Farms and Flooding

Farming, Fate, and Difficult Decisions

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Imagine yourself a farmer in the early summer of 2019. (If this already describes you, the exercise should be easy.) Imagine the corn crop you planted, or attempted to plant, during the regular spring planting cycle has been damaged or washed away by a season of intense rain, unusual cold and strong flooding.

Now you’ll have to make a difficult set of decisions that may not only impact your own family and finances, but also the complex fluctuations and intersecting factors that put food on tables across the country.

You’ll need to either:

(1)  Plant your corn three weeks later in the season than you usually do, trusting that the floods are over, and raising a crop that may or may not be high and valuable enough to cover your loans by the season’s end.   

(2) Switch to a soybean crop, which tolerates a later planting and which farmers often do during spring seasons that are inclement for corn. The risk: soybeans are typically delivered to markets in China, which have been threatened by the current trade debacle. What if you grow a crop you can’t sell?

(3) Accept a subsidy so you can stay in the business…or not. Subsidies promised to farmers by the Trump administration require eligibility parameters, and these payouts will be limited or unavailable to farmers who have not planted anything yet due to flooded fields.

And then, the truly hard questions: If you hold a crop in storage while waiting for prices to return, what will you do if that never happens, or the water ruins your stored crop?  Will exiting farming now protect you and your family from a lifestyle with shrinking prospects? If you leave, what will you do instead? Where will you go?

And finally, consider the questions that fall not to you, but to the rest of us: What will we do if a year (or two or three) of painfully difficult decisions push farmers to exit the profession in critical numbers?

A healthy society and a functioning civilization depend on several things, including a democratic system of governance; a sustainable economy; ingrained support for education, culture and art; just, flexible and fairly enforced laws; and a system that brings accountability to those in power who work to undermine and corrupt it. But at the very core, none of these pillars can stand without universal access to clean water and food.

Without food, democracy, laws, culture, human rights, transportation, infrastructure and commerce fail quickly. And while climate change strikes at the heart of all of these things, none of our systems are more directly connected to the climate than our food system.

The United States doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and by simply examining the larger world, we can already see how climate change upends the lives of those who depend on the land for a living.

We may not all be able to grow our own food (though backyard gardens can supply us with both tomatoes and crucial lessons about the knowledge, labor, patience, experience, cost, risk, and moxy that it takes to grow a tomato, which can breed a healthy respect for farming). And we may not be able to protect ourselves from food shortages by implementing policy changes and price protections; a broken system, once broken, is difficult to rebuild, and abandoned fields don’t return to instant fecundity once lost overseas markets reopen.

But we can do one important thing, right now in the summer of 2019: Help farmers to make the difficult decisions in front of them by supporting farm-friendly policies and standing up to poor and reckless trade decisions. Most important: we can recognize the impact of climate change that’s taking place before our eyes, and we can look around the world and into the future as we search for ways to adapt.