the nutrition of whole, unpeeled potatoes. I rare peel the ones we eat, but that’s always been out of a combination of laziness and desire not to waste anything.

    • Kate – pretty sure that is why our great grandparents got all excited when the migratory birds showed up all fat and all the mammals came out to play. 🙂

      4000 was an a-typical day to be sure and I doubt I really hit that. The numbers above are run on a 3000 cal/day figure (1.1 mil a year) which I feel to be more accurate for a less energy dense future.

      That 1500 cal breakfast brings up some good points. The QUALITY of our food will be exponentially better as a society (all ingredients will be pronounceable and all meats grass fed) so that will add a variable. 100 years ago a well built active 6′ tall male weighed 170-180 pounds. I’m north of that at an active 5′ 7″. Lean Muscle will be in vogue.

    • >Just when the winter stores are at their lowest point, a huge surge of labor is needed.

      That makes the old tradition of fasting through Lent, and feasting at Easter, seem wise…though I guess a lot of people would be more comfortable with it in an even older form than that, with corn dollies and bonfires instead of statues and wafers.

  3. Great workout! I had 10 yards of composted manure dropped off at my house yesterday and will be getting a similar workout this weekend …

    Good points about caloric requirements. Also remember that when you do work like that on a regular basis you metabolism speeds up so you burn more calories even during periods of rest.

  4. I love the way ideas and plans seem to well up and overflow when we are immersed in hard physical labour. Maybe you can develop some sort of a workshop for the corporate types? Get some free labour and income at the same time. I think Tom Sawyer did something similar 😉

  5. Interesting musings. I grow potatoes and sweet potatoes for the calories instead of grains. The Irish lived on potatoes for years because they were easy and you could leave them in the ground which made it hard for the powers to be to confiscate their food.

    I contend that you don’t need that high a level of human calorie intake to grow food. I wish I could burn so many calories gardening! Much of my gardening is low calorie planting and weeding. I am getting a scythe so I suppose my calorie expenditure will go up with that.

    Right now to stay fit, many people go to the gym. They already are burning the calories -just on “non-productive” activities. Before I started working my farm I went to the gym to maintain fitness. All that has happened is I’ve shifted my output.

    I think the real change will be how people spend their spare time. Now, the kids are on facebook hours each day. Then, they will be working for their food.

    A lot of space is taken up with lawns; they would make great victory gardens!

  6. My favorite calorie crop so far is the fava bean: it doesn’t need great soil, and it grows well in my wet season. Plus, like potato and garlic, it can push up through thick mulch, and is not too difficult overall.

    But I definitely agree that diversity, of the sort in the plan you’ve outlined, is crucial. It would be great to have a handful of favorites, or a few dozen.

  7. One thing too is that you all are mentioning carbohydrate energy sources. Fat is a very dense energy source that has been used for thousands of years. Even now I routinely get half my 3000 calories from fat (yes, I do track my daily eating) and it works out great.

    Some fat sources would be easy to grow in a sustainable manner (think eggs, pigs, etc) while some like sunflowers, soybeans and other vegetable oils wouldn’t grow very easy on the scale necessary to get their oils, when factory farming ceases.

    I guess what I’m saying is don’t just think of calories just coming from carbohydrates. Fats have a place at this table too.

  8. Keep up the good work and this fantastic blog. I’ve been following this blog for a year or two now and need to share with you and your readers how inspirational it is.

    I have a smallish city lot and am converting it into an edible landscape. It takes a long time and a lot of money and honestly sometimes I get scared and think “am I doing the right thing, will this just look terrible, will I be able to maintain it, blah blah blah”. But when I read your blog posts, I’m reminded that yes, I am doing The Right Thing and I know it’ll work out great and I think I’ll even get the aesthetics in there, too.

    So, to everyone else who reads this blog, feels a little flicker of inspiration or kick-in-the-pants, I say, seize that moment, grab the shovel and just start digging!

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