No matter how you look at it, farming is a unique career choice. We make up less than 1% of the total U.S. population. Farming is also an inherently risky business – not only because of the physical demands on the job and our risk of “on job” injury or death – but it can also be financially risky. We are the only career I know of that depends on two key factors outside of our control: the markets and the weather. Every year we make planting decisions and hope the weather and the markets work in our favor. There are marketing tools available to mitigate some of the risk in the commodity markets. There is also crop insurance to mitigate some of the risk posed by Mother Nature. The inability to control either however often keeps farmers up at night.
Mother Nature has a habit of dropping us to our knees on multiple occasions throughout a growing year – both for good and bad reasons. Have you ever heard of a “Million dollar rain”? That is the type of rain that comes along EXACTLY when you need it and provides you enough moisture to get your crops to harvest. Typically it’s a rain that seals the deal on a bumper crop (as “sealed” as any thing in agriculture can be before it is harvested). We did not quite have a “million dollar rain” roll through last night (mostly because we do not have a million dollars in crop value where it rained) – but half of the farm did receive an 1″ of rain. With forecasts showing temperatures soaring into the mid-90s for the next 10 days it could not have come at a better time for our barley. *Note this picture of the rain gauge is from last fall.
Many of my counterparts across the country have not been so lucky. I recently shared a video on my Facebook page (linked here: BigSkyFarmHer) of a wheat field in western Kansas. My friend and National Association of Wheat Grower’s President David Schemm parked his combine a few nights ago – only to have his field leveled by hail several hours later in the dead of night. This was a field that had already sustained heavy damage from a late season blizzard that crushed it under the weight of 12″ of wet snow and then further damaged it with freezing temperatures. So not only had Mother Nature already dropped David to his knees a few months ago, she was kind enough to finish the job right as he was harvesting his remaining crop. Crop insurance will keep his family in business – however despite its importance to farmers – it does not take away the desperate feeling you get when Mother Nature levels a blow like that to your crops.
That desperate feeling is really what I want to talk about today. It is a feeling that I do not even know how to describe to someone outside of agriculture – but I am going to try. Farming requires us to have faith that whatever we decide to seed – will in fact turn into a beautiful harvest. We have to be eternal optimists.
As the old saying goes “it will not come up if you do not put it in the ground.”
So every year, we making planting decisions, plant our crops, and hope and pray the weather is in our favor. That is not always the case. Excessive rain, drought, heat, wind, hail, and cold can all prove fatal to crops. The one I am most experienced with (although are thankfully not currently experiencing) is drought. Many of my friends and fellow farmers in eastern Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota are currently gripped by excessive drought. The current Climate Prediction Center drought monitor shows the widespread drought conditions.
I know the feeling these farmers have all too well. I returned to farming in 2012 – the driest year on record in our area. I know the feeling of obsessively checking the weather forecast, willing it to change from highs in the lower triple digits and 0% chance of rain to something more reasonable. Obsessively checking Accuweather and praying that their 15 day forecast that included three days of rain showers at the end would come to fruition. It did not. Closing our eyes as we drove past our corn crops that stood dying in the fields. Ignoring their leaves as they turned a horrific shade of purple and curled up into a tight roll in the mid day heat. Any farmer knows that when cereal grains get a cast of blue and corn turns purple things are not going your way weather wise.
It is almost unbearable at times to watch your money, time and effort wither away in the field as heat waves dance in the distance. To watch rain clouds go north, south, or dissipate a few miles away and leave you with nothing but wind and dry lightning. It is unbearable to watch those storms roll over and stand in the wind, blasted by blowing dust, frantically watching the horizon for columns of smoke and grass fires (or worse timber fires) that are burning beneath them. I know the feeling of putting seeds in the ground (because if we do not seed them they can not grow – and we have zero chance of an income for the following year) – knowing that they may not sprout. They may not make it. Sitting on the edge of a freshly planted field, trying to muster as much optimism as possible, try to ignore the mounting bills and the amount of money we had just put into the ground, and will God to grant us some rainfall. It is a paralyzing feeling and yet we carry on.
For any farmer mired in the middle of a drought it is incredibly important to remember that “this too shall pass” and someday the rain gauge will be full, the ponds, streams, and springs will run again, and the fields will return to their traditional beauty. All of this is easy to say when it is not my fields withering under the hot sun and begging for rain – but the memories of 2012 are seared into my mind – the same as the memories of May 2013 when the rain finally did return. When I finally got to again pace from window to window in the house and marvel at the rain pouring down. To stand on the front porch shivering in the cold May rain, feeling an unbelievable sense of relief. It may not rain tomorrow, or next week, or even next month. Unfortunately it may not rain in time to stop the crops from withering to nothing – but crop insurance catches us when we fall – and hopefully gives us just enough of a boost to get us to the next rain. To the moment when we can finally breathe a sigh of relief and gets us to the moment when we know the power of the drought has been broken.
** Photo is the moment the drought was broken in May 2013. This storm dropped 2.5″ of rain. Followed by several more 2+ inch storms in the following 10-14 days. **
This is why we have a love/hate relationship with Mother Nature. We never know when she will drop us to our knees.
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard . . . it’s what makes it great.” – Jimmy Dugan
Thanks, Michelle, for an emotionally moving description of the vulnerability so many ag producers live with on a daily basis. Having grown up on a small dairy farm, I know too well the feelings of desperation and joy that weather brings. I myself wasn’t brave enough to stay in production agriculture, so I have a lot of respect for those of you who continue on! Keep up the good fight, and keep up the wonderful writing!