Farming Without Machines: A Revolutionary Agricultural Technology

how to grow more vegetables

How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine

By John Jeavons

2002 Edition

Ten Speed Press

Book Review

Originally published in 1974, How to Grow More Vegetables remains a vital resource for farmers, agricultural researchers and planners, sustainability activists and home gardeners, as the world confronts the challenge of feeding a global population of 7-9 billion without access to the cheap fossil fuels that have run “industrial” agriculture for the last century. Thanks to skyrocketing oil prices, Peak Oil is no longer just a theory. The failure of oil production to increase at the same rate as heavy demand from developing countries like China and India has driven the price of oil to record levels. Owing to the heavy use of fossil fuels in contemporary agriculture, food prices have tended to increase at a comparable rate. Scientists predict that food shortages related to the loss of mechanized agriculture will likely be compounded by droughts, floods and other extreme weather events related to climate change.

Growing Soil, Not Crops

Jeavon’s book is unique in that it combines theory and research (with a fifty-three page bibliography) with a cookbook-style manual for households preparing for a future in which they grow most or all of their own food. The GROW BIOINTENSIVE approach, developed by Jeavons and Ecology Action of the Midpenninsula (Palo Alto), is centered around preserving the microbial life (bacteria and fungi) that are abundant in healthy soil and which are essential to plant health and growth. Up to 6 billion microbial life-forms live in one 5-gram sample of cured compost (about the size of a quarter). This microbial life, so essential to plant development, is destroyed by specific aspects of industrial farming. This is the main reason for the relatively poor yields of factory farms (in contrast to traditional biointensive methods). It’s also responsible for the extensive destruction of our topsoil. Repeated plowing and chemical fertilizers disrupt the delicate ecology of topsoil organisms, and pesticides and herbicides are as deadly to soil bacteria and fungi as they are to insects and weeds. In his introduction, Jeavons reveals that industrial farming destroys approximately six pounds of topsoil for each pound of food it produces. China’s soils, for example, remained productive for more than 4,000 years, until the adoption of mechanized chemical agricultural techniques led to the destruction of 15-33% of their agricultural soil. Another example is North Africa, which was the granary for Rome until overfarming transformed it into a desert. According to Jeavons, the world only has enough topsoil left to last 42-84 years.

Quadrupling Crop Yields

Based on thirty-plus years of horticultural research, Ecology Action members have ascertained that the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, can produce enough food to feed one person (on a vegan diet) with 4,000 square feet of land. This contrasts with the 7,000 square feet required to feed a vegan using fossil fuels, farm machinery and conventional chemical or organic techniques. Without fossil fuels and machines, the amount of land required (using conventional chemical or organic techniques) would be 21,000-28,000 square feet. At present it takes 31,000-63,000 square feet per person to produce an average US diet (including eggs, milk, cheese, and meat), using fossil fuels and mechanization and conventional chemical or organic techniques. In addition to increasing caloric production by 200-400% per unit of area, the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method also significantly reduces water consumption (by 67-88%) and increases soil fertility (by 100%).

A Manual for Novice, Intermediate and Advanced Gardeners

Most of How to Grow More Vegetables is a detailed instruction manual describing how an average family (1-4 people) can grow the right kind of crops to supply most, if not all, their food requirements. Nearly half the book consists of tables with basic information about the spacing, care and calorie and protein content of specific crops and master charts showing where, when and how much of each variety to plant.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

6 thoughts on “Farming Without Machines: A Revolutionary Agricultural Technology

  1. Pingback: One Man, One Cow, One Planet | The Most Revolutionary Act

  2. Does anyone know what climate this book refers to? My understanding is that in a temperate climate like the UK it is not possible to get such high yields – permaculture does not work well in such climates. I would be interested to know whether this book would be applicable to the uk.

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  3. This book is written for a temperate climate typical of the northern US (and the UK). I think there may be some misunderstanding of what is mean by permaculture (the book and research refer to the “biointensive method,” which in my mind is pretty similar). For the most part, permaculture refers to no-till, multi-crop methods of food production that rely heavily on perennials (annuals tend to cause more soil disruption) that build soil by retaining complex soil microorganisms essential to nutrient uptake by plants.

    No-till, multi-crop horticulture has always produced higher yields (measured in calories per acre) than monoculture approaches that relying on soil destroying plowing and pesticides (which directly kill soil microorganisms.

    I strongly recommend you get the book. I’ve used many of its practical tips in my own garden.

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