Can we feed ourselves?

Part 3 Except...
(Part 1 and 2 below)


Except that there are impediments to cutting capitalists from your operation. The first and most problematic impediment is government.

You can’t just milk your cow, wash your hands and make cheese, as was done in the old days. There are regulations on almost everything, including what you can call your cheese. There are fees to be paid to experts and government hangers on. The required facilities cost money. The cream of our community effort would have to be sold, the best wines and cheeses, and the profits end up in the coffers of industrialists and government, and we would be poorer. The greatest hurdle to feeding ourselves in Sierra County isn’t the weather, or the water or the ground, or the willingness and ability of our people to labor, it is government. We would have to do something rarely done in America, we’d have to force government to work for us, instead of working for government. Instead of being the handmaidens of the state, our local representatives, with the residents behind them, would have to act to shield us from the state. We would have to become "home rule" and forego money from the state and feds, and we’d have to keep our money here, and take over ourselves the functions government provides now.

Likewise, the system we live in is set up for centralization and standardization. Centralization means the action is always somewhere else from Sierra County. Taking our survival in our own hands means de-linking from the centralized systems (the medical system, the farm commodities system, the oil distribution system, and so on), all of which provide a product at a bargain price, but all of which reduce variety and take dollars out of county. De-linking is scary and requires a change in our thinking from "let’s get a new one from Cosco" to "let’s see if a cousin can fix the old one."

There are other problems: some of us need medicine to live. We can’t make insulin locally (though a better diet and more physical work would reduce the need for insulin), or albuteral, or statins. Some of us need glasses to see. We could grow and process a little bio-diesel locally, at the cost of food oils. Many things have to be brought in from outside; we would have to have products to sell, to take part in the larger market.

Gold and silver

Currently, our county isn’t even able to support us in that way. The gold rush was over long ago, though there is still more gold left than was taken out. The dairies are gone, timber is mostly gone. Local commerce is struggling. If we look at money as we do carbon, we see that our "cycle of money" is long, and money is being input from outside just as carbon is. Relatively few of us locally can afford medical care; money is being input from outside, through government. Very few of us can make a living here, money is being input from outside as people work in Reno, Truckee, Portola, Quincy, and Grass Valley. That exchange is also a carbon exchange, because we buy gas to commute out of county to work. If that outside flow of money stopped, what would we do? Could the land of the county and effort of our people create a surplus of something that could be exchanged for things we can’t make here?

There are people already in the county who think so, who believe that we could add value to our trees by exporting chairs and tables instead of logs. There are people who think that we could be doing more to encourage a strong local economy, instead of being reliant on cities.

In fact, there are already people in the county with the knowledge necessary to grow more of our own food and wool locally. There are people in the county with the knowledge and skills to help us construct a more self-sustaining community.

This article began with a hypothetical disaster of the sort common to human history: the end of cheap energy; food shortages; severe drought; plague. These are disasters not unfamiliar with empires throughout time, including energy shortages. There were times in Roman history when building practices included solar gain, because the forests were gone and wood was dear. No empire in history has been as dependent on carbon as America, and very few were as dependent on one crop as America is dependent on corn. Nature’s backlash against the over use of antibiotics and the shrinking globe makes plague not only possible, but likely. Very few of us can remember when polio was the scourge of childhood, or when measles blinded babies, and TB killed, but our current triumph over disease is a legacy of the last sixty years, or so. Our hypothetical disaster is more of an impending disaster. Economically, the county is experiencing a disaster now.

I want to put forth that now is the time to work as a community to become more self-sufficient. We have the expertise already. We also have examples from other communities.

Ferndale, California, is one. Like a lot of rural places dependent on dairies and timber, Ferndale found itself in a hard way. Local residents got together and found ways to save the town and the farms around it. The town itself is now a living museum and a huge tourist success; many of the dairies sell their products of cheese and ice cream through local retailers. The name "Ferndale" is synonymous with quality dairies.

