Monday, June 22, 2015

The Death of Grass

When was the last time you were sereved a meal with bread and butter on the side, and were tempted to say, "Never mind the rest of it. Just bring me more of this butter."

It may have been a while, but I'd be surprised if it hadn't happened to you. Not all butter is created equal, and were I a higher-end diner, no doubt I would be enjoying dairy delectables on a level with the kind I was served at Rumours on Thursday night on a daily basis. It went nicely with the Doukhbor wedding borscht that you can get everywhere in Grand Forks, and it should, because butter (and cream) are the not-so secret ingredients of Doukhbor borscht. (The beet, in contrast, you throw out before serving. My kind of people.)

People, we need to talk about Grand Forks. It's not just the place that my Dad ended up in because a particle board plant was hiring after the Port Alice pulp mill invited him to compete for his own job in the black year of 1982. It's also a horror story.

One that could easily have a happy ending.

First, let me drop some numbers from Wikipedia

Historical population
Sources: Statistics Canada[5][6]

So this is a shrinking community, with an aging population. Just to put it in perspective, the provincial average, which is not low, is 41. I don't know if I can communicate what an average age of 52.3 looks like. . . 

Actually, I totally can. This isn't to make fun of old people. They've come by their mobility impairments and their incipient dementia honestly, and we'll all be there sooner than we like. 

Now I'll situate things a bit. 

Google Maps doesn't seem to like Grand Forks very much. It's at the "3" on Highway 3 between Greenwood and the border crossing point of Laurier, which isn't even a town, anymore. Don't ask me why.

Now I'll drill down a bit. First, the region:

Scaling up to the point where I the map includes the local Canadian centres of Kelowna and Castlegar loses "Grand Forks" again. What did the town ever do to you, Google? I can't quite size it up enough to get a part of Washington State that's not pure backwater, either. Time to scale down:

Nominally, Grand Forks is the valley where the Kettle River is joined by a major left bank tributary, the Granby. In fact I suspect that its geological history is a bit more complex, as the basin is a great deal wider than is usual in the region. Supposedly, this is a big deal. The frequently cited statistic is that only 3% of British Columbia's land is arable, which is why an early 1970s socialist government established a 47,000 square kilometer agricultural land reserve to prevent the development of arable. 

Three other big things about Grand Forks. First is that the east-west orientation of the valley led to the building of an intercontinental railway through it, in the decade before the World War when it seemed perfectly reasonable that Canada would soon have five intercontinental railways. To someone. Look, remenber the early 200os, when we all had to pretend that Enron, Worldcom and Nortel weren't tobaggoning towards disaster in case people thought we were dumb? It was like that.

Second, it had a copper-zinc mine in town, back when that was a thing, also way back when. That's why the town is as large as it is, why there's all those homes, a community to slowly give up the ghost, where in plenty of places around this province, there is not. Although these days the impetus of the start is almost gone, and Grand Forks has all but slumped back to the level of the Lumbys and the Falklands of the province.

Third, it got the Doukhobor migration, back when that was  a thing. Hence the food. 

Before I went off on my list, I sort of intimated that hte Crows Nest intercontinental railway was a bit of an investment scam. So it was, but, around between the Kettle River bridges in south Grand Forks survived, and now they're actually running. Just because Grand Forks is an aging, shrinking town that has pissed Google off somehow doesn't mean that it doesn't have significant industries. On the contrary. In spite of the collapse of its major sawmill in 2008,  and the likely imminent closure of the Interfor plant, the town ships a lot of product. 

Here's Bron and Sons Nursery. It's the official pic, so don't blame me if it's blurry. And here's the official website of Stewart Brothers Nursery, which has a 256 acre operation in Grand Forks which ships nursery trees out by the semi-load. These are profitable, industrial-sized operations, and there are plenty of small BC towns that would kill to have a local industrial sector that is growing, making money, and employing people. You can't say that about lumber processing. Volumes are going down, and jobs even faster as the work gets more automated, as is true of industry in general. 

The nursery business could stand to grow, too. See the mountains half-cropped at the top of the Bron picture? Here's the view from them.

If the Bron picture isn't an aerial, then it was taken from the forest-clad mountains in this picture, from just below the American border, which runs half way up them. I may be guilty of overestimating, but it looks to me like the larger Grand Forks basin is about 100 square kilometers. That is room for over 80 250 acre nurseries. Depending on market demand, which I would imagine is nothing like enough to support so many. 

There are other opportunities in high-value-added agriculture around Grand Forks, to be sure.

But. . . 

Want to build a house? Call Sharon Marshall. No need to hurry, either. This is actually two lots smooshed together, the total, by my arithmetic, 5.7 acres. There's more across the road, too. It's also right behind the brand-newish Grand Forks Extra Foods supermarket. Mad convenient!

As you might guess from the raw numbers, there's not a lot of house building in Grand Forks. In fact, I would venture to say, none.

This picture started out as an attempt to photograph one of the many "For Sale By Owner" signs in front of probably abandoned houses in town. Then I got distracted by the wild deer grazing in the garden, flicking its tail lazily, as completely at ease as a horse in a paddock.

This is right across from the hospital. Boundary General serves a very large area. It's a major employer. Yet a desperate owner is apparently all but giving away a house that's right across the street. I honestly and literally saw more deer while bicycling around the hospital than I did people, and more horse herds grazing on the highway between Kelowna and Grand Forks than I did cattle (and not many of either).

Unfortunately, I did not take many pictures of the 1920s era houses that are everywhere in town, whether dilapidated or neat.

