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HOMEGROWN Life: Living the dream (sort of). Drought on the farm

I am one of those people that does not actually believe the grass is greener on the other side of the hill. I am neither pessimist nor optimist. I am full of passions and gut-wrenching opinion but understand that others feel the same way. I am not a judge. I have a hard time with black-and-white thinking.

So that is some context for a rant I wanted to leave you with on this Independence Day: I want to rant about drought.

Drought is hard on us out here in Farm Country. But drought in the midst of boiling hot summer is amongst the worst conditions I can imagine. At this point in West Missouri we’re numerous inches behind on rain for the average year. (Note–I am not trying to be un-precise here. It’s just that we’ve had so many spot-showers it’s hard to
specific. On my farm, we’ve had right at 3 inches of rain since April 1st. April-May-June being a bulwark of the year’s annual precipitation jolt–between 12-15 inches per year on average. Some farmers have gotten more, others less). We normally get around 40 inches of rain per year, but maybe we need to get around to figuring out the “new
normal.”

Since I’ve moved home to where I grew up last Fall, I’ve already experienced 2 droughts. One was the Fall of 2011 where farmers in the area sold off many cows and other animals due to lack of pond water and low hay yields. The other is now 2012 Spring on the heels of a mild and gentle winter. While local winter wheat yields made the great
leap forward, corn and beans are going to be non-existent. Hay crops had the great promise of many cuttings (some people were cutting hay in March and early April–that’s unheard of around here) but now our pastures are parched and won’t grow a bit until rains and sub-90-degree temperatures return.

The lack of rain and poor preparation for drought are likely intensified on a vegetable operation. Piping in water is a fine thing, but there is nothing like a good slow and soaking rain to let plants get established and healthy. We have not had that. Many of us have waited and waited and waited to transplant our seedlings into the field so that soil moisture isn’t completely decimated. And if we got rain, it was too late. Now, temperatures are above 95 degrees with heat indices of above 100 for a couple of weeks. There is no sign of relief.

Local farmers, whether they be of the row-crop or livestock or homestead type, have a couple of rules that they count on. First, there is always (nearly always) a Fourth of July Storm that makes the corn. Second, there is a State Fair Rain that finishes everything up and gives us some relief before Fall. These “rules” for local agriculture exist upon the heels of a wet and friendly spring. This year we were dry in the pre-season, staggered early, remained stunted throughout the mid-season and are looking at a long-term forecast that is very scary.

Hauling and pumping water to garden and farm plants has to be one of the most insanity-producing tasks of humanity. Yes, plants need water. But the human work of moving water to parch the thirst of plants is a frustrating, time-consuming and resource draining job. I hate it. I know I have to do it, but usually it’s a supplemental activity rather than the main event. It seems to be the definition of futility. That’s because I’ve already been watering for months. Watering to keep the plants alive. Then the heat sets in, the deep and red-hot heat, and all of that water and all of that work whither and die. That’s before harvest and cashing in to earn whatever income was projected to come in. I’ve got all of the expense, and none of the pay-out.

I’ve said it before and know that the lesson needs to keep being repeated. We learn a lot about our farming systems when we’re in marginal production times. I’ve learned that I need to invest in irrigation systems that move water most efficiently to actually help solve this challenge. Thank goodness I’ve been awarded a contract with USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) conservation program to help me pay for it.

Still, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Row croppers around here are protected by crop insurance programs that will keep them producing crops next year. Livestock and veggie farmers like myself don’t have that kind of safety net. We are left to off-farm work and toil and living on fumes to make it until next year’s planting season. We know it will rain eventually. But when?

I say all of this not to complain about being a farmer. It’s a pretty good life, despite the challenges. But I want to give you a look into the brain of a semi-mad young farmer trying hard to learn his craft. Drought is pain, and pain hurts. My great worry is that Spring/Summer drought is now the rule instead of the exception. My great worry is that I thought I was moving back home to the Osage Plains climate where I grew up. Instead, it appears as if I’ve moved to a climate that has shifted to something more like that of San Antonio, Texas. That’s not the same thing.

Bryce is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables, beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese processing facility and a conservation-based land management company that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia, Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box (www.missouribountybox.com). Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.

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