Give Us Our Daily Bread

Last week I visited a modern Australian farm on the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia, about 500km from where I live in Adelaide.

This farm has been in one family for several generations, and has steadily grown to 8000 acres (3200 hectares). This same area was previously farmed by 7 families, and now provides a livelihood for just one. This tells me that modern agriculture is super efficient, and explains why food (and calories) are super cheap for us here in the affluent Western world.

This is both good and bad. Given the right political conditions, science and technology enables us to feed the world. We don’t need to be hungry and can use those excess calories for other purposes. The jobs lost in one industry migrate to others. This farming family, for example, has spawned a variety of professionals that have left the family farm and done good things for the world.

It also brings diseases of affluence. Our poor bodies are not evolved to deal with an excess of food. We are evolved to be hunter-gatherers, constantly on the look out for the next calorie. Historically we haven’t had enough. So we are hard wired to eat too much. Hence the rise of heart disease and diabetes.

Breathtaking Array of Skills

I was impressed by the diverse array of skills required to run the farm. Business, animal husbandry, mechanical, agricultural science. The increased mechanisation means computers everywhere and I imagine robotics is on the horizon. During our visit they were measuring the moisture content of the crop to determine the best time to harvest. They even have an animal “retirement village” – they care for several old working dogs who had kept foxes away from the sheep for years.

Unlike many jobs, they don’t know what their yields and hence income will be from year to year. That’s a lot of risk in your annual income.

Overall, It takes about 12 years to learn the skills needed to run a modern farm.

This farm produces 3,500 tonnes of wheat per year. Based on 13680 kJ/kg of wheat, and a person needing 8700 kJ/day, that’s enough to feed 15,000 people every year. From the work of one family farm. Wow.

Organic Farming

I asked them about organic farming. The bottom line is the yields would be halved. So double the prices for everything we eat. That may be fine if you are a rich Westerner but that is the line between life and death for someone in the developing world. Alternatively, it means using twice the land under cultivation for the same amount of food. Organic means starving poor people and goodbye rain forests.

Their use of pesticides is strictly monitored and all residues must be removed. They have modern, scientific methods of erosion control to manage the soil, and techniques to naturally fix nitrogen. Sustainability is being addressed right now by modern, scientific, farming.

In my opinion the organic food movement is a more about scientific illiteracy and marketing than health.

Wind Farming

On a nearby hill was a 75MW wind farm, part of many that have sprung up in South Australia over the past decade. I am quite proud that South Australia now averages 30% wind power. We are about to close down our last remaining coal power station.

In this case, the lucky farmer that owns the land leased for the wind turbines receives $100k per year in passive income. K-ching K-ching as the turbines rotate.

It’s incredible to think that for years there have been “rivers of energy” flowing over those hills. It took technology and the right economic conditions to reach up and pluck that energy out of the sky.

11 thoughts on “Give Us Our Daily Bread”

  1. I was impressed by Bill Gates investing in nuclear power. Wind farms are ugly, noisy, and kill birds like there’s no tomorrow. Besides the point they jam radars.

    Gates is investing in small nuclear plants that use nuclear waste as the fuel. Suppose you had one for every 100 homes (every city development for example).

    The billions/trillions in long haul infrastructure would be at end. Billy Bob won’t have to climb 200 foot towers of wire anymore. Poor Billy Bob.

    1. The thing about nuclear as you describe it is that it is a highly engineered technological artefact that locals have little chance of maintaining or owning rather than proven wind technology, which has been with us for over a thousand years:

      Interestingly, if one assumes around 10L/Ha of oil to establish broad-acre crops, based on:

      and assuming an energy density of diesel of ~36MJ/L, based on

      then around 80 Tonnes, or 2.5% of the wheat crop equivalent, or about 1.1TJ, is needed just to plant, let alone harvest and transport the crop.

      That’s about 320,000 KWHrs per crop, just to establish it, if my calculations are correct.

      Wind looks like a pretty practical way to deliver that sort of energy to the farmer, whereas biofuels have the potential to simply divert food for humans into food for fuel tanks.

      Catton, in his book “Overshoot”, discusses the “virtual acres” being harvested thanks to finite and depleting fossil fuel resources used as fuel, pesticide precursors and fertiliser, effective replacements for which are not easy to find.

      Liebig’s law of the minimum, and the laws of thermodynamics, apply no matter how technologically advanced you are, and relying on depleting fossil fuels for food production is a lot like climbing out on a branch.

      There don’t seem to be any easy fixes, organic methods included:

      1. Over the last 10 years I’ve invested in several green energy ideas in the stock market. We call these penny stocks. After researching a company I usually find it’s a professor with a great idea, which usually fails at the point where they try to scale it up out of the lab.

        One idea I thought was a sure thing, was vertical farming. You put the product in rows of ferris-wheel type contraptions and it rotates to give each section sunlight. With a computer, the plant growth is optimized. You could even put these in abandoned parking garages.

        This was a great idea for algae farming, and thus a biofuel bonanza in a small amount of acreage.

        Well, at 20 cents a share, I threw my hat in, hoping to make a killing if it rose to a $1 a share even if only for 5 minutes. After a year it was 18 cents a share, and negative reviews. I had to bail out.

