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    Saturday, September 23, 2023

    No sure thing: 2022 growing season is underway

    There's a soft spot for the Great Plains state of Nebraska in my heart. Its beauty is so dramatically different from Connecticut's, its Midwestern demeanor easy to like.

    It was in Nebraska that I learned a lifetime near the Connecticut shore had hardwired me as coastal. On a daylong ride through the famed Sandhills, I kept subconsciously expecting that the edge of some body of water would be just over the next hill. It never was. The bear in the song might well have been in Nebraska: What do you think he saw? He saw another Sandhill.

    We live on the edge of the continent; Nebraskans live smack in the middle of it, and they too are formed by place. Nebraska people follow in the footsteps of Plains tribes and European pioneers. Those who live on the land and work in the state's mainstay industries of farming and ranching have settled into a matter-of-fact symbiosis with heat, blizzards, tornadoes, hail, and periodic floods. The Great Plains do not block onrushing weather systems or temper the climate with sea breezes.

    Farmers of crops and cattle there, like farmers of orchards and oysters here, know that no two growing seasons begin or end exactly alike. All are filled with risks, and weather affected by climate change is making harvests less predictable than ever.

    Nebraska has been in the news recently because a string of wildfires is the latest and most critical symptom of years of drought. The Omaha World Herald summed up the cascading catastrophes: The fires burn off the tillage of plant material that is supposed to hold the top soil. Those top few inches of fertile soil are blowing away. Not all grazing livestock could be safely herded away from the oncoming fires. Fences burned up. The massive, spidery center pivots that normally water fields of grass, corn, and soybeans were put to use dampening the paths of the fires, but when temperatures fell below freezing in early spring, the equipment froze and broke.

    And that's not all. Inflationary prices and supply chain gaps are making it difficult to repair and replace the machinery, which has escalated in price. Older insurance policies undervalue the replacement costs. The drought won't quit and — in a plot turn you might not see coming — the ground is so dry that electric fences cannot carry a current. Hungry cattle move on their own, looking for food, and farmers have trouble buying hay or silage from other states where drought leaves little to spare.

    The list is just short of biblical proportions, and that's only because there was no snowmelt for floods this year.

    Connecticut agriculture, fortunately, is currently dealing with nothing of such scope, but avian flu is on the minds of poultry producers, and damage from the remnants of hurricanes in 2021 and 2020 was extensive. In December, Gov. Lamont announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was taking aid applications from farmers in six Connecticut counties, with New London and Middlesex the most affected by the storms. The Farm Bill, the basic federal support of agriculture, comes before Congress for authorization in five-year versions and is getting its first hearings for 2023.  

    What happens to the farm and ranch lands of Nebraska and the dairy and egg farms of Connecticut ultimately affects what gets to whose table. The Economist magazine called last week for a global response to shortages that the wartime loss of Ukrainian and Russian agricultural exports is about to add to the effects of climate change and the pandemic. A poor, drought-driven harvest in the American Midwest won't help. 

    Farmers are not only risk-takers; of necessity they are innovators. In Connecticut, farmers adjusted to the pandemic shortages and shutdowns with drive-through markets, curbside service, and the return of the milkman. In Nebraska, the agriculture industry is trying to cope with its problems as a group, and they will be needing and getting federal aid. They will try crops like oats that need less water and mow the ground around feed storage down to the bare soil so fires won't jump across. Fertilizer has become a fire retardant.

    Farming is no sure thing. Our need for it is.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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