Living At The Whim Of The Weather


Today, April 11, 2012, the weather forecasters are calling for widespread freezing tonight and possibly sleet and snow here in northern Ohio.  A month ago, when it should have been snowing, the temperature was around 80 and garden fools actually did some planting, even corn. In a neighbor’s garden the peas are up.  They are yellow this morning because the temperature recently was below freezing three nights in a row.  So while liberals had a grand time tee-heeing conservatives in March about being in denial over global warming, today the conservatives can tee-hee right back and the liberals have to eat crow or maybe snow.

I don’t think either side has a scientific thing to say of any practical value. They can use the most sophisticated computer modeling to pretend to predict the weather, or study historical and geographical weather patterns in minute detail, but no one can tell me where the next bolt of lightning will strike or when the next frost will settle in. I don’t think the two sides even care about climate science. They just want an excuse to insult each other over politics.  It’s what happens when people have too much time on their hands and not enough imagination to fill it with something worthwhile.

In any event, the weather remains forever uncertain and so the lives of food producers are at all times precarious. I think religion got started in agriculture. Living at the utter mercy of uncontrollable weather is enough to drive a godless heathen to his knees. My mother would burn pieces of Palm Sunday palms, saved from church services for that purpose, when a bad storm broke over us. I doubt she believed in such superstition any more than I did but it was something to do. The Navajos did their rain dances hoping to bring a storm on. When Catholics used to be real Catholics, they would march in the fields in spring Rogation Days, singing hymns and sprinkling holy water over the fields. The sprinkles were not enough to stem a drought, but then again they didn’t exacerbate a flood either. It surely wasn’t any more irrational than planting corn in March in northern Ohio. That too is a kind of prayer. Maybe a miracle will happen and it will grow.

After a lifetime of growing food, I am almost paranoid over how close to the brink of disaster we constantly live, just because of weather. Whether one believes in God or in Nature, it still requires great faith to keep putting seeds in the ground. I could say that we do it because it is enjoyable work. But let us be honest. It is not fun to hoe in the garden during a summer drought when the temperature is in the nineties and the deer flies and mosquitoes are whispering sweet nothings in our ears. My theory is that we do it out of sheer bullheadedness. Could Sheer Bullheadedness be a religion? If so, I am the holiest gardener around.

The religion that mystifies me the most is Carbonism with its chants and hymns about carbon footprints, carbon banks and especially carbon credits. I don’t understand it. Do you? The amount of carbon dioxide in the universe must be infinite for all practical purposes and I get real nervous when people try to quantify infinity with numbers. Five percent of infinity is still infinity I think. Since we had to start mowing lawns a month earlier this year, our increased carbon footprint from doing so probably cancels out the touted decrease which no-till farming is supposed to accomplish. (Talk about crazy. I saw an article recently in which a farm expert was telling “no-till” farmers they should consider fewer tillage passages over their fields this year.)  In any case, the increase or decrease won’t tell me whether more freezing weather, hail, drought, flood, bugs, diseases, windstorms, Board of Trade speculation, or market fraud will ruin the crops this year. Whatever happens, we will all be assured that it is Obama’s fault, right?


now what happened to planting after the date of last frost?….duh?

Speaking of climate change–I spent the last 2 days pulling honey. I have NEVER harvested honey this early, but the boxes were full and the bees were running out of space. The honey was capped and dry enough to harvest since, until today, we hadn’t had any rain for 3 weeks. It’s a dark, reddish amber, mostly from tree nectar I’m guessing.
I’m wondering how other beekeepers are faring? The progression of bloom seems to be about 3 to 4 weeks ahead of schedule here in Middle Tennessee. Weird.

People who work the land know better than anyone that climate change is very real and it’s getting worse every year. Anyone who loves to eat should be very concerned the future of food production in a world facing a climate crisis. We need to do whatever it takes to force our governments to take action.

It’s always a pleasure reading your posts!

