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A Sonoma County Exercise Provides Valuable Planning Lessons – This Isn’t as Easy as We Might Hope

“I Hate Peak Oil” Cookies


Wendy Talaro

© Copyright 2005, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.

[It’s one thing to acknowledge that food production might revert to local in the face of Peak Oil. It is another thing altogether to attempt to eat locally, as this graduate student finishing a Master’s Degree in Ecological Agriculture at New College demonstrates. Not only is the prospect a daunting one, even for an agriculturally-blessed region like Sonoma County, California; the task of eating only food produced within a 100 mile radius for one week raises much more fundamental questions about our society. By way of full disclosure I should tell you that Wendy Talaro is my fiancée and that you’ll be hearing more from her. I’m a lucky guy in many ways. Even if they weren’t produced locally, “I Hate Peak Oil” cookies are great. – MCR]

November 21, 2005 1100 PST (FTW): -- Though I engaged in this two-week exercise as a specific homework assignment for a graduate school level Ecological Agriculture course, I would not hesitate to recommend that absolutely everyone living in industrialized countries participate in their own local food sourcing experiment. Where is your food grown and harvested? Not just some of it — this is a query about each and every component of your current diet, whether you’re eating junk food for pleasure and solace, or enjoying mindful dining for nutritional health. Restrict your food purchases to items grown within a specific mileage radius and write out the rationale for the distance of the boundary. Find out as best you can about the farm sources of the produce, dairy, eggs and meat that you eat and ask grocers for this information if a food item’s origin is not clearly labeled. If components of your standard diet are not locally available and readily accessible within the radius, make notes of all the food items that would otherwise be missing if not for global commerce and far-flung food transport. It is an eye-opening, if disturbing, exercise. Food security vulnerabilities are ordinarily easy to overlook until the veneer of plenty is ripped away. The vulnerabilities of Sonoma County’s local food system were exposed through this assignment, as were the shortfalls for meeting the caloric, let alone nutritional, needs of the county’s 478,400 residents.1

To delineate and clearly see my self-imposed boundary, I obtained a California State Automobile Association map of the state and drew in a circle with a compass. Any source within the boundary was fair game as “local.” In my palette of culinary creations, there was no single dish that could be prepared exclusively with locally grown items. The longer the ingredient list for the recipe, the harder it was to source every ingredient within the boundary. The success of finding or creating meals of entirely local ingredients was a complex function of available money, creativity, research, time spent in shopping and alchemical effort spent in the kitchen. Eating fresh food locally implicitly entails eating seasonally, but merely surviving by meeting caloric requirements alone entails some deprivation and self-denial of tastes and preferences, many of which have been shaped for decades by cheap fossil fuel driven imports and exports of unprocessed food and value-added manufactured foodstuffs.

Food shopping at locally-owned Oliver’s Market in Cotati, CA was my best option, given its business hours and location. A 6-mile round trip on surface streets is arguably not the most efficient use of gasoline, but a special, longer round trip to a farmers’ market under the same surface street travel conditions would’ve been even less efficient. I restricted my purchases as much as I could tolerate and afford, to (1) locally grown and (2) organic. Budgetary limitations required me to deviate from my self-selected geographic rule while the idealistic desire to give the assignment an honest effort cost me about 3-4 times as much in two weeks as food usually costs me in a single month. If I thought the cost was prohibitive, it was nothing compared to the time I spent fulfilling the requirements of the assignment. Food became a preoccupation to an exaggerated degree, not for want of more of it but due to the time sink of online recipe and food preparation research. Nor had I accounted for preparation and cooking efforts that needed to be completely reconfigured to accommodate foods that usually were not part of my diet, and in greater quantities than I was used to cooking with — pumpkins, dairy and potatoes, for example.

Fortunately, eating organic food no longer presents the same narrow range of choices and accessibility difficulties it once did; there has been explosive growth of this multi-million dollar marketplace. I had the distinct advantage of a beautifully organized and comprehensive manual, The Organic Guide to Sonoma, Napa & Mendocino Counties, 5 th edition, produced and distributed by Community Action Publications in Sebastopol, CA. Although the flavor, health and environmental benefits reflected in organic food pricing make this food competitive with cheaper, conventionally produced food (whose pricing reflects neither true long-term health detriments or environmental costs), the limits of the consumer’s personal food budget can drive short-term choices to garner the most “bang for the buck” at the grocery store.

