In his essay about why he farms, posted here a few days ago, John Finlayson refers to how a city worker in a big downtown office is so far removed from nature that he is hardly aware when a storm might be passing over him. That observation really rang true for me. One of the most troubling aspects of my life years ago working in big downtown office buildings or attending conferences in big hotel complexes, was that I knew all hell could be breaking loose outside and I would hardly know it. Home was an hour away by commuter train or, if I were on the road, who knows how far away. Brought up with my teeth to the biting wind, weather was the constant reality, I knew its dangers and terribly resented the fact that I could not be home with my wife and children all the time. Fellow workers in the big building society seemed to have no notion of this kind of concern. I knew I didn’t belong there. Maybe no one did.

Farmers are sometimes called sodbusters, but we really should be known as skywatchers. We keep one eye cocked on the sky at all times. Now in July with the usual summer dry spell in place, we will discern, decant, delineate, dissect and try to decipher every wisp of cloud that appears on the horizon, hoping to extract some hint of rain on the way. Rain in July is gold in our part of Ohio when the soil gets as dry as last year’s dog-gnawed ham bones. Two rain-sodden months ago, we studied the clouds for some hint of blue sky. Now when an inch of rain would mean literally thousands of more dollars for every grain and pasture farm in the county, we anxiously pan the heavens for what the weather forecasters call “pop up” showers. Pop ups are maddening. They always seem to fall on someone else’s farm. We track the progress of pop ups by silhouetting telephone poles or trees against the storm front to see which way the clouds are moving. I like to joke that pop-ups always seem to fall on the richest farmers in the county. If you have enough farms, one of them is bound to be the recipient of spotty July showers. I had an uncle, just down the road, now passed away, who said we never got pop-ups in our neighborhood because one of the neighbors had a habit of working on Sunday and we all got punished for it.

During haymaking, skywatching becomes an hourly ordeal. The weather forecasters are of little help because while they can predict fairly well what is going to happen today and maybe tomorrow, they are no more infallible than the Pope on what will happen two days from now which is what we need to know if we are going to cut hay today. So skywatchers bring to bear on the subject every smidgen of folklore and fact that they know. Sun dogs, rings around the moon, rainbows, thunderheads, mares’ tails, mackerel skies, whirlwinds, fair weather cumulative clouds, black rain clouds, clouds that build during the day, clouds that diminish in the evening— we are an authority on the sky and its aberrations  All have their significance surely as accurate as “50 percent change of rain.”

I became a skywatcher early in life. In grade school one day, the teacher asked if anyone knew what direction the wind was in at the moment. To my surprise, I was the only one who raised a hand. Reason was, I hated doing chores in cold weather— no insulated boots and clothing in those days. I had learned that when the windmill outside our kitchen door indicated a southerly flow of wind in winter, a thaw was underway. Halleluiah.  So I had developed the habit of keeping an eye on the windmill.

Today, society likes to think that the weathervanes on the old barns were there for decoration. Don’t believe it. Farmers did not always have the National Weather Service to keep them confused. They at least always knew which way the wind was blowing.


It took us 6 weeks to get our first cutting of hay up this summer since it rained every time we turned the key. That is very unusual for us in central/eastern Ohio. But I appreciate the way the second cutting is coming on, even if it’s really late for us. I’ve seen weather do all sorts of terrible things to people and their property over the years and I pay very strict attention to the sky. I can’t tell you I understand all of it, but I know when it’s time to get off the tractor and run to the house!
We spent some time out west this summer and were reminded of how unforgiving the weather and the environment is out there. We take weather for granted in the midwest, with the exception of the spring tornado. Out west, weather kills people often, especially the tourist who pay no mind to what is going on in the sky above them. Even the city dwellers out west seem to pay attention to the weather!

Given our climate, one thing we don’t do in summer is pray for rain, because it only means forest fires from lightning strikes. If we do get some big fires going, then we’ll pray for a real gullywasher, but in a California summer, those are as rare as intelligent politicians with common sense. The other thing I always noticed about “townies” was how few had any sense of north/south/east/west, even when they were outside and the sun was shining. They thought I was odd because even in the basement of a huge multi-story hospital, I could point to north or the correct direction for a particular hospital department or outbuilding.
By the way, great idea to do the Why Do I Farm/Homestead guest posts. I’m really enjoying getting to know my fellow readers!

