Famine, Crop Yields, Food Surpluses, Irrigation, Plow, Crop Rotation, Cultivars, Fertilizers, Pesticides, Tractor, Railroad and Ships

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 5th, 2013

Technology 101

(Originally published May 23rd, 2012)

Because of Advances in Farming Fewer People could Grow more Food

Cold weather kills people.  A lot of people throughout history have died during winters as they exhausted their food supplies.  That’s why preparing for the winter was serious business.  You had to store enough food to carry you through the winter.  And if the fall harvests were poor it spelled big trouble.  And famine.  It’s hard to imagine what this was like.  A long winter ahead of you with an insufficient food supply.  It was scary.  For it meant some people would die before the spring came.  Hard to fathom this in a day where you can actually drive your car through a blizzard to your favorite greasy diner or fast food restaurant for a delicious hot meal to take off the chill of the coldest winter day.  It wasn’t always like this.

And it wasn’t only long winters that killed people.  Sometimes the long summers did.  Where there were insufficient rains.  And drought.  That destroyed crops and drastically reduced fall harvests.  You don’t hear much about famine these days in the U.S, Canada, Britain, France, Germany or other advanced nations.  But underdeveloped and impoverished nations suffer famine to this day.  Why?  Two primary reasons.  Improved crop yields.  And improved transportation.  The advanced nations have them.  The impoverished nations don’t.

Improved crop yields create food surpluses.  Key to civilization itself.  Food surpluses allowed a middle class to arise because everyone did not have to grow food.  Because of advances in farming fewer people could grow more food. Those who didn’t have to grow food could think about other things.  Including ways to further improve crop yields.  By creating better tools.  Better techniques.  Better food storage.  And when you do all of these things you not only have enough food for yourself and for your surplus you have enough to export.  To those who do not have enough food.  Even allowing people to live in areas that cannot produce food.  For they can trade for food.  Thanks to these surpluses available for export.

Food is so Plentiful and Inexpensive Today that the Problem in America is not Famine but Obesity

Early farms relied on the fertile soil of river banks.  The spring flooding of the rivers raised river levels.  When the water retreated it left behind fertile soil.  Eventually we learned how to take control of our water resources.  And used it to make fertile land away from river banks.  Using irrigation.  Bringing the water to the land.  Probably the next great development was the plow.  Which let us take control of the land.  We tilled the soil to aerate it.  To control weeds.  To mix in organic material.  Such as manure.  To prepare it for planting.  And we used irrigation to bring those crops to harvest.

We then developed crop rotation to replenish nitrogen in the soil.  And to control pests.  Certain pests attack certain crops.  By rotating crops pest infestation couldn’t spread and return year after year.  Families of crops need certain nutrients.  Rotation prevents the depletion of any single nutrient.  Then we took control of the plants we grew.  By creating new plants.  Cultivars.  Using selective breeding to increase grain size, the number of grains per plant, improve disease resistance, etc.

Then we turned to chemistry.  Creating fertilizers.  And pesticides.  These two advancements alone exploded crop yields.  Never before did so few grow so much with so little.  We maximized the agricultural potential of land year after year.  And then we mechanized the farm.  Introducing the tractor.  Allowing the same number of farmers to cultivate more land.  So not only did their existing lands yield more they added more high-yield lands to explode yields.  Creating huge food surpluses available for export.  And slashing the price of food across the board.  From the bread we make from wheat.  To corn-fed beef.  Food is so plentiful and inexpensive today that the problem in America is not famine but obesity.  Obesity is bad but it takes a lot longer to die from obesity than it does from famine.  And we enjoy all of those delicious things that are making us so fat.  While there’s nothing to enjoy when starving to death.

We were able to Raise Crop Yields to such High Levels we have Food Available for Everyone in this World

As crop yields increased more food entered the market.  Good for people.  But bad for farmers.  Because they depressed crop prices.  Large farms that cultivated more land could still make a profit.  But the small farmer who didn’t cultivate more land just saw his revenue fall.  Until his revenue fell below his costs.  Leaving him unable to service the debt he incurred to mechanize his farm.  Causing bankruptcy.  Which happened a lot in the Thirties.  Causing all those bank runs during the Great Depression.

To fight this free fall in crop prices countries enacted tariffs and import restrictions.  The British Corn Laws kept out the less expensive foreign food so the landowning aristocracy could maximize their profits.  And when the British repealed the Corn Laws and adopted free trade everything the landowning aristocracy feared happen.  Food became inexpensive and plentiful.  In large part because of the United States.  Who was maximizing their crop yields.  And then using the railroad to ship their surpluses to the great rivers.  The Ohio.  The Missouri.  The Mississippi.  Where they loaded these surpluses onto steamships.  Where it traveled down the Mississippi to the Port of New Orleans.  Where they transferred it to ocean-going sail ships and steamers.  Bound for Europe.  And Britain.  Where this food fed hungry people.  And cut into the profits of the wealthy landowners.