Or maybe it will be Bush’s fault. It seems so much is already blamed on one or the other.

editing error – change my choice to door #2

Yep I do wonder Gene – often. I think I mentioned in response to another post once that the wondering for me boils down to infinite matter and space giving rise to finite intelligence or infinite intelligence giving rise to finite space and matter ( and intelligence ) or some undecipherable third option. Being rather enamored with consciousness despite its drawbacks and with no irrefutable evidence to confirm any of my self determined options, I pick door #1. I’ve experienced some empirical evidence to point me in that direction and it has the biggest upside. Or it does if people with hidden personal agendas don’t try to take charge of defining the details.
As I understand the carbon /carbon dioxide shouting match – and I sincerely doubt that I know as much about it as you – the question is not about quantity as much as it is about balance. One of my favorite poems begins with the lines
“Alleluia – for the single raindrop ( the one that sends the balanced sea tumbling over earth’s edge ) — and all those that follow, they wash the earth and sand”
It is all about the seemingly insignificant and the eventual tipping point which can be for good or bad. With carbon it seems that even though oxygen and nitrogen exist in far larger quantities in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it is relatively small shifts upward in the per cent of atmospheric CO2 that profoundly impact the way our world interacts with sunlight. When 7 billion people daily use carbon that has been stored safely underground or in trees and plants and change it into CO2 dumped into the atmosphere it would seem to have some potential for harm. Especially if they are dumping more than plants can extract and convert back into sequestered carbon. It is rather similar to government spending – a billion here and a billion there and eventually it adds up to more than pocket change.
I got started on “Sanctuary ” yesterday. I’m almost ready to go looking for some sheep to beat back the garlic mustard growing in the woods on the back corner of the farm. Except Beth found a live Coyote pup lying by a tree making a racket while she was walking the woods last week. They are getting thick around here.

Yesterday was a good day at the Miller house. Two copies of “A Sanctuary of Trees” arrived – one for Beth and I and one to start passing around to the kids. I wasn’t aware that it had been released until Betty mentioned it in a comment. Thanks Betty. We put our order in that day. The book is very timely for our family because Beth and our oldest son attended a week long course on tree identification last September that is given annually by the Arc of Appalachia organization in southern Oh. Trees have risen considerably on the family interest list since then and your book has been eagerly anticipated.
I hesitate to go all mathy and nerdy in response to the post because I found so much of it so satisfying. But the line about carbon dioxide being infinite for all practical purposes did get a rise out of the left side of my brain. As one who came to math later in life as a means of providing for my family, one of the instructive pleasures of the discipline that I have gained is an abiding appreciation for how counter-intuitive the infinite can be. My favorite section in the calculus textbook is about indeterminate forms. And of those forms which include things like zero times infinity and infinity divided by infinity, my favorite is 1 to the infinite power. It can be anything depending on particulars. 1 times itself any number of times, no matter how many, is always 1. But done infinitely, the result can vary infinitely. I find it strangely reassuring to realize that the finite (me) can never completely understand the infinite (great brain wave in the sky?).
Sorry folks – I can imagine the glaze-eyed responses taking place.
The idea of “infinite for all practical purposes” is a personal perspective statement often made innocently. But it is that perspective and its unintended consequences that originally led us into all kinds of sticky wickets. Oil dependency, toxic chemicals discharged into rivers, cargo ships full of medical waste dumped in the ocean, the reduction of some rivers to trickles as the diverted water was used for capitalistic purposes all began with some form of similar thinking – that the action was insignificant in comparison to the vastness of the resource. Very few actions are insignificant. Maybe none are.
I hope I didn’t use any metaphors that went south – great line roof.

