A Farm Story

Parched ground
Parched ground (Photo credit: Al Jazeera English)

Growing up on the farm is on a short list of things that define who I am. My memories are filled with gigantic, buttery harvest moons rising through the jagged tips of cornstalks, of leaf piles reduced to pulsing embers that mirrored the night sky, of glittering frosty dawns and mist hanging over the woods, the roar of the grain dryer and the drop in the stomach while jumping off stacked hay bales. My entire childhood is woven with the fabric of the earth.

But there is a darker side that time has edited to make it more palatable. It’s not that I’ve forgotten the tough parts, but like childbirth, you dissociate from the visceral memory of how unpleasant things can be. And children (both as children, and as adults who’ve moved away from home) are insulated, anyway, from their parents’ fear and uncertainty.

This spring was lovely in rural Missouri. Early, but lovely. On Mothers Day, we ate dinner on the deck with my parents. It had been about a week since the last rain, and we were starting to look for another. None of us could imagine that it wouldn’t rain again for three months.

When the heat arrived in June, we shook our heads at how early it was–those 100+ days usually don’t set in until later in July or August. But surely we’d get a thunderstorm out of that blast furnace. It couldn’t last more than a week or two.

But it did. Week after miserable week it went on, and as my lawn crisped, and I watered furiously in the early mornings, I started watching the weather for my parents’ area, too. Every once in a while, a weak attempt at a storm would drift across the area, but only once did it leave more than a scattering of droplets in the forty-mile swath covering our house and all my parents’ fields. “Not even enough to settle the dust,” as my dad would say.

At last the rest of the country figured out this was a big deal. Wells were drying up, rivers were so low that navigation was questionable. When the storms finally came, it was far too late for the corn crop, and possibly too late for some of the soybeans. When my parents sampled their fields, they found ears with passable yields and ears with virtually nothing on them at all. Then there was the concern about a particular mold that thrives in drought conditions and can render the grain unusable. There was no way to tell how things would shake out until harvest began. Uncertainty is more punishing than a coup de grace.

Harvest began early, averaging 30 bushels per acre–not even a quarter of a normal yield, but better than nothing. But the corn was too wet, so they put it in the grain bins to dry, then sent it to the elevators. When the mold numbers finally came back this weekend, they were not good. My parents’ entire corn crop suddenly became completely useless. An entire year’s work and investment, gone. Harvest stopped. My dad, instead of running the combine through the field, instead went in with a mower and a disk to turn it all under.

Why am I telling you this story? Because the world removed from the land and from agricultural exposure needs to know what goes on beyond the grocery aisles. From these crops the cattle that become your steaks and burgers are fed. From these crops come the corn starch, the corn chips, the soft drinks and juices and cereals containing high-fructose corn syrup. We can argue the health benefits (or lack thereof) of many of these products, but the fact is they are staples of our lives. You may think it has nothing to do with you, but it does.

Some are convinced that the severity and breadth of this drought can only be attributed to climate change. Others are more cautious. Invoking climate change is not a popular point of view in some circles; most conservatives point to experts who say the whole idea that humans can adversely impact the environment is big-headed nonsense. Well, maybe it is. And maybe it isn’t. Considering what’s happening around us, we can’t afford to dismiss the idea of our own culpability on a knee-jerk reaction. The fallout from this drought will hurt your pocketbook and mine, but that’s just a nuisance. The people who will be most affected are the poorest people, those who can least weather it. Maybe this drought has nothing whatsoever to do with our vehicle and power plant emission. But what could it possibly hurt for each of us to cut back our usage, look humbly at our interactions with the world and rethink our assumptions? To act like the stewards we’re supposed to be, instead of the consumers we’ve become?