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What is The Future of Farming?

 
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As a quick aside, urban farming used to be very common back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—even then, it only was able to provide at the most 10-20% of total demand. While yields might be higher today, so is population density, so I'd agree that relying on rooftop farming and all that to do more than nibble at the edges is a bit of a pipe dream.
 
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Hi Tim!

I understand that we are in the large farms forum. With all due respect, I was responding to your umbrella statement that permaculture and cities are incompatible and merely wanted to cite examples to the contrary. I do believe that folks gardening in neglected public spaces, for example, is relevant, and does have an impact, as it educates others in the community. It may not have the sort if impact that the economists working for agribusiness can measure, but it does have an affect nonetheless. Empowering urban people, since we’ve focused the discussion to cities, to understand that they do have a choice, and they can make a difference, is part of it.

The current methods of “commercial mass farming” is petroleum farming, or really agribusiness run by wealthy businessmen who have never farmed, and is new as it’s only been around since the post WWII era. It only works with a steady flow of petroleum to manufacture poisons, make synthetic fertilizers, provide fuel for farm equipment, provide fuel to dry commodity crops such as corn, fuel for vehicles to transport it, and so on. It is commonly understood “peak oil” has long since passed. Petroleum is a finite resource, though industry consumes it like it’ll never run out, but science knows better and has the data to support it. Looking back in history prior to WWII, all cities were fed by numerous small farms, and it was done successfully, and can so be done again. For example, in 1940, there were approximately 6.2 million farms in America with an average of 170 acres (Source: US government census data). Back then, there was little understanding of soil science, especially by farmers. With our recent advancements in the understanding of soil biology and chemistry, and the ease of access to this information by anyone who desires to know it, it is most certainly possible to grow enough food to feed cities with millions of small farms again, with most, if not all of them practicing some aspect of permaculture.

I believe we’ll get there. One fact, that cannot be disputed, is *everything* happens in cycles. A beginning, a peak, and an end. Life forms, businesses, nations, even stars and planets. I believe commodity megafarming is past its peak, and is dying. Farming mega farms is unsustainable. It will have death throes as agribusiness sees the demise and starts losing profits, as evidenced here and here as examples of people actually thinking logically and having sense, and agribusinesses not liking it. Small farms went through this cycle without completely dying out, and like the phoenix, are rising from the ashes. The number of small farms continues to grow every year, at least in America they are. It will take time, but I see a future in 50-100 years of millions of small farms, permaculture farms, once again feeding the cities. An amazing attribute of human beings is we can do just about anything if we put our minds to it and apply ourselves, and this certainly goes for producing food to feed cities using permaculture.
 
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Hi Tim. The OP also stipulated that this is a discussion about how the future of farming "should" look 50 years from now. If I may be as bold as others have been to interpret the intentions of the OP, I don't think that this thread was intended for food shortage and environmental degradation disaster scenarios.

While I agree that economics rule the day in terms of decision making, and policy and entrenched business interests contribute to an inertia that makes change difficult, Marco's point about no-till, a fringe planting technique 25 years ago that has gained traction, and, dare I say it, momentum, is an example of this movement having already started rolling. Inertia is the tendency of things to continue to do what they are doing. If they aren't moving, they will resist a change to that, so making them move will be difficult. If they are moving, the difficulty is in stopping them.

I propose that permaculture and complimentary paths to resilient, stable, and self-reinforcing food systems have been moving forward since the 60s. They aren't going to stop. Agriculture has also been progressing, albeit in undesired directions. It is also in motion. We don't want to stop it, we want to redirect its energy to more effective production in the long term. Inertia will carry us forward.

As to massive, large-scale farming, I would consider the southward faces of skyscrapers to be pretty large, and if you look at balconies as 5m cubed, say, that's a lot more volume than your assessment suggests. As to skyscrapers that have no balconies, I would suggest a retrofit program for tax credits that would convert the whole inside south wall to a depth of, oh, I don't know, a metre, say, to simple hydroponic crop growspace. They could have the benefit of feeding those people working in the building or neighbourhood, cleaning the air inside the building, and decreasing solar gain in the summer, reducing need for air conditioning. And because they would be inside the building envelope, they could run 52 weeks a year.

As to how we would encourage people receiving a living wage to do anything at all, I wouldn't advocate a punitive system, but rather go the other way. If the living wage for the unemployed is set just above the poverty line, any activity that either saves money or brings it in would allow for some of that wage to be saved or recapitalised. So growing any amount of food, or engaging in a food waste recycling (to animals or compost) business would free up some of that wage.

These are all just examples, just some of many ideas that could come to be, and bear fruit.

Oh, and the fact that some countries haven't yet adopted carbon taxation is irrelevant. It is being adopted across the world, and I believe California is implementing one themselves. Countries that don't do so themselves will likely face punitive trade measures, as their refusal to tax carbon would give them an unfair competitive advantage by continuing to pollute. So higher trade duties will be brought in to correct for that. It won't be popular, there will be reprisals, talk of a trade war, another election cycle, and suddenly carbon taxation will be seen as the easy answer.

And in terms of carbon taxation itself simply being a way to stretch out profits for oil companies, that may be one way of looking at things, and it probably will be better if its use peters out as opposed to having a 70s-style shortage and energy crisis, but that's a very focused view. I think what's more likely is that solar and wind will continue to become cheaper. It will no longer pay to take oil out of the ground, much as it is no longer economical to mine coal. The increased mining of rare earth metals to make electric motors will create an abundance of thorium, which California now is unfortunately burying in concrete as a waste product, but China is planning to use in a new generation of thorium-based nuclear reactors. Incidentally, there's a body out of the Untied States, at MIT, I think, that has developed and is working to commercialise a reactor that uses conventional spent nuclear fuel. Either or both of these will likely be turned to as base power supply, and between that and distributed power generation and battery storage, energy won't be an issue.