So far, the benefits of eating locally and organically are restricted to those who have the financial means and the education to understand the consequences of their own eating habits. Even those who recognize the benefits may not have the means to consistently purchase organic, let alone locally produced organic, food under current economic conditions, which are structured in favor of cheap, fossil fuel subsidized imports and processing. Local food can be maddeningly close, yet simultaneously inaccessible. Compared to many other counties, even within California, Sonoma County is blessed with good soils, local freshwater sources and a mild climate well suited for almost year-round agriculture. Yet for all the substantial land area that could be oriented to sustaining the needs of this and neighboring counties’ residents, land and water resources are primarily allocated to foods for upscale specialty markets, both for local consumption and export.

As a full-time graduate student, I found rearranging my entire life to fit farmers’ markets hours of operation was neither practical nor affordable in immediate out-of-pocket terms. The reality of most busy working adults is such that weekends and evenings are regularly subsumed into the black hole of errands of consumption and maintenance chores. For those on fixed schedules, I can anticipate a mismatch between sellers’ and buyers’ schedules — resulting in unintended barriers to the proliferation of local food.

Short and deliberate trips to Oliver’s Market stretched into indeterminate searches, a distorted mockery of wild food foraging. My first foray resulted in a jumble – Clover Stornetta (Petaluma, CA) organic butter, non-rBST light sour cream, organic mild cheddar and organic milk, Straus Creamery (Marshall, CA) organic half and half, and organic pumpkins from Muelrath Ranches (Santa Rosa, CA). Not-so-local foods that had more familiar uses were organic eggplant and green onions from Madera, CA and Mori-Nu tofu from organic soybeans packaged, but not grown, in Torrance, CA. Although a good selection of organic and free-range meats are locally raised, meat was off-limits due to house rules set by a vegan landlord. Like going to a farmers’ market, it was impossible to go with a prepared shopping list, particularly on my first trip. While it was easy to circumvent the aisles of packaged, highly processed foods, I was left to browse the outer aisles of produce and dairy (for the record, I happen to be somewhat lactose intolerant). As with farmers’ markets shopping, I made the rounds before making my selections. It is one thing to shop with a definite list, which is only possible with year-round food availability powered by fossil fuels, and quite another to shop based on the criteria of locally grown only to bring home an odd hodge-podge of seasonally available foods picked from the selection of what Oliver’s Market made available to their customers. Though they’re a locally owned market, the majority of their produce was not locally grown.

Harder still was concocting something that would be edible, let alone nourishing, out of the findings. The challenge of figuring what to make of the mismatched assortment was a new and unanticipated time sink. With unfamiliar ingredients came the need for extensive research into recipes, which in turn prompted more shopping to augment missing ingredients. For every recipe that called for a local ingredient, there were always a few more ingredients required that were extremely difficult to obtain locally or just couldn’t be locally sourced. Food preparation time stretched interminably day after day as I struggled with untried recipes, which sometimes called for ingredients that required soaking or precooking, as was the case with the pumpkins and some frozen plums previously harvested from a tree growing on the rental property where I currently live. Time was spent in perusal of websites to verify or discover geographic origins, locate local sources for specific items, and to find recipes and cooking instructions. To compensate for extra cooking and preparation time, I found myself doubling recipes that not only attempted to make use of huge surpluses of some ingredients that were difficult to procure in smaller quantities but also provided me with several servings, the better to maximize the amount of food prepared relative to the time spent cooking everything from scratch.

Another level of burdensome complexity is added if one has to accommodate special foods due to health vulnerabilities. Though I am fortunate enough to not suffer from Celiac’s disease (gluten intolerance), leaky gut syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus (autoimmune diseases), I can only imagine how much more challenging the local food assignment would have been if I did have severe food allergies or sharp restrictions on my diet.

I decided at the outset that chocolate was not up for negotiation in the face of my assignment. In a fit of pique over the lack of a coherent group of ingredients from my first shopping trip at Oliver’s Market that would lend themselves to easily prepared meals, I created a batch of “I Hate Peak Oil” vegan chocolate chip cookies. The moniker for the cookies derives from the simple fact that most of the ingredients will become harder to come by as Peak Oil makes its effects felt. The wheat was grown in the upper Midwest though milled in Vermont; the vanilla came from Tahitian vanilla beans grown in Madagascar; the walnuts came from California’s central valley; and the chocolate in the chips was probably from Ivory Coast or Ghana. The sweetener was not sugar but brown rice syrup produced by Lundberg Rice Farms in Richvale, CA — the sole ingredient from within the 100-mile limit. As for the fat that nearly all cookie and cake recipes calls for, I used non-GMO expeller pressed Earth Balance® spread which itself is a complex amalgam of soybean, palm fruit, canola seed and olive oils flavored by a corn extract, soy protein, soy lecithin, and non-dairy lactic acid derived from sugar beets and colorant from an unspecified natural source. The irony is both delicious and absurd – in the effort to create a treat that would be palatable to vegans and omnivores alike, I had to resort to one of the most heavily processed, complex, non-local food ingredients I have ever used in cooking.

