Weeds: Earth Day important to all of us living here

Happy belated Earth Day, Earth.

At the beginning of the growing season, farmers talk about getting out in the fields and “scratching around in the dirt.” We anticipate that all winter. The dirt is our paint brush, the seed is our paint. Or something like that.

Dirt, soil, earth, ground are all words we use for that stuff we look forward to digging around in.

Residents of cities are surrounded by lots of pavement. Out here, the dirt-to-pavement ratio is high. Besides farmers getting to know their dirt, most everyone grows a garden or bed of flowers. Spring is the season of planting for farmers and townies alike. Getting our hands “dirty” feels good after months when the ground is frozen.

Farmers think in terms of acres and fields. Town folks have a yard and a garden. Regardless whether you’re planting corn or petunias, there are things we share: working with whatever the weather gives us that day, satisfaction or frustration when things do or don’t grow as planned, that cheery feeling when sprouts come up.

You probably heard that farmers had a wonderful planting season this year. I told Pam it almost felt like cheating. Temperatures, sun, and wind all conspired to aid us in getting our seeds in the ground in near perfect conditions. That we would be granted this during otherwise troubled times was a blessing.

I put the planter in the shed on May 4. Last year that was June 8. When the fields were planted, I turned my attention to our garden. It was hard to find tomato plants. Others were taking advantage of the fine weather in this Spring of the Quarantine. When I finally located some tomato plants, I put in eight. You know, just in case seven die.

Now it’s entirely possible this perfect spring leads to an oversupply of corn, soybeans, and tomatoes. I can eat my way through the excess tomatoes. Corn and soybeans are more problematic. The thing about the busyness of spring is that farmers don’t think about burdensome supplies and prices that are below the cost-of-production. Maybe we should. But that’s a topic for another day.

April 22 was the first day we planted corn. I was already feeling quite buoyant when I heard on the radio that was Earth Day. Perfect! Earth Day doesn’t get a lot of attention. It’s like Arbor Day, one of those holidays that kids in school recognize with some activity out on the playground. Maybe they plant a tree, which is always a hopeful thing.

This spring we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Big E, Earth the third planet from the sun, is the home we all share. Little e, earth is the surface of that planet, the ground I was planting into.

I remember the first Earth Day. In 1970 the environment was large news. It blends with Vietnam and civil rights in my memory of a volatile time. Some extreme examples of harm caused by humans were getting attention: factory sludge piped directly into rivers, smog blanketing cities, species disappearing. When the Cuyahoga River flowing through Cleveland lit on fire, that was a symbolic tipping point that cried out for change.

Some improvements have been made since. They are ones where you wonder, “What were we thinking?” The work is not done. Having seven billion human beings inhabit a planet is a great experiment we are taking part in. If we get it wrong, our posterity will suffer. Posterity is a fancy word for our grandkids. There is no Plan B. In science fiction, our species can flee to some distant planet. Alas, we shouldn’t count on that.

A microscopic virus reminds us that in the end nature will have her say. We like to think we’re in control. We all want to be in control at our job or in our house. But we’re ultimately dependent on air to breathe, water to drink, and soil to grow food. Air, water, and soil are things that we don’t “control.” They are the Earth’s. We share them.

We are always limited in our vision to what is in front of us. We see to the horizon. It takes imagination to “see” what is beyond the curve of the Earth. It takes foresight to “see” into the future. If we are only concerned about what is best for us here and today, our species is in trouble.

I grow corn and soybeans. I love growing corn and soybeans. There is nothing I like more than an even, weed-free field. At the same time, I know that growing those crops comes with environmental costs. My carbon footprint is large. Water that drains through tile causes problems downstream. Chemicals I use are far from natural.

There are things I do now that are better than when I started farming with tillage, fertility, and weed control. At the same time, there are things worse than when my dad had more diverse crops and livestock here.

Farmers hopefully are open to new ideas. There might be better ways to grow corn and soybeans for the environment, and there might be different crops that fit in the future. We shouldn’t be afraid of environmentalists looking at what we do. We should welcome discussion and even criticism. We learn that way.

We shouldn’t be afraid of regulations. In some quarters that is an unpopular thing to say. There are people who will tell you we are overburdened by regulations written by zealot environmentalists. But I can say that in 40 years of doing this, I have never had a single time when some regulation kept me from doing what I wanted.

The notion that regulations are inherently bad is crazy. Just because I “own” these acres, doesn’t mean I get to do whatever I want. I don’t own the air above and the water that flows through. I share these with seven billion others.

Certainly, farmers should be involved in creating rules and standards for agriculture. I belong to several farm organizations to do just that. In my experience of talking with consumers of food (which is everybody) farmers are respected and welcome at the table where these things are discussed.

Of course, farmers are going to be on different sides of issues in some cases. But most of us want to do right by the Earth. We understand generations will follow us. We don’t want to leave a mess.

I wrote that we are limited to what we can see. But we are the first generation to see amazing pictures from space of this planet. Astronauts report how beautiful and yet vulnerable it looks from up there. It’s a great planet. Happy belated Earth Day.


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