Also, the idea that permaculture isn't scalable is silly. Just silly. As stated previously, it's a philosophy, a way of problem solving. Hugelkultur might not scale in itself, except in cases of reforestation where you have lots of blowdowns or insect damage (but that doesn't happen anywhere, eh?), where fallen trees could be arranged on contour to trap silt, sediment, and debris, and later water. One basic idea here is that you could just reorganise what's already there and positively affect hydrology and erosion patterns, and suddenly, instead of clogging rivers and streams with silt and sediment and encouraging bare rockface, the forest has just been rejuvenated.

The future of farming is permaculture, in all its permutations.

-CK
 
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The future of farming is our backyard. To live a more communal lifestyle, where everyone has there own job, and mortgage, but share the produce between one another. We do not just produce for the need of ourselves but the needs for the community as a whole.
 
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I think that there are plenty of ways that permaculture is scalable.  The ethics of permaculture are scaleable for all purposes.  Farming can be done which cares for People, for The Earth, and Returns the Surplus to the systems.  This is not rocket science, and does not need any new fancy inventions.  What it needs is for people to understand that the path which we have followed is the path that leads to desolation, and that very simple choices can make a massive difference towards perma-ethical farming.  The solutions are simple.  Change, for the farmer, is sometimes very difficult-not because the changes are difficult to envision-but because change, as a part of a person's lifestyle is one of the hardest things to do, and there are deep psychological reasons for this.  But the choice to not change... that will be desolation; not just for the landscape, but for the farmer.  More and more farmers and consumers are coming to this conclusion every day.  

There are indeed trends that are occurring toward local, fair trade, organic, community gardens, no till, cover cropping, rotational grazing, and such, and it is true that some of these trends can not be adopted in the middle of cities, but so what? Some of them can, and, in many cases, they are.   I saw the farmers market, community garden, and urban farming scene completely explode in Vancouver, Canada, during my time there.  While I would like to discourage urbanization towards decentralization, that is not the current trend.  The current trend is to still for most people to move to the city and to transport bulk crops to the city.  That might have to do, for the time being, but it does not mean that it can not be done with as much permacultural ethics as possible, until food transport can be done fully within the ethics.  Indeed, the economics of petroleum prices (and these prices added to food prices) may drive more and more people out of the unaffordable cities, and into local food/labor systems before ecological/green transport systems can be initiated.  Trains and container shipping might be our best option for the moment.    
 
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You don't have to tax carbon.  Incentivize soil carbon sequestration and people will change their methods.

If crop insurance rates were tied to soil carbon levels, farmers would be incentivized to stop plowing and start no-till farming.  Lets say that crop insurance rates are $.50/acre in a given county for corn.  But Farmer A has increased his soil organic matter to 5% through careful soil management (no till, cover-cropping, integrated livestock).  His soil is much more resilient than Farmer B, who has less than 2% soil organic matter and is burning through what little SOM that remains by plowing multiple times yearly.

Farmer A should be paying much less than Farmer B, as the likelihood of needing a bail-out at the end of season is significantly less.  Just like safe drivers pay less, safe farmers should also be rewarded for their efforts.  Currently, there is no difference in the rates that farmers pay.  If the Federal Government got out of the insurance business and the private sector stepped in, they would recognize this flaw immediately.

If you knew that your neighbor was only paying $.20/acre for his crop insurance, you would change your ways.  This one change alone would have a massive impact on how conventional farming is practiced in this country.
 
Chris Kott
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While I agree in large part with the sentiment of much of what you have written, Roberto, I try not to lean too heavily on the ethics, per se, when arguments involving quantifying and calculating are in play. But yes, you've put your finger on it exactly. The basic design philosophy of permaculture in the wider sense, looking at whole systems, "waste" being just another feedstock, observation and information being the key to planning, design, and development are the most scalable and probably useful aspects of permaculture in an urban context.

The backyards comment is valid, but incomplete. We aren't simply going to feed everyone out of backyards, though that is an early and crucial piece to gaining momentum. It will take considerably more, and perhaps more than retrofitting existing buildings, perhaps purpose-designed skyscraper farms, designed to generate surplus energy through solar blinds or shutters or transparent photovoltaics, and collect rainwater. It would also probably house pigs and chickens on the ground floors, but mostly for compost processing, though there would be eggs. I was thinking earlier that connecting these to sewage would be the best idea, but I think in retrospect that I would prefer to see sewage be treated, probably in a methane digester as previously speculated, then by a succession of macrobiota starting with Black soldier fly and red worms, then moving on to non-food crops, such as woodlots for lumber, fuel or paper or perhaps fibre crops, so long as nobody's eating what's grown.

I think that if people are freer to be more open with those around them in an urban context, it will be easier to share resources, or to frame it differently, barter and exchange feedstocks for finished goods. That is not to say that people are not to be looked after, but the latter context simply seeks to describe the mechanics of exchange more precisely. If I can get my neighbour's surplus, I don't know, rabbit bedding and waste, as mulch, and my neighbour gets a dozen of my tomatoes, or the tops to my beets for his rabbits, the benefits to all beyond the ephemeral are sketched out.

And Marco, you have an excellent point, and one that I hadn't considered in that way before. I think putting the numbers together to properly describe the mechanics of how farmers could benefit directly from adopting specific permacultural techniques is critical. Hell, if insurance companies started cluing in to this and the landscape started to change, I wouldn't be surprised if agribusiness farming (outside of those with a vested interest in spraying and praying) started adopting the techniques en masse. If fallow lays and bee pasturage ten feet around cultivation cuts topsoil loss to 25% of what it usually is, and things like minimal to no-tillage can also be implemented, the big guys feel the impact, too. If they are convinced away from petroleum farming by the numbers of a more ecologically sound method, most of the wind would be taken out of the petroleum lobby's sails. Of course, those entrenched petroleum interests are also influential farmers sometimes...

Sounds like we need a permies.com related farm insurance company that only does this. How do you get permaculture into the minds of millions? By saving them money, perhaps? I wonder if Kickstarter would field this one?

