John Robb: Crazy Costly Agriculture versus Sane Affordable Agriculture

01 Agriculture

printlogo-1329425488189.jpegBy John Robb

I used to have a boss that said “if you ever wanted to find out the best way to get a job on a farm done, give it to a lazy person first.”

While this seems counter-intuitive, it actually makes sense.
The lazy person will find the way to do the job with the minimum amount of effort, whereas a hard worker is often willing to accept the job as given, even if the job is needlessly difficult.
What makes a job needlessly difficult?  It’s when the energy expended to do it is MUCH greater than the outcome.

Here’s an example from the US food industry.  It compares the energy used to produce the food we eat to the amount of energy we get from the food produced.
Food Energy

That’s a pretty amazing disparity.  Note that less than 200 years ago, it required less energy to produce food than it yielded.

A ratio this bad indicates that while we’ve been hard workers, we haven’t been that smart about how we did the job.

Fortunately, we are getting an opportunity to correct this mistake as we start to grow food locally again.


To borrow a phrase from Steve Jobs, we need to “think differently.”  One of the ways to do that is to grow food as systems.

In food systems, the plants (and sometimes animals) work together in a synergistic, self-regulating way.

Here’s a very simple example of a rudimentary food system.  It’s a Native American farming technique called the three sisters (pic via Stephen Shirley).

The three sisters combines Corn, Beans, and Squash to produce as much food as possible with a minimal amount of effort.

  • The corn provides structure for the beans to climb (eliminating the need for poles).
  • The beans take nitrogen out of the air and fix it in the soil for the corn and squash to use.
  • The squash provides ground cover that protects (keeps moist) the roots of the beans and the corn.

Cornell’s Gardening program has some more detail on how to plant the three sisters.   So does Renee’s garden.

Notice that the system design used here, although rudimentary, is powerful.

It’s also something that doesn’t use much energy to ship.  It’s information.  It can be shared with everyone instantly, all over the world.  For example, you can forward this e-mail to friend anywhere in the world, at nearly zero energy cost.
It’s also something we can co-develop to improve with people all over the world.

So, let’s question some of the assumptions of growing food and get tinkering!  We’re going to need many more systems like this in the future.  More powerful systems that do more with less.

If you do find a system that works, share the results of your efforts  and others will do the same.  Let’s get lazy.

Resiliently Yours,


PS:   Not only is our food system needlessly difficult, it’s also needlessly complex.  For example, to make this centrally managed food production system work we’ve built hideously complex commodities markets (volatile markets infested by derivatives and hedge funds) and taken huge risks with food safety (risky GMOs and pesticide resistant superweeds).

PPS:   The design and care of food systems is often called “permaculture.”