Climate is Not the Only Limit to Agriculture

By Dr. Tim Ball (Adaptation of article in The Landowner) – Re-Blogged From WUWT

“Agriculture… is the first in utility, and ought to be the first in respect.” Thomas Jefferson

“There are no farms in the cities, but there are no cities without farms.” Tim Ball

There are marked differences between the atmosphere and nature of the environment between the city and the countryside. Unfortunately, because they are unknown or ignored by most academics, bureaucrats, and politicians, they threaten the very basis of society through bad policy. The disconnect between urban and rural extends to almost everything about living in the real world. As people moved to cities, they quickly forgot about the land and nature. Their views, perceptions, and concerns changed. For example, I listen to the weather forecast, and it editorializes about ‘good weather.’ They then predict hot and sunny days to the delight of the urbanite, when the farmers need rain. I remember one summer that urban dwellers thought was terrible, but the farm community thoroughly enjoyed it. Almost like clockwork it was sunny all week and rained every weekend. It became an urban joke. “What day is it after two days of rain – Monday. What do you call it is if it rains on Monday – a long weekend.”

The sad part is the pseudoscience of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created predictions of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) that committed to policies that don’t fit any possible impact and exacerbate the urban/rural difference. Because the IPCC Impact Reports only considered the negative effects of warming, decision-makers did not know of the positive effects of warming or the negative effects of cooling. All governments are planning for warming when the more likely future is cooling, which has markedly different implications for the rural area.

Like all issues or divides in society, the best chances for coping or ameliorating them is by putting them in context. This article examines the divergence and potential issues caused by lack of knowledge and understanding of nature and science due to urbanization with a focus on soils and climate.

Even before the claims of AGW appeared people like T. J. Chandler were examining the difference between urban and rural climates. Chandler’s 1966 work, The Climate of London, was very influential in climate studies. However, the urban heat island effect greatly impacted the AGW debate with the publication of Figures 1 (rural) and 2 (urban) by Australian researcher Warwick Hughes.


Figure 1


Figure 2

I know from my research on the movement of the tree line in central Canada that impacts of climate change are first felt at the transition between different climate zones. This is especially true for the transition zones between areas suitable for agriculture.

A good example was the loss of agricultural land in Scotland as temperatures declined rapidly at the start of the Little Ice Age (LIA). Colder temperatures lowered the altitude on the side of the hills at which crops could grow. Some estimate that the conversion of this altitude, because of gradient to a horizontal measure, took approximately 50% of the land out of food production. Figure 3 is a map produced to study the impact of cooling back in the 1970s when another simplistic trend prediction was underway that the world would continue to cool with devastating effect. Consider this quote from Lowell Ponte’s 1976 book The Cooling.


It is cold fact: the global cooling presents humankind with the most important social, political, and adaptive challenge we have had to deal with for ten thousand years. Your stake in the decisions we make concerning it is of ultimate importance; the survival of ourselves, our children, our species.


You only have to change the seventh word from “cooling” to warming, and it fits today’s hysterical commentary. You also have to know that in that 10,000 years sedentary agriculture developed.


Figure 3

I always found the idea fascinating that by transposing one letter “l” changes altitude to latitude, because the pattern of climate transition is similar as you go up the mountain or move from the Equator to the Poles. It is interesting to speculate, and not difficult to roughly calculate, the latitudinal changes in energy balance that would occur with similar cooling in the past. It is why Jean Grove included the Berwickshire maps in her book The Little Ice Age, a thorough study on the evidence. Paul Homewood referenced it when he debunked the AGW alarmists claim that the LIA was not global.

A positive effect of global warming is it would open up large areas currently beyond the limits of agriculture. However, suitable climate is not the only controlling factor. The rest of this article looks mostly at soil, the variable least understood or considered by the city dwellers.

The Peace River country (Figure 4) in western Canada is at the northern climate limit of agriculture and therefore more vulnerable to cooler temperatures.


Figure 4

Its potential was assessed by various people, especially employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company who were under orders to inform the Company of any economic potential. Of course, economic potential is different than agricultural potential. A resource is only valuable to us if it has a use. For example, Alexander Mackenzie travelled through the Peace River country and complained about the bitumen deposits on the surface ruining his moccasins. Today these are the vast resources of energy known as the Athabasca Tar sands. He was aware of resource potential because he said the bitumen was valuable for waterproofing birch bark canoes.