But it wasn’t only in the United States.  Soon other great agricultural countries produced food surpluses that they shipped all over the world.  Winters still happen.  Droughts still happen.  But they don’t happen everywhere at the same time.  And because we were able to raise crop yields to such high levels we have food available for everyone in the world.  And truck, rail and ships can move that food anywhere it is needed.  Which is why we can drive to our favorite greasy diner or fast food restaurant during a blizzard on the coldest day of winter and enjoy a fresh glass of orange juice, coffee, eggs, hash browns and sausage.  No matter where you live.  As long as you live in a country that supports free trade.

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Famine, Crop Yields, Food Surpluses, Irrigation, Plow, Crop Rotation, Cultivars, Fertilizers, Pesticides, Tractor, Railroad and Ships

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 23rd, 2012

Technology 101

Because of Advances in Farming Fewer People could Grow more Food

Cold weather kills people.  A lot of people throughout history have died during winters as they exhausted their food supplies.  That’s why preparing for the winter was serious business.  You had to store enough food to carry you through the winter.  And if the fall harvests were poor it spelled big trouble.  And famine.  It’s hard to imagine what this was like.  A long winter ahead of you with an insufficient food supply.  It was scary.  For it meant some people would die before the spring came.  Hard to fathom this in a day where you can actually drive your car through a blizzard to your favorite greasy diner or fast food restaurant for a delicious hot meal to take off the chill of the coldest winter day.  It wasn’t always like this.

And it wasn’t only long winters that killed people.  Sometimes the long summers did.  Where there were insufficient rains.  And drought.  That destroyed crops and drastically reduced fall harvests.  You don’t hear much about famine these days in the U.S, Canada, Britain, France, Germany or other advanced nations.  But underdeveloped and impoverished nations suffer famine to this day.  Why?  Two primary reasons.  Improved crop yields.  And improved transportation.  The advanced nations have them.  The impoverished nations don’t.

Improved crop yields create food surpluses.  Key to civilization itself.  Food surpluses allowed a middle class to arise because everyone did not have to grow food.  Because of advances in farming fewer people could grow more food. Those who didn’t have to grow food could think about other things.  Including ways to further improve crop yields.  By creating better tools.  Better techniques.  Better food storage.  And when you do all of these things you not only have enough food for yourself and for your surplus you have enough to export.  To those who do not have enough food.  Even allowing people to live in areas that cannot produce food.  For they can trade for food.  Thanks to these surpluses available for export.

Food is so Plentiful and Inexpensive Today that the Problem in America is not Famine but Obesity

Early farms relied on the fertile soil of river banks.  The spring flooding of the rivers raised river levels.  When the water retreated it left behind fertile soil.  Eventually we learned how to take control of our water resources.  And used it to make fertile land away from river banks.  Using irrigation.  Bringing the water to the land.  Probably the next great development was the plow.  Which let us take control of the land.  We tilled the soil to aerate it.  To control weeds.  To mix in organic material.  Such as manure.  To prepare it for planting.  And we used irrigation to bring those crops to harvest. 

We then developed crop rotation to replenish nitrogen in the soil.  And to control pests.  Certain pests attack certain crops.  By rotating crops pest infestation couldn’t spread and return year after year.  Families of crops need certain nutrients.  Rotation prevents the depletion of any single nutrient.  Then we took control of the plants we grew.  By creating new plants.  Cultivars.  Using selective breeding to increase grain size, the number of grains per plant, improve disease resistance, etc. 

Then we turned to chemistry.  Creating fertilizers.  And pesticides.  These two advancements alone exploded crop yields.  Never before did so few grow so much with so little.  We maximized the agricultural potential of land year after year.  And then we mechanized the farm.  Introducing the tractor.  Allowing the same number of farmers to cultivate more land.  So not only did their existing lands yield more they added more high-yield lands to explode yields.  Creating huge food surpluses available for export.  And slashing the price of food across the board.  From the bread we make from wheat.  To corn-fed beef.  Food is so plentiful and inexpensive today that the problem in America is not famine but obesity.  Obesity is bad but it takes a lot longer to die from obesity than it does from famine.  And we enjoy all of those delicious things that are making us so fat.  While there’s nothing to enjoy when starving to death. 

