Thursday, June 13, 2013

As Ye Sow

The beleaguered industrial farmer is now dealing with the plight of the industrial farm:

About this time last year, farmers were looking to the heavens, pleading for rain. Now, they are praying for the rain to stop.

One of the worst droughts in this nation’s history, a dry spell that persisted through the early part of this year, has ended with torrential rains this spring that have overwhelmed vast stretches of the country, including much of the farm belt. One result has been flooded acres that have drowned corn and soybean plants, stunted their growth or prevented them from being planted at all.

With fields, dusty and dry one moment, muddy and saturated the next, farmers face a familiar fear — that their crops will not make it.

"Their crops will not make it." Why not? It's not magic, and it's not punishment from God or from Gaia. "This is the worst spring I can remember in my 30 years farming," says one farmer. Forget the worst spring---what about the worst farm, or the worst soil? Could that be an issue affecting your crop's health, or perhaps the issue?

That's not to say that bad weather doesn't happen; only that good farms and good soil can withstand bad weather, and that good farmers are capable of making good farms and good soil (a duality that, I believe, is redundant). My own garden, though small in comparison to the massive corn machines of the Midwest, possesses the great qualities that we might call the Agricultural Deuce: it retains water very well, and yet it does not flood when there is an overabundance of rain. Its friability is good, its soil is biologically active, its earthworm population is abundant; in short, it is healthy, and will thus reflect good health in itself and in the plants it grows, in contrast to whatever it is they're doing out in the soybean belt.

The overwhelming urge of the modern farm is to plant, to reap, and then to plant again. Throw some chemicals in there---synthetic fertilizer, RoundUp, what have you---and you've got quite a cycle, and quite a cash mill. Until there's a drought, in which case you have farmers standing around scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. "What went wrong?" is not a rhetorical question. There are clear answers, and subsequently clear solutions, to these problems. But when you couch your dilemma in terms of "the worst spring I can remember" instead of "what the farmer is doing to the soil," you're not going to come up with anything helpful. 

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