Farmers Learned Long Ago How To Handle The Weather 


I give Monopoly Farming credit for one thing: it knows what needs to be done to make agriculture as certain of profit as manufacturing can be. Control the weather. That at least would make it easier to sell stock in gigantic farm enterprises. And the kind of mentality that achieves success in manufacturing thinks it knows just how to do that. Turn Big Data loose on weather records so that crops can be planted precisely at the best time and place for profitable yields. All big business thinks it needs are minutely-detailed, computer-collated statistical records on every raindrop, every temperature degree, every whisper of wind, every vortex shift of every pole, every oscillation of every ocean ripple, every zig and zag of every jet stream. Then the farmer will know, unerringly, when and where to plant wheat in Russia, soybeans in Brazil, corn in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, etc. No more guesswork, no more risk. Data will rule. As all successful business people know,  it’s just a matter of having enough facts in your portfolio. The money will roll in. The world will be fed. Heaven will be now.

It is futile to point out to such a glib mentality why that won’t work and how over the centuries farmers learned a more reliable way to deal with uncontrollable weather. If you look at agricultural history the traditional way, it becomes apparent that many of the calamities in farming that are now being blamed on bad weather or climate change are really being caused by human behavioral changes. If the dust storms of the 1930s occurred today, climate change would be blamed when the problem came from too many farmers thinking they were going to get rich plowing up the prairies for wheat. Today’s bad drought in the West is being blamed on climate change, perhaps correctly, but water shortages are as much the result of increased populations as the ebbs and tides of El Nino and La Nina. Interestingly, in the July issue of Acres U.S.A, the legendary organic farm advisor, Amigo Bob Cantisano in California says about the same thing. After pointing out traditional ways of coping with drought in what is essentially a desert area, like the way some wineries have learned to grow wine grapes that require little or no irrigation, he says: “My friends who are practicing dry farming are not going to notice there is a problem, or very little… The reason is not so much the farmers’ water use. Federal or state water from the public ditches goes to the highest bidder and the highest bidders in California are urban areas.”

Many of the problems facing farming today are much more cases of money gambling that requires greater weather gambling. If you produce only corn and soybeans,  you can’t plant if it keeps on raining no matter how big a planter you have. And it doesn’t matter how big your harvester is if there’s nothing much out there to harvest. You are without alternatives. The resulting angst in the newspaper headlines makes it seem like weather problems are greater today.

My old neighbor, now gone, always kept a goodly supply of surplus hay in his barn for emergencies. The emergency might come only once every ten years or so, but he was ready and it took a lot of the worry out of contrary weather. “Extra hay in the barn is much better security than money in the bank,” he liked to say. “It also gives me the chance to sell that hay at a high price when there is an emergency somewhere else and then replenish it with cheap hay in the next good year.”

On our farm when I was a boy, as long as we had a variety of farm animals and a variety of crops, we could cope with adverse weather fairly well. But the minute Dad and I listened to all the fervid preachments about how specialization would mean bigger profits and got rid of all the livestock in favor of more cash crops, we were much more at risk. If weather decreased crop yields to below a profitable level, we had no livestock to eat the unprofitable yields so that we could eke out enough income to make it to a better year. Without hay or pastures in rotation, the grain crops needed more fertilizer, were more susceptible to drought, and weeds became much more problematical. When we then changed to a large dairy operation, the risk of having all our eggs in one basket, or in this case, milk in one tank, was overwhelming. If milk prices were low, we had no other source of income to fall back on. In a drought year we spent what profit there was from the milk on buying hay. But at least, animals were a better risk than cash grain— hailstorms destroy corn, not cows.

Farming with the least risk means having chickens, hogs, cows, goats, corn, oats, wheat, barley, rye, hay, pasture, an orchard, a garden and a pond full of fish. If one commodity failed, there are others to fall back on. This is why good Amish farmers make money even on smallish farms with horses for traction power. And I bet if you squeeze enough data out of Big Data, it will tell you the same thing.


Diversity is always a safer bet, farming or otherwise

Actually i think it’s corn-beans bankruptcy! The most secure i would feel is when i had my big green box bed wagon with the floor covered with corn i had hand husked opening up my field.Probably only worth$20 bucks tops but the feeling of contentment it gave me was better than any money.

Spreading the risk and having many small enterprises is the way to financial stability on a farm and they don’t all have to be ag enterprises exactly they can just be related like tractor and engine repair done occassionally.As you pointed out spreading the risk around is just good business and if you plant a small amount of corn or other crop you can use older equipment that can be bought cheap.Plus it makes life much more interesting.

Isn’t big farming in a sort of rotation though? Corn-Arizona-Beans-Florida-Corn etc.

I agree, keep extra hay in the loft at all times, whether for your own use or to sell/help someone else in need. My Dad did not farm, per se. Haygrass, used sometimes for straw, and alfalfa. That was all we ever had to mow. He made silage piles with grains purchased from other locals, we always had plenty of stacks of straw bales piled along the corrals beside the barn.

