“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” – Tim O’Brien
Upon first glance it would seem that the farmer and the soldier couldn’t be more different: the soldier bears the weighty burden of taking life when peace and justice require it, while the farmer’s burden consists of bringing forth life so that he and others may live.
But consider for a moment that soldier and farmer are not only similar, but cut from the same cloth.
The soldier often must take life, it is true; but this is so that many more may live, and live more abundantly. The farmer brings forth life, it is true; but he knows better than most that death is as much a part of growing things as life is, and that farming is a primal, basic reminder that creative destruction is the way of the universe. Old life must die so that new life can come forth. This is the burden of the farmer, and it is as hallowed and worthy of respect as the burden of the soldier.
War is hell, and this the soldier knows very well. This is why he enters the fray only after all other options have been exhausted. He enters as one bent on duty: sincerely, carefully, and respectfully, but possessing a steady and unwavering determination to live up to his promise to serve. If this must be done, he says, let me do it humbly and fully.
So it is with the farmer. Let me do this thing with all my heart, he says, as unto the Lord. Allow me to always revere the deep, profound mystery that is reaping and sowing. He too enters the fray as one charging into battle: trained and prepared, yes, but also ready to improvise, to meet his challenges bravely and thoroughly.
The soldier knows fear, it is true; no honest soldier will deny the fear that creeps up the throat when he considers the sacrifice he and his brothers are making for their fellow man. Were this merely fear of potential pain and loss, it would be much more manageable: every man knows he may be called upon at some time to defend others at the cost of his own life and livelihood, and he stands ready to do so. This fear he can live with, because he has done so since emerging from the haze of childhood to discover that there was work to be done. No, this fear is far more subtle: it is the fear of failure.
Not the fear of failure in others’ eyes, but in his own. The soldier wants to stand true, to be honorable, to defend the defenseless, and his first concern is that HE knows he can do it when the time comes. The mantle of responsibility he has taken upon himself requires his constancy, strength, and nobility, and the fear he feels at the thought of not being worthy of that mantle spurs him to action and bravery.
And so it is with the farmer. He knows the awesomeness of the ancient task he is charged with, and his ability to imagine a world without farmers assures that he approaches his task with sincerity trepidation. He and his brothers and sisters collectively make up the only day-to-day barrier between the life and death of a society, and this spurs him to action and bravery.
But perhaps the most apt comparison between the soldier and the farmer is that they both do what they do for us. They put aside comfort and ease for themselves so that others may live in peace and safety. This is no little thing, and it tethers the soldier and the farmer in a covalent bond of service. This requires our gratitude and appreciation.
“If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.” – Hal Borland
There is a tree in Missouri that has over 8000 Facebook “friends.”
It’s true. Silly, but true. The tree itself, called The Big Tree, is not so silly, though. The tallest bur oak in Missouri at 90 feet, it is 350 years old, and people come from all over to have their engagement pictures made under it or spread a picnic blanket in its shade. The tree’s owner insists on keeping the tree available to the public, even though it stands on his own private land. He says the ancient tree belongs to everyone, and he intends to keep it that way.
In response, the community helps him tend to it and care for it, often at their own expense (they even came together to pour 3000 gallons of water in the ground at its feet when the drought was at a critical point). Almost as if out of gratitude or mutual affection, it stands placidly like a longsuffering, imposing sentry on the land John Sam Williamson’s family has farmed and tended for six generations. There is something beautiful and fulfilling about such a stalwart, amazing thing.
The Williamsons agree. “My dad used to tell the story that his dad — who died before I was born — said that it was time to plant corn on our farm when the leaves on the bur oak tree were the size of a squirrel’s ear,” the current Farmer Williamson has said. “And so that would be April.”
There is wisdom in this way of looking at the world, in this ability to observe the complex yet simple ways in which we cooperate with other living organisms to make life thrive everywhere.
