The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it's mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can't eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today. Our ancestors found it preferable to pluck the energy from the ground and when it ran out move on.
Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we fill it again with new energy in the form of oil-rich fertilizers. Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year's worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land—in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years' worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else. Even as the earth beneath Iowa shrinks, it is being globalized.
The title of the book refers to a calculation that he made at some point to find out how much each tomato that he had harvested that season had cost him. The cost he comes up with is $64 each. However, don't make the mistake of thinking that amount is typical and let it discourage you from planting a garden! I have to nitpick and point out that there are significant flaws in his calculation. In addition, he incurred large expenses that most gardeners will not face.
For example, because the spot he chose for his garden was on a slope, he had to bring in a professional with some heavy equipment to grade and terrace the ground, at a cost of $8,500! Plus, he valued all of the rest of his produce at standard supermarket prices, leaving $1219 in expenses. He then divided that among the 19 Brandywine tomatoes he got that year (it was an extremely bad harvest that year) and came up with the figure of $64 per tomato.
I could go into great detail, analyzing his accounting method and explaining what's wrong with it, but frankly it would be about as interesting as, well, accounting. So instead I'll just repeat that the average gardener is not going to spend anywhere near $64 each to raise tomatoes, so don't let that scare you off!
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