August 26, 2012


Like it or not, profound change is going to come as population growth collides with the depletion of non-renewable resources. Life after that change is going to be different, but how? I find Steve Stirling writings on this subject to be both thought provoking and highly entertaining. The range of knowledge and understanding he brings to the page are impressive, and I take special delight in his having focused his series of novels depicting The Change on the Pacfic Northwest.

The world that future generations will experience will be shaped by the transition away from life based on an ever growing consumption of fossil fuels to one based solely on solar energy and its derivative forms such as wind, hydroelectric and muscle power. That said, the rate at which that transition takes place will profoundly affect its outcome. Stirling's The Change series of novels starts with the premise that the change happened all at once in March of 1998. While the immediate result is cataclysmic, life sorts itself out and continues, and I find myself fascinated by Stirling's vision of the subtle details of how that process unfolds.

There's an email list that discusses the details of this unfolding story (the 9th book in The Change series will be available September, 2012) and the author is an active contributor to the list. Recently he took time to describe his vision of some aspects of agriculture in the Pacific-Northwest (then organized as the Kingdom of Motival) some twenty years after The Change. Steve makes some points that readers of these Notes might find interesting, and he was kind enough to grant permission for a reprint here.

'twould vary widely as to how much machinery was available. Probably in China and India and similar places it's all back to sickles.

In the more advanced places, the farming tech is roughly late 19th to early 20th century in most respects, except that twine binders aren't much used.

They're known, but they require a specialized supply chain to be economical ‒ historically, they required the tropical sisal/hennequin plantation industries of the Yucatan and Africa to be practical. So mostly the grain is cut and swathed by horse-drawn machines, and then bound and stooked by hand.

Threshing is usually by horse-powered machine, but that's less time-critical. If you put the grain in a well-thatched stack, or the climate is dry, you can thresh at your leisure.

"Well-thatched" is the critical phrase there. Do it badly and you can lose the crop. It's better to thresh as soon as the grain is thoroughly dry, and then get it under a roof, either in bulk or in sacks. The "bushel", incidentally, is about 60lbs because that was as much as could be practically shifted by men moving big heaps of sacks by hand.

In Montival, it's a couple of weeks of throwing everyone at it in mid to late summer for the main fall-planted grain crops, usually wheat and barley.

There are other harvests ‒ spring-planted grain, root crops, fruits, vineyards, and in most places hay.

The -yields- are usually better than in the 1880-1920 period that's otherwise comparable, because:

a) cropping is concentrated on the better lands (and this area has some of the best wheat land in the world), and b) they understand plant and animal breeding, crop rotations, and pest control better.

Plowing, planting and cultivating is by small to medium-sized horse-drawn equipment. Two-furrow riding ("sulky") plows are common, as are disk-harrows and seed drills and two or three-row cultivators. Single-furrow walking plows and scythes and things of that nature are used for smaller bits and special jobs in most places.

The other big difference is that farming in Montival is less regionally specialized than in the early 20th-century Pacific Northwest. It's all variations on mixed farming, with ranching and grazing as heavy supplements. The peculiar ecological circumstances (the huge areas of derelict fields and suburbs with all the 'edge habitat') mean that hunting is also a substantial element in basic food supplies. Deer and feral swine are active agricultural pests in most areas, and -have- to be hunted to protect the fields, and by the 20's CY the predators are becoming a real problem too.

They don't have the long-distance and international trade systems of the Victorian and Edwardian and cities, such as they are, are usually locally provisioned. There's a trade in grain down the Columbia for Portland, and some local exchange ‒ in the County of Odell, for example, the Hood River Valley imports some grain from other parts of the county in exchange for fruit products ‒ but it's not on a really large scale. Generally, apart from luxuries for the well-to-do, what people eat and drink comes from a radius of about 20 miles, and ordinary cloth usually from a slightly larger area. Wine is the biggest exception. By the 20's CY, grain can be moved some distance if there's a local crop failure, but it's expensive and it's usually done by the "public sector" as an emergency measure.

(Most places, incidentally, have a mandatory program for keeping a year or more's supply of basics on hand. The institutional methods differ but the practice is nearly universal. This requires careful organization to rotate stuff in and out and avoid wasteful spoilage.)

The economy as a whole is less regionally differentiated and less specialized. In most places, people both farm and practice a lot of handicrafts; and the farming is generalized, designed to produce a very high percentage of everything consumed in the area. It's 'locavore heaven'.

One of the up sides of this is that there's a reserve of labor available for harvest and other peak periods. People who spend a lot of their time doing weaving and carpentry or whatever drop it and head for the fields when the grain comes ripe, under one institutional arrangement or another. Then in the agricultural off seasons people switch over seamlessly to their crafts. "Leisure" often means sitting around knitting or whittling or sewing or whatever and singing or telling stories or just gossiping while you do.

(There's much less of a sharp distinction between "work" and other activities than we're accustomed to. You don't "go to work" and come home from it. Work and other stuff slide seamlessly into each other ‒ for example, most festivals are centered around work. Feasts and parties are geared to the agricultural calendar. This affects even things like weddings, which are highly seasonal ‒ concentrated in the period after harvest, for the most part.)

Incidentally, for the first generation or two if someone (local leader, or just a smart type) wants to increase his area or community's standard of living, the easiest way to do it is to increase the local level of craft skills. This is increasingly a necessity as salvaged stuff wears out and runs out, but it's a crucial variable beyond that.

One of the reasons Mackenzies are relatively well off is that they had a lot of handicraft types from the start ‒ it's a very common hobby among the neo-pagan types, and they started up apprenticeship programs on a large scale almost immediately. The Armingers did the same thing in a rather different fashion, for their own reasons. Note that one of the first things d'Ath does when she gets her barony is to look into increasing the number of weavers and similar craft-folk, and find someone to handle that.

Little things can make a big difference. Eg., knowing how to make shoulder yokes for carrying buckets. The Mackenzies got a big boost because they had Sam Aylward and because Aylward's dad was conservative to the point of being a joke.

Places that made it through the bad years but didn't start programs of that sort are the worst off, and have to play catch-up. It's desperately important to have some types of specialists ‒ blacksmiths are absolutely essential, because you -must- have someone who can make and repair tools.