As a meteorology major (MS) and a farmer (hops) and a scientist, I can’t resist tweaking you Gene… I work at a land-grant university and have often done field work with graduate students. I always enjoy the grad students who grew up on farms. They are hard workers and have lots of common sense. But there are exceptions. We were out measuring how fast water could infiltrate into the soil and how it varied over a single field. I looked to the horizon and saw dark sky with flashes of light in the clouds. I (meteorologist) said “uh-oh, that looks bad. We’d better pack everything up.” He (farm-kid grad student) asked “can the sun shine and there be lightning at the same time?” I said in astonishment at his lack of weather-sense, “yes, look!”

Take the weather forecast you hear on the radio or read in the newspaper with a big helping of salt unless they say it is from the National Weather Service. Many radio stations and newspapers buy their forecasts from companies who cater to news organizations – in other words they make it sensational. The NWS forecasts are very conservative. So if they say 40% chance of rain, they are not so sure there is going to be rain, but if there is, not everybody is going to get rained on. On the other hand, if they say 90% chance of rain, you can be darned sure a big reliable weather system is coming your way and you will get at least some rain. And yes, the accuracy does drop off a lot after 2 days. A lot can happen in two days, including broken hay balers and escaped heifers.

Christine in WI

Thanks for your kind words Gene.

The word “skywatcher” probably sums it up quite well. In my experience (and I recall my father’s and grandfathers as well and quite probably my mother although she rarely spoke of it) it wasn’t so much of a conscious look up at the sky but rather just a constant sense of what was happening around you. I know that my son, who has just come back onto the farm, sometimes wonders about his poor dottery old Dad when I suddenly stop whatever it is I am doing look up and mutter about how the wind has just changed from a SW (a steady and predictable weather pattern here) to a NW (a flighty direction which would indicate that sharp, heavy downpours are on the way even although there is not a cloud in the sky). He can be a bit bewildered when I suggest that we should pack up and go home – until it suddenly pours down.

I guess you have to live outside for most of your life to acquire that skill and I have also seen it disappear with alarming rapidity when you move to a sedentary job indoors. I try to get my son to make a note in his daily journal about what the weather was on each day – just the basics; wind direction/strength, temperature (hot,cold, etc), cloud cover and rainfall and this has started him to become more aware of what is happening around him. The rest will just have to come with experience and trial and error.

The weather is just a part of the whole picture however. One of your respondants above mentioned about the birds and they are quite right; all the wildlife need to be monitored with the same awareness as the weather and then, if you are into gardening and growing things then of course the same applies to the plant growth patterns and the soil. So it is not just about one or two aspects of the environment that we need to be aware of but all of it. Can be a bit daunting at first but it does come if you keep trying. It is then that you really do feel a part of the world you are living in.


You said it! I live in “too” country–it’s either too wet, too dry, too hot, or too cold. Today the bees are all bearded up on the front of the hives trying to keep cool and my garden hasn’t seen a drop of rain in over a month!

A thread in another forum was discussing the Oklahoma governor’s request that all Oklahoman’s “pray for rain” and one (urban) commenter said, “My morality tells me to not pray for rain…Save it for something important.” While I definitely think the governor could be encouraging residents to do more productive things (to address climate change, for example), and doing more productive things herself (like creating a business climate that is more friendly to “green” energy, investing in water conservation strategies, investing in energy conservation infrastructure, etc.) the naivete of the commenter was pretty amazing. Is there really anything MORE important than rain? Just look at the news coming out of the horn of Africa today (re: famine and drought).

Come to New York State! It seems to always be raining here. Although, it occurred to me that if I’d start farming, it would surely stop raining! Murphy does, after all, rule.

Never mind the sky. Listen to the animals and birds. As a city dweller living in the foothills of Alberta my wife listens to the red bellied Robins chirping. They make a distinct sound 24 – 72 hours before a rain comes. In the foothills that could mean it wil rain on top of you or on the other side of the city, but they are rarely misled by their high sensitivity to changes in atmospheric pressure and possibly the smell of rain water.

