Growing Plains: Where Energy and Agriculture Meet

I’m happy to report that I have started a new position as Postdoctoral Fellow in History at the University of Saskatchewan. From 2012-2014 I was the NiCHE Project Coordinator, and before that a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, at the University of Western Ontario. It was a great and productive experience with new websites, posters, collections, workshops, and book chapters (in HGIS methods and PEI agriculture) to show for it. Now that the NiCHE Cluster grant has concluded, its website, including The Otter ~ la loutre blog, will continue under an editorial collective.

My new fellowship is with the Sustainable Farm Systems (SFS) SSHRC Partnership Grant led by Dr. Geoffry Cunfer at the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon.  Here I will build on the work of the Great Plains Population and Environment Project, conducting new research in agriculture on the Great Plains/Prairies and in my own case study of Prince Edward Island. My larger research program has always focused on the limits of agro-ecosystems, from flax production on the edge of the semi-arid grasslands land to abandoned farms “going spruce” in Prince Edward Island. In this vein I will be applying the new methods of socio-ecological metabolism and particularly the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) models developed by the SFS team across five research groups in Europe, Latin America, and North America.

I am an Environmental and Digital historian interested in how global commodities influenced modern agriculture and land use in Canada and the U.S. I’m particularly interested in Canada’s “other oil,” triglycerides, and how the development of new consumer goods created a global oilseed industry, first in flax and cottonseed, but later in soybeans, sunflower, corn, and Canola. The role of the European wheat market is well known in Prairie historiography, but the rapidly growing chemical sector also helped shape the Plains during the Second Industrial Revolution. My research focuses on these transnational specialty crops that appeared first in the lower Great Lakes farm region and then reemerged in the northern Great Plains and Prairies.

Two different types of energy stores on the Plains. Photo: J. MacFadyen, August 2014

Two different types of energy stores on the Plains. Photo: J. MacFadyen, August 2014

By examining the EROI of Plains agriculture, I will be building on another aspect of my recent research. My SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship focused on biomass energy and the land use patterns created by harvesting the most important perennial crop in Canada – firewood.

Flax and firewood may seem like obscure topics, but I argue that small shifts in the consumption of ordinary commodities had major ripple effects across North American landscapes. And I’ve found many like minds in Environmental History. The interest in biomass energy has caught on, if I may, as shown by the many papers on the subject at recent conferences in the field. I’ve also entered what one might even consider a concentration of historians interested in fats and oils. Here in Saskatoon – a centre for oilseed research – historians like Geoff Cunfer have written extensively about corn and cotton, Jim Clifford works on tallow in the British Empire and Patrick Chasse studies palm oil and other agricultural commodities in Guatemala. In Spain, Juan Infante and others from the Andalusian branch of the SFS team, are experts on the history of olive oil in Mediterranean agriculture.

These are just a few of the reasons I’m looking forward to this new position. There’s a lot of excellent environmental history happening here at the U of S, and I hope to continue helping to build the Canadian network here and as a volunteer editor with NiCHE.

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