Farmers seem to collectively hold their breath and watch the skies, from March to about November. From planting to harvest, the weather holds their livelihoods in its fickle, and often unsteady palm. One turn or jerk, or flick, and the agriculture community tries to make sense of a drought, wind-damaged crops or flooded fields.
Droughts are the stuff of legends. Floods bring stories, droughts bring legends. For example, the infamous Fourth of July Flood of 1969 not only destroyed homes, lives, rerouted creeks and streams, but made national news with stories of heroism and tragedy. The drought of 1988, was, we believe, the fault of my father’s legendary Cub Cadet, a feared machine that still demands prime space in his implement sheds.
My father believed, as did many parents, that as long as he had any one or all of his three able-bodied children, the 13 lawns on his property would be mowed with a good old Lawn Boy push mower. In fact, he had three Lawn Boys, one for each of us.
Over time, my sister and brother outgrew their lawn-mowing duties, which left me with about a six-hour task every week, if I stuck to it and got most of it done in one day. However, the summer after I started college, he decided to buy a riding mower, a beautiful Cub Cadet. No sooner had he brought it home than the rains stopped. For the entire summer. The drought, or as he calls it, “drowth,” meant the lawn was mowed exactly two times that spring and summer. It wasn’t until a scarcely better 1989 that we got the full enjoyment of the mower, and understood its legendary power to change the weather and work (or rest) on its own will.
My brother and dad had federal drought assistance and crop insurance that kept them afloat in the fall of 1988, with hundreds of ruined acres of fields. Many farmers emptied their barns, sending prices for livestock plummeting, while scarce grains and grasses shot through the roof. Federal disaster relief monies helped my family survive and buy the all-too-precious corn needed for their thriving hog operation.
Since that horrible brown summer, I’ve watched them survive and scrape through wet springs and summers, and dusty ones too. But it doesn’t get any easier to witness.
In front of my house, my brother has a rather large field of soybeans. This is an experiment. He’s never grown beans before, I think, and weather permitting, they may produce a good yield. In the big field behind my house, corn was planted after a quick crop of rye this spring. I don’t know if the corn will be knee-high by July 4. The soil is rock-hard and dry, crunching underfoot.
Corn is the most pitiful crop to watch in a dry spell. Its leaves curl up, almost in a pleading stance, begging the sky for rain. That sounds dramatic, but it’s exactly how the plants look. Many farmers, including my brother and father, are watching as their fields have turned brown already, barely two feet tall, with little hope of rejuvenation. Our neighbor, whose acreage is probably five times that of my family, creates mini dust storms and causes traffic to stop, watching dust plumes rise and blow across the road, into our fields. It’s almost as if the ghost of John Steinbeck is watching in the clouds, although we’ve never seen anything as epic as the Dust Bowl storms of Steinbeck’s Depression era.
Our little borderline corner sits on the edge of a pressure ridge, meaning when storms come, they have a tendency to split and go north or south, but not always over us. We can see rains falling just a few miles away, but not on our ground. That adds to the frustration and anger, not to mention the dust and dry ground.
While the ground cracks and the grass dries, farmers become wary and as it continues, take on an air of hopelessness. There’s no sense of humor in those who complain a rain shower will ruin their weekend activity or those who babble they can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t appreciate the hot, dry heat of summer. When they complain that their party food (sweet corn and hamburgers) cost more, it is like another stab to the farmer, who is reaping none of the profit. It’s as if there’s an all-American ideal summer of endless sunshine, hot days, and all that is good and right in the world. In reality, the best American summer has a few inches of rain.
Trying to make sense of it all, I asked a weather-wise friend for some advice on sorting data. He directed me to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government agency that is responsible for the bulk of weather forecasts and climate data. I also went to another site, The U.S. Drought Monitor.
The dry-weather data I found on both sites was fascinating. While I can’t pretend to understand all of it, the latest release from the US Drought Monitor (June 19), showed Ohio as “abnormally dry,” with a rating of “D-0.” To the west of Ohio, the rating increased to “D-1,” or moderate drought.
The numbers and ratings climbed in the West, up to “D-3,” or extreme drought, and in the south, in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, with “D-4” or exceptional drought. Tropical Storm Debby has brought heavy rains and flooding, and with it, some drought relief to parts of the South that have been dried out for years, devastating livestock, crops and an entire way of life.
When average folks see the drought as destroying their lawn (which is really destroyed by them mowing the lawn instead of letting it go dormant) or their row of sweet corn, or pot of tomatoes, they grumble and complain. Farmers, and the greater agribusiness community see it as a life-changing event. After the drought of 1988, many area farmers sold out or downsized. Farms were turned into housing allotments. The population in my school district (Tuslaw) shifted, due to more available real estate and building opportunities on land that previously was farmed.
Today, my brother and father have more beef cattle than hogs, but those still are voracious eaters of corn and other grains, as well as creating an increase in the amount of hay to be harvested. For a farmer, every day becomes more depressing, like a curse of sunshine and fair weather. The slightest glimmer of rain in today’s instant radars and advanced forecasts inspires hope, then sadness, which gives way to cynicism, depression, and ultimately, anger.
The other climate data from NOAA showed the Akron-Canton area as not being too far off on rainfall, which surprised me. Extended forecasts don’t show many opportunities for rain developing, but government scientists believe our area will sit on the edge of drought conditions, but not in them. This information is somewhat encouraging, but if there are limited moisture-making opportunities literally and figuratively on our horizon, how bad can the actual drought areas be?
Whether or not we fall into a federally-labeled drought area or not, the sad question remains: How can a beautiful sunny day inspire so much anger and despair?
Published: June 26, 2012