Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Our Precarious Agriculture System

A lush crop of corn being grown for silage.

A lush crop of corn being grown for silage.

Last month, our family held its sixty-first annual family reunion. It’s a chance to talk with a number of my cousins who have been farmers in that area all their lives. When I remarked about how lush and beautiful the corn looked, I learned a lot about just how precarious our food supply is. It is almost entirely dependent on vast quantities of fertilizer and diesel fuel to work the land and to irrigate it.

The situation varies, of course, depending on the type of soil found in different parts of the country. The ideal combination of local climate and fertile, well-drained soil is really quite rare. The reason that the world’s farmers are able to feed a huge and rapidly growing population is the enormous input per acre, of fuel, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. Much of today’s farmland is not a whole lot more than a growing medium to which water and nutrients are added – similar to hydroponics.

I will also point out here that we haven’t even touched on the complex system of transporting and delivering that food from the farm to your table. That is even more fragile than the agriculture system, with its near-total dependency on a functioning financial system, available credit, just-in-time ordering system, trucking system, and a coordinating system totally dependent upon the Internet.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but the fact remains that without the continuous flow of cheap diesel fuel, irrigation water, fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, the food available to the consumer would be a tiny fraction of what is needed. Proponents of organic farming point to that as the solution; however, there simply isn’t enough organic matter available nor is there a high enough yield for organic farming to even approach the quantity of food needed. (I’m a big fan of organic gardening, but the issue here is one of scale rather than method.)

If you’re looking for a solution to the overall problem, I’m afraid that there is none. Mankind has grown completely dependent on highly mechanized, high-input farming to feed the population. There is simply no getting around that – as a wide scale issue, anyway. On an individual scale, it is a different story. Growing and producing a portion of our own food for our own family is something that we can all do. Very few will be able to produce more than a token amount of their food to begin with, but it is a learning process. When the day comes that our complex food system no longer functions, make sure that you have the skills and the tools to feed your family.

Irrigation, powered by diesel fuel, keeping that corn growing.

Irrigation, powered by diesel fuel, keeping that corn growing.


  1. Darlene

    People need to start NOW if they expect to be able to ever grow much of their own food. After hobby farming for about 8 years, I can finally say that I grow enough food for me to survive on. BUT, our now-grown family lives within 10 miles of us and they will definitely come to “the farm” when things get bad enough. That means my garden, chicken flock, and goat herd will have to be expanded rapidly to meet their needs as well. Between our kids and grand kids, we have 19 mouths to feed! Fortunately, we live in the extreme south, where something can be grown year round.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Darlene, we have 11 mouths to feed – children and grandchildren (ages 5 years, down to 4 weeks) – all less than 2 miles from here. Food is a two-pronged issue. We have to be able to grow our own food while defending it against predators (insects, birds, furry mammals, and two-legged ones), and we also have to be able to store that food for the times when nothing is growing and for when bad things happen (weather, overwhelming predators, crop failure, etc.). In addition, it takes time to ramp things up, so food storage is needed just to get started. Anyone who has been doing this for a while understands that it takes time to learn and time to build up the soil. Folks need to start now if they haven’t already done so. I truly feel for those who simply have no land to grow their own food; there are no good options available for them.

  2. Judy

    Stephen your comments while are true because of current economics, is not true for the past. In the past they used the manures available even human and composted it then put it out on the farm, It was big business.
    I think one of the things lost in the world of big ag is that of the little farms steads who had lots of variety of foods. As you well know microclimes are all over and they encourage the growing of variety. There was an article along time ago about how much you can grow organically, I think it was 650 acres. that is a lot . But as you say in the world today not enough.
    However, the constant input of chemicals is killing us and the real questions are : Is it worth it, to be dependent on a huge logistics system? Is it worth it to be dependent on foods grown with chemicals that do not feed the bodies, just make them think they have eaten?, Is it worth it to suffer the diseases that come with chemicals? Is it worth it to make our environment sick?
    I do not believe the good Lord gave us this land to ruin. Growing with reliance on chemicals is ruining the planet, do we really have that right????????????
    Ps I enjoy reading your site.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Thank you, Judy. You’re right – things have changed drastically, and not for the better.

      Some years ago, I asked my father how they farmed the land back in the 1920’s without the large-scale use of fertilizer and only a mule-drawn plow. He told me about planting velvet beans along with the corn. That, of course, did nothing to help during a dry spell other than shading the ground to help reduce water loss through evaporation, but it was a legume that added Nitrogen to the soil. I’m sure the yields back then were nowhere near enough to keep a farmer in business today.