-CK
 
Roberto pokachinni
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While yields might be higher today, so is population density, so I'd agree that relying on rooftop farming and all that to do more than nibble at the edges is a bit of a pipe dream.

 This is true to a point, but as a decrease in petroleum use may very well decrease the amount of personal vehicles on the road, many streets might be able to be turned into garden spaces (increasing the amount of available food production area dramatically) while other streets are used solely for bicycles, buses, and trains.  Innovations in gardens have increased exponentially and will continue to do so as the energy crunch brings fuel and petroleum based ag products and food itself out of reach of many.
 
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Permaculture might not be scaleable in the sense that one of the 12 principles is: use small and slow solutions. In other words, maybe a farm over a certain size in inherently out of scale?

I personally think that the future of farming will be the peasant plot; so far, all the fancy high rise, hydroponic type systems use more energy then the produce, which works for lettuce and tomatoes, but won't in the long run for staple crops. The same can be said for tractor based agribusiness farming; more energy is put in then comes out, which works so long as we have fossil fuels, but won't when we don't. Battery powered equipment is limited because no battery is as energy dense as gasoline or diesel, so a greater weight of battery needs to be carried for the same amount of energy.

If you think about it, peasant production is the most efficient, since it largely depends on the physical work of those being fed. In this sense, energy that is captured from the sun in the crops is fed right back into the maintenance of the system.

 
Chris Kott
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Hi Gilbert. That's exactly my point when talking about automation, unemployment, and Living Wages. The idea of the peasant plot fits right in, with a caveat.

As we are talking about million-human scale with cities, using the single human-scale approach with regards to cities is only really applicable in the sense that there are human-scale activities that individuals can do permaculturally. If you are talking about the sewage generated by millions of people, you need a solution scaled to that volume. The same applies to every permacultural solution in an urban setting. Observation and data are crucial, but the scale needs to be appropriate, or else any measures will be inadequate.

So as to the viability of skyscraper farms, I don't think we have an option on this one if we are going to keep cities. And let's face it, cities are good at delivering services to people for less money. That's one of the main reasons for them. Or at least that's the way its supposed to work. I guess in lots of cases property values are countering that.

I think that the skyscraper farms would definitely need to embody as much of permaculture as possible considering we're talking about structures of glass, steel and concrete in all probability. I would see them as no different than earthworks. But I feel that it would be key to stipulate that they act as filters on the environment, meaning that they be carbon and nutrient sinks, and that they leave the air, water, and soil that they intake or impact cleaner than before.

I think it important to point out that appropriate technology doesn't necessarily mean bicycle-powered everything and no electricity. If we're looking at solutions that serve the most people with the least embodied energy over time, I think that this solution is at very least worthy of a number-crunching and comparison to other viable urban solutions.

-CK
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Hi Chris,

I think a lot could be done to make sky scrapers greener; but in the end, the whole idea of building a glass tower hundreds of feet high is not very efficient. Everything from water delivery to access gets progressively more difficult as buildings get taller, not to mention the huge embodied energy of all the plate glass. No matter what one does, towers like that are harder to heat and cool then more modest buildings. Its also been found that living or working higher then four floors up produces undesirable social and mental effects. I'd advocate for cities that don't go much above 6 stories, and the fast bulk of city buildings are about that tall. Its only the small central cores that are that high.

As for the sewage from millions of people, I think that composting toilets and greywater should work fine; there are plenty of greenbelts and city parks to apply it to. In fact, so long as there was plenty of filtration provided by plants, the excess water could flow back into the rivers. In short, the simplest, cheapest, most efficient way to clean water is to not mess it up in the first place. Of course, this would not work in a skyscraper, which is why I see them as needlessly complicated. Ancient Rome may have had a million people in it, without a single skyscraper; they are really just financial pyramid schemes and have no practical use, particularly in today's world where people can network so easily; they don't have to all work in the same building.

Maybe I'm missing something; what actual benefit do skyscrapers provide?
 
Chris Kott
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The benefit to retrofitting skyscrapers so they also produce food is self-evident; they're already there, so let's piggyback on that infrastructure.

The benefit of skyscraper greenhouses is debatable, and I would like to see some numbers on such a structure designed to last at least a century, maybe longer. Longevity is one way we can counter the initial cost of such projects, because the financial and environmental benefits to the urban system would only accumulate over time.

But in terms of the logic, cities exist as they are right now; anything we do outside of a disaster zone will be a retrofit of existing infrastructure over time. The skyscraper greenhouse is a retrofit idea. So is the idea of reworking existing sewage infrastructure to better treat and recycle the nutrient resource that now gets dumped into rivers and oceans. I like your solutions, but without a mass exodus to open land where we rebuild from scratch, composting toilets and greywater are a bit slow-pitch. I love the idea for homesteading and small community, but millions of people require malicious idiot-proof solutions. Normal clueless but otherwise well-meaning people can screw up simple septic systems. Urban composting toilets would require pickup schedules like garbage is currently picked up. I think retrofitting existing systems is more efficient.

Also, a greenhouse skyscraper performs a number of intangible functions: it is a billboard for large-scale urban sustainability (going on the assumption that it could be designed to be not just sustainable, but perhaps make soil or other agricultural resources for sale, trade, or share); it is a single tangible project that you can cost out, plan, make financial forecasts on, and expect people to invest in as a business; it could easily boost extant green initiatives by augmenting organic waste disposal with chickens, pigs, black soldier fly larvae, and red worms, the end products of which would either be fed back into the system or go back to the community in gardens for growing food (as it would be a product of the food stream, not the sewage stream); and, in the same vein as the billboard comment, it could be a teaching, learning, and research facility in the heart of any major urban area. That just occurred to me, but that might be one of the most important intangible functions. You could flesh that idea out as much as you wanted, but as long as the facility is designed first and foremost as a permaculturally sound vertical farm, there's lots of other related ideas that could provide income, employment, and a venue for the kind of community usually lacking in cities. Don't you think that these glass trees of permaculture would shelter all kinds of new permacultural development in its understory?

-CK
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Hi Chris,

This is turning into the future of cities, instead of the future of farms, but anyway . . .

