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.
“Farming is the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground in the kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favor, as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.” — Benjamin Franklin
“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.” — Woodie Guthrie
Everyone knows the above lyrics by Woodie Guthrie, but probably very few of the school children and folks music lovers who sing it know of the significance of the “Gulf Stream” that is mentioned in the third line.
“Gulf stream” is a term Benjamin Franklin coined for the powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates at the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
While Franklin did not actually discover the Gulf Stream, his description of it and a chart he created to track it changed the course of communications history, as mail-carrying and other cargo ships could now shave several weeks off their shipping schedules, accelerating the progress of industry and agriculture by leaps.
Or perhaps it would be better to say that Franklin’s work changed the world…eventually. At first, no one listened to him. This is hard for us to believe now, with the benefit of hindsight, for we know that Franklin was a genius whose innovative and ingenious ideas should always at least be considered. The lens of history has shown us how wise he was in so many things, from farming to technology to electricity to advances in health and medicine.
But at the time, no one bothered to take his idea about the Gulf stream seriously. In fact, his ideas were ignored for two decades! When someone finally decided to put them to the test, the results were immediate and profound.
Unfortunately, this is often the way. We can turn our attention to many such lapses of communal common sense in human history.
One of the gravest of these was the case of John Snow, a dedicated, scientifically rigorous 19th-century medical expert. Snow was especially interested in discovering the causes of and cures for diseases, and in the mid-1800s he turned his efforts to cholera, which was continuing to devastate Europe.
After much studying and observation (which he assembled into an impressive, massive collection of charts that constitute one of the earliest examples of what we now refer to as “statistics”), in 1849 Snow definitively linked cholera to sewage-contaminated water. As historian Bill Bryson says, “It is one of the most important documents in the history of statistics, public health, medicine, demographics, forensic science — one of the most important documents, in shot of the 19th century.”
But, as with Franklin (although with much more disastrous results), no one listened. Snow begged people to focus on water as the culprit and take action, but they preferred to blame the outbreaks on superstition and lack of moral character, and several more epidemics transpired before the authorities listened, at the cost of who knows how many lives and families.
By 1858 people finally began to realize the value of his ideas, but Snow never got to enjoy his vindication: he died still thinking his ideas had been rejected, and still convinced that he was right and that lives could be saved if people would but listen.
John Snow’s death was barely noticed, his life not celebrated while he lived it, yet he was a hero. As was Franklin. As are the innumerable others who have shaped (and continue to shape) our society’s prosperity and survival, in spite of naysayers and those who choose to cling to outmoded thinking, trends, and panicky desperation. Men like Snow and Franklin know that to blindly cling to what doesn’t work, or what only partially works, is to run the risk of missing years — perhaps decades — of real prosperity and advancement. Limited thinking, they realize, produces limited results.
These men had the tenacity, courage, insight, and foresight to focus on clear, forward-looking vision as a path to better living. Is there a better definition for “hero”?
And where are the heroes now? They exist, to be sure, but history hasn’t illuminated them for us yet. Yet you can be certain that right now, these heroes — many of whom may go unsung forever, many of them good, simple folks — are taking those risks, those leaps, so that the rest of us can experience greater happiness and security. How heroic.
Farmers are passionate, stubborn people. They have to be, as they are engaged every single day in a struggle to extract life from a planet that loves to give life, but is just as passionate and stubborn about it as the farmer. It is this tug-of-war that allows the mysterious process known as growth to occur in spite of the vast, cold emptiness of much of the universe around us.
One such passionate worker of the land was a man named Alfred Russell Wallace, an adventurer who embarked upon a dangerous sea voyage in 1848 to seek out new plant specimens and make his fortune. (For a more thorough account of Wallace’s adventures, see Bill Bryson’s excellent book, “At Home.”)
It is safe to say that things did not go smoothly. He wasn’t ready for the maddening insects of the Amazon, for one thing, and they made his life miserable his entire time in the jungle. He also somehow broke his much-needed glasses early in the trip, and locals stole the alcohol-laced mixture he used for preserving the plant specimens. Having had no previous experience exploring anything more adventurous than his own backyard, it is a wonder that Wallace did not give up after a few days of this.
But he didn’t. He spent four years in the jungle, collecting and storing dozens of rare new samples under these conditions. Excited and exhausted, he boarded a ship for home…only to have it catch fire beneath him and sink into the dark water while Wallace watched, knowing his hard work had been, in essence, for nothing.
A person can only take so much, and no one would have blamed Wallace for sagging into despair and disappearing forever.
But he didn’t. Bravely, he boarded another ship, this time for the other end of the earth, where he toiled for 8 more years before finally returning home.
The result: 127,000 new specimens, including 1,000 insects and 200 species of birds never before recorded. And, of course, the riches Wallace deposited into his bank accounts before kicking back and enjoying a life free of rampant insects.
The lessons we can learn from people like Wallace are not the lessons of hard work and perseverance. Those who wrestle with nature already know those lessons like a schoolboy knows his ABCs.
No, the lesson here is that sometimes a man must step out to meet the future rather than waiting for it to come to him, even when there is risk involved. Wallace, and a few others like him, *made* botany what it is in the world.
This is not about blind risk, of course — we live in a different age from Wallace, and risk for us doesn’t have to mean disappearing into the jungle. There is very little geography left to discover, after all.
No, the kind of risk required of the modern-day pioneering spirit is not quite as perilous; but it can lead to the same sort of life-changing results. Risk for the farmer of today is made up of decisions that to the outside world may seem dull and unimportant, but which affect all our lives in ways most people can’t even imagine.
It is because of the farmer’s inherent love of wise risk-taking that we are here, that our society has endured and even flourished. So ironically, it does not really qualify as risk at all. As Wallace would no doubt have affirmed, it only seems like risk until you take step out into it…and then it reveals itself as wisdom.