The Peace River country began to open to energy potential, mostly natural gas, in the early 20th century, but agricultural settlement was boosted by the global warming that occurred from 1900 to 1940; a greater warming than occurred after 1980. The region was affected by the cooling after 1940 and by the 1970s was struggling to maintain itself. I knew several farmers who homesteaded in the region only to lose their land. It is interesting to consider the adaptations made to survive. Beef cattle became a major industry, and some farmers re-introduced bison, but perhaps the most interesting was the production of grass seed. Luckily, the cooling did not continue, and the Peace prospered. It certainly would benefit from global warming, although there is another limit, the soils. The question is what happens if warming does not occur and cooling returns as the best climate experts expect?

Globally, in the 1970s, concern centered on cooling as global temperatures declined from 1940. A map was produced for the UN study estimating the impact of a 1°C drop on Canadian agriculture (Figure 5).


Figure 5

Many of today’s farmers were not operating in the 1970s but experienced similar conditions, of approximately a drop of 1°C in global temperatures in 1992 following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo.

It is not clear who said civilization is a thin veneer, but I know that it is built on a very thin veneer of soil. Figure 6 shows the bedrock exposed and a soil layer of one to three feet.


Figure 6

Before Christmas of December 2017, I received a wonderful 1804 first edition of a book titled, “The Soil and Climate of the United States of America,” by C. F. Volney. The author was a Frenchman who liked what the American Revolution was about and spent three years touring the US to determine its viability. His work parallels and is as perceptive as that of Alexis de Tocqueville ‘s “Democracy in America.” Unlike most commentators today, Volney understood that an adequate agricultural base was essential for any economy and that depended on the soil and climate potential.

Those who drew boundaries to create Canadian provinces understood it. For example, the northern boundary of the Prairie Provinces was set at 60°N because it was determined that agriculture was not possible north of that latitude. Hay River was established as the first capital of the Northwest Territories because it was the only small region with a sliver of soil that was not permafrost (permanently frozen).

President Trump proves in so many ways why he is not a politician. I use the word politician in the way it has become defined, that is a person who does not listen or care about the people except at election time. We had another example when he spoke to the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention in Nashville on January 8th 2018. He knew what denizens of the urban swamp don’t know, that the entire basis and strength of any economy is the ability to feed the citizens. His views expressed at the Convention were barely heard from any US leader after Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson also said something that most politicians studiously avoid today.

“Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.  The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.  The small landowners are the most precious part of a state.”

Ironically, Lenin was forced to recognize this reality when in 1924 he introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP). Just seven years after the revolution and the creation of massive state-owned farms he was forced to allow every peasant to own a small plot of land. When the Soviet Union collapsed, these plots were producing over 50 percent of all available foodstuffs. Russia is a good example of the focus of this article with vast land but most of it with poor soils and a short growing season.

The ability to produce surplus food produces surplus time and, in that time, you can create any monopoly game economy you want. This is the simple pattern of history and civilizations. A climate change usually related to increased rainfall allows greater food production. The word civilization comes from the process of forming cities. That is why the first cities appeared in what we call the Fertile Crescent (Figure 7). The cities became the storehouses of agricultural products and began to control the society. Meanwhile, they began to forget that without agriculture they could not exist. They became detached from the problems developing on the land.


Figure 7

The Fertile Crescent had ideal conditions 9000 years ago for crops and animals that are at the centre of western agriculture today. People gradually settled and switched from hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture. Anthropologists and historians count this as a major advance in human evolution. This is a legitimate argument from all but a nutritional perspective.

A hunter/gatherer diet had a wide variety of foodstuffs, which when supplemented with small game provided what dieticians today tell us is the ideal diet. If the food supply was limited for any reason, including bad weather, people simply moved. We gave that up to sit in one place, be at the mercy of the weather, and depend on about five basic foodstuffs. I think the reason for the change was for security of supply. But if you have a surplus supply, you cannot drag it around with you. It requires storage facilities, and they require construction, maintenance, and management – in short, a city. Gradually, the cities grew in size and power but became increasingly detached from the basis of their existence. They also became detached from the problems created by that basis and threatening its future.