Here's the obligatory parking-lot-in-the-heart-of-down-town picture instead. It's where the old Grand Forks Hotel used to be, before it burned down. No-one's built anything in its place because --well, because you have to see Grand Forks to believe it. There's a Quonset hut still being used as retail space. It's a bowling alley. I kid you not. This town is where building starts go to die.

As, you know, it should be. 1.918 dwellings and 3,985 people means an average household size of 2.07, and I saw three fairly large retirement homes in town, one quite intimately. (It'll be very nice for my Dad, if we can just get him to agree to go into it.)  Strike, say, 500 assisted livers from the total and the children who do exist, and, bearing in mind that there aren't that many apartment buildings in town, and you will appreciate that most of the houses, the very many houses, have one or fewer inhabitants. This is not the kind of environment where people build homes.

It bears pointing out that it's also not the kind of place where people who build homes for a living, live. If that suggests a negative reinforcement loop (or, in more homely terms, what happens if you try to break through a turn), then you'd be, in my opinion, right. This would be the point where a doom-and-gloom pessimist would point out that Grand Forks is all of Canada's future, while a tin-hat lunatic would yell "Wake up, sheeple!"

That's not me, though, even in the autumnal gloom inspired by touring retirement homes. 

I'm not the guy to take great photos out of the window of a moving bus, but I've got a lot of these. This one shows the mown hay, ready to be gathered up, and I have more, and could have many more, taken not in Grand Forks, but on Highways 3 and 33, all the way from the shoulder above Grand Forks to Beaverdell on the intermontane plateau, where Highway 33 leaves the Kettle River and strikes out for the pass over to the Okanagan Valley. It's a beautiful drive, and the country side is surprisingly green, considering that in the last two months there has barely been a signficant rainfall in Vancouver, and not that much more, even in the high mountains that wring out the Pacific rain. The reason for that is that the Kettle River meanders through a barely populated country. There's not much call for water rationing when every drop you sprinkle will have returned to the river by the time it is ready to be pumped up by your next neighbour. 

Okay, I exaggerate. A bit. Point is, there definitely seems to be a shift in the global climate going on. I'm told that it's because we're pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Seems plausible to me, and it occurs that perhaps we should do something about it. 

Here's a thought: bear with me, it might be thinking outside the box, the kind of idea a crank thinks is smart. Why not burn palm oil in diesel engines? A lot of cargo gets moved by diesel these days (arguably more than should be, and I speak as someone who derives a large part of his bread and butter from our society's relatively new habit of taking a large share of its hydration in the form of flavoured water that is trucked to retail destinations). 

Using palm oil to run the trucks? And canola peanut and mustard and linseed oil and coconut? That would help. It seems to me. I'm not eager to volunteer Kettle Valley butter for the cause as well. In my experience, it is much better eaten.  

But for fuck's sake: eaten, burned, used as lubricant, whatever. It's got to be produced, first. The land and water are sitting there idle. Everything that could go into producing it has gone slack, is getting old. And it's just sitting there, ready to be pocketed and used. It's frustrating.


  1. Boisourced hydrocarbons suffer from the really low efficency of photosynthesis, less than 1 percent. Even terrible solar photovoltaic and lead-acid batteries can beat that, and current solar and batteries can beat it by orders of magnitude, plural.

    Much better to eat the butter.

  2. I've seen higher estimates, especially when all crop residues are included. In any case, it's pretty hard to run a Diesel-cycle engine with electric power. At the point where land-under-cover becomes the limiting factor on energy production, it is hard to argue with the advantages of photovoltaic installations.
    Until then, biology has its advantages.

    1. Biology consists of food. That's it's main advantage.

      Diesels, like all internal combustion engines, are something of a mistake. We just got ICEs because they were the first path to the power to weight needed for aircraft when there was a really big war.

      Terrestrial photosynthesis really does top out around one percent; the contention is made algae can get up to five. Standard PV is around 20 and you can get 30 commercially. Ammonia makes an excellent energy-dense pumpable fuel, synthesizable with air, water, and electricity at about 70% efficency. (Sailboats. Drag the prop, generate power, return ashore and pump out ammonia. Lots more wind over water. )

      In the meantime, the NorAm herd is at a fifty year low and not because producers want out of the market. Better money there than ethanol the way the rain curve is going if they keep their grass.

      And you can't eat biodiesel. I'd hate to bet that won't matter.

  3. I have a soft spot for internal combustion engines, but that doesn't change the fact that chemical heat engines beat electrical for efficiency. In the long run, I'm enamored of a vision of the world in which solar/wind/hydoelectric plants make air into hydrocarbons (and ammonia, but ammonia has no carbon chains) with their slack power. Chemical energy stores better than electrical.

    In the short run, we have a huge, dedicated infrastructure running on diesel. That's a pretty big argument for biodiesel now. And whereas a air-to-methane cycler hooked up to the W.A. C. Bennett dam is a vision for the future, a sunflower/canola/hemp/peanuts greenhouse similarly located could go up tomorrow.

    And should! Time's wasting while we're talking. Hydroponics magazine claims 1kg seed gives 5kg grass/square meter of bench every two weeks. Sold! Well --the yield could be better, but still, a hectare under glass sequestering 330 tons of cellulose a year?

    You're right that making biodiesel out of butter is a bit crazy, though. I'm thinking more in the traditional lines of grabbing part of that sweet margarine market away from palm oil. Again, every barrel of oil we leave in the ground right now pays a dividend a hundred years down the line. So does every barrel we leave there in 2050, but the dividend doesn't start being paid until 2050.

    In conclusion, in 1939--45 we beat the Nazis. In 2015, can't we at least try to beat global warming?