Thursday, July 20, 2006

Why Biointensive Farming? And another question for thought.

Biointensive farming is a collection of methods for raising food sustainably and with minimum inputs of material technology (inputs which will not be available to Eschaton event survivors).  Methods include the use of double-dug, raised beds (rather than plowed fields), composting and crop rotation (rather than the use of factory-produced chemical fertilizer), natural pest management (rather than heavy use of pesticides), planting complementary crops together (rather than monoculture), and planting seedlings on hexagonal corners (rather than in rows or scatter-sowing). 

Excellent resources on this system include John Jeavons' books, How to Grow More Vegetables . . . (fairly technical) and The Sustainable Vegetable Garden (less technical but practical).  Ecology Action provides an online introduction to the system.  The Sustainable Vegetable Garden is definitely on my Bibliography at the End of the World.

Proponents of the biointensive method boast extremely high, sustainable yields on small plots of land, with few technological inputs.  I am unable to locate any peer-reviewed studies which confirm or deny this.  However, the method's greatest feature for survivors is the minimal technological level necessary to farm.  Animals and machinery are not necessary, as farming is accomplished with human labor.  (Animal feces and bones may, of course, be added to the compost pile.)  A "scavenging list" for biointensive farming might look like this: 

Potatoes and seeds
Small boards
Containers for seedlings and transferring soil, compost, water (buckets, scavenged plastic food containers)

Of course, you can get really fancy and have special sticks for transferring sprouted seeds to containers and little shovels for transplanting your seedlings, but I have transplanted my share of seedlings and all you really need is a flat stick.  Or your hand, if you can't find a stick.

I previously put the per-person plot space at 30 100-square-foot double-dug beds, assuming large quantities of potatoes can be located.  Double-digging refers to the process of measuring out a bed, and, starting at one end, digging a one-foot-wide, one-foot-deep trench in the soil, removing that soil, and then loosening (with a pitchfork) below that trench to a depth of another foot or so.  Then the one-foot-wide, one-foot-deep section of soil next to the removed section is moved to the top of the previously loosened soil, and the process is repeated (loosening, digging).  Question:  Mary, a barista and would-be actress, survived the collapse of Los Angeles and fled to central California, locating several hundred kilos of potatoes on the way and transporting them to her new protected location.  Terrified, half-starved, and wearing the impractical shoes she had on at the moment the catastrophe struck and she had to leave the city, how long will it take her to double-dig three thousand feet of bed space?  Bonus:  How much longer will it take her if she has asthma or diabetes?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Minimum Viable Population, and Implications for a Model Settlement (plus see substantive comments)

The minimum viable population is a measure of the minimum genetic diversity required to sustain a population indefinitely. Too few individuals endangers the survival of the population. Obviously, harmful, recessive mutations are more likely propagated in small populations, but small populations are also more vulnerable than large ones to all kinds of stochastic dangers, such as too many members of a given generation being born of only one sex.

The minimum viable population has implications for Eschaton management. The population supported by a post-Eschaton society must be equal to or greater than the minimum viable population number. Some have estimated the number to be as few as 500 individuals; however, some research suggests that the proper number is at least in the thousands and probably in the tens of thousands.

It is difficult to imagine a single post-Eschaton, agricultural city with a population in the tens of thousands. I propose a model of post-Eschaton reconstruction that emphasizes small, self-sufficient, agricultural settlements, with one or more self-sufficient University-style settlements dedicated to research, technology preservation, and training.

Consider, for instance, the amount of land necessary to supply the caloric needs of 30 people. The most calorie-intensive crop (by cultivation area) is the potato. The bare calorie needs of a single individual may be supplied by as few as fifteen five-feet-by-twenty-feet (one hundred square feet) beds of nothing but potatoes, as opposed to several times that area for wheat or beans. Allowing for other nutrition needs, a measure of surplus, and food for visitors and animals, it would be unwise to posit fewer than thirty five-by-twenty-feet beds per individual. In a settlement of thirty people, this makes nine hundred beds, for a total area of at least two acres of nothing but biointensive garden beds (not counting walking space).

A post-Eschaton settlement will have to defend its cultivated land and growing crops from raiders (and other pests). Small, two-acre plots are one option; massive, hundred-acre plots are another. Widely dispersed, smaller plots have a defense advantage in that they are less concentrated and each plot is less appealling to target; also, there is less area to defend. (Larger plots, of course, have a lower perimeter-to-area ratio, which may be desirable in some defense circumstances.)

I propose to work with the small, self-sufficient, University-style settlement model. My ideal University is a unit of 30-100 individuals who produce all of their own food plus a surplus, research and preserve foundational technologies, and train individuals in the foundational technologies. Individuals would spend time in the University, and would then go out into the post-Eschaton world and assist, or even found, self-sustaining settlements. Social and economic assimilation would be an absolute necessity for the maintenance of human civilization under this model.