One could easily ask the Williamson family why they don’t simply use a calendar — or even better yet, why not track planting schedules simply by computer?
These aren’t bad ideas, of course. Technology is a god-send when it comes to predicting farming needs, calculating inputs while factoring in a variety of variables, and computing and shaping soil chemistry. These are good things, to be sure, and they make farming more efficient, more controllable, and more productive.
But they do not cry out to *replace* such wisdom as we may derive from nature when it speaks to us the way The Big Tree does, loud and clear. No, one way of interacting with the earth does not need to supplant the other: we may wisely make use of technology and its benefits *while* listening to, watching, working with, and learning from nature. We allow the technology to *enhance* what nature already does as a matter of course.
This we have learned. For a portion of The Big Tree’s 350 years, we behaved like we did *not* know; but we have learned. So maybe the old tree having 8000 fans on Facebook isn’t as silly as it seems at first. After all, such a crossover between technology and nature sounds pretty familiar. It’s how we farm now, with one foot firmly planted in a world that judges seasonal changes by leaf size, and the other in a world that does basically the same thing with algorithms.
Sometimes it feels like the weather is designed to confound us humans. To keep us guessing, maybe, or perhaps to make us appreciate the good weather more by offering us enough bad weather to keep it interesting.
One season, dryness is the problem; the next, it’s wetness. Such is the case now. “From late cold snaps and snows across portions of the country to flooding rains,” says Ag Day TV National Reporter Tyne Morgan, “it seems to be the winter that never ends.” Many of our nation’s farmers, she says, especially those in the mid- and northwest, just can’t catch a break: it is already past time to plant, but planting crops in such wet, muddy conditions is not good for the soil or the crops – and thus not good for farmers or those who partake of the fruits of their labor.
This is a pretty far-reaching problem, although it does ease up some the further east you go. According to the USDA’s May 13 Crop Progress Report, every state except Pennsylvania is behind in corn planting.
So what is the strategy for catching up?
Well, many farmers are approaching the desperation point, where, as University of Illinois Crop Sciences Professor Emerson Nafziger puts it, the strategy becomes “what have we got to lose?” This may mean “mudding it” where you can, while avoiding the wettest areas and hoping for continued dry weather to dry out those areas.
Farmers are fervently counting on that continued dry weather. In fact, some in the western US believe that if the rain manages to hold off for just a few days, they can get somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of their seeds in the ground. While not optimal, it is significant and a goal worth pursuing.
And there is always the hope that things won’t end up as dire as they might. After all, as Professor Nafziger points out, “If you look at the past, early planting doesn’t assure high yields, and late planting doesn’t assure low yields.” It is true, he says, that the longer the wetness is a problem, the more stark the prediction becomes; but there are many other factors still at play. “As we showed last year, very clearly,” says Nafziger, “what happens during the season, particularly June, July and August, is a lot more important than when we get planted.”
And so we arrive inevitably back at the beginning: with a recognition of nature’s mysterious and intriguing ways. She knows how to keep us on the edge of our seats! Which is why it’s best to work with nature, not against it, so that we can borrow from it every advantage and secret it has to offer (if we pay attention). This is a recurring theme in this space for a reason: while it’s true that technology and modern science enable us more and more to somewhat keep up with nature, nothing will ever replace a healthy respect for it and an acknowledgment that desiring to reap healthy, wholesome foods means interacting with nature in healthy and wholesome ways.
“The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.” – Will Rogers
“The earth has music for those who listen.” – George Santayana
All right, Old Man Winter, you’ve made your point. Now please step aside, because the whole agricultural world is restless in the starting gates, chomping at the bit, pawing at the dirt, ready to DO THIS.
The inputs are purchased and at the ready. The hands are hired and ready to work. The machinery is prepped and oiled, loaded and in gear.
Things want to grow. Let’s get them started.
