Talk to a Missouri farmer and that’s likely going to be on the tip of their tongue. Maybe it’s because absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe it’s because the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill. Or maybe it’s because we have thousands of dollars and beads of sweat and countless hours invested in our crops that might not end up being harvested.
In most of Missouri, the Spring of 2012 is all about promised rains that didn’t arrive, low soil moisture and intense heat waves without our normal humidity. It all adds up to what experts and scientists are calling a “Flash Drought.”
Now we’ve never heard of that term before this year, but this new concept in climatological understanding nails it. We. Need. Rain. A lot of rain. And we need it now, or even yesterday. Not all at once or anything, although that might be better than this. But we definitely need some as soon as possible.
We do live in Missouri for goodness sakes so we are used to unpredictable weather and rapid changes in temperature, humidity and moisture. However, the past few years have been more unpredictable than usual with bigger swings from cold to hot or rain to no rain. This coupled with a warming region (noted by the recent changes to the USDA planting Zones maps) has left many farmers scratching their heads on frustration.
The consequences of drought, especially when you’re expecting rain and more modest temperatures, are especially difficult to deal with. It’s kind of like dealing with the (expected) Fourth of July hot and dry spell except we were in the April-May planting season. The thing is, we don’t usually plant things in July because of this moisture problem.
Whether it’s row croppers or vegetable producers, we’re all used to spring rains that help our seedlings grow up and get a strong start. Drought stunts the growth and slows the maturity of plants. It hurts yields and sets back harvest dates. And if there’s a crop failure, we have nothing to sell.
On our Missouri Bounty Box vegetable farms this means a shift in priorities. Waiting on transplanting for rain so that there’s some field moisture, watering lots and lots of watering and attempting to preserve seedlings until the time is right for them to go out.
This summer is looking like an all-too-unfortunate lesson in drought management and planning. Can we, as farmers, learn lessons and make investments in irrigation infrastructure so that we are ready for this in the future? Can we even afford it after going a year without making income from crops?
One dirty little secret about how agriculture policy works is the way this whole issue is handled when it comes to insurance. See, vegetable and fruit farmers that supply goods for the Bounty Box are not handled by federal crop insurance policies. Corn, bean and wheat producers at least have an insurance safety net that can help stall the losses, and much of that cost is supplied by federal farm bill spending. We vegetable producers are on our own.
Drought is one of those things that’s most difficult to handle as a farmer. You’ve done the work. You started the seed, helped the soil make way for your crop, transplanted the seedling, hoed and cultivated to keep the weeds back. Now the crops are sitting there waiting for rain and perhaps drying to dust.
We know it will eventually rain, but when? Farming is about timing and priorities and patience and the cooperation between humans and all of our natural systems. This year’s lesson could be a reminder that we don’t control everything, and that we need a strong support mechanism for our farmers when something expected in the agricultural system goes haywire.