We were able to Raise Crop Yields to such High Levels we have Food Available for Everyone in this World

As crop yields increased more food entered the market.  Good for people.  But bad for farmers.  Because they depressed crop prices.  Large farms that cultivated more land could still make a profit.  But the small farmer who didn’t cultivate more land just saw his revenue fall.  Until his revenue fell below his costs.  Leaving him unable to service the debt he incurred to mechanize his farm.  Causing bankruptcy.  Which happened a lot in the Thirties.  Causing all those bank runs during the Great Depression.

To fight this free fall in crop prices countries enacted tariffs and import restrictions.  The British Corn Laws kept out the less expensive foreign food so the landowning aristocracy could maximize their profits.  And when the British repealed the Corn Laws and adopted free trade everything the landowning aristocracy feared happen.  Food became inexpensive and plentiful.  In large part because of the United States.  Who was maximizing their crop yields.  And then using the railroad to ship their surpluses to the great rivers.  The Ohio.  The Missouri.  The Mississippi.  Where they loaded these surpluses onto steamships.  Where it traveled down the Mississippi to the Port of New Orleans.  Where they transferred it to ocean-going sail ships and steamers.  Bound for Europe.  And Britain.  Where this food fed hungry people.  And cut into the profits of the wealthy landowners.

But it wasn’t only in the United States.  Soon other great agricultural countries produced food surpluses that they shipped all over the world.  Winters still happen.  Droughts still happen.  But they don’t happen everywhere at the same time.  And because we were able to raise crop yields to such high levels we have food available for everyone in the world.  And truck, rail and ships can move that food anywhere it is needed.  Which is why we can drive to our favorite greasy diner or fast food restaurant during a blizzard on the coldest day of winter and enjoy a fresh glass of orange juice, coffee, eggs, hash browns and sausage.  No matter where you live.  As long as you live in a country that supports free trade.

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Steam Locomotive, Diesel Electric Locomotive, Interstate Highway System, Airplane, Air Travel, Refined Petroleum Products and Pipelines

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 21st, 2012

Technology 101

The Diesel Electric Locomotive could pull a Train Cross Country and into the Heart of a City with Minimal Pollution

The 1920s were transformative years.  The Roaring Twenties.  It’s when we moved from animal power to mechanical power.  From the horse and plow to the tractor.  From steam power to electric power.  From the telegraph to the telephone.  From the gas lamp to the electric light.  From crowded mass transit to the freedom of the automobile.  From manual labor to the assembly line. 

You can see a glimpse of that world in 1920’s Steam Train Journey Across the United States – Westward Ho!  The beginning of the modern city.  With modern street lighting.  Electric power and telephone overhead wiring.  Streets crowded with automobiles.  Tractors and mechanical harvesters on the farm.  And, of course, the steam locomotive.  Connecting distant cities.  Transferring the freight to feed the modern industrial economy.  And shipping the finished goods.  As well as all that food from the farm to our grocer’s shelves.  Proving the 1920s were vibrant economic times.  With real economic growth.  And not a speculative bubble.  For there was nothing speculative about all of this technology becoming a part of our way of life.

Of course the technology wasn’t perfect.  The coal-burning locomotives belched black smoke and ash wherever they went.  Which wasn’t all that bad in the open country where a train or two passed.  But it was pretty dangerous in tunnels.  Which had to be short lest they suffocated their passengers.  (One of the reasons why all subways use electric trains).  Making for some long and winding railroads in mountainous terrain.  To go around mountains instead of under them.  Slowing trains and increasing travel time.  And they were pretty unpleasant in the cities.  Where the several rail lines converged.  Bringing a lot of coal-burning locomotives together.  Creating a smoky haze in these cities.  And leaving a layer of ash everywhere.  The cleaner diesel-burning locomotives changed that.  The diesel electric locomotive could pull a train cross country and into the heart of a city with a minimal amount of pollution.  As long as they kept their engines from burning rich.  Which they would if they operated them with dirty air filters.  Reducing fuel efficiency by having the air-fuel mixture contain too much fuel.  And causing these engines to belch black smoke.  Similar to diesel trucks running with dirty air filters.

Airplanes can travel between Two Points in a Direct Line at Faster Speeds than a Train or Bus with Minimal Infrastructure

Trains shrunk our country.  Brought distant cities together.  Allowing people to visit anywhere in the continental United States.  And the railroads profited well from all of this travel.  Until two later developments.  One was the interstate highway system.  That transferred a lot of freight from the trains to trucks.  As well as people from trains to buses and cars.  And then air travel.  That transferred even more people from trains to airplanes.  This competition really weakening railroads’ profits.  And pretty much put an end to passenger rail.  For people used the interstate highway system for short trips.  And flew on the long ones.  Which was quicker.  And less expensive.  Primarily because airplanes flew over terrain that was costly to avoid.