This is the type of optimism that is permeating the agricultural community these days, and it is a good thing. The Drought (which still has some of the country in a chokehold) threatened and continues to threaten to make us all pessimists and doomsayers. Yet breaking through the haze of such gloom are things like the Department of Agriculture’s Prospective Plantings Report, which predicts that much of the US will see a record increase in planted acreage of corn this season. It is true that much of that depends on increased moisture, but as we learned in this space recently, this coming season’s rainfall is not connected statistically to last season’s. It’s a flip of the coin, and everyone is betting on heads.
And this is where things really get interesting: the wise farmer knows that nothing is more optimistic than betting solidly on nature to do her thing. She may throw us a little sometimes with things like dry seasons and cold seasons, but she always balances everything out eventually. It’s nature’s m.o.: after winter comes spring. Things die and things are born.
What is more optimistic than that? And practical to boot: nature has balanced everything out for eons, so it makes good common sense to trust its ingrained wisdom and patterns. And in a final manifestation of optimism, a farmer living now, in 2013, is blessed with a distinct advantage not enjoyed by any previous generation: for the first time, it is easy to find and purchase products that have been developed specifically to harness nature and reap its bounty; products that work with nature instead of against it.
In short, we have more power now to tap into what nature has to offer than ever before, and this too is a good thing. We should take advantage of it.
For some reason, the earth felt like it needed to be unusually dry for a while, and now it is dabbling in cold. But after winter comes spring. Things die and things are born. This earth is practically made of water, so we know it will fall again.
Meanwhile, let’s ride that wave of optimism straight to prosperity and sustainability
“The things the world most needs are simplicity, honesty and decency – and you find them more often in the country than in the city. My feeling for the country goes beyond sense. I don’t like to be in the cities at all. I like to be where animals are – and things growing. – James Cagney
“Outside of my family, the prime concern of my life has been nature and its order, and how we have been savagely altering that order.” – James Cagney
“The welfare of the farmer is vital to that of the whole country.” – William Howard Taft
When I was a kid, it seemed really unfair to me that Santa Claus didn’t get to celebrate Christmas like the rest of us. While I was trying to force myself to go to sleep so morning would get here faster, poor old Mr. Clause was racing to beat hell through the cold night so that all the kids like me would wake up to bright colors and surprises on the 25th. I loved those bright colors and surprises, but I also wished that Santa could just relax and enjoy the excitement too.
National Ag Day was Tuesday the 19th, and it reminded me that I feel the same way about The Farmer. Tuesday, he rose before dawn just like on every other day; he turned his attention to a million crucial details that escape the attention of the average person, just like every other day; he worked hard while we sleep or lounged or sat behind a desk, just like every other day; and we arose that morning to abundance without questioning where it came from, just like every other day.
In short, while we were celebrating the farmer and his contribution to our well-being Tuesday, he was continuing to quietly do the thing we were celebrating. This consistent reliability is a beautiful thing, and just one more reason to say Thank You to the farmer.
And you may be surprised to find out just who it is that you are thanking! Every vocation suffers from its share of stereotypes, and farming is no different: the tendency among the average non-farming citizen is toward a very limited view of who a farmer is: overalls, a pitchfork, a straw hat, a tractor. These images would probably crop up first if you asked people to describe a farmer.
But while endearing, these images are short-sighted and incomplete. For starters, the farmer is just as likely to be carrying a tablet computer as a pitchfork. And while he may indeed wear overalls or similar durable clothing in the literal field, he must also often wear suit and tie to do work in the metaphorical “field,” since the business of farming is just as pressing as the grunt work. In short, a farmer wears so many different “hats” as a professional, it is hard to pin down just one image to sum him up.
For instance, did you know that James Cagney was a farmer? Yes, THAT James Cagney, the actor. Cagney was born into poverty, but rather than let that determine his fate, he used the lessons learned from hardship to propel him to stardom. His role in “Angels With Dirty Faces” even redefined the gangster film.