My question would be; what is the current use of skyscrapers (aside from making money for dubious entities? ) They are mostly office space. Do we really need that much office space, considering how much extra space is contained in the usual house? How many people really live above six stories? Globally, a little less then half the population lives in cities. I'd guess the majority of them live in third world slums, which are fairly horizontal. Even here in the USA, most cities have a relatively small number of skyscrapers, mostly containing office space. I'd think the resources spent on such a retrofit could instead retrofit many more sensible buildings. And overall, I think skyscrapers are already an anachronism.

In any case, foam flush composting toilets are a thing; they'd work for a lot of urban buildings. Greywater would in theory even work for a skyscraper, so long as it went to a park.

As far as purpose built farm skyscrapers, I just can't see the point. The interior of each floor would have to depend on florescent lighting, unless they were really narrow; with more then one, they would shade one another, or shade other buildings, or be shaded by other buildings. (I ran into this with my potato tower idea; I thought I could really boost the production of an area by having many layers of plants, but I quickly realized that more then one row of them would shade one another. ) The solar panels to run the lights would have to be located elsewhere, or they'd shade the plants. In other words, there is only so much solar radiation on a given growing surface; stacking growing surfaces up beyond a few floors seems an exercise in futility.

To get back to the main topic; I ran some initial numbers on my home city, Denver. Using vacant space efficiently, with mid-range tech (passive greenhouse, greywater, aquaponics, rooftops, small animals) we could grow all the vegetables, a significant amount of calories, and much of the protein for the city within the city and its suburbs. The rest could be provided by a relatively narrow belt of low-tech farms around the city. Of course, the city keeps growing; I think we should be putting all our energy into capping the growth of the current cities.

Some research also shows that over a few hundred thousand people, there are no social or technological advantages to bigger cities.
 
Chris Kott
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I would like to see that research.

I keep forgetting that what in the States are called cities we in Canada would call large towns. I grew up in a town called Lindsay, which thirty years ago numbered 22,000 people. It was little brother to a slightly larger town, Peterborough, at almost 82,000 people.

The purpose of cities in general and tall, densely occupied buildings from a permacultural point of view has a lot to do with limiting sprawl. There is a lot more sprawl in urban planning in the States that I have seen than here in Canada, specifically places where homes sit on half-acre to acre lots. Great if everyone is practicing permaculture, but really wasteful of space for a country of hundreds of millions. Where would the American people go today without cities? What would happen to broadacre permaculture without enough space? What would happen to wilderness?

The dubious entities you mention are probably not permaculture-minded. Let's stop advocating for unworkable ideas that would eliminate all our unoccupied wilderness. Think about the continent and cities in terms of permacultural zones. Those at the centre will be most intensively managed and populated, with the concentration of people and intensivity dropping as we move away from those centres.

Purpose-built farm skyscrapers can take a variety of forms, and can easily be made to work as a retrofit, for just part of an existing building, for a whole building being repurposed, or from scratch. Also, I was just using skyscrapers as a form that I see a lot of where I am and that are already in place. As you will find with many of my observations, this one looks at what is already there, and based on observation, makes suggestions that would take us most easily from where we are to where we want to be. Most of that is just taking into account what people are used to and trying to make the solution familiar enough that, although they might, for instance, be using a toilet system in their highrise that resembles the usual porcelain throne, right down to smells and mechanics, it actually connects to a methane digester and through the usual poo-eating suspects to be used as soil on shelter belt woodlots and fibre crops (stuff not intended for human or animal consumption).

And the skyscraper model is just the largest, most obvious example. If a six storey apartment block with a south-facing stepped terrace arrangement makes sense, then we use that shape. Or whatever shape fits the specific scenario. But many suggestions, and some of yours qualify, Gilbert, don't take into account much of existing infrastructure. We have cities for specific reasons. Until they go away, which they won't, some segments of the population will continue to live in cities. So we have to find creative permacultural ways to include cities into a permacultural outlook. We can't dismiss the existence of skyscrapers because we think them unsightly. Better to make them less wasteful, or better yet, better to design them in a permacultural way.

Also, the ability to have permacultural learning/teaching/research centres existing on whatever scale in urban areas shouldn't be dismissed. If people are the most important part of the movement, that would be the best way, I think, to get them into it, and to foster nuclei of permacultural development and community in high-population areas.

-CK
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Hi Chris,

I think we should start a new topic, or two new topics, about the issues of what the city of the future should look like, and in particular skyscrapers and skyscraper farms; I'm interested in continuing this discussion, but I'm worried about diverting this thread.

What do you think?
 
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Hi Luigi,

Yes, it's possible to transition to something better, but no, Big Ag won't do it and the individual farmers here in the US are afraid to make the switch.  Let me explain.

For the record, I do not farm on a large scale, but I have lived virtually all my life in a large farming community and still associate everyday with farmers.  Around here farms are measured in thousands of acres.  Farmers have been indoctrinated into a system that they don't see a way out of.  Much like in the video, Big Ag's emphasis is on genetically modifying, increasing and developing new pesticides, and to rely on petroleum to gain yield.  No revolutionary ideas are allowed because most of them don't profit Big Ag.  They have all the money, and the farmers I know are afraid if they vary from the plan by even the smallest amount, they will suffer a large financial set-back.  I have even spoken to some of them about trying a poly-culture silvo-pasture experiment, but they are so heavily indoctrinated that they won't even try it, even as they complain that they aren't making any money at what they are doing.

You have to remember, until recently, cover-crops weren't even a consideration. They would just dump more anhydrous ammonia on it. But even that doesn't work when the soil dies.  Now you see a few farmers trying to revitalize fields with turnip plantings, but all of this is going at such a slow pace, it will be years before they will finally make the change, and by that time, it will probably be to late.  

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink!  As has been said in the previous posts, these farmers are visited all the time by large corporate conglomerates that push the newest herbicide, etc. It's a cult and you don't leave the cult.  There are a few of them that instinctively know that something isn't right, but  until they see the farmer next door doing it and being successful, not much will change.