    Okay, Russ, the “infinite” is out. But I am still left with my dilemma. How much CO2 is floating around. Since you say we cam’t use the term “infinite,” what number can mathematics give me? How much is floating around just our puny little planet? How much just in Ohio?
    Did you ever wonder whether the universe might be eternal, no beginning no end, in time or space? If that were true, mathematics would become obsolete, because how do you count the uncountable? Gene

Like most religions, carbonism is about money. Just think of the carbon tax as a carbon tithe. You can buy and sell carbon credits as a commodity. I retired from an automotive corporation which planted a plethora of tree seedlings on it’s excess land to offset it’s carbon footprint, since it manufactured a product that consumed a non renewable resource. They also gave new employees a seedling to plant, which represented their career at the corporation, daily growing and flourishing. A lot of those Norway spruce seedlings did well for ten years and then got diseased and died and were cut down. I hate it when a metaphor goes south.

One of the ironies of our current green agriculture is the war on fencerows and woods so we can make corn ethanol to save our environment. I’m noticing in my little corner of Ohio that there are quite a few of those circular irrigation sprinkling outfits being constructed, which historically were only used in Iowa and Nebraska where summer droughts were common. Is anyone else noticing this? I’m discretely trying to find out if these people are hedging their seed/fertilizer/pesticide investment, or whether they know something I don’t about the future weather trends, or (gasp) there is a federal program for them. Maybe they grow seed corn and beans.

I went for a bike ride yesterday and noticed the marsh marigolds are blooming, pretty much on schedule. I’m still waiting for the orioles and hummers to return, but it seems all is right with the world.

Another gardner glad she didn’t give in to the temptation (and oh was I tempted!) of the early spring/summer weather. Now I’m looking only at a few nipped potatoe leaves, but most protected by the straw mulch, and no damage at all to the onions, lettuce, broccoli and cabbage starts. But oh! what if the weather had continued warm, the jump on the season those early birds would have had! Gotta love them for the virtue of their HOPE.

When I picture myself in my dotage planting seeds in the spring, I think this must be the epitome of hope, and of the endless cycle of seasons–an old woman planting a garden, how cool!


I look at it this way. How often do we get overnight freezes in early/mid April? In the Great Lakes region, that’s pretty common. How often do we get strings of 80-degree days in March? Say what?!? Turns out it happens, but it’s *really rare*. Kind of like that record wet year last year.

The climate change predictions are for more unpredictable weather, more records broken (especially warm records, especially in the winter), and more rain. The anti-climate change folks are basically predicting fairly normal weather. So who’s been more right? And what about that North Pole ice cap? Santa had better be looking for a new place to live.

I just heard from the farmer who handles our bulk organic seed order in the thumb, that he was talking to another farmer who’s already done planting a thousand acres of corn. In Michigan – in early April! I wish him a lot of luck, but there’s no way I’m putting in corn yet. I might get around to oats and potatoes, but only if the ground dries out a bit more. Still trying to dry out from that record rainfall last year…

Carbonism. That’s a good one! Maybe environmentalists should be called Carbonistas.

I have to yell at the TV everytime they attempt to explain a weather situation by saying something like … “We’re having a cold spell because the jet stream is shifting…, blah, blah, blah…” Any idiot can see that! WHY has the jet stream shifted … that would be more of an explanation! We have the sorriest patch of frozen asparagus I’ve ever see. I will take Carol’s advice and go out and cut everything down and see what happens. Yes, bullheadedness … hence, Contrary Farmers!

The first thing to say about climate change is that it needs to get the hell away from political manipulations and stay with the actual science. And really, the only folks arguing that climate change isn’t happening are those who are paid to confuse the issue. Naomi Klein has a terrific essay that explains the financial and political motivations behind climate denialism here:

Capitalism versus Climate – Naomi Klein

Second thing to say about climate change is a significant distinction that will make a great deal of sense out of all the conflicting opinions pro and con. The climate change most folks are talking about, on both sides of the political aisle is Type I, which is slow, steady and linear. Think of a graph low on the left and rising slowly across the page in a relatively straight line to the upper right. Nearly all the arguments we hear about climate change, whether in denial from the Heartland Institute and their cronies or from organizations like Bill McKibben’s, they are all talking about Type I, which projects a slow and steady warming over a hundred years or so that may result in a couple degrees gain. Both sides get a failing grade.

