When there is no spring

I sent this for The Digestif, my newsletter, but thought I’d share it here as well. If you’re interested in receiving this kind of synthesis, consider signing up for the newsletter by emailing me at mai@farmermai.com. I’m not, however, a content creator or broadcaster. The Digestif is a means of communication, which requires a two-way relationship. So, if you sign-up, I also expect you to write back.

The full moon before the Spring Equinox is when I’d typically seed spring wheat. Spring planting grain has the benefits of letting nitrogen-fixing cover crop and less desirable plants grow over the winter, to then be mowed in late winter. This is ideal in an organic system for lowering reliance on imported nutrients and on herbicides to remove unwanted plants. Mow and grow!

Spring planting in a dry farmed system such as mine, though, relies on spring rainfall soon before seeding to wet the ground, right after seeding to germinate seed, and at key stages of growth to maintain plant health. This delicate rain-fed system is sensitive, too, to rainfall quantity, duration, and temperature. There needs to be enough rain to saturate the ground, and whether the ground is warm or cold affects how much water is absorbed. What we’ve experienced over the past seven years are droughts, unseasonably warm winters, sudden storms that sloughed off top soil or flooded fields followed by warmth that pushed up weeds faster than wheat.

Without a spring as we know it, there’s no choice in an organic, dry farmed system but to plant in the fall. (I don’t see irrigation in the spring as an option because we’re in a drought.) This isn’t optimal because the high volume of water in the winter can lead to top-heavy grains prone to collapsing in the summer, greater weed competition, and the possibility of death by frost. I began to transition spring wheat to fall-planted wheat five years ago to begin their adaptation. I continued to hedge with some acreage in winter and some in spring, but this year is the first season everything was planted in fall and none will be planted in spring.

I’m not the only farmer who won’t be planting this spring. Ukrainian farmers also plant spring wheat, and the crops won’t be going in this year. Much of Ukraine’s wheat growing region is in the eastern part of the country, which is also where much of the combat is concentrated. They’re losing not only this spring planting, but likely many future seasons. Soil compaction from tanks and toxins from munitions will make it difficult to revive safe, fertile grounds.

Ukraine and Russia supply 30% of the world’s wheat, so, with reduced global supply this year due to drought and war, some US economists strongly urged unlocking the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). These are 22 million acres lands left in reserve for emergency planting. Getting these lands up to productivity would require a massive amount of synthetic chemicals for nutrients, pesticides, and herbicides. Tilling the soil would release incredible amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They would also require water that we don’t have in our drought-ridden west. So, even emergency measures are stymied in our lack of spring.

Ultimately, the Biden administration and USDA decided not to use the CRP. While this is a relief from an environmental perspective, this still leaves African, Asian, and SWