Apocalypse Food Production

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I’m the sort of person who reads anything that’s standing still — or even moving slowly. Science fiction, alternate history and post-apocalyptic stuff is interesting to me because it makes me think about possibilities. One of the problems I have with most of the books in the latter two categories, though, is how they gloss over or minimize the difficulties of trying to keep a population fed after the collapse or other trigger event.

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One group of novels by SM Stirling (Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War and A Meeting at Corvallis are the first three in the series) are a good example. In a nutshell, because of an unknown event that occurred at at 6:15 pm Pacific Standard Time, on March 17, 1998, most modern technology suddenly quit working. The laws of physics changed – gunpowder wouldn’t explode, steam power, electricity and internal combustion engines would no longer work. Speculations on the cause ranged from a world-wide electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) to “alien space bats.” Although there was great loss of life from starvation and disease, within about one year, the major groups discussed in the books were raising enough food to be reasonably well-fed. This despite the fact that most had been city-dwellers prior to “The Change.”

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Now, I get poetic license (and I use it myself) but there are some glaring problems in this idea of apocalypse/collapse/short-term recovery concept for anyone who knows anything about raising food. Let’s take just one example. The Change occurred in 1998. The main setting is the area around Portland and south to Springfield and Eugene. From an agricultural standpoint, that encompasses the Willamette Valley — Mediterranean climate, adequate rainfall and good soil, lots of orchards and vineyards. In 1998, however, even those people who farmed or gardened would most likely have been using hybrid seed. The heirloom/open-pollinated seed movement had just started in the mid-1970s with the Seed-Saver’s Exchange.

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In order to plant, the survivors would have to till by hand or with a horse-drawn implement. That means the area in which they lived or to which they relocated would have to have some of said implements around. Said implements would need to either be in working order or close enough that they could be repaired and refurbished with hand tools, not to mention horses trained to plow and the right kind of harness. Once they planted the seeds, they would either have to irrigate by hand (as in carrying buckets of water) or create ditch irrigation systems (by digging the ditches). It’s not easy to dig a ditch by hand, and it takes skill and knowledge to do it in a way that ensures the water will flow properly without washing away your fields. Oh, and while doing all this heavy labor, the survivors would have had to be able to feed themselves and their animals.

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There’s one point in Dies the Fire in which the author indicates five or six adults with one historically accurate moldboard plow and “some copies” they had made (by hand, remember, and within a few weeks after the change event, part of which they had spent traveling) had supposedly plowed and harrowed seven acres of never-before-plowed sod in about a week. My husband, who has plenty of experience with horse-drawn equipment and is also a welder/mechanic, just snorted aloud when I asked if that was reasonable.

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Then you have all the issues surrounding the actual growing, soil fertility, harvest, insect and wildlife management, crop rotation, seed saving and storage/preservation without amenities like electric stoves, pressure canners, refrigerators and freezers. And about that seed saving — hybrid seeds don’t come true to type and in many cases, germination is poor. You also need to know what the minimum population is to prevent serious inbreeding, and how to prevent cross-pollination to keep the lines pure. The first year, the hybrids might grow just great. The next year, when you planted the seeds you harvested from what you’d grown, you might get all sorts of interesting veggies. You could expect several generations (as in at least three years) before you could be reasonably sure you had a stable variety, and that’s assuming you knew how to keep the seed pure. Inexperienced gardeners are unlikely to have the knowledge and skill to keep biennials going, which means most of the root and cole crops would not be part of the post-collapse food supply. Very few gardeners grow grains, so where would they get the seeds?

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So when you start talking about long-term food production, there would be several years in which you probably wouldn’t have much of a crop. The kinds of vegetables that would be most likely to produce seeds reliably are annuals that self-pollinate: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, peas and lettuce. The apocalypse survivors might also be able to carry over garlic, Welsh onions (scallions) and potatoes if they happened to have some in the pantry, although potatoes in particular were probably treated with sprouting inhibitors in that time period. Organic potatoes aren’t treated with sprout inhibitors, but the organic food movement was just getting going in the 1990s.

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While I applaud Stirling for even thinking about so many potential food production issues in a post-collapse world, I think it’s highly unlikely that the survivors would be eating so well not even one year later. Here’s what Stirling says about the Christmas celebration of two major groups — the Clan Mackenzie and the Bearkillers:

~ Two roast wild pigs and a haunch of venison held pride of place on either side of it, and roast chicken and barons of beef. But there were heaps of greens as well, the last of the winter gardens: tomatoes, onions, peppers, steamed cauliflower and broccoli, boiled carrots, mashed turnips, potato salad with scallions and homemade mayonnaise, and potatoes grilled with pepper and garlic, mashed and whipped. For dessert there were fresh fruit and dozens of pies, apple and blueberry and strawberry with rhubarb-honey sweetener instead of sugar, although next year they might be able to cultivate some sugar beets. There was even whipped cream, now that they had a decent dairy herd. Dennis had the product of his brewery — it was getting a bit large to cal it a micro — set up in barrels, along with the mead and wine and applejack.
Juniper waved a hand. “Yule is a major holiday, of course, and… well, right after the Change, we – my original bunch — just planted every garden seed we could get, regardless. So did most of the people around here, the ones who joined us later. Things were very tight until about June, and we’re storing all we can, but you can’t keep lettuce or green peppers, and we might as well eat the last of them while they’re here. Things will be a lot more monotonous again come January and February.”
Monotonous, but ample, she thought with profound satisfaction. The thought of the storehouses and cellars full of wheat and barley and oats, of potatoes and cabbages and dried tomatoes and dried fruit and onions and parsnips and turnips and beets, of the herds and flocks in paddock and byre and pigpen, the full chicken coops, gave her a warm glow she’d never known before the Change. She’d never cared much about money, but hunger and hard work had taught her what real wealth was; it was being full and knowing you could eat well every coming day to next harvest — and that the seed for that harvest was safely in the ground. ~

Poetic license indeed.

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