The problem comes when you compare projections with reality and try to understand what is actually happening on the ground as if it were Type I. It’s not. It’s Type II and that, my friends, is a whole different kettle of fish.

Type II climate change is rapid, chaotic, extreme, unpredictable and non-linear. That last bit is key to both understanding and survival. If this were a graph it would look a lot more like a 9.0 earthquake laid on top of a chart full of 3’s, 5’s and 6’s. And you can see exactly that wild variability every time you look at the news.

Which leads us to the deep wisdom of your readers who have already pretty much nailed the key issues.

Weather and climate are related but very different fields of study. As someone said earlier, “Weathermen don’t understand climate and climatologists aren’t especially interested in weather except as patterns.” That is very true. And if you have noticed, even the local weather has been getting less and less accurate in the last couple years.

What makes all this so much more difficult to make sense of is that all the really good models for weather and climate are linear and are deeply disconnected from the actual real world, which is non-linear. The minute scientists try to incorporate non-linear algorithms into their models, the models just blow up. Too much chaos and too much variation in initial conditions leads to crap output. We just can’t do it yet. We just don’t know the math that will make those kinds of extremely complex, non-linear models work in a way that echos the real world.

So get ready for more whackadoodle weather. Six days in a row of mid- to upper-80’s in Maine in March with 10 degrees overnight two days later. Imagine 5 months of no rain followed by 3 feet in 24 hours. If your house gets taken by a tornado, please do not build the same kind of stick-built house as the last one because the odds of another set of tornados hitting in the same place again soon is now quite high. Build with insulated concrete forms or build underground. Remember, the last time the climate popped hot, at the end of the Younger Dryas over eleven thousand years ago, the climate jumped 8 degrees Centigrade in ONE YEAR! That is 14 degrees F. And we know that with certainty from empirical evidence in both mud and ice cores.

Grow multiple types of crops as well as multiple varieties of the same crops, ones that do well in cool, wet weather, ones that grow well in what we consider normal weather and also ones that do well in drought. Plan for fires, because this year looks like it may be even worse than last year, when 3.5 million acres of Texas burned flat. Imagine those fires coming east.

In other words, for farmers everywhere, do what you have always done, only more so. Way way way more so. Think over-the-top and out-of-the box flexible and adaptable, and plan for optimal resilience in all things.

Understand too, the warmer it gets the more rain is necessary up to the point where, when the soil temp reaches 79 F, you must have at least one inch of rain per day or that soil turns to flat out desert, where only specifically evolved desert life can survive. Think Gobi, Sahara, Death Valley. This is the likely fate of many of the continental interiors around the world. Those conditions predict an end to modern agriculture.

The more you understand about what the science tells us, the more likely you will be to respond appropriately. The reality is that, regardless of your politics, you cannot afford to blow climate change off. At best, that position will only cost you your farm. At worst it will cost you your life.

Confusing the difference between weather and climate is a common mistake. Weathermen don’t understand climate and climatologists aren’t especially interested in weather except as patterns. No one can do EVER anything about the weather. Climate is another matter. Increased aberrant weather, increased weather extremes has been the main prediction of over 4000 climate scientists who warn about global warming. Heated atmosphere causes increased movement meaning more winds, meaning larger hurricanes tornadoes and bizarre events. Expect more weirdness and more record breaking weather.

You and David Kline ARE the holiest gardeners I’ve ever met…both of you in your own unique ways. I smiled all through this article!

    Deb, me a holy gardener??? now I am getting nervous. But anyway thanks so much for your long time support. I really appreciate it. Gene

In southern KC, my fruit (pear, apple and cherry) trees have all bloomed and set fruit – if they survive; the frost is only supposed to make it to about 50 miles north of us – too close for my comfort!!!

On the other hand, my hazels don’t appear to have had any problems with the wierd weather; this should be my first year of hazel nuts. And, my chestnuts are smart – they are just now waking up and are still a month or so from blooming.

I agree with Beth – diversity in these adverse conditions will be key.


