390. THE EROEI OF GARDENING SUCKS
The blowhards of the peak oil community are strongly in favor of gardening as a solution. There are a few problems with this. For example, if you're unemployed, where are you going to get land to garden on? If you already own land, and it's paid off, then you're a rich person, and don't need any help. The people who genuinely need a solution (at least in today's financial crisis) are unemployed people, foreclosed people and poor people, and they don't have any land. And they can't get any land because they need a job to get money to obtain the land. And, as we saw in the previous article, the peak oil community takes a very dim view of net job creation because that would inevitably involve growth.
But let's put those concerns aside for a moment. Let's suppose that you're unemployed, but you just happen to have a quarter acre of idle land lying around. Since this is a fantasy, let's also suppose that you're completely unencumbered by other tasks, and have all the costly organic seeds, shovels, hoes, wheelbarrows, hoses, books and other capital you need to start your own little "local agriculture" shangri-la. First, you'll need to trench the land with a shovel, work in the organic compost, and plant your corn crop. Of course, this will all be done by hand, because dependence on modern energy sources is unsustainable. Watering, hoeing, weeding, pest control, harvesting, shelling and milling will all return to the wonders of a "world made by hand". Here's the unit you'll be using to grind dried corn into meal:
Oops... That looks a little too high-tech and fossil-fuel intensive. Too much embedded eMergy. Plus you'd have to ship it on a diesel-fueled truck to your tent. So you (or more likely your wife) will end up using one of these state-of-the-art "green" units for maximum sustainability:
Okay. You've completed your first cycle of agriculture in harmony with Gaia, and you've got your crop in. How much do you have? Well, let's look back at historical yields (bushels/acre) from the "made by hand" days. This chart is from the USDA (click to enlarge):
I'm figuring we're going to have to go back to at least the 1930-40s to get bona fide made-by-hand yields, but let's be generous and say 50 bushels/acre. You know, maybe you got lucky and turned out to have a green thumb.
You'll have to toss out varmint damage and the disturbing freak show oddities like this one:
But let's suppose you bag a solid 10 bushels. How much value did you clear? Well, corn prices at the moment are about $4 a bushel, so damn if you didn't clear a whole $40 worth of corn for 5 months of backbreaking work! A sum you could have made a lot quicker and easier by working a single 6 hour day at McDonald's:
Of course, we're assuming that you're grinding your own corn, so let's do that comparison too. A typical bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds (25.4 kg), so your total harvest -- in terms of corn meal -- will be 560 pounds. The current rate for bulk corn meal is about $15.80 for a 50 pound bag. So your corn meal, which took months to grow and weeks to grind, is worth a grand total of $177. Wow! That's equivalent, by the way, to 3 days of work at a minimum wage job.
Don't get me wrong. I actually enjoy gardening, and used to grow big gardens myself. Gardening is fun, and a good way to get some fresh air and exercise. But the reality is this: it doesn't even come close to making economic sense. If you calculate all your costs -- land, materials, equipment, the value of your time -- and compare them to the value of your output, you'll come out massively in the red every time.
Gardening is basically a bourgeois fantasy, pushed by dilettantes and intellectuals who are well-off enough to indulge in it as a hobby. It's not a genuine solution for the average person, or the poor. Intensive gardening will make those people even poorer, not better off.