Our mono-culture, petroleum food system is very fragile and it frankly scares me to death to think about it sometimes.
 
Chris Kott
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Gilbert, if you want to start such a thread, I will gladly contribute. Or did you want me to? Either way, while I thought everything being discussed was well within the bounds of the OP's question, if you think it's a good idea, let's do it.

Marcus, it saddens me that I have heard many stories like yours. I think that the good examples out there are usually seen by those who farm thousands of acres to be really nice gardens, and nothing more. Intensively managed market gardens, to be precise. Also, I see how a lot of people raised in the cult you mentioned seeing mandala gardens and comparing it to their career of tilling, tilling, tilling, sowing, harvesting, tilling, tilling, and tilling and not being able to relate to it at all. There's no diesel. If there are fields, why is there more than one thing growing? How will my combine manage that? And perennials?

I agree that it's scary, and I think that change will be championed by new farmers. They will buy degraded pasture, do their tests, amend as necessary, probably spray with raw milk to innoculate the soil with life again, and kick off soil rebuilding. They will have more luxury to do this than farmers from farming families dealing with Big Ag debt, although fewer resources. Their strength, as you alluded, lies in the fact that, apart from not having been indoctrinated, they haven't sold next year's crop to plant this year's (my example might be a bit extreme, but it illustrates the financial difficulty in making ANY changes).

-CK
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Hi Chris,

I'll keep discussing the farming side in this thread, since that fits the OP's theme, and start a new thread on skyscrapers as such.

So, Skyscraper farms.

Let's define them in two ways:

1. Purpose built structures in cities for agriculture, of three or more floors; let's exclude from this stepped structures on hillsides, which are rather different, even if connected.

2. Retrofits of existing structures over 10 floors, to use some of the existing floor space for growing plants, and possibly for filtering wastes from the building; let's exclude rooftop gardens from this.

Now, we're discussing the future of farming; we could see this two ways. What we think the future should look like, and what we think it will look like.

I don't think the future of farming should look like either 1 or 2 above; nor do I think it will look like either, though 2 is more likely the 1 to play a small part.

Why do I think this?

To discuss number 1, let's take some facts and figures from Denver.

To make such a structure worth while, it would probably have to be built near the city center, where land prices are at a premium; it would also probably be growing fruits and vegetables, since staple crops are probably not productive enough per square foot to make enough return.

Now, in the city of Denver itself, excluding the less dense suburbs of Lakewood, Aurora, Arvada, Littleton, etc., there is currently 400 square feet of park and greenbelt space per person. This does not include rooftops, parking lots, campuses and yards, which would push this figure upwards, particularly roofs. Now using biointensive techniques, even without aquaponics, year around greenhouses, etc. 400 square feet a person should be enough to grow most of the fruits and vegetables a person consumes in a year. Add in the suburban areas, add in all the other empty space, add in some high production passive solar aquaponics greenhouses, include some chicken tractors, and Denver would be producing most of its vegetables, fruits, and protein without any high rise greenhouses.

Denver is more dense then the average USA city, so this has wide applicability.

With this being the case, what is the role of the high rise purpose built farm? Why should we invest so much is such a thing? Added to all this, there is the solar access issues mentioned above. Such a structure will not get much light into interior floors even 20 feet from the facade, certainly not on the North side. So such a structure would have to be quite thin, or would have to depend on florescent lights. To make these light sustainable, they would have to be run by solar panels; these panels would however take up space somewhere, while losing some energy to transmission and conversion. Thus they would have a larger foot print then the area of plants they would sustain. Such a building would shade other areas, which could have been used for growing; they could not be next to one another, or they would shade one another.

If the high rise farm is producing staple crops, I would say this is unnecessary. Staple crops (grains, nuts, etc.) ship easily; every city has imported some food since the dawn of time; a relatively narrow belt of farmland would suffice if Denver was producing all its own vegetables and protein. It is also unlikely to be profitable. Nor have I ever heard of grains being successfully being grown in hydroponic type operations.

As for recycling wastes, there is no reason all the greywater could not flow directly to the ground level gardens by a simple redirect of the current plumbing; foam flush composting systems have been used for office buildings, and would keep humanure out of the water to start with; in any case, this is an issue with option 2 above, rather then with 1.

I'll discuss option 2 in another post.

To sum up; I see the large investment in a sky-scraper farm, as defined, as useless to just about every American city; most cities, even dense ones (and we permies should support dense cities) have enough space to grow their own food without all this investment. And in an age of declining resources and global warming we should invest as little energy as possible.

edited to fix spelling mistakes.
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Full disclosure; I'm biased against skyscraper farms emotionally, being a fan of Christopher Alexander and "the timeless way of building;" I feel that gardens should be at least close to, if not in the soil, and buildings over 6 stories or so depress me.

I realize that this is not a rational argument, so I'll try to put it aside; I'm interested to see if there are rational reasons to invest in skyscraper farms.
 
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Oil is unique in that consumption is not as indicative of efficiency as it appears. By that I mean in my experience on the railroad, where we would dump in 5000 gallons of diesel fuel into a locomotive it seemed wasteful, they would burn 5 gallons an hour idling, yet even at full throttle a gallon of fuel could pull a ton of cargo 350 miles. And it was common to pull 15,000 ton trains...so while seemingly inefficient, the truth is ships, trains and tractors are getting more efficient.

I say that regarding tractors because my Kubota is one of the most least efficient tractors we have. Yes it is only 25 hp and can go all day on 7 gallons of diesel fuel, but its drawbar pull is so low its efficiency is down. On the big farm the 400 Hp tractor works so well that we were planting corn at full tillage at 3/4 of a gallon per acre. My little Kubota gets about 4-4 gallons per acre.