Highways and railroads have to negotiate terrain.  They have to wind around obstacles.  Go up and down mountainous regions.  Cross rivers and valleys on bridges.  Travel under hilly terrain through tunnels.  And everywhere they go they have to travel on something built by man.  All the way from point A to point B.  Now trucks, buses and cars have an advantage here.  We subsidize highway travel with fuel taxes.  Trucking companies, bus lines and car owners didn’t have to build the road and infrastructure connecting point A to point B.  Like the railroads do.  The railroads had to supply that very extensive and very expensive infrastructure themselves.  Paid for by their freight rates and their passenger ticket sales.  And when there were less expensive alternatives it was difficult to sell your rates and fares at prices high enough to support that infrastructure.  Especially when that lower-priced alternative got you where you were going faster.  Like the airplane did.

Man had always wanted to fly.  Like a bird.  But no amount of flapping of man-made wings got anyone off the ground.  We’re too heavy and lacked the necessary breast muscles to flap anything fast enough.  Not to mention that if we could we didn’t have any means to stabilize ourselves in flight.  We don’t have a streamline body or tail feathers.  But then we learned we could create lift.  Not by flapping but my pushing a curved wing through the air.  As the air passes over this curved surface it creates lift.  Generate enough speed and you could lift quite a load with those wings.  Including people.  Cargo.  Engines.  And fuel.  Add in some control elements and we could stabilize this in flight.  A tail fin to prevent yawing (twisting left and right) from the direction of flight.  Like a weathercock turns to point in the direction of the wind.  And an elevator (small ‘wing’ at the tail of the plane) to control pitch (nose up and nose down).  Ailerons correct for rolling.  Or turn the plane by rolling.  By tipping the wings up or down to bank the airplane (to turn left the left aileron goes up and the right aileron goes down).  And using the elevator on the take-off roll to pitch the nose up to allow the plane to gain altitude.  And in flight it allows the plane to ascend or descend to different altitudes.  Put all of this together and it allows an airplane to travel between points A and B while avoiding all terrain.  In a direct line between these two points.  At a much faster speed than a train, bus or car can travel.  And the only infrastructure required for this are the airports at points A and B.  And the few en route air traffic controllers between points A and B. Which consisted of radar installations and dark rooms with people staring at monitors.  Communicating to the aircraft.  Helping them to negotiate the air highways without colliding into other aircraft.  And air travel took off, of course, in the 1920s.  The Roaring Twenties.  Those glorious transformative years.

Refined Petroleum Products have Large Concentrations of Energy and are the Only Fuel that allows Air Travel

The most expensive cost of flying is the fuel cost.  The costlier it is the costlier it is to fly.  Not so for the railroads.  Because their fuel costs aren’t the most expensive cost they have.  Maintaining their infrastructure is.  They can carry incredible loads cross country for a small price per unit weight.  Without swings in fuel prices eating into their profits.  Making them ideal to transfer very large and/or heavy loads over great distances.  Despite dealing with all the headaches of terrain.  For neither a plane nor a truck can carry the same volume a train can.  And heavier loads on a plane take far greater amounts of fuel.  This additional fuel itself adding a great amount of weight to the aircraft.  Thus limiting its flight distance.  Requiring refueling stops along the way.  Making it a very expensive way to transport heavy loads.  Which is why we ship coal on trains.  Not on planes.

Trains are profitable again.  But they’re not making their money moving people around.  Their money is in heavy freight.  Iron ore.  Coke.  And, of course, coal.  To feed the modern industrial economy.  Stuff too heavy for our paved roads.  And needed in such bulk that it would take caravans of trucks to carry what one train can carry.  But even trains can’t transport something in enough bulk to make it cost efficient.  Refined petroleum.  Gasoline.  Diesel.  And jet fuel.  For these we use pipelines.  From pipelines we load gas and diesel onto trucks and deliver it to your local gas station.  We run pipelines directly to the fuel racks in rail yards.   And run pipelines to our airports.  Where we pump jet fuel into onsite storage tanks in large fuel farms.  Which we then pump out in another set of pipelines to fueling hydrants located right at aircraft gates.

These refined petroleum products carry large concentrations of energy.  Are easy to transport in pipelines.  Are portable.  And are very convenient.  Planes and trains (as well as ships, busses and cars) can carry them.  Allowing them to travel great distances.  Something currently no renewable energy can do.  And doing without them would put an end to air travel.  Greatly increase the cost of rail transport (by electrifying ALL our tracks).  Or simply abandoning track we don’t electrify.  Making those far distant cities ever more distant.  And our traveling options far more limited than they were in the 1920s.  Turning the hands of time back about a hundred years.  Only we’ll have less.  And life will be less enjoyable.

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