Those specific solutions are only somewhat workable in Sierra County, but there are other solutions which would work here. (We pause to notice that Sierra Valley lost two old barns in summer and fall of 2008; they were dismantled and the lumber and timbers used in high-end homes elsewhere). Currently, hand raised, organic food is too expensive for most local people. One easy improvement would be to reverse that, to encourage quality vegetables in every back yard and appropriate parcel. We could make the decision as a community to buy local food, and find ways for local markets to keep prices low, by choosing first food from the bins marked "Sierra Grown". Reducing outside carbon by growing and consuming locally would have a lot of small benefits.

Selling end products instead of logs would put our young back to work. Whatever happens in the future, people will sit and eat. Currently we would compete with the Chinese for our own market; eventually a niche could be created, and the label "Sierra County" could have market value, too, for crafted wood products and hand-raised food.


The Sierra County Prospect supports local self-sufficiency. We are concerned about the future of cheap energy. We are concerned about the effects of corn syrup and cheap animal fats on the health of our residents. We worry that our children won’t be able to afford to live in the county. We fear that a real disaster could, once again, isolate the county.

In the future, we hope to offer space to this effort, to create a public forum, if possible, to chart our progress toward self sufficiency, toward locally meeting possible future crisis, and the economic crisis we’ve labored under here for so long. The goal is to make use of our local experts to organize a county wide effort to become a sustainable community.

Part 2: History and Habit

Part 2: History and Habit

(Part 1 Below)
     Very likely, the land in our county could support the food needs of the population. Things would have to change, though. To see what would change, we have to see where we’ve been, and where we are now.
     Once, most of the people in the world supported themselves and their families on land they tilled and sowed. They ate mostly grains and vegetables, and meat when they could. Many people supplemented their diet with things from the wilds: game, berries, fish, and nuts. There are still a few peoples in the world living this way. The rest of us are capitalized.
     Through the centuries agriculture became more technological. Hoes and plows and seeders made using soil easier, and made more soil available. Most of these improvements were purchased; at first from someone local, and by the 1700s, mostly from people who specialized in agricultural technology. The Industrial Revolution eliminated the village blacksmith and before long the same plows were being used throughout Europe, the Americas and even Asia and Africa. The motor force for the Industrial Revolution was capitalism, the practice of using money instead of resources or human effort to make more money. People "invested" in agriculture, and nations sent their people to new lands to subdue the natives and establish plantations for agricultural products needed in the "Old World." In a round-about way, the Sierra Valley, from its inception, was the result of capitalism, since it was not so much individual 49ers who caused the gold rush, but the capitalists who invested in mines in Virginia City and the Western Sierra foothills. Since the 1900s, agriculture has not only been industrialized, it has been petroleum-ized, and is heavily dependent on oil for fertilizers and insecticides as well as fuel to run tractors and harvesters and trucks to take products to market.
     Agriculture was further capitalized in that farmers and ranchers have traditionally had to borrow against the future to live. Seed costs money, so do barns and hay and tillers and harvesters and on and on. To efficiently work the land, ag people have become intimate with capitalists.
     And, in many ways, it has been a good system. So good in fact that our diets have changed and improved. Many Americans today are taller and heavier than their great grandparents, and it is due to a small degree to vaccinations and antibiotics, but to a larger degree to an improved diet. Meat is the apex of foods, rich in protein and fat, and Americans eat more meat than almost anyone, thanks to our broad, grain producing plains. Plentiful corn and huge feedlots have reduced the price of meat for Americans.
     There’s no free lunch, though, and the cost of that meat rich diet is to be mortgaged to banks, and equipment manufactures, and oil companies and the pollution of land, water and air; and early death from coronary artery disease and strokes.