While it would seem getting away from fuel would be great, I have to be honest, there is so much potential energy in a gallon of fuel that it would be hard to do so, even the Amish here cannot get around it. They have gasoline engines for everything, from washing machines to chainsaws, and even air compressors to run appliances. The local woodworking shop has a 6 cylinder Cummings that fires up that pumps hydraulic fluid to hydraulic motors instead of electric motors, but it is powered by the almighty gallon of oil.

But to get away from oil to say real horsepower would be difficult. I have a lot of land, but even I lack enough to farm my farm, provide enough feed for the animals powering it, and make money to farm full time. If I buy more land, the cost of property taxes is such that it becomes a catch 22. I need more land to support the animals, that I need more horses for so that I can have more land for production, that costs more in property taxes...it is a vicious cycle. I know this from experience because the self-sufficient lifestyle my Grandparents had in the 1980's is unobtainable today on the same acreage simply because the cost of owning that land in property taxes has been disproportional to the increase in products raised.

Charging more for the products raised is not working because the market is saturated here. We have the youngest age of farmers in the nation, and the most start up farms, but no one says that the farms here fail on average the first 3 years. That is because as the start up farms under cut their prices so low to compete, they do not count their hidden costs and die out, yet if they did count them, they would be so high that they could not edge out their competitors. Sadly most locally produced buying restaurants and such are not very stellar ethically. They buy 100 pounds of local carrots lets say from a veggie farmer, then 2 tons of regular carrots from Sysco and then claim on their menus it is locally raised food. It sure is...SOME of it, but they never say all. Those that are a bit more ethical to the consumer, are not so nice to the farmer, pitting one farmer against the other to get food cheaper...and then they must compete against the other less ethical restaurants.

And yet all this is in the poorest county in all of New England. Programs exist for the poor to get local food from Farmers Markets and CSA's, but few poor people do that as the high cost would dwindle their allotted amounts of food. One day going through Walmart two woman, really overweight exclaimed, "we can wait I guess on the ice cream, we don't have to spend all our food stamp money today." The sad part was they were not even buying real ice cream...if you read the label it typically says dairy treat because there is little real milk in it to be truly considered ice cream. They could have easily gotten an ice cream maker, got the real thing, and with locally produced cream and milk, but few would know how to make it anyway, be willing to, be willing to spend money on a machine, and if all that were true, still buy cheap cream at Walmart.

It is depressing.

So I see the future of farming being just what I describe; the ones that can buying organic food because they can, and the poor buying what they always have.

Sadly I got stats on my side to prove what I say. The last I checked organic food is being sold at 1%, with 99% of this food being conventional. Even if organic production doubled, we are talking about 2% organic and 98% conventional.





 
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So do folks think that the future of farming depends on the future of land taxation?
See land is easy to tax as it's not going anywhere try to tax people that's more difficult as the buggers move about so much . In the UK a previous govt tried to change the local property tax in to a local person tax - this idea was abandoned after it became pretty obvious that it cost over two hundred times more to collect than the previous tax .

David
 
Travis Johnson
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I think the future of farming is only partially dependent upon taxes.

Straight up taxes are part of the fabric of society and it is never going away, not now or ever, because if it ever did, society worldwide would crush under the result.

The other absolute we must all understand is that there is no such thing as land ownership as most people think. No one owns land. Land ownership is an exchange where partial parties give up rights to certain areas. Those areas are spelled out in the deed under very specific terms and dictated by surveyors most often after an exchange of money, or handed down by inheritance. Now I say partial because the government body of where the land resides always has vested interest as well, so at best it is shared between government and the "landowner". There are numerous cases in point, from environmental law regarding water flowing across the land, to air rights, to building codes.

So land ownership is really just a "landowner" excluding or including what can happen on their land. In simple terms it means that while I cut wood, I have no right to go over on my neighbors land and cut his trees, yet he has no right to tell me I cannot cut the trees on my land. Those are both inclusion and exclusion rights. THAT is where the future...the battle of farming will be.

I see that in my own county here in Maine, and I see it happening across the country. Up until this year it has not been for the betterment of farmers and landowners I can tell you that (at least in my opinion). Here, open land is getting scarce with the Amish moving in, wood being devalued, more people farming, and land rent crazy high for fields. Open land actually has more value as farmland then house lots right now. But the Swampbusters Act limits where open land can be placed. In the past year, my Federal Lawsuit, and others like it across the country challenged the USDA and won, allowing for more land to be converted into food for the betterment of the country. Now please, please, please do not be concerned about the title swampbusters because it is not what people think. Without knowing it, many Permies are violating this Federal Act.

IF this continues, we will be in a better spot as a country. Not because I have a large farm and need more land, but because land is at such a premium that it is expensive for anyone to purchase; large farms, small farms and yes even Permies who want to make swales and drought resistant food plots. Now taxes may play into that, because if land is not allowed to be put into production that the "landowner" desires, it will limit food production, increase the value of tillable land, and make those smaller tillable acres taxed at a much higher rate.

But this is just one inclusion or exclusion right that "landowners" have. Others that play into this are Forever Farm Status, Tree Growth, Mineral Rights, Water Rights, etc.
 
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I grew-up on a conventional Ag farm and I have siblings that are still inconventional Ag.

I made the shift to small-scale off-grid organic 'hippy' farming, in a state where the number of farms is increasing each year. I think there is a real future for small-scale organic farming.
 
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still parsing through this thread...

I haven't seen much mentioned yet about our oceans. "Vertical kelp and shellfish Farms".
http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-vertical-ocean-farming-20160328-story.html

One of many ways to respond to cities "nutrient-crisis". Not quite my cup of tea, I'm a land-ape by nature, I guess.
I could imagine "farms" like this stretching along the Eastern Seaboard (for us U.S. based folk).

Probably gonna take another one of those cultural changes we all recognize are needed.
 
Chris Kott
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Kamaar, I totally forgot about those. One thing I like the most about the vertical sea farming is the potential for it to coexist in the same footprint as ocean wind power installations, where you can't fish commercially because of the infrastructure supporting the turbines on the ocean floor.

Good point.

-CK
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Part II on why high rise farms won't be the future of farming.

