After months of waiting, worrying and hoping, the clouds finally
arrived here at Yellabird Farm last week and brought us the long-sought
gift of good rain. It was a great two days of slow and soaking moisture
that the cracked soil guzzled up with gusto. Seven inches was the tally.
And it has brightened up the spirits of all of us: man, woman, child,
goat, chicken, cow, clover, oak tree, frog, songbird. The whole living
community around here is crying out with joy.
Just like the Earth
breaking from sleep in the spring, this soaking rain has brought the
farm back to life. Alfalfa has shot to the sky in the past few days.
Many grasses have re-emerged. The dust has settled, at least for now.
- The rain even brought up some edible wild mushrooms, a special summer rain treat.
And while the feel-good moisture has perked up life throughout West
Missouri, it also leaves me with a lot of questions about how to
proceed. If it took a massive slow-moving Hurricane named Isaac to
finally quench the thirst of a broad agricultural region, what can the
agricultural community do to be more resilient in the face of drought?
have had a very different set of experiences and education than many of
my neighbors. My thirty-five years have been an era of ecological
awareness and science-based education. I have even worked as part of the
environmental and conservation movement throughout my career. This was
my path back to the farm; the path of trying to find the right place for
humans to live in and with the world without unnecessarily harming
other creatures (human or nonhuman).
It is an outcome of this path
that leads me to my greatest fear as a beginning farmer. I’m afraid
that the drought we just experienced, followed by massive rain events,
could become a more frequent weather pattern due to a changing climate.
And the climate is changing partially because of our industrial
agriculture practices. We have worked hard for more than a hundred years
now to pump additional carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and
other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by consuming fossil fuels and
using petroleum based fertilizers. We have concentrated our livestock
and their manure into greenhouse gas emission factories in the form of
feedlots and indoor poultry and pork confinements. Pumping all of that
extra gas out into the atmosphere has consequences as the chemical
makeup of the air changes. So we shall see what the long-term impacts
This is a tricky and sticky discussion because weather is
always in flux. Weather is a highly local thing. You simply can’t blame
single weather events on increased greenhouse gases. There have always
been droughts and hurricanes and floods. But adding up the weather
trends over a long period time is what we call climate. And climate, as
anyone looking at the long-term trends can see, is clearly changing.
Summers are hotter over broad swaths of agricultural areas. Summer are
also dryer. Plants and pests have shifted their habitats further north
(at least in the Northern Hemisphere).
These are the things I see
all around me every day on the farm, and they are the core of a worry
that I hear too little about in agricultural circles. In the context of a
changing climate, how will we practice farming and agriculture? How
will we feed ourselves and our communities? These are the questions we
will have to struggle with even as many in the farming community
refused to see the problem standing right in front of us.
Oates is a farmer, father, writer and rural economic development
entrepreneur. He works with his family to raise organic vegetables,
beef, lamb, chickens, goats and manage the bottomland forest woodlot in
Western Missouri. He has helped to launch numerous social enterprises
including a sustainable wood processing cooperative, a dairy goat cheese
processing facility and a conservation-based land management company
that incentivizes carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. Bryce
currently co-owns the Root Cellar Grocery in Downtown Columbia,
Missouri, where the local food store operates a weekly produce
subscription program, the Missouri Bounty Box (www.missouribountybox.com). Bryce, along with 135 other farmers, sells his produce through this program.