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.
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?
I 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 are.
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.
Bryce 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.