We didn’t have an orchard either, but had lots of groves of trees and bushes which bore something edible. A few apple and pear trees, some walnut, some chokecherry, raspberry, blackberry and wild plum bushes. My Mom used to get gooseberries (my Dad’s favorite kind of pie, next to mince) but I can’t remember if we actually grew them or if she bartered with neighbors. We had a huge garden, no fish ponds though. We had chickens galore, lots of turkeys and guinea hens, a couple of goats, usually two or three milk cows (Jersey or Dexters) two mules, a couple dozen horses, and about 500-700 head of hereford cows at any given time, along with about a hundred breeder bulls which my Dad raised to sell to the locals. THAT was his main business – breeder bulls. All our cattle were on pasture about 98% of the year during the months possible; during the winter months they ate the silage, alfalfa and hay. We mostly used the straw in the barns and chicken coops for bedding.

The weather was what it was and we dealt with it. But of course no one was manipulating the weather back then. If they were, it wasn’t to the degree it is now. These meteorologists can’t tell us for sure what will happen with tomorrow’s weather, but we’re supposed to believe they can tell us what the earth will be like in 10 years? Sure.

Exactly. This year we put one a heavy application what are called mint slugs which consist of semi-composted remains of mint plants after the mint oil has been extracted via steaming and condensation. It is certainly a large amount of organic material. Then we planted green beans. Usually this time of year we are awash in green beans needing to be picked and canned so the pole bean vines keep producing even though many blossoms fall off without producing because of the 100 degree heat . Beans do better in cooler temperatures.

However this year the beans planted in the mint slugs mostly failed to emerge from the ground. In contrast the summer and winter squash and the peppers we planted using for fertilizer only barn pack partially composted manure with bedding are going like gangbusters.

The grapes I planted several years ago have really taken off. I even feared two years ago that I had lost some of the vines to the winter cold and spring frost. Also the crop of weeds is such that I’m able to supplement the otherwise minimal pasture for the goats, chickens and waterfowl with harvested weeds. Doing summer pruning on the trees and shrubs provides even more forage thereby conserving expensive purchased hay. Most commercial farms consider prunings as a waste product. After the goats consume what they like from the prunings I shred them then use them as barn pack bedding.

The predators really nailed the poultry to the point I was no longer able to find eggs from the free range chickens. I figured that meant I would have no further production from the remaining chickens.Surprisingly, the surviving hens and adult rooster have been smart enough to hide their nests from both the predators and from me to the point that they successfully hatched and are raising enough replacement chickens to the point I’m drooling over the prospect of fresh young fried roosters although because they are free range they won’t cook up tender like store bought confinement raised fryer chicken.

Lessons learned include: 1) as Gene says: diversity is a good weather coping strategy so the abundance of summer squash, peppers, tomatoes and greens mean the absent green beans won’t be missed too much. 2) If trying something new, even a new type of organic fertilizer, don’t put all your theoretical fertilizer eggs in one basket. Specifically, I’m sure by next growing season the areas where the mint slugs were applied will be highly fertile instead of the stinking anaerobic swamp-like mess they are now. 3) Experiments are fun, but sick with tried and true methods for most of the plantings; meaning the areas fertilized with barn pack manure bedding and wood chips have produced well in the past and continue to do so now. 4) Don’t give up easily on the diversity opportunities provided by perennial plantings such as fruit trees, berries and grapes. Yes, frost can damage blossoms and winter damage can make it appear that the vines or trees didn’t survive, but the will to live in perennials is strong . The vines I thought were dead are loaded with grapes. The apricot trees I didn’t think would amount to much have provided us with an abundance of apricots this year. Most impressive of all is that I cut down a peach tree that sprouted from a seed we tossed out some years ago, which tree appeared to be dead. Lo and behold it sent up suckers from the stump so I pruned out all but one sucker and it grew like crazy. Surprisingly, I’ll soon be harvesting some peaches from it. I know the ancient ancestors in Britain did this practice called coppicing for producing nuts and building material but I had never intentionally done it with fruit trees before. So if there is a good way of propagating perennials from their own roots without grafting I would like to know about it. That could be just one more branch of the diversity tree such as: periodically cutting down alternate rows of fruit trees in alternate years so you could have a space to plant garden in between the rows of fruit trees and the trees could re-grow from the stump. The fruit wood for heating and carpentry is a bonus. But it won’t work with grafted trees or vines. Any suggestions how to accomplish this?

So as I dine on: grapes, summer squash, peppers and fried chicken I’ll drink a toast to Gene’s advice of coping with adverse weather ( and I might add : predators) through diversity.

Best sound advice ever!

Hear, hear! Diversification will always feed you and your animals, and often puts a little money in your pocket as well. Not to mention keeping the land healthier…
As Robert Heinlein was fond of saying: “Specialization is for insects.”

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