But beneath all of this lay an abiding dream to be a farmer, a dream sparked by a lecture he once attended on soil conservation. He became fascinated with the idea that soil could be rehabilitated and rejuvenated, so much so that he began secretly planning to someday have his own farm. After filming three successful pictures, he was finally able to make his dream come true. He bought a 120-acre, run-down farm in upstate New York and began the work of turning it into a working farm.
Cagney was not just a farming enthusiast; he took farming seriously, especially when it came to soil conservation and rehabilitation. He remodeled the dilapidated farmhouse with his own hands, all the while learning to raise beef cattle in addition to crops. Eventually, he expanded the operation to 750 acres of productive and thriving land, and became obsessed with transforming bleached-out, dead soil into vibrant, productive earth. Such was his love of the farming life that, when awarded an honorary degree from Rollins College, he surprised the assembly by delivering a paper he wrote about soil conservation rather than a traditional acceptance speech.
It is sometimes helpful to look at the atypical in order to better understand the typical. So it is that looking at the work an “unlikely” farmer does (like James Cagney) can help us understand the important work the “everyday”, non-movie star farmer does. The fact is, the farmer labors nearly every single day to perfect the things that Cagney obsessed on so many years ago.
Let us be thankful for him and his work — not just on the day set aside to do so, but every day.
“The subject of gambling is all encompassing. It combines man’s natural play instinct with his desire to know about his fate and his future.” – Franz Rosenthal
“You sow, you wait for good or bad weather, you harvest, but working is something you always need to do.” – Miguel Indurain
It’s hard for most of us to wrap our brains around at first, but it’s true: a coin flip is always 50/50.
Always. This is the part that throws people. Barring interference, tampering, or other external factors, every time you flip a fair coin, the odds that it will land on heads are exactly the same as that it will land on tails. So if your buddy flips a coin five times, and all five times it lands on heads, and he bets you that the next flip will come up heads too — well, that sounds too good to be true, but don’t do it. It’s a sucker bet. The truth is, the odds are still 50/50.
I would type the math formula here that supports this fact, but those of us who are math challenged might feel a bit intimidated. Suffice it to say that physicists and mathematicians are in agreement on the issue.
Casinos make a lot of money off of this principle. You will notice that many roulette tables have a board where they record what color the ball landed on for the last ten or twenty spins. If a gambler sees that it has come up red on the last 8 spins, he may naturally get excited and slap down his money on black. After all, the odds are in his favor, right?
“No more bets!” the dealer cries, and the gambler can only cross his fingers. There are an equal number of black and red slots on the wheel, so the same principle applies here as it does to coin tossing: the next spin is statistically just as likely to come up red again as it is to come up black. But even if one makes this sucker bet and loses a few dollars, he might just have fun in the excitement of it all. One of the things that is fun about roulette is the thrill of knowing that you CAN’T know what’s going to happen next. It’s the same reason we watch suspense movies and comedies, the same reason we play chess, even the same reason we go to horse races: sure, we want to win. But anyone who has experienced the thrill of watching his $2 pony gain ground and pull ahead on the inside rail at the last second realizes that the fun he is having cannot be accounted for by the $6 or $8 payout. There is something more about it; something exhilarating. It is the thrill of playing the odds in the face of pure, blind chance.
Of course, the fun diminishes in direct proportion to the amount of one’s wager. If a man has a thousand dollars — or his house, or his car — on the line, the fun fades in the harsh light of the stakes.
And so it is with farming. In many ways, farming is a gamble: a farmer prepares and plans and lines his ducks up with a ruler, but in the end, he has to wait and see what the future holds, and whether it will be kind.
Take rainfall, for example. The farmer — who instinctively plans for the best while preparing for the worst — lives in the reality that, as Joe Glauber (Chief Economist at the USDA) puts it, “There’s little correlation between rainfall one year and the next.”
