Weeds: A year, sadly, to remember

Fifty years ago the Carpenters sang, “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.” Karen and Richard never farmed through a drought. If we had a rainy day, I’d throw a party.

My poor wife chose this year to cut back at work and be around me more. She gets to hear me talk about the crops and the weather often. A lot. Too much. Pam likes to point out that there is nothing I can do about the lack of rain. That’s not true; I can complain about it.

Bad days and bad years on the farm stick in my memory better than good ones. Equipment stuck in the mud, the bad aphid year when yields shrank, the fall when black nightshade plugged the combine: those are all vivid in my mind. Good years come and go unheralded.

I’m not sure why that is. It’s opposite with people. There, I’m pretty good at letting bad things go. The memories I have of people in my life are many times more good than bad. Grudges fade into the mist.

It’s too early to know for sure, but 2021 is shaping up to be one to remember. The years 1976 and 1988 are being used as comparisons. I was a college kid during the first of those and a young farmer trying to pay bills in the second. Now I’m an old farmer, still paying bills. We’ve had dry years since, but none you would use the D-word for. Drought.

I talk about “we” even if most of us don’t own a tractor. A lot of jobs around here are connected to agriculture. Even if you aren’t a farmer, most of us have a garden that needs more attention. Or you have to water your lawn. Maybe you just have a higher electric bill from running the AC. Whatever, a drought touches everybody.

Much of the wealth created in the Midwest comes from the fields. The money farmers have flows through the economy like water churning through a rapids. It’s impossible now to project the economic impact of this weather, but it will be something.

The crops we grow are dependent on soil, sun, and rain. I always say the harvest is about 95 per cent what nature does and some small percentage what I do. When one of those ingredients is in short supply, it ain’t good. We had a dry fall and a dry spring, which makes life much easier for farmers during harvest and planting. You have to avoid a combine fire in the fall and find moisture for your seed in the spring. If you can do those, the work is better than fighting mud.

Actually, our July was a typical hot and dry one. But June, hoo boy! June was like none we’ve seen. We had less than an inch of rain, which I wouldn’t have thought was possible. Three years ago, we had eleven inches in June; over five is common. We had multiple days in the nineties this June with Sahara-like winds blowing, sucking moisture from everything from the soil to our skin. Two-foot-tall corn plants with leaves curled up was a bizarre sight.

I’ve always said we’ll do okay in dry years because if it’s 100 degrees in Illinois, it’ll be 90 here. The exact opposite of that was true in our June-from-Hell. Since June, we’ve had some moisture and more normal temps. That’s helped some. Otherwise, I might have been checking out camel prices online.

Interestingly, a couple of ag meteorologists that I pay attention to were talking about drought last winter. La Nina, or cooling of the Pacific, is in place and that often triggers a dry western North America and a normal eastern side. Even though we had a dry fall, I assumed that line would be somewhere by Sioux Falls. Instead, we’ve gotten a diagonal line through the Corn Belt. South and east, there is talk of 300-bushel corn. North and west, something less. Maybe a lot less; we can’t know yet.

If I want to get paranoid, I think about Elwyn Taylor. Elwyn is retired now, but for years he was the Iowa State Climatologist. In that role, he was the weatherman for the Corn Belt. I used to tune in religiously to his reports on Iowa Public Radio to get the big picture view.

Elwyn always talked about cycles in weather, some short, some long. One of the long ones is a ninety-year drought cycle in the middle of our continent. It fell in the 1930’s and we called that the Dust Bowl. If you want to stay up at night worrying, project ahead ninety years from then.

My parents married in 1934 and started their lives together smack dab in the middle of those infamous drought years. I heard stories about that growing up. We still have a giant 50-gallon Red Wing crock where my mom kept sauerkraut and salted meat which was most of what they had to eat for a couple winters. I told Pam we might have to google sauerkraut recipes if it doesn’t rain.

Now we also have to layer Elwyn’s ancient cycles with global warning caused by a couple centuries of fossil fuel burning. That becomes incredibly complex. We may not know the exact harm from that, but we can be assured it is there. All those solar panels and wind generators are a very early attempt to fix that. I’m encouraged by them, but climate change is a giant ocean liner we are trying to turn around.

I’ve always enjoyed the gradual slide of the seasons and the daily shifts in weather. Within broad parameters, every day has a myriad possible combinations of sunshine, clouds, air pressure, breeze, wind, humidity, etc. That’s still true. But there is a sameness to the days when you are wanting rain. Every day I wake, and it’s never too long till it strikes me that it’s another dry day. There’s a tedium and dullness about it.

As Pam can tell you, I like to think in extremes. So I come to see this summer as a slogging march through the desert. In the Bible, the desert is the place where God’s people feel abandoned. It is the place of banishment. Perhaps it is punishment for my sins, calling me to repent.

Or maybe I’ve been out in the hot sun too much. Might be time to get a cold Schell’s out of the fridge.


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