A short Google search yielded the following data for Sonoma County: (Source: Sonoma County Farm Bureau)

Value of agricultural production, 1999: $483 million (state ranking: 16th)

Top five crops by value, 2000:
Wine Grapes $389 million
Milk $79.8 million
Livestock $40.05 million
Cattle $12.4 million
Vegetables $6.6 million

Most productive acreage is dedicated to non-staple food production and it remains to be seen whether effort will be marshaled to redirect the focus of agricultural land use only when and if market signals indicate a transition would be highly profitable. Given the popularity of Atkins-type diets that restrict carbohydrate intake, it’s impossible to secure staple food carbs locally in Sonoma County in sufficient quantity relative to population size: though each person on such a diet consumes fewer carbohydrates, one consequence has been a drop in their marketability and hence their supply. I had great difficulty locating a retail source for locally grown and milled grains and I considered collecting acorns, not only to add a unique dimension to my local food experience but to also supplement my food collection and preparation skills.

Wild food gathering can be financially easier to manage if one is willing to forego money spent in exchange for time, assuming that the wild food sources are close and clustered. However the whereabouts of extant stands of oaks with access unhindered by property boundaries or collection prohibitions is not common knowledge. Food gathering on public land, which constitutes disturbance or destruction of natural scenery, plants and animal life, is expressly prohibited by the California State Parks. The National Park Service and other federal agencies only allow subsistence gathering, which is inconsistently regulated by permits — some agencies require them and others do not. Moreover, pesticides are used freely on public and private land. If finding and collecting a wild staple food was not enough to test the skills and patience of the willing forager, clearly starvation would be at our doorsteps if great numbers of Sonoma County residents were suddenly forced to rely on locally harvestable wild food supplies. 2005 was a lean year for acorn foraging compared to 2004. Foraging itself would become a fossil fuel-intensive pursuit due to extensive driving along Sonoma, Marin and Napa County backroads and major highways in search of oaks, bulbs and berries. Complicating the task of collecting wild food is the lack of widespread culinary skills for such food. If not for fossil fuel driven industrial mass production and distribution of food, the population densities and numbers humans have attained would clearly not be possible. As Richard Heinberg notes, “Food is energy. And it takes energy to get food. These two facts, taken together, have always established the biological limits to the human population and always will.”2

Finding bread made locally is not difficult but finding bread, noodles, pasta or any other carbohydrate staple food made locally from locally grown ingredients demands a time commitment to locate sources for the grains and the firm resolution to make the food from scratch. In order to obtain this flour at its nearest location, I would have had to drive almost 26 miles southbound one way in the midst of morning commute traffic. As with all farmers’ markets, it is recommended to shop early for best selection. The difficulty of acquiring local whole-wheat flour was compounded by the lack of sufficient cold storage space for more than five pounds, even if budgetary constraints did not limit the quantity I could buy for long-term usage.

The oil in wheat berries goes rancid faster once the grain has been milled. Lack of storage space would force me to use more flour than I would ordinarily, or I would have to sell or barter or give away the surplus. If I became a regular consumer of Full Belly Farm’s flour, frequent trips to restock would compel me to shop for other foodstuffs in San Rafael or contrive other SF Bay Area combined errands to justify my long trips. In essence, obtaining “local” whole-wheat flour would necessitate at least an hour and a half of round trip driving, a 52-mile round trip, to say nothing of the gasoline and patience burned in the process. I began to wonder how well I would fare eating nothing but pumpkins, Sebastopol apples and dairy products for two weeks if I opted to omit grain carbohydrates. I concluded that the aggravation of assembling ingredients for whole-wheat bread was something that I could do without, though bread itself was harder to give up and I yielded to my non-local bagel cravings.

This quest mounted for a single staple food item – milled flour - brought up the extrapolated question of how much time would be spent on a weekly or monthly basis if this were no mere exercise but a regular necessity driven by the constraints of Peak Oil. What local foods would be available for purchase in scattershot fashion and in what quantities, particularly for lack of access to a place to grow or store most of my own? What would happen if a disaster disrupted food transport along major arteries? Would I even be able to afford to eat in Sonoma County if local food remained mostly the province of upscale farmers’ markets and specialty food stores? Add to the food wish list items that have been selected for pleasure or as an acquired taste and the recipe and menu palette shrinks further - chocolate, table salt, most spices, condiments and herbs, and even exotic drinks like tea and coffee disappear altogether. Money mediates the relationship to food access and divides the haves from the have-nots. Food security, defined as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life” (World Bank, 1986)3 is not possible given our current catabolic and degenerative economic paradigm.

