The state of agriculture in Washtenaw County


My friend Mary Morgan just shared this factoid on Facebook, and I found it so fascinating that I decided to steal it… As for the little minotaur in corner, don’t pay any attention to him. I just threw him in to spice things up a bit. I didn’t mean to imply that any fraction of these 1,300 farms were raising bipedal cattle. Speaking of which, I have it on good authority that, several years ago, a local university received a call from an individual concerned that they were modifying the human genome in order to create boneless humanoid meat creatures for McDonalds… Back to Mary, I’m sure she doesn’t want my endorsement, especially as it comes after the phrase “boneless humanoid meat creatures,” but the website that she operates with her husband, Dave, which is called the Ann Arbor Chronicle, is really quite good. Those of you in the audience who can read should really check it out…. As for farming in Washtenaw, I had no idea that we still had 1,300 farms. I wonder how many cultivated acres it takes to feed an average person, and how close we are to the point where, if the shit really hit the fan, we’d be self-sufficient.

[This post is brought to you by Bare Knuckle Farm.]

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  1. Farmer Jax
    Posted December 8, 2010 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    We’ll only be self sufficient if we can muster enough guns to keep the farmers from selling to Wayne County. I love Wayne County, but “self sufficient” talk always seems to ignore the neighbors and what shit-hitting-fan would really look like (as if the people in Canton will quietly starve their kids and bemoan their short-sighted development while Washtenaw County children run around plump and covered in berries…)

  2. Knox
    Posted December 9, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Washtenaw County has approximately 347,563 people on 709.94 square miles.

  3. Edward
    Posted December 9, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    A good discussion of how much land one person needs to sustain him or herself.

  4. Kim
    Posted December 9, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    There should be a State of the County annual report that includes details on energy production and consumption, and the same for food.

  5. TeacherPatti
    Posted December 9, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Farmer Jax. I love when there is talk of self-sufficiency but no talk of defense. A friend of mine was bragging about how she was going to grow her own wheat for “when peak oil runs out” and I said that was fabulous because I would grab my husband’s guns and then it would be MY wheat…at least until my girlfriend who collects guns comes along and shoots my ass.

    The reality is that if the oil runs out, there are mass crop failures or whatever, you’re gonna die. I’m gonna die too. I also shudder to think what it would be like for females in such a situation….(I should add that I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stuff so I may be overreacting)

  6. John Galt
    Posted December 9, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    When that blessed day comes, me and my Libertarian friends will shine. We will be the heroes we always knew that we could be. We may not have accomplished too much here on earth so far, but just wait until the shit hits the fan. The true leaders will emerge. All we need is the level playing field made possible by holocaust and lawlessness.

  7. Posted December 9, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    “The reality is that if the oil runs out, there are mass crop failures or whatever, you’re gonna die. I’m gonna die too. I also shudder to think what it would be like for females in such a situation….(I should add that I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stuff so I may be overreacting)”

    The reality is, that we won’t die if the oil runs out. Food will just become really expensive, and we’ll all have to eat less or grow what we can.

    Most of Japan’s rice cultivation is still done the old fashioned way: by hand. Although they have to import everything else, they are able to produce most of their own grains (rice). It’s expensive, though.

    Malawians generally have a terrible diet, mostly due to a lack of protein. That being said, most people are able to grow their own grains using 0 oil. It’s all done the old fashioned way. Our infrastructure is such that even without oil, we can still come up with usable substitutes (grain based fuels) to sustain agriculture.

  8. Posted December 10, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    So, putting the various information together, if all of Washtenaw County was under efficiently intensive cultivation and assuming no land degradation, no water shortages, virtually no post-harvest waste, and farmers who know precisely when and how to plant, fertilize, irrigate, etc., it might be able to support 367,755 people eating a normal American diet. But then there’d be no room for anyone to live! Unless everyone goes vegetarian and/or moves into small apartments, we’re probably going to need to get rid of some people to have any chance at making Washtenaw County self-sufficient.