A few posts above, I explained why I think purpose built high rise farms will not be the future of farming (though I'm open to being shown differently.)

I also don't think retrofitted skyscrapers will have much of a role to play in future farming, defined as buildings over 10 stories high designed for office or living space being used to grow food.

Now, why don't I think remodeled sky scrapers will be the future of farming? Sky scrapers have all that glass surface area; they could be remodeled to included farms which would produce food, beautify the area, clean the air, and purify wastewater from the building.

I do think there might be some place for this, but I think it would be limited, for the following reasons.

Remodeled sky scrapers would have all the inefficiencies mentioned above for purpose build skyscraper farms many times over; plants could only be grown relatively near the facade. Even if every skyscraper in the world was used this way, it would be a drop in the bucket of global food supply. Food plants tend to not like the same interior conditions we (and our buildings) do. The remodeling would be quite intensive. There are almost certainly better, cheaper, places to grow food.

The main benefit of such a remodel would be in building treatment of wastewater. However, as mentioned above, such a remodel would be expensive. Would there be a better use of the funds?

Without any hard numbers to go on, I'm thinking it would be cheaper and ecologically better to do one of the following instead:

Separate the grey and blackwater, sending the greywater straight to landscaping (much cheaper) and routing the blackwater into a green septic tank which would digest it and distribute the water through infiltration galleries to park trees.

Use foam flush composting toilet systems.

Use topical "houseplants" to clean water; these are better adapted to interior conditions and contamination wouldn't be as much of an issue, so the design could be less complicated. Biomass produced this way can be composted for use on conventional gardens.

Abandon the skyscraper all together!

For the money spent to remodel a skyscraper, many more sensible buildings could be built or remodeled. With their great height, high rise buildings are inherently hard to heat, cool, and move people, water, and goods into. Due to their large interior volume, they need a lot of energy for lighting. They seem to have detrimental physiological effects. I'm sure people will keep using them, but I think we could find better places to invest in food production.



 
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The future of farming is the same as the future of the human race:  1.  Real food (no GMO's or pesticides).  2.  Children of land owners must once again learn that no work, no eat.  The 'Victory Gardens' that brought our Great Nation through WWII are once again the answer to a prosperous society.  Machines are great.  However, instead of paying a machine while it is working, as is the case with a human, the land owner pays the bank/finance company twelve months per year.  The machine works perhaps 2-3 months out of the year while the human draws unemployment.  Sooner or later, the minimum-wage earner is going to realize how many persons he is actually supporting.  (Shall we add foreign-aid to the equation?)  Once again, the 'worm will turn' and the dollar will fall.n
 
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Many large farms produce zilch.  They have been put into a 'land bank' where the Fed Government pays the 'farm' owner to do nothing.  As a Nation, we must stop building on the most prosperous property and move our developments and suburbs to the least desirable land, land that does not produce.  We must realize that anything produced by man must first be made by nature.  Why are we fouling our oceans by dumping our waste in them.  Why not find a way to 'compost', grind, chop, or otherwise find a way to return these materials to the land from which they came?  Any plant can be grown in any part of a building:  where natural light is not available, artificial (grow-) light can take its place.  How many buildings stand vacant in any large city?  Urban blight could be turned into urban renewal by anyone with the common sense to organize a WORK detail instead of a bread line.
 
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Tim Bermaw wrote:Some things just don't scale — permaculture is one of them.



I have the sad feeling that Tim Bermaw might be totally right in everything he said in this topic.

Maureen Atsali wrote:I have found it REALLY hard to employee living, breathing people.


We've met people in Nicaragua and other places that complain about the same thing, almost the exact same story. It almost seems that the only way to do it right, is by doing it 100% yourself... a big matter of education and vision.
Do you think that that might be the answer? That we'd have to throw overboard the economic efficiency and let personal motivation be the driven factor? It's a fact that no other human being will perform unheard feats of endurance unless it is for (his own) goal he/she wishes to accomplish...
Or would it be possible to have a collective goal? It never has been that effective...
Good luck Maureen! (Maybe you have to train monkeys? ;-) )

Is there anyone on Permies that makes a decent living solely on the sale of permaculture produce without working themselves to death? If yes, we, and maybe the future of agriculture, can learn a lot from you.

The big majority of people I ever heard of making really good money with permaculture is by: writing books, making DVD's, pyramid schemes, permaculture design courses, $100 visited farm tours, $2.500 weekly stays, B&B,... but never actually by selling their vegetables.
Those who do manage to live by selling permaculture vegetables are only able to do so by asking 'too much money' that the average Joe/Jane can pay for.

We've met permaculturists that made a good living, but they didn't had to pay for the land, otherwise it would've been impossible.

Masanobu Fukuoka managed to have worked out a great system, but not a lot people have successfully copied his methods.
What he'd probably tell us: We have to work together with nature, observe and not 'use' nature.
If every farmer in the world would found a similar system like Fukuoka's, permaculture food would be cheaper then 'standard' food, better and would support a double population of the earth.
Isn't it happening because nobody wants to work on the fields anymore? The only way to have people on the fields again would be by 'asking money from overstressed people to get back in touch with nature and let them do the job'? This is how things seem to be nowadays...
Or isn't it happening because for every piece of land other rules apply and one has to spend 25 years 'learning' nature? Like he did/says?

I think that one of the only way to convince the masses would be: sell permaculture products cheaper then market prices, Fukuoko did that.
But, a lot of permaculturists (or better: permavulture-ists) could go bankrupt when all the above permaculture by-products would be demystified and they have to rely on their vegetable sale -at normal rates.

The checkerboard approach of one strip of grain, corn,... might be a certain improvement nature-wise but it isn't a "real" polyculture, it isn't a 'natural system'.

End of petroleum, the big players do'n care because they'll cut more rainforests to grow fuel or they'll build more nuclear reactors.

Some people talk about GMO's, it's a common statement in permaculture circles that non-open source GMO's are evil, but is all this based on true evidence? Are GMO's that evil?
What if we'd develop plants that are nutritious, good, enriches the soil, attracts wildlife and that are harvestable by machines. Or wait, does it already exist? Maybe Corylus avellana could replace wheat...