This means that abundant rain several seasons in a row does not give us any insight or edge into the next year’s precipitation. It might continue to rain, it might be bone dry.
This can, of course, be bad news — a community that has been enjoying the bounty of plentiful moisture may suddenly find themselves in a thorough drought, for instance. But it also might be GOOD news, especially in times like the ones we’re living in: yes, it’s been desert-dry for a while, but we can take heart that, as Glauber reminds us, “There’s no reason to believe that we won’t be looking at normal yields this year.”
That’s right: the coin is still in the air, and the fact that it came up tails most of last season does not mean it won’t come up heads this season. It is the (terrifying, exhilarating) beauty of how nature works.
Of course, it should be obvious to anyone that farming is not a coin toss. It is much more serious than that. It is no game.
Yet comparing the chances of rainfall from one season to the next to the odds of a coin toss is not meant as disrespect: Short of reading the mind of God or picking Nature’s pocket, there’s simply no way to accurately predict rainfall from one season to the next.
So what is a farmer to do? The only thing he can do: again, plan for the best (which is likely) while preparing for the worst (which is just as likely).
All things being equal, it is the nature and extent of this preparation that will make the difference between those who scrape by (or fade away) while spending their days wishing for better times, and those who flourish because they did everything they possibly could to maximize the resources that DO become available. It is a common theme in this blog space, but common themes are like heads and tails: they tend to pop up a lot.
Don’t surrender yourself to the fate of the coin toss. You can’t control which side lands up, but you CAN control how you respond to it and deal with it.
No more bets! The coin is in the air.
Almost every child who ever sat in a math or science class learned to dread the infamous “word problem.” Groans would circulate around the classroom as one by one the students’ eyes landed on words like: “Suppose a brick layer needs X bricks to make a wall Y feet high with a thickness of one-fifth of Y…”
Of course, apt students soon discover that word problems aren’t so bad when one learns to break them down and understand each of the basic constituent elements before trying to make them all work together.
Consider this one: Suppose X amount of snow falls on soil that is depleted by drought. Given evaporation and other environmental factors, how much drought relief is this snow likely to provide for the soil?
This is, of course, no abstract school exam question. Rather, it is a very real question being asked by a nation desperate for some long-overdue relief from the stubborn parchedness. Jonathan Erdman, Senior Meteorologist at The Weather Channel, reports that 56% of the US is still experiencing at least moderate drought.
Some portion of relief must surely be provided by the snowfall, but just how much?
The key to answering that question, according to Erdman, is “Liquid Equivalent.” While the detailed science is very complex and takes many factors into consideration, the snow-to-liquid Liquid Equivalent comes to roughly one inch of soil-benefiting moisture for every ten inches of snowfall.
If we plug these numbers into our word problem, we see that much of the most drought-affected areas have received 1 to 2 inches of liquid so far, with the possibility of more snowstorms (and thus more liquid) on the horizon.
While this is indeed good news, we are not yet out of the dry woods. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, “up to 9 inches of liquid equivalent (rain + melted snow) precipitation is needed to effectively ‘zero-out’ the Plains drought.”
So while the snow is a welcome relief, it is only the beginning of what we need. Erdman points out that we further need a spring characterized by persistent moisture (as opposed to heavy bursts and clusters of moisture), and to dodge late spring/summer heat waves.
But still, the snow brings a sigh of relief: It IS still possible for our atmosphere to produce moisture.
Now if we can only translate cold wet into warm wet as we march into spring.
In the meantime, let’s stay busy! Farmers have a history of planning for the best and dealing with the worst as it comes along, and this year is no different. A wise farmer prays for rain, and prepares for lack of rain.
And a wise farmer hopes that the factors he can’t control (like moisture) will behave to his benefit, while at the same time taking charge of the factors he CAN control (such as preparing his soil to thrive in spite of dry conditions) to ensure they do indeed behave to his benefit, and thus the benefit of us all.
Anyone can do that math.