Like conventional agriculture, commercial organic agriculture as currently practiced can only be sustained when powered by relatively cheap and readily accessible fossil fuels. If 6 lbs of soil are lost for every pound of conventional food produced,4 then 3 to 5 1/2 pounds of soil are lost for every pound of organic food produced, with soil depletion occurring “17 to 70 times faster than nature builds it.”5 Soil losses are indirect since the importation of fertilizers means losses of organic matter and mineral from soils elsewhere (50-84% fertilizer importation x 6 lbs = 3 to 5 1/2 pounds of soil lost).6 Merely seeking to inflict less harm rather than stop or repair damage done is unconscionable at this late date, when the toll of environmental damage accrues daily and evidence mounts more quickly than it can be humanly absorbed. Considering the inevitable loss of the fossil fuel inputs upon which our food security is precariously based, the appearance of plenty is indeed an illusion. The sudden loss of food availability does not tally with our perception of the food system and our Achilles’ heel, the secret hidden in plain sight: the omnipresence of international transport of food commodities and value-added food products. When countries import and export similar quantities of the selfsame food products, the global food system exhibits puzzling redundancy that upon closer examination demonstrates collective insanity.

If market indicators are the sole measure and inducement for change, the changes that might be implemented will be too little, too late. Conventional economics — which fails to value environmental services and yet simultaneously relies heavily on nature as material source and pollution sink — does not anticipate the drastic environmental changes driven by large and ill-perceived feedback cycles with substantial anthropogenic inputs. Human attention is disproportionately directed towards short-term problems and their immediate solutions; these incur myriad problems on an even larger scale. Conventional economics and the vagaries of the marketplace are the frames through which humans view their biosphere. But the timing of natural cycles is asynchronous with the timing of the marketplace – human frames of perception are too small to view the state of the planet in toto; mega-decline data is discarded because it does not fit our modern industrial mindset wherein this planet is permanently stable and all-forgiving.

The negative consequences for environmental neglect or deliberate disregard are rarely reaped by those who inflict the damage. By the time the overlapping environmental stresses compound and accelerate decline, the market’s response will be too late to avoid reaping the whirlwind. Anticipatory preparation will give way to mitigation, tantamount to doing a lot of running to stay in one place, the reactive default action for having done little to nothing beforehand. Mitigation is very time consuming, financially draining, and energetically costly compared to prevention or even preparation.

If the population of Sonoma County waits until food imports dissipate and fail to be restocked on grocery shelves before growing most of their own food for local consumption, it will be too late to avoid starvation since the environmental service of growing food crops is not performed on demand but on nature’s cyclical timing. Likewise with water usage: if Sonoma County residents continue to overdraw underground aquifers and Russian River water to meet immediate short-term demand, groundwater pumping will be more expensive and energy intensive and aquifer recharge will take much longer. Entire ecosystems and economically valuable species populations will be more susceptible to collapse for lack of water. Not only will ever-increasing human demands for water not be met by supply, but less water will be available for growing local food, let alone meeting the needs of the non-human remainder of the biosphere. The infrastructure for graywater usage, water catchments, and waterless human waste processing / composting will need to be built hurriedly, often without reading the patterns of the landscape for the most effective use of precious water resources and nutrient cycling. Astronomically expensive and rapidly diminishing fossil fuel availability translates to loss of jobs, economic instability, cutbacks in public services, and rationing for the general public.

Capital-intensive infrastructure wear and tear maintenance and repairs that had been long postponed by cash-strapped municipalities and other government entities will lead to breakdowns, some of them catastrophic and irreparable. Due to the nature of global interdependence, ecological, energetic and economic breakdowns will not be contained or subject to quarantine. Collapse in one part of the world will eventually make its effects felt in the rest of the world community. Larger economic powerhouses are likely to suffer more precipitous declines in proportion to their dependence on imported fossil fuel energy. What little time there is to prepare will be wasted if the overall pattern of multiple ecosystemic declines is not accurately perceived and responded to with local actions bearing regional and global implications.


2 Richard Heinberg, Museletter Number 159, July 2005, “Threats of Peak Oil to the Global Food Supply”, paper presented at the FEASTA Conference, "What Will We Eat as the Oil Runs Out?", June 23-25, 2005, Dublin Ireland.

3 Lauren Sacks and Cynthia Rosenzwei “Climate Change and Food Security.”

4 John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables, 6 th edition revised, Ten Speed Press 2002, p. ix. Figure developed from US Department of Agriculture statistics.

5 Ibid, p. ix.

6 John Jeavons, personal communication

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