Change and Tradition
     Indeed, one of the things that would change if the land in the county were to support its people is our diet. The crops that would grow well in the Valley are the crops of Northern Europe: cabbage, potatoes, onions, apples, beans, and wheat. The Western Canyons could grow herbs, grapes, berries, and other crops partial to moist soils and moderate summers. There would be less beef, and instead people would eat animals that browse like goats and geese, and animals that will eat anything, like hogs and chickens, or animals that can be grown in small spaces on garden scraps like rabbits. We would save our cows for that most delicious of foods: milk fat. The Sierra Valley would, again, be rich with dairies, each small, each producing a specialty of milk and cream and cheese, locally made, fresh and seasonal.
     The dependence on energy from oil could be replaced with dependence on energy from wind, and from animals and from the currently unemployed of the county. The by-product of animals is the other thing oil currently gives us: fertilizer.
     The "cycle of carbon" is one way of looking at agriculture, because food is carbon, and energy is carbon. Our cycle of carbon is currently long, with carbon being "input" to the system from petroleum products from across the sea, for energy and transportation. Most of our "food carbon" comes from outside the county, through local stores or big box stores in Reno and Grass Valley. If we grew our own food in the county, the cycle of carbon would be short, from the ground to plants to animals and people, and from animals and people back to the ground, back to plants. We could even grow sheep for wool and make some of our clothes locally. People could barter; the effort of our cousins would stay in the community.
     Properly done, and with county folks working together and weather cooperating, we could continue to feed our modest population a well rounded diet with meat and veggies and beer and wine forever.

Next week: Part 3  Except...

Part 1
Sierra County: Could we feed ourselves?

     What if the worst happened: the major highways are down, Sierra County was cut off from the outside, not for just a few days, but for months or longer.
     It might be earthquake, civil war or century storm, but more likely it would be the end of cheap energy, food shortages due corn blight, severe drought, plague. Any of these things could end the relatively cheap food we’ve enjoyed for more than half a century.

Could we feed ourselves?
     The Mayo Clinic recommends about 2900 calories a day for a large person working hard, and as little as 1400 for an older, small person doing little. In this climate, part of the year we burn calories to keep warm, particularly if we can’t afford heating oil or LP gas.
     What could we grow that would sustain the few thousand people we have in Sierra County?

We would eat cows
     We love cows in the Sierra Valley, but there aren’t many cows here most of the late fall and winter. That is an indicator that it’s tough to make it through the year with cattle. The valley would support, year around, fewer cattle than one sees in the height of summer. Further, you can’t eat every cow, there wouldn’t be cows next year.
     Right now, the average person in the U.S. eats 67 pounds of beef a year, along with 87 pounds of chicken and 50 pounds of pork. That’s over a half a pound of meat per person per day.
     In hard times chances are the price of beef would climb. Very likely beef would be too valuable for local people to eat, since it would have to be sold off to buy things that can’t be made locally, like insulin and gasoline.
     The sheep and the goat are also grown locally, and are favored by carnivores all over the world. Currently, though, they are not big on the menu of local tables.
     If we didn’t eat beef, or once all the cows were gone (without chicken and pork we’d probably eat over a hundred pounds of beef a person per year) what would we eat? Grass?

We would eat deer
     We might imagine the hills are filled with deer, but that is not true; if it were, a local person could draw a deer tag for the area. The California Department of Fish and Game estimates only 10,000 deer from Lake Tahoe to Susanville. There are no population estimates for just Sierra County, but the Sierra County Prospect’s resident guestimator figures less than 5,000 deer in the county. Even our small numbers would quickly decimate their population.

Other sources of food
     There is some produce commercially grown in the Sierra Valley, but not much. History has it that the Sierra Valley once provided foods such as potatoes and cabbages to the mines of Nevada and California. There are no large potato fields here now, or cabbages, either. Farms in Sierra City and Downieville used to feed miners and townsfolk. There are no significant farms there now.
     But, there are a lot of gardens, both in the Sierra Valley and in the canyon towns. The West Side of the county has a longer growing season, particularly Downieville, with an elevation of less than three thousand feet. The only shortage on the West Side is ground flat enough to grow an onion. In the eastern county, the great Sierra Valley gets good sun, though the season is shorter at 4900 feet. Currently, small gardens contribute to our consumables, but rarely do they produce more than a minor percentage of the gardener’s year-round caloric intake.

The question looms: How would we eat?
     Clearly, we can’t produce enough food to satisfy our needs. With thousands of acres of sunny, fertile land, and a myriad of pure water streams, we can’t feed our population year round. Why is that?

Next week: History and Habit

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