I’ll take the word of my neighbor who’s been farming and watching the weather all his life over the fear-mongers with their 24 hour storm predictions on TV. My neighbor is better at predicting the weather, he doesn’t get a paycheck if he’s wrong.

And an quick side…will you be at any book signings in the near future?

This skywatcher is having a problem with the heavily photoshopped-image accompanying the article.

The thin crescent moon should be facing the sun, and should be within plus or minus the Earth’s angle of inclination from pointing straight at the ground or away from the ground — a common mistake when photoshopping crescent moons into other images. For some odd reason, indoor people will draw a thin crescent moon pointing left or right — a situation NEVER seen in reality! (Unless you live at the north or south pole, which the vegetation in this image tends to argue against.)

The grass appears to be blowing across the scene, and yet the windmill is facing the viewer. I thought perhaps it was “feathered” to keep it from turning, with the tail fixed at a right-angle to the plane of the blades, so I zoomed in and surprise, it *was* feathered, but the tail is pointed *into* the wind, an unlikely situation.

Finally the building has very little shadow, which wouldn’t be true of a near-new moon on the horizon, since the sun should be very close to the moon. It looks like a 9AM or 4PM hazy sun on the house, but with a sunset or sunrise moon. Also, the clouds appear to be lit from the front, but the house is lit from the right, and the moon is lit from the left!

Call me “nit-pickey,” but if I stumbled upon a scene like that, I’d pinch myself to wake from the dream.

Oh my, John’s wonderful post and now yours brings back memories of my father who lived on a farm until my mother’s ambitions took him away. He never stopped reading what the sky had to tell him. As a small child I thought he had some sway with the Storm Gods, as he’d stand outside keeping watch, only reluctantly retreating to the porch when the rain became fierce.

Maybe my dad influenced me. I did a study during college that had to do with awareness of the sky’s appearance. Guess what? Those who knew what the sky looked like were also the happiest. Here’s me muttering about this study

Just had a 10 minute conversation with a farming friend in Indiana. I am lucky…I also have a farming friend in Kansas, so I can track weather coming my way up to a week in advance! Usually what Rosalie in Kansas gets, arrives at Nancy’s in Indiana about 36 hours later. Then we get it 24 hours after that in SE Ohio.

Unlike Gene in NE Ohio, we down in the SE part of the state are still squishing in the mud this year. Many of my acquaintances did not bother to plant corn this year as we had 27 inches of rain during our spring season. Several decided to put the corn fields into permanent pasture, figuring grass fed is best anyway. We never did get much of a garden in this year and I am cleaning up the peaches which uniformly brown rotted, despite applications of anti-fungal sprays.

On the plus side, the wells will not run dry around here, though tell that to the folks who were on our road at the bottom of the hill (we are up on the ridge), who’s cars got washed into the dish when a four foot wall of water from a flash flood caught them driving home.

We do have heat and humidity to spare. Hottest summer I can remember and it really puts a crimp in outside work. We try to get everything done before 10 am. Evenings are no good as the mosquitos are ferocious this year.

I could rattle on forever on the topic 🙂 Gene, I’ll send you some rain!

A farmer now retired in my community, plagued by serious droughts in the late 1970s and 1980s, swore that pop-up storms would literally part as they approached his place, going either side and drenching his neighbors’ soybeans and cotton. His farm was hexed by the rain gods (or maybe his neighbors), or so he thought.

Gene, you’re spot on about we farm folks who live and die by the weather. I am keenly aware of the atmosphere, regardless of the forecasts. My two old tractors are not air conditioned. You can bet that I’m aware of the temperature, too.

I have been gardening and other outdoor things most of my life. I find it amazing that my co-workers are always dumbfounded when I comment on the weather and I’m right. I’ve learned on this piece of land that if the clouds come from the south we will probably get rain. Especially if the moon is full. Rare it is to get a drop if the clouds come from another direction or if the moon is in another phase. Simple observation. But I have found that few people observe the natural world around them. Perhaps because, especially in cities, there is so little of it left and because their lives are not directly dependent on it. Besides which most of them do not interact with natural things on a daily basis. They are too busy trying to bend nature to their will; to stomp her out and to ignore her.

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