Maybe we'll have to wait a couple of more years to have robots almost as smart as humans that do the polyculture harvest? But what will humanity do when every single job will be performed by a robot? Grow food to find peace? (This question ofcourse is a whole different, but very interesting topic)
Or we'll have to convince people, better: market, that it's better for our mental and fysical health to be in a lush polyculture surrounding, in nature, rather than watching facebook in their office jobs.

There are a lot of answers that use presumptions that aren't really proven...
So, I'm not sure wether I missed it or not, but there probably isn't a real unambiguous answer?  what's the perfect balance between being economically viable and good for nature?

I wonder what the permaculture guru's would have to say to this question...
If governments would let a group of agri-visionairs come together and decide about the future about big-scale agriculture, with making the least compromises to endanger our 'luxurious' lifestyle, what would be decided...



 
Chris Kott
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I am going to try to address a number of issues in previous posts.

I think it's an unconscionable waste to even suggest abandoning skyscrapers. As well abandon cities altogether. It ignores the resources that have already gone into them, and the fact that there is no way any country could support such an exodus from any of their urban areas. It's just wasteful. Do you recycle personally, and do you ever reuse or repurpose an object before committing it to the relatively energy-intensive recycling process? Why wouldn't that apply to city infrastructure?

To clarify my point, I have always been of the opinion that retrofitted buildings will likely be the first iteration of this idea of vertical urban farms. They are already there. If the retrofits are carried out modularly, and on the human scale, costs can be controlled, as opposed to more monolithic projects.

I don't actually think that a skyscraper whose sole function is to be a farm is a good idea, considering our collective enthusiasm with stacking functions, but I think if new designs of building were tweaked to stack the functions of food production with sheltering people, keeping city compatible livestock for food, food scrap disposal, and the production of food grade soil amendments, local jobs in food production, organic waste disposal, and sales would be created. I would love it if the food went for the benefit of those growing it primarily, but it might be sold for more money to the more wealthy for starters.

As mentioned before, they could also serve as community hubs for trade and barter, a central location for the disposal of food waste, where it would feed livestock, make food and produce fertilizer. They could also serve as community permaculture education and training facilities, so whole neighbourhoods could connect for practical support and engagement in a more permaculture urban life.

So basically, we're talking about facilities that feed and house and educate and support people, perhaps some who would never be able to afford that which these buildings would offer. Think of them as an urban embodiment of the ethics, because where do you need people care more than the cities? And what is more caring for the earth than trying to stem urban sprawl, or even the conversion of wild spaces into yet more human space? These things are already here and standing, and more go up every day while we discuss the future. By the time we get around to it, more places will likely have larger build-up downtown cores, simply because it's easier and more cost-effective to deliver services to a densely crowded populace.

And again, the OP clearly asked what the future of farming should look like. I  think apocalyptic predictions belong in another place, even if the posters think it's rooted in reality. As valid as those observations may seem to those making them, they gloss over growing trends and signs of change that indicate that the only ones rooting for petroculture monocropping are those selling petroleum.

And as to the best-laid plans of petroleum pushers, they had to try to bring back dicamba and newly developed dicamba-resistant crops, a failed project of decades ago, because their next-generation stuff to replace glyphosate  isn't ready, and tolerance to glyphosate in target agricultural weeds grew faster than anticipated. Dicamba has been made illegal in Arkansas, mostly because it vapourizes into the air and settles in unintended places, like neighbours crops, orchards, and wild spaces, causing crop loss and death, and Monsanto is now suing regulators over that.

I think checkerboarding crops, or making detailed microclimactic maps of land to enable planting of different strains, even, of the same crop, or wildly different ones for added scent disruption, to make sure crops get planted in  microclimates best suited to their needs is one possible future technique. Modern tractors map broad acre harvesting with GPS nowadays, do they not? Part of the tech is already in play.

I think that, just as we see major petroleum companies preparing for a market dominated by renewables, so will petrochemical companies have to prepare for increasing legal turmoil and lack of demand as nature adapts faster than they can.

I also think that if we don't abandon panaceic tunnel vision, we're going to have trouble adapting to the new conditions. Sure, pure permacultural living should be in unending contact with the soil, and we should grow our own food or starve, and go naked if we don't make our own clothes, and light after the sun sets is blasphemy. While a little hyperbolic, I hear a lot of this type of thing from well-meaning purists who, probably unthinkingly, are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The future of farming in the large scale will probably be the widespread adoption of incremental change to the existing system. Measures like fallow lay barriers between crops and riparian areas, minimal to no-till and green manure cropping, and crop rotation with green manure cropping that takes into account the specific actions of specific crops on micronutrients levels to determine specific rotational order, and probably animal tillage through rotational grazing will all see increased use, in the same way that no-till has already seen wider acceptance. When petroculture no longer yields more than it costs, in dollars and topsoil, it will be replaced with a new paradigm. And even if mixed field cropping doesn't offer the same level of polyculture as an intensively managed market garden, it's a huge leap in the right direction. It will inform future development, so if it is found that the edges of parallel block row plantings yield better than the centres of said blocks, machine sizes will probably be designed narrower, so there's more edge at a cost, of course, of the area worked by the machine.

There's more, of course, but that's a good start, I think.

-CK
 
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My opinion is that the only way there will be a future is when we change direction! The system as it is now: vaste monocultures, extreme use of chemicals and large machines using fossile fuels ...  this can't possibly go on.
And that's why we are 'permies' here, promoting permaculture. Permaculture, working with natural principles, polycultures, less machines and more human (and animal) labour, use of natural energy resources, I can't see any other way it's possible to have a future  ....
 
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Thread locked as far too many posters are posting as regards cider press topics - GMO , toxic gick , petrolium politics . Mods to concider reopening after some editing ( or not ) Those folks with enough apples can start a new thread in the cider press if they wish.

David ( with mod hat on  
 
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