Gene, if you want to start the Church of Sheer Bullheadedness, I will travel from California to Ohio to attend! I guess the key in dealing with climate change is to diversify your plantings, plant early, miseason and late varieties and recognize that some years you will eat corn, other years potatoes and still other years a grain such as wheat or barley. Even when the frost gets our apple and pear trees, the blackberries usually come through. The one year that late hail decimated the blackberry crop, we didn’t have frost earlier in the year so had lost of apples and pears. I’ve never had a year where nothing in any category did well, even if it did make for some interesting menus. Although I must admit that the grandkids did grump about all the various pear dishes the year we had pears and not much else…


You crack me up! Thank you.

I’ve always said that the average farmer or gardener doesn’t need to go to Las Vegas or the closest Indian reservation to gamble. We do that every spring when we put seed in the ground!

We have 4 acres of blueberries which remain planted year round. Unfortunately they were coaxed into blooming by the temptress March zephyrs which brought May temperatures in the middle of March. We have managed to dodge several bullets of cold temperatures which have blessedly been accompanied by consistent winds. That peculiar alchemy seems to have protected the blossoms so far from freezing. Only about a month of worry left as far as Frost, then we can get on with the more prosaic concerns of Weed, Bird, Drought, and Pestilence. Hope we can weather the Weather!

I know you are aware of the difference between weather and climate, so I can only assume those were references to help poke fun at the early planters. Loved the last line of the post!

Gene, you should not chide people for planting early. We are optimists after all and the types that see opportunity and take it. Besides what is the real risk? We lose a couple of dollars in seed, not a big deal. If we are successful we eat good a month longer than normal. If not the ground is tilled and ready to go for the normal time.

Well I didn’t plant anything except potatoes and onions-though it was tempting. The worse thing is that I put away all but one sweatshirt! We live in southern OH and purposely planned our first chickens to arrive in May; the interwebs are full of baby chick pics but just didn’t trust the “warm” weather would last! Hopefully we won’t get snow in May.

All of my fruit trees have bloomed and then got frosted. Time will tell if there is any crop at all. Happily, the berry bushes (gooseberry, currant, Nanking cherry) are more resilient and are setting fruit pretty well. Rhubarb is coming on well too, as it is planted in a sheltered spot near the house. That’s why I’m moving away from tree fruits to more bush fruits…that and the bushes require minimal care and no spraying!

Went up to Meyer Hatchery and picked up our chick order. We got crazy and have 6 different varieties this year. Eggs are nice, but I get as much pleasure out of watching all the different chickens ranging about.

Coyotes came through last night. They were howling close to the house and could hear them even with the windows shut and the heat on. Did not see the free range geese this a.m., so took a ride on the ATV and found all the males safe swimming in the pond. The geese are sitting nests, again close to the house and they were safe, as were all the goats and goat kids. Whew!

My city friends don’t “get” my obsession with weather. Right now I’m obsessing about rain…it has gotten very dry here and the big puddle with the frog tadpoles is down to a very small nursery. Rik will be hauling water out to dump in the puddle for them later today. Hope it rains soon!

We live in a little pocket of North Carolina where you basically cannot grow fruit trees, at least not reliably and commercially. We have frequent warm spells in February and March that get trees flowering early, and frequent late frosts at the end of April that would kill them. A little to the east and south they don’t have the latter problem; a little to the north and west they don’t have the former. I was pointing this out to someone the other day who was predicting a great growing season ahead because of the crazy warm March; she was skeptical when I bet her we’d have frost after the “frost date.” She wasn’t a farmer, of course.

What scares me about climate change is that most of the computer models don’t just predict a rising average temperature over the globe; they predict greater uncertainty, more instability, wilder swings of temperature and precipitation. Farmers will have to be more adaptable and flexible than ever, and maybe more bullheaded, too. And have more faith.

Ah, well — at least if we’re going to hell, they’re serving beautiful strawberries in the handbasket this year!

Gene, I have been reading your books for years and I always enjoy you post here. You always insert such practical sense into gardening and this post is a true example. I hope you and your family are well.

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