“Archie saw that there was not a thing to do in that field. In the drought the earth itself appeared to shrivel up. There was nothing but the inert sand, parched tobacco leaves lofting their fragrance over the soil as they burned slowly in the sun, a whiff of asphalt, a hint of crows. … Archie climbed back in to the truck, poked his ribs for another smoke, stuck it in his mouth and lit it, and turned the key in the ignition. He slowly circled the field, arm stuck out the window, directing the truck by jerking the wheel as he gazed wordlessly at the crop.”
— Waiting for Rain, by Dan Butterworth
I remember the last widespread summer drought with great clarity. I was expecting my daughter in the autumn of 1988, and I spent the dry, hot days just trying to stay comfortable.
My toddler son spent many days with my dad, riding in the air-conditioned tractor cab’s secure baby seat, a gift for each of us. More than anything, I remember the deep concern of everyone in my family, nearly all having deep ties to agriculture.
Much of the conversation then is being repeated again, as we wonder and worry about the fall crop. Will there be enough corn to feed and to sell? Will we winter over without running out of hay? Will soybeans survive and thrive with the rain that finally fell overnight?
We all mentally pace as we listen to the latest crop report, and hold our breath through the weather report. I grew up understanding the seriousness of dry weather as well as the devastation in the opposite extreme.
In the summer of 1969, I was 10, and remember that several of our farm fields were actually wiped out by flooding in late May and again during the 4th of July flood.
By the time the flood waters had receded, it was far too late to replant a third time, and it proved to be a difficult year for a growing dairy herd. My dad always said it was unfortunate but a fact of life that one man’s suffering ended up benefiting another in the farming arena, as it is hard luck which causes shortages, increased returns, and eventual profit for one sector.
In the case of widespread drought, everyone suffers, even those with no personal ties to agriculture. We all will be paying for the high cost of the drought of 2012 in many ways that cannot yet be measured.
Nearly all of the farmers I have known well live their days in a certain type of isolation, keeping the plow to the ground, getting the job done in every symbolic way.
When things go well, they work hard. When challenges such as extreme weather come along, they work harder. I find myself worrying that living in such driven isolation in tough times can take its toll, though none would admit it.
I awoke this morning to the sound of hard rain, the skies dark and gray. It almost seemed as though it had forgotten how to rain, an almost foreign event. If it were in my power, I would send gray clouds, heavy with rain, to everyone, and it would fall slow and easy, arriving at just the right time.
Crops come and go, but it is the family farmer that we cheer for as we remind ourselves there’s always next year and we hope beyond imagining that each ensuing year is better than the last.