One Storm Can Change Everything

One of the driest springs in decades finally ended two nights ago, with a rain we have been waiting for what feels like an eternity. Seven weeks passed with virtually no rain, and an unceasing wind drove what moisture we had into the air. It was beginning to look like we were entering what may have been a devastating drought. All that changed on Wednesday.

As of Wednesday night, anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain fell across our farm. Only 20170615_075256 a few years ago this kind of rain would have been a serious problem, with saturated soils unable to absorb it; this time, our parched ground soaked up almost all of it, with only a small amount pooling in low-land.

This post is a recurring one on my blog, but this may be the first time I have written it in a positive sense. Usually the “one storm that changes everything” is a torrential rain that causes all sorts of problems. This time, this one rainfall event saved our crops from certain failure.

When you talk to farmers like my dad, who started farming in the late 70’s, it seems they are always afraid of the next drought. I started farming in 2009, in one of the wettest cycles this area of the Prairies has seen in centuries, so my first concern is always too much rain. This is the first time I have seen what the beginning of a real drought looks like, and we had the benefit of high subsoil moisture to carry us through to the rain. Farmers that farmed in the 1980’s know very well what a drought looks like.

Dad often talks about the 80’s, about the summers hauling water for the cattle from any source he could find. They would run pipe for miles from a random deep slough that just happened to have water, just to get enough to keep the cattle going. The crops, in several years, were near write-offs, wilting and dying before they could even produce a single seed.

The worst of them all was 1988. Scorching heat and wind in early June, with temperatures regularly in the mid-30’s, obliterated a crop that was already struggling to get out of the ground. That is a year many farmers will remember for the rest of their lives. It didn’t help that grain prices were poor and interest rates were ridiculously high. Many farms didn’t survive this terrible time, and I am glad I have no memories of those days (I was born in 1988).

So, when we get a dry period like we had, that is the mindset farmers of that generation go to. There are few things in farming more terrifying than a drought. It is a dark reminder of the exposure we all have to the whims of Mother Nature.

This rain was a tremendous blessing, and saved the year for this farm. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky, and many areas are still in desperate need of rain. Maybe this storm will move us into a wetter cycle. For now though (as soon as it dries up), we will be very busy out in the fields, applying fertilizer, killing weeds, and protecting what is now a crop with real promise. This is what farmers like me live for – raising crops to their full potential.

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Summer Storms and Narrow Misses

By all accounts, there is a great looking crop out there.

In some form or another, most farmers around here have said these words, with the makings of an excellent year growing as each day goes by. With a few exceptions, growing conditions for the past month have been nothing short of excellent, helping to repair many of the problems the late, wet spring created. 

Some of our own crops are fantastic, such as this field of peas:

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The plants are lush and a deep green in colour, with beautiful white flowers growing from the tops of the plants, and long, thick pods growing below. There is great potential here, and most of our other fields are more of the same; lush, green, thick and healthy, such as this crop of canola:

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Any year a crop like this is out in the field, anxiety can be hard to master. We have narrowly missed two large storms over the past week, one on Saturday and one on Monday. The storm that rolled through some farms on Saturday can only be described as devastating. Hail the size of baseballs pummeled the ground, roaring out of the sky like meteors for a full half hour, shredding and flattening crops to the ground. Many fields are nothing more than a mass of flat, yellow-brown vegetation, utterly devoid of the life that existed only an hour before the black cloud arrived. Not only were fields destroyed, but trees, pasture and even birds were killed by the terrifying ferocity of a July supercell thunderstorm. Tornadoes touched down in multiple places, leaving destruction in their wake. From Weyburn to Pipestone, Manitoba widespread destruction can be found, with many farmers losing their entire crop. This cloud caused severe crop loss north of us, and didn’t miss us by much:

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Hail insurance can help. But imagine this analogy; you lose your job, suddenly, out of the blue. You receive an insurance payment that is about half of what your wage is, but enough to cover your basic living expenses. However, you cannot work again until a full year has passed by. Your insurance income must cover your needs for a full year, but it is only half of your normal wage! You can understand the stress and anxiety that would come from this, and the utter disappointment and frustration that loss would cause.

Luckily, so far we have missed the so-called “white combine”. But summer is not over; there are still at least two weeks of severe weather possibilities before we pass into the relative safety of August. Then, we just have to get the crop to maturity before a frost and get harvest completed before it rains or snows. 

Almost all of the money we will invest into this year’s crop has been invested. The risk is greatest now, because a total loss could severely damage our ability to farm again next year. But, if we weren’t optimists, believing the worst will not occur, why would we farm?

Too Many Storms, Not Enough Time

It has been a summer of storms… and summer has barely started.

I write this as yet another storms deluges us with rain, a raging downpour that changes our already saturated soil into a series of little lakes. Storms have become a daily occurance for us for the last few days. While we usually welcome rains like we have been getting, for we are frequently dry at this time of the year, this has become too much of a good thing. Water is pooling on our fields, choking the life out of the fledgling crops that desperately need sunshine and warm weather.

Some crops are better than others in dealing with excess moisture. Soybeans are quite tolerant, followed by cereal crops like oats, wheat and barley. Our two other main crops, canola and peas, do not tolerate this amount of moisture well, especially not when they are small. The plants aren’t directly injured by the water itself, rather it is the lack of oxygen that kills them. Like you and me, plants need oxygen for survival, using it for cell division, growth, and the transport and uptake of nutrients. Water slows the movement of oxygen in the soil, rapidly creating deprivation in plants. In short, plants are drowning, just like you or I would if we fell into deep water and could not swim.

It seems that we have entered into a climate in which we receive weather extremes. While “normal” weather is nothing more than a fantasy, my parents’ generation of farmers did not experience extreme wet cycles we do today. Indeed, drought was their biggest concern, which we have not experienced in earnest in a decade. It seems that we no longer get 2 or 5 tenths of rain at a time. We instead get 1-3 inches at a time.

In a general sense, too much rain is better than not enough, as crops can usually handle excess moisture better than a lack thereof. But try telling that to the people living in and around Calgary, Alberta where there has been devastation from this weather. We experienced that in 2011, but without a population base exceeding 1.5 million, it didn’t quite make the news the same way. Not that that is right or wrong; it’s just the way it is.

The frustration I feel from weather like this is due to multiple factors, but what really gets me about it is that we try to do everything right throughout the growing season. We try to use the best seed, use seed treatments, seed at the right depth, use the right herbicides and fungicides at the right time, and so on and on. And yet, despite doing (almost) everything right, weather like this can ruin it all, from no fault of your own. This is why farming is such a difficult business, and why you see so many frustrated farmers throughout the growing season. It is a tough business to make a living at, despite what you may hear of high grain prices. These don’t do a thing for you if you can’t grow a crop to sell. So don’t be too hard on your farming neighbors for complaining; everybody needs to vent sometimes, and farmers often have a lot to vent about.

Hopefully the weather improves and the ugly yellow colour our crops are turning to will reverse. It is not too late for that. We still have potential for a great crop here, but Mother Nature needs to back off.