  2. Interesting post, David! Your comments about organic farming caught my attention as your conclusions are the opposite of my recent reading. Do you happen to have any more detail about what they were doing for nitrogen? As far as I know we’re still relying on natural gas and mining for our agricultural nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Unless things have changed, that seems like a massive problem in the future that organic fertilisers will help to abate.

    1. Hi Tom,

      They were planting another crop to fix N, but not sure about P&K – that might still be an open issue. Where do organic fertilizers come from?

      It also occurred to me that the fossil fuel inputs for transport and farm machinery could be replaced by electric drive.

      – David

      1. As it happens, planting particular species like legumes to fix nitrogen sustainably has long been a popular technique used by organic gardeners. Good to hear it has its place on a modern farm!

        In general organic fertiliser is derived from things like food waste, composted plant matter and animal products. For a more specific example I looked up the standard that applies to my “Australian Certified Organic” Weetbix. It says the “fertility, biological activity and organic matter of the soil must be maintained or increased by any of the following methods”—to summarise briefly, legumes etc., animal manure, composted organic matter, “biodynamic” techniques (a particular organic farming practice), tillage techniques, livestock management, and encouraging microbial life. The common theme is that the soil’s health is maintained by recycling nutrients from natural processes rather than relying on new ones from mineral deposits.

        I think that farms could make better use of electric machinery than most. They have the land required to put up windmills and catch lots of sun, and they have lots of work to do during the day which lessens the need for storage.

    2. Yes, Phosphorous is still an open problem. There was a short section on Catalyst a couple of years ago about a toilet with separate sections of urine and feces, the idea being that the urine is rich in phosphorous. What was made clear is that sources of phosphorous are limited, and one such solution, beyond oil, was the mining of ancestral migratory sites of birds for their dung (this part may be a bit shaky in my memory). The obvious problem is that Phosphorous, unlike Nitrogen, is not available in abundance in the atmosphere. Presumably the same problem exists for Potassium, as well as many other minerals.

  3. Hi David and all,

    There is quite an ongoing argument about ‘conventional’ verses ‘natural’ farming [as opposed to ‘organic’ farming].

    Basically the farm is a big solar collector. Most farmers think in terms of pounds per acre. This makes chemical based farming look like the only way. That and ‘help’ from industry and ‘government’ who make more money when farmers are addicted to chemical farming.

    If you change the focus to dollars in the bank and hassle level, so called ‘natural farming’ [no external inputs] looks very nice indeed!

    Then there is that VERY uncomfortable subject of ‘nutrient density’. Simply put do people who eat chemical farm goods live healthy vibrant lives or do they suffer from ‘white man’s diseases’ [Weston Price quote].

    We all know the answer!

    I have been reading and re-reading . May I suggest you read the medical testament articles. Pretty amazing stuff IMHO.

    I guess we have known tht right answer for quite some time.


    1. You can eat as much organically grown corn or maize as you like, grown in healthy soils without pesticides, but you could still die of pellagra.

      Your referenced article predates the discovery of DNA, and attributes maladies such as rickets solely to diet; populations with dark skin are more prone to rickets (vitamin D deficiency) regardless of diet.

      Furthermore, regions with endemic malaria will have widespread anaemia, regardless of diet, with all of the developmental and health effects this leads to, which are not soluble with diet alone. Iron deficiency is one of the most widespread nutritional deficiencies, and is influenced by parasitic infections including worms and malaria.

      Your referenced article seems to confuse association with causation. It is likely that the health of populations living in a region more than 5000 ft above sea level has more to do with an absence of endemic parasitic infections such as malaria than their local cuisine.

      Iodine deficiency continues to be a problem in regions with iodine deficient soils, causing congenital cretinism

      The absence of pellagra, widespread iron deficiency and cretinism in the developed world is due in large part to food fortification, better hygiene which has helped to eliminate parasitic diseases, and arguably represents a triumph of public health intervention and regulation aimed at food safety.

      Diseases of affluence such as obesity and ischaemic heart disease due to various factors such sedentary lifestyles and more processed food do not constitute proof that farm produced food is somehow less nutritious than it used to be.

  4. Hi All,

    I see my URL got cut??

    journeytoforever dot org

    farm underline library


    medtest underline refs dot html


  5. Hi Downshifted and all,

    There are a lot of MDs in my greater family.

    So the ‘pill for every ill’ is well known to me.

    And the ‘unbiased’ study is also very familiar….

    Some of Newman Turners’s comments and the other writers in the Medical Testament series of writings were and continue to be very interesting. I keep reading and re-reading them and asking how can I tell how I am doing? What can I measure about me? To tell how well I am?

    I am not saying that ‘cancer’ and other diseases have not been purposely modified to be more toxic. That is doubtless true at least IMHO.

    What interests me most is Newman’s and others comments that their cattle don’t get foot and mouth for example when rubbing noses with other nearby sick cattle who will later die.

    So more the question for me is why don’t ALL animals get sick?

    And most importantly for me at least, what can I learn from them?

    And can I modify my diet [mineral balance, amino acid intake ratios, lipid intake, etc.] and measure myself to see how I am doing so that I am one of the ‘lucky’ ones?

    Chemical farming doesn’t have a very good track record except in the pounds per acre department. Does natural farming [no external inputs] work better? My personal conclusion is yes.

    Would you like to see my measurements? I would like to see yours!

    Just my humble opinion….


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