      Farmers are trapped in the same economic system as the rest of us are – if they want to stay in business (i.e., not lose the farm that may have been in their family for generations), then they have to be able to compete on price. While my food production efforts are limited to the one acre that I live on, I own a 120 acre farm that I rent to my cousins. Rather than pump it full of chemicals, they rotate the fields to keep part of it fallow, and they plant cover crops to add organic matter to the soil. I’m glad to see them doing that, but it still doesn’t solve the matter of vast amounts of diesel fuel needed to work the land and to irrigate it during times of drought. I’ll also note here that all of my own gardening is strictly organic.

      Sometimes we just get swept up in a system that we don’t like, but have no control over. History has shown time and again that things change. Mankind has been on a track that cannot continue indefinitely. That means that something is going to break, and there are a lot of potential ways for that to happen. If the agriculture system and other life-sustaining systems are severely disrupted, then they will no longer be able to support the current population. Something is going to change to keep the equation in balance. That “something” is a drastic reduction in population. It is my goal – and the goal of those who regularly visit sites like The Southern Agrarian – to make sure that my family is not a part of that drastic reduction in population.

  3. John

    This post reminds me of a lot of self-reliance sites. In which, people farm and even blacksmith and such. While I believe solidly in small scale farming and self-reliance as most as a person is physically and financially capable to do, I also understand that there is a major mass of unprepared and selfish people out there. Who would not think twice about utilizing your resources without your consent. Growing enough food and maintaining a portion of essentials is only as good as our ability to protect these essentials.

    I’m not trying to take this off topic. But just like you said about predators Stephen, the “two legged ones” in every aspect of our lives and our loved ones lives, we have to make sure we can hold our own in case/when the time comes the system breaks and the mass of ignorance comes. I talk to people all the time. They think the grocery stores and pharmacy stores will always be there. Some think I should not have a gun. But, when the inevitable happens, and I do hope it’s later than sooner, these same people who disagree with me now will come with a vengeance. We’ve seen it well during Hurricane Katrina. I believe it was a wake up call and a heart check for America. And many didn’t get it.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      John, it is not off topic at all. You are absolutely right – if you can’t defend something, you don’t truly own it. We have seen what happens when a large portion of the population feels they are entitled to something. That is only going to get worse as the ability of the Productive Class is drained of the ability to pay off the Parasite Class to keep them relatively civilized. In addition, there are plenty of possible scenarios (economic collapse, war, government collapse, natural disaster, etc.) that can change our way of life in a very short time. The decision to be armed is a personal choice, and there are those who have carefully considered it and decided that no matter what the circumstances, they believe they could not take another human life. I would certainly support them in that choice. That, however, is clearly not my choice. I choose to have the means and the training and the proficiency to be able to defend myself and my family. I trust that most readers here have made the same choice.

  4. Wyandotte

    It all comes down to minerals – the dust of the earth at creation. (Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the earth and blew the breath of life into his nostrils.) Not enough of these, and whether your operation is huge or small, your crops will fail or at best be meager and every animal and human will suffer.

    Not saying we shouldn’t garden far into the night and put food by. I know I do. Let us just remember that we are terribly dependent on The System, more than some of us want to admit. Our soil where I live is seriously low in Phosphorus. Okay, I can make compost out of the vegetables and fruit I buy, but how were they fertilized?

    It is not difficult to follow the trail of even the smallest, most “self sufficient” grower: they use (among other things of course) manure from animals who at some point consumed feed that was fertilized by something from a bag from Mosaic, Potashcorp or Agrium; minerals needed for crops, animals and humans are not fairly distributed over the earth’s surface. You can use rock dust, etc. all you like but it is not enough for agriculture. Agriculture = the fall of man. The rest is history.

    Thanks. I like reading southernagrarian.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      “Let us just remember that we are terribly dependent on The System, more than some of us want to admit.”

      That is a key point that I hope everyone begins to understand. While we try to be as self-sufficient as possible, the fact is that very few of us would be able to be self sufficient. There is a reason that the world’s population remained low and stable until technology reached a certain level. When that technology is removed, the ability to feed that many people is also removed and huge numbers of people will die. When one stops and really looks at what is required to plant, grow, harvest, process, distribute, and store our food, it is a sobering thought, indeed.

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