These include a gradual change in climate, in the case of the Crescent toward increasing aridity, but also increasing salinity in the soils, and increasing rates of soil erosion. We do not think of the Fertile Crescent as a major agricultural region today and most, especially in the cities, can’t understand why it was so different in the past.

Awareness of that fact underscores the different awareness of the environment and economies of urban and rural people. Ironically, the difference began with the Agricultural Revolution (AR) that preceded and allowed for the Industrial Revolution (IR). Encyclopedia Britannica identified the major factors that triggered the AR including,

· break up of great estates to create smaller more intensive commitment to the land;

· Investment in and production of technical improvements including new machinery;

· Better drainage;

· Scientific methods of breeding animals;

· Experimentation with plant breeding and new crops; and

· Increased productivity and better soil management through crop rotation.

I saw an example of the urban ignorance of that last point when the Canadian government introduced a plan to reduce methane on farms. Many farmers signed up, partly because due to poor weather and low prices they looked for survival. The plan failed because it required the farmer to give up management of the farm with the elimination of crop rotation.

The net result was a dramatic increase in food production, including security of supply. Without this surplus and reliability of supply, the Industrial Revolution could not have occurred. Technology on the farm reduced the job opportunities there, whereas it increased demand for workers in the cities. As a result, the British population changed from 80 percent rural and 20 percent urban in 1850 to the exact opposite today. This transition is presently occurring in China more rapidly and on a greater scale. It reached the maximum redistribution in Canada and the US in the 20th century. Approximately 18 percent are identified as rural, but a majority of them support the 2 percent who identify themselves as farmers. Jefferson recognized the importance of the farmers when he said,

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.

Jefferson also said things that introduce the underlying battle for the minds of society that is central to the urban/rural disconnect today. It speaks to the drift away from what creates and sustains a society.


“The pursuits of agriculture [are] the surest road to affluence and best preservative of morals.”


“An industrious farmer occupies a more dignified place in the scale of beings, whether moral or political, than a lazy lounger, valuing himself on his family, too proud to work, and drawing out a miserable existence by eating on that surplus of other men’s labor which is the sacred fund of the helpless poor.”


We have reached a point in North America where the “industrious farmer” is a victim of his/her success. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, never in the history of humanity have so few produced so much for so many at so low a price. They are victims because they have lost their voice in society. A few years ago, I spoke at a farm conference in Lloydminster with about 1000 in attendance. The concern was acute because a drought gripped the region and prices for farm products were low. I spoke to them about the historical pattern of droughts and projected the end of the current situation. I was asked what the farm community could do to get the attention of urban dwellers and politicians to their problems.

I said, the first things to understand are that,

· The population disparity means urban voters outnumber you and therefore gets political attention.

· Approximately 30 years ago most people in a city had come from the rural area or still knew people in the countryside.

· 30 years ago, most major newspapers had a section on agriculture.

· Some 60% of Torontonians were not even born in Canada.

· Probably a higher percentage of Canadians take holidays overseas rather than in Canada.

· Prime Minister Mackenzie King said Canada has too much geography and not enough history. He was wrong. Yes, we have lots of both, the problem is few Canadians know very little about either one.

· A majority of politicians at the Federal and Provincial level are from urban areas.

Then, you need to understand that the characteristics that make you different and successful and cause you to lose political clout. To be a successful business person or farmer, you must be a risk taker, someone willing to operate independently, to take responsibility for success and cope with failure. These are exactly the opposite characteristics required for party politics. They are why a former President of the Canadian Conservative Party said that when an election is called conservatives circle the wagons and shoot inwards. To get the attention of the urban dwellers and the politicians who court their vote, the farmers have to get together one year and say we are not going to produce anything this year. It won’t happen, but maybe just talking about the idea will identify the problem and lead to action. Of course, Trump would say you have to be prepared to do it.


Figure 8

When global warming due to human production of CO2 was gaining political momentum, a major report identified soil erosion as a problem of equal magnitude. I disagree because human-caused global warming was never a problem. The erosion requires attention because there is so little fertile soil in the world. It is why the UN declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Meanwhile, hydroponics (growing plants without soil Figure 8) has possibilities, though the scale of production to equal what we produce in soil is not feasible. Besides, you can wonder what happens when rural values are lost, and the thin veneer of civilization becomes an even thicker, insensitive skin.



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