The Vagaries of Weather and the Farmer

Water, Water Everywhere

The sunflowers (first of the season purchased at the farmers market Saturday morning) sit brightly on my kitchen island, reminding me of that orb so little seen lately. Yes, the sun has been peeking out a bit today, but solar radiation has certainly been in short supply this past month. For me, the lack of sun affects me more psychically—too much of the same make Petra an irritated (and perhaps irritating) girl. It isn’t that I dislike rain; in fact, I enjoy hearing thunder or listening to a steady soaking rain falling on my roof. But not for days at a time. That said, my complaints are just that, silly complaints. For a farmer, whose livelihood depends on the weather, days of rain can make or break one’s year financially.

I write this on the first day of summer, 2015. The solstice officially occurred at 12:39 PM EDT (16:39 UTC). Earlier today, I drove down to Indianapolis and was struck—almost stunned—by the amount of standing water I saw in the fields. Traveling the interstate in Indiana means traveling alongside farm fields (and, being Indiana, those would be fields of corn, soybeans, and maybe winter wheat). Every field was partly covered with water. In March or April or even the first half of May, it is not unusual to see field with vernal ponds, those temporary mini-lakes occurring where the water table is high. But by the start of (astronomical) summer, they are usually gone. The longer days and warmer temperatures allow for a greater ability for evaporation (or transpiration, which is the process of water returned to the atmosphere in vapor form via plants). What’s different now is that the ponding is occurring to a greater extent than even that of the spring. I know—I have a field behind my house and can see the water in spots. And what else is different is how many fields have NOT been planted.

The Planting

It’s June 21. By now, the farmers should have planted their fields. But conditions this month have been so wet that many fields haven’t even been touched. Acres that should have corn or soybeans growing haven’t been touched and still have last year’s harvest detritus littering the ground. Planting was already behind schedule back at the beginning of May (which was, in retrospect, a fairly dry month); Now this soggy, sodden June has rendered planting even farther behind. And once the summer begins, it may be too late. It’s not just planting, either. Conventional farmers may find conditions too wet to apply fertilizer. Agricultural experts at Purdue University suggest that Hoosier farmers prepare for crop losses due to the flooding.

What’s the Problem with Standing Water?

Plant survival, that’s the problem. Roots cannot survive in saturated soils for very long. Crops planted earlier have (by now) developed stronger and deeper root systems; they will be likelier to survive this flood onslaught. But recently planted corn and soy may be more vulnerable. That comes with the risk, then, of nothing to harvest. And, come fall, no crops means no money.

Nearby field. This one is actually in pretty good shape.
Nearby field. This one is actually in pretty good shape compared to some I’ve seen.

Whither California?

Yes, pun intended. California’s exception drought is getting most of the attention these days. And it rightly should be of concern to us, not just Californians, but the rest of the United States. California does serves as the fruit and vegetable and nut basket—no pun intended—of the country. The recent climatology, coupled with social and political decisions, has culminated in a mess. A big mess.

But, as the case of Indiana shows, too much rain can also be detrimental. I talked with a lamb farmer at the market on Saturday and she told me that her soybean fields were underwater; the lamb pasture is full of water, too,. Another farmer, one who grows organic fruits and vegetables, was bemoaning the plethora of storms that just keep coming and coming and coming. Farmers, as my great-uncle was fond of saying, are the greatest gamblers on the earth. They gamble with the weather.

Counting Blessings and Counting Luck

I’m grateful that my livelihood isn’t so dependent on the chaotic nature of the atmosphere. And hopefully yours isn’t either. In that case (if you are religious), count your blessings; if not religious, count your luck. Maybe I pay for this with some higher prices at the market or with some down moods because I haven’t seen the sun in some time or the occasional flooded roads in my subdivision. But overall, I’m grateful that my concerns with the weather are so small. Farmers aren’t nearly so lucky.

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