Ah, yes. A rainy September morning.
It’s one of the glories of the annual cycle of seasons on the farm. Here in western Missouri, fall planting has commenced. Lettuce and spinach and radishes and other leafy and rooting plants are in the ground. But right now they’re just sitting there, waiting for calming temperatures and moisture. After a burning August (I’m not complaining; 2014 had some good and timely rains), we’re hoping for the heat to break and the fall crops to take off.
They need to get going soon if we’re to have a harvest in the next few weeks. The sun is rapidly retreating. The soil is still pretty dry. And yet, even knowing those conditions, we hope things will work out. Maybe the fall will be long and mild. Maybe the temperature will be in that magic 65-degree high, 45-degree low range until Christmas. Maybe.
It’s all relative, though. I count myself lucky. I live on fairly marginal farmland for specialty crop growing, specifically vegetable production. For the most part, that’s due to our occasional super-high winds and wild temperature fluctuations. And then there’s bug damage and disease and wilt—the latter thanks to our spotty but sometimes incredibly heavy rains. But this is only “marginality” in comparison with other places where veggies are the specialty, such as the mountain-protected regions of the American West. I’m talking about you, California. And you, Colorado River Basin.
I pick on the Colorado River watershed a lot in my head, for a very simple reason: Geography and environmental destruction are my nagging worries. I’m a guy who really struggles with water. The Colorado River has water worries in piles and piles. That sucker doesn’t even make it to its delta, on the southeast California-Baja California coast.
And this retreating river is only part of the issue. A lot of the problem has to do with agriculture. The Imperial Valley supplies an estimated 80 percent of US-produced winter vegetables. As the writer and photographer Pete McBride tells it, we might not realize it, but we Americans “eat the Colorado River” during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That’s because the majority of fresh produce in grocery stores has a Colorado River pedigree during the holidays. The microclimate there and the farmers in the region have developed a serious agribusiness based on the area’s “economic competitiveness,” or giant monocultures of industrial vegetables that get shipped out to the highest bidder.
I woke up to this reality while I was enjoying this morning’s rainstorm. Mother Jones blogger Tom Philpott laid it out clearly: The highly veggie-productive Colorado River region could be facing an absolute lack of water very soon.
So what does that mean for Midwestern, Southern, and Eastern veggie growers like me? We better get our acts together. We better embrace our advantages of fall and winter production, construct hoop houses and greenhouses, and try to build on the beginnings of a nonsummer production season.
Because those of us with experience know a longer season is ripe for the picking. We’re not trying to steal the market from our farmer friends in the Southwest. Rather, we know two things:
- Local food is fresher and can have a much smaller carbon footprint than industrial produce.
- People want a more transparent food system that aligns ecological practices with healthy meals.
So, get ready, veggie growers. Whether we like it or not, somebody needs to provide the greens and radishes and carrots for all those holiday meals. Entire industries are built upon such societal shifts. The question is whether, through agricultural policy and funding, we, as produce growers, and we, as a society, can make the transition away from desert-based veggie production in a manner that limits harm while providing maximum local economic development.
Maybe it’s time we quit listening to all of those economists who keep nay-saying “government picking winners and losers.” If we can transition the fall and winter veggie system in our country from the desert Southwest to the Midwest, South, and East, everybody can win. Yes, everybody: farmers, consumers, and the environment.
Who knows? Maybe that broader geographic distribution of farm laborers who follow the produce would help us fix immigration policy, as well. Maybe not. But it’s worth pursuing.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig some potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.
PHOTOS: (HOLIDAY PLATE) JENNIFER; (ROOTS AND GREENS) ANDREA DiMAURO; (HIGH TUNNEL) RICHARD MAXWELL; (FENNEL APRICOT STUFFING) PENNY V.