  9. Posted December 10, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    163,800 acres of farmland to feed 350,000 people? I would say almost definitely not – under current habits. In parts of the world, subsistence farming works on fractions of an acre per person – but these tend to be areas with almost entirely vegetarian diets and year-round growing seasons.

    If we all want hamburgers and boneless skinless chicken breast for dinner every night, we’re screwed. But there’s a lot we could do to make the maths work better, which cmadler hits a lot of. An addendum, though, is that we’re not even talking about fuel. Sure, we may be able to somehow feed the local population, but lighting and heating homes is going to be an entirely separate problem – let alone driving.

    If you’re really thinking about the shit hitting the fan, we’ll all die from being unable to move food around long before the food itself runs out.

  10. Edward
    Posted December 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    What about these boneless meat creatures being made by the University of Michigan? How many of them can live on an acre?

  11. Posted December 10, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Let’s also don’t forget about the lack of medication. I am married to an insulin dependent diabetic and I need certain medications for myself as well. Not to mention if there is no power, no water, etc. Sorry to be a fatalist but having an acre or half acre ain’t gonna do it.

  12. Posted December 11, 2010 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Don’t worry, it won’t happen in a day. As oil becomes more and more expensive over time, people will step in to take advantage of new market opportunities. The technology is mostly there, but suffers from lack of demand due to cheap oil.

    There will be no doomsday.

  13. Posted December 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Peter’s right, to be honest. Whatever happens, the unfettered free market will keep up. It takes time for oil prices to rise, allowing the free market to respond, and meaning that skyrocketing prices, rationing, and lines at the pump are pure fiction – nobody could ever seriously expect such a thing happening.

    Likewise, if exotic diseases ever break out, the free market will step in and provide response in a timely fashion – it’ll never get past patient zero.

    Similarly, if the North Koreans or Iranians ever got ICBMs, it would take them time to reach California – which is why conservatives have historically been opposed to missile defense shields; if we ever need a missile defense shield, the free market will provide one as the demand increases.

    If NASA one day discovers a massive asteroid on collision course with Earth, the free market – now, wait one minute. What the heck is NASA doing watching for asteroids, in the first place? That’s the free market’s business.

    At any rate, there won’t be any doomsday. (I mean, assuming we let the free market do its thing. If there is a doomsday, clearly it’s because government got in the way and caused it. If there isn’t a doomsday, clearly it’s because the free market prevented it. In fact, they’re doing it right now, and you didn’t even realize it, did you?)

  14. Peter Larson
    Posted December 11, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I think that oil/energy markets and infectious diseases, not to mention nuclear warfare are very different things. In fact, I know they are.

  15. Peter Larson
    Posted December 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Please Murph, don’t assume that I believe that the free market can solve the worlds problem. In fact, I think it fucks up a lot of things. However, when discussing energy, agriculture and food delivery, you can’t rule out the resolve of people to provide in a market , particularly on a local level.

  16. Free Guillaume
    Posted December 12, 2010 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    I know what we should do. We should kill all those damn cows and eat the bastards. Then, we should dig up all the vegetables and eat those fuckers, too.
    Then, we raise more cows and more vegetables, and we do it all over again.
    Does that sound like a reasonable plan for our future?
    Then, we wait for that asteroid and scratch our ballsacks while typing on our computer keyboards and pissing and moaning about socialism and fascism.

  17. Posted December 12, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    The factoid I mentioned came out of an Ann Arbor greenbelt advisory commission meeting – a report with far more context is here:

    Washtenaw County ranks really low on an index of food sustainability – the ability of local farms to meet the food needs of residents. It’s hard to fault the farmers for seeking the highest price for their products, but that results in lots of corn and soybeans – and most of it shipped out of the area.

  18. Edward
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Mary. I’m heading over to your site now. Hopefully the culture shock won’t be too great.

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