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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Infernal Dry Summer

Today's field contrast: on the left, unwatered corn, beans, zucchini, on the right, watered arugula

This is one infernal dry summer. For a multitude of farmers across large swathes of southern Ontario and many other parts of the world – conventional, GMO and organic – the extended months of little to no rain will result in reduced harvests, lower yields, draining of water sources,  and perhaps the enforced sale of livestock. Naturally, lower farm income will be on the table at the end of the year, a situation dire enough for some to put them out of business.

Fellow-farmers I have chewed the cud with at farmers markets have told me they are having to truck in water. Some have drained their wells and ponds and are drawing from swamps and creeks. At least one farm has turned to crowd-funding  to ensure delivery of water to thirsty plants. Without rain, of course, these are short-term solutions which are uneconomical and unsustainable in the long run.

At our small farm Rolling Hills Organics we have switched to a much-reduced planting regime. We have watched helplessly as successive early plantings have been sacrificed to the dry, taken over by weeds which have in turn been sacrificed to the mower or tiller. With the initial weeks of no rain, it seemed counter-intuitive to till the dry soil in order to plant. As the drought conditions have gone on, however, we have found it necessary to water and till, plant and water, water and water (using our drilled well with good pressure), so as to continue to have greens for markets, albeit at reduced volume.  Early in the morning, late in the afternoon, every day we are watering. (We do not have a switch to flip as the bigger farmers do). The heat is befuddling, but the deep-seated dry is demoralizing.

There is always something that hampers production; in early summer last year, I found myself apologizing to customers for the scarcity of salad greens: “From June to September, our greens are grown in mineral-rich, glacial-till soil and enjoy sun, rain, dew, wind, heat, cold, all the elements that nature bestows. This Spring season has been unusually challenging with its extremes. Hence the tardy start with field production. We do not have commercial climate-controlled greenhouses, nor do we buy in greens from other farms. With warmer nights now finally here, next week we will be able to offer more. Thank you for your patience.”

Back to this year, when the rains finally return (and a beginning could be imminently upon us), normal service and the regular full Fall production will be resumed. As market farmers growing many different crops, we are able to be nimble in negotiating mother nature’s curve-balls. We can write off one crop while another thrives; we can plant more, or less, water more, or less. We can wait out the storm rolling through. But sometimes, the extremes are severe shocks to the farm system, and they are increasingly systemic.

Make no mistake: This challenging season is not just a wake-up call that can be doused by a few buckets of water; this is a full-on jarring alarm that we cannot merely turn off to nod off to sleep again. Extended water shortages may well be a major part of our future and of farming. We need to conserve water, conserve soil fertility, moisture and nutrients, conserve crop resilience and diversity.  With no water, there is no food and no life. The big boys with their massive acreages of glyphosate-drenched corn, soy and wheat face their own challenges in assessing the unsustainability of their animal feed, ethanol, industrial processing mono-crop model.

For you farmers market customers out there: stick with us small-scale local farmers. Yes, some of us are facing challenges, we always do; but no, we are not giving up on you. We weather adversity well, coming back stronger.

We’ll have some greens on Saturday. Come early.