Gene Logsdon: Farmers Learned Long Ago How To Handle The Weather 


The Contrary Farmer

I give Monopoly Farming credit for one thing: it knows what needs to be done to make agriculture as certain of profit as manufacturing can be. Control the weather. That at least would make it easier to sell stock in gigantic farm enterprises. And the kind of mentality that achieves success in manufacturing thinks it knows just how to do that. Turn Big Data loose on weather records so that crops can be planted precisely at the best time and place for profitable yields. All big business thinks it needs are minutely-detailed, computer-collated statistical records on every raindrop, every temperature degree, every whisper of wind, every vortex shift of every pole, every oscillation of every ocean ripple, every zig and zag of every jet stream. Then the farmer will know, unerringly, when and where to plant wheat in Russia, soybeans in Brazil, corn in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, etc. No more guesswork, no more risk. Data will rule. As all successful business people know,  it’s just a matter of having enough facts in your portfolio. The money will roll in. The world will be fed. Heaven will be now.

It is futile to point out to such a glib mentality why that won’t work and how over the centuries farmers learned a more reliable way to deal with uncontrollable weather. If you look at agricultural history the traditional way, it becomes apparent that many of the calamities in farming that are now being blamed on bad weather or climate change are really being caused by human behavioral changes. If the dust storms of the 1930s occurred today, climate change would be blamed when the problem came from too many farmers thinking they were going to get rich plowing up the prairies for wheat. Today’s bad drought in the West is being blamed on climate change, perhaps correctly, but water shortages are as much the result of increased populations as the ebbs and tides of El Nino and La Nina. Interestingly, in the July issue of Acres U.S.A, the legendary organic farm advisor, Amigo Bob Cantisano in California says about the same thing. After pointing out traditional ways of coping with drought in what is essentially a desert area, like the way some wineries have learned to grow wine grapes that require little or no irrigation, he says: “My friends who are practicing dry farming are not going to notice there is a problem, or very little… The reason is not so much the farmers’ water use. Federal or state water from the public ditches goes to the highest bidder and the highest bidders in California are urban areas.”

Many of the problems facing farming today are much more cases of money gambling that requires greater weather gambling. If you produce only corn and soybeans,  you can’t plant if it keeps on raining no matter how big a planter you have. And it doesn’t matter how big your harvester is if there’s nothing much out there to harvest. You are without alternatives. The resulting angst in the newspaper headlines makes it seem like weather problems are greater today.

My old neighbor, now gone, always kept a goodly supply of surplus hay in his barn for emergencies. The emergency might come only once every ten years or so, but he was ready and it took a lot of the worry out of contrary weather. “Extra hay in the barn is much better security than money in the bank,” he liked to say. “It also gives me the chance to sell that hay at a high price when there is an emergency somewhere else and then replenish it with cheap hay in the next good year.”

On our farm when I was a boy, as long as we had a variety of farm animals and a variety of crops, we could cope with adverse weather fairly well. But the minute Dad and I listened to all the fervid preachments about how specialization would mean bigger profits and got rid of all the livestock in favor of more cash crops, we were much more at risk. If weather decreased crop yields to below a profitable level, we had no livestock to eat the unprofitable yields so that we could eke out enough income to make it to a better year. Without hay or pastures in rotation, the grain crops needed more fertilizer, were more susceptible to drought, and weeds became much more problematical. When we then changed to a large dairy operation, the risk of having all our eggs in one basket, or in this case, milk in one tank, was overwhelming. If milk prices were low, we had no other source of income to fall back on. In a drought year we spent what profit there was from the milk on buying hay. But at least, animals were a better risk than cash grain— hailstorms destroy corn, not cows.

Farming with the least risk means having chickens, hogs, cows, goats, corn, oats, wheat, barley, rye, hay, pasture, an orchard, a garden and a pond full of fish. If one commodity failed, there are others to fall back on. This is why good Amish farmers make money even on smallish farms with horses for traction power. And I bet if you squeeze enough data out of Big Data, it will tell you the same thing.