Fonticulus Fides

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

A little drought update...

Well, as of yesterday morning, we were at least 2" short on annual rainfall, and we were a couple extra inches short on top of that because of previous years of drought. Yesterday evening, right around 5 p.m., we got a series of downpours. Some parts of the city got a half-inch, others got an inch-and-a-half. Outlying areas varied wildly, from two-tenths of an inch to three inches.

One thing I didn't know before this drought hit locally is that not all rain is good rain. It actually has to come down slow and steady for several hours to soak the ground adequately. In other words, if three inches of rain is dumped on sun-baked earth all at once, a little soaks in and the rest all runs off. Which causes dangerous flash flooding.

So, although we got a little moisture last night, it's not nearly enough to make up the deficit, and even the areas that got quite a bit are no better off than they were 48 hours ago.

When I drove the kids out to the farm on Saturday, I saw a lot of corn that is brown already. Usually in September, the corn dries out in preparation for harvest. Mid-August is way too early to see that. I suppose it's possible that a bunch of farmers thought they might try to beat the drought after a rainy spring by planting 85-day corn -- if they put the corn in, say, the last week of April or first week of May, it would be drying out now so they could harvest it. But I kind of doubt 85-day corn, which is really meant for the northern parts of the plains, like North Dakota and Minnesota, would have done well at all with the high heat and dry conditions we had all through July. Most farmers here plant 112- to 120-day corn, and a drought-resistant variety would need somewhat less moisture through July, but more than we've had naturally. My guess is that irrigation got too expensive on a lot of these farms, so they stopped trying and let the crop go. Irrigation is so expensive, and there have been water restrictions in some parts of Nebraska in effort to protect the rivers from drying up.

So what does a farmer do with a failed corn crop? Well, you try to "make lemonade," so to speak. Most of them end up harvesting anyway, to see what little they get. And some of the by-products (like cobs) can be used to make plastic or whatever, so they can still sell something & try to get back the cost of the seed. If they have crop insurance, an adjuster will come out and examine the field and determine how much of a claim they can make.

My father-in-law's fields still look pretty good, because he was blessed to inherit a very good piece of ground. His great-grandfather had cattle out there, so the soil is very rich, and they are fairly close to an underground water table, which helps them survive drought. He doesn't irrigate, plants drought-resistant seed, and practices a no-till management that helps preserve ground moisture as well as nutrients (think mulch on a giant scale, plus since he doesn't turn the soil over, he doesn't lose as much moisture to evaporation). Not sure what he is expecting his corn harvest to be, but at this point, I'd estimate he'll get over 100 bushels an acre if we get enough moisture through August, when the corn kernels are supposed to be plumping up. Normal, by the way, is 210 bushels an acre or above.

Last year, he only got 14 bushels an acre in soybeans, and normal there is 45+. But the guy on the farm just south of his irrigated his beans and only got 7 bushels to the acre. The drought stunted the growth of his bean field, and his harvester couldn't reach low enough to collect all the pods. So 2/3 of his harvest was lost to the stunted growth. My father-in-law's drought-resistant beans faired a little better in the height department. This year, his beans are also very low. They only come up to my knee, and they should be mid-thigh on a person my height. He's also got some grasshopper damage out there.

If you ever read the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you probably know a bit about what grasshoppers used to do to crops out here in the Plains. They aren't near as bad, but 50 years ago, they would still fly in clouds so thick and large, they'd block out the sun until they landed on a field and ate every bit of green to be had.

When my father-in-law was a boy -- 10 or 12 years old, I think -- his family was in dire straights. Two of the six children had just gotten over a serious case of measles, with high doctor bills. His dad, Andrew, had taken out a note on the farm to buy a new tractor and mechanical plough, hoping to increase productivity and thus profit. It was against his better judgement to take out a loan, but he just couldn't keep ploughing with horses and keep up with a family of eight (esp. after one of his plough team died). Andrew's unmarried sister Daisy had paid the doctor bills herself, and the amount of debt was weighing heavily on Andrew's heart.

But the crop looked really good. There was plenty of wheat, a good field of alfalfa to cut for winter hay to feed to the cows. The garden was filled with plenty of produce, and Andrew's wife Edith was already starting to can some to get through the winter.

Edith worked part-time at the newspaper office in town (a job she held for nearly 70 years, from the age of 16 until she retired at 85 in 2002), and one day, Andrew drove her in, meaning to stop at the farm supply store and start dealing with the man there about how much he would pay down on the tractor after harvest in six weeks or so.

The farm supply man told Andrew he had been expecting him, and Andrew couldn't figure out why because he was rarely in town that time of year. But the man told him a grasshopper plague was coming, and he'd saved a bit of insecticide for Andrew, thinking for sure Andrew would want to protect that bounty crop out in his fields. Andrew hadn't known about the coming threat, because the tubes were burnt out in his radio, and he hadn't wanted to spend the money to replace them until harvest.

The insecticide was expensive, and at the rate Andrew would have to put it on, he wasn't even sure it would save all that much of the crop. Plus, he was broke. He'd have to take the insecticide on credit, and he just didn't feel good about putting the farm in more debt.

I don't know if he consulted Edith or not, but if he had, I'm sure she would have agreed with him. Andrew thanked the man and refused the insecticide.

They went home with heavy hearts and took one last look at the beautiful green wheat and the silky purple flowers of the alfalfa. Edith gathered in what produce she could from the garden and went in to fix supper.

Before they sat down with the children to eat, Andrew informed the children about the grasshoppers. "Only God can save our crop," he told them. He had everybody kneel next to their chairs, and they prayed together that God would help them.

I'm sure neither Andrew nor Edith slept that night. I know my father-in-law lay awake for hours in his bed, praying.

The grasshoppers arrived the next day, a glittering green cloud that covered the sky. Andrew and my father-in-law stood on the front porch, watching the cloud come up from the west and settle on the wheat. They didn't say anything for a long time.

Then my father-in-law spied another, darker, more threatening cloud also coming from the west. As it came closer, Andrew shuddered at the thought of what his fields would look like by the end of the day.

But the second cloud wasn't made up of grasshoppers. It was blackbirds, thousands of them. And a blackbird likes nothing better to eat than a fat, juicy grasshopper. The blackbirds settled on the wheat field too, gobbling down grasshoppers as fast as they could.

All the farms in that area suffered grasshopper damage that week, even some of the ones treated with insecticide (if it's mixed too weak, it won't do the job). And Andrew did see a big loss in wheat, compared to what he was expecting to harvest. But not near as bad as it would have been without those blackbirds. He wasn't able to pay off the tractor and plough completely, but he was able to reduce his debt at the farm store, buy seed for the following year, and pay his sister back for the doctor bill.

That night at supper, the family thanked God for protecting their crops. And 50 years later, I thank Him, too, because my father-in-law is still able to farm the same piece of land, land which has been in his family for well over 100 years.

As a parish and as a community at large, we're all still praying for drought relief over here. And that the rain will come safely. I hope you'll take a few seconds and offer up a prayer of your own. There are a lot of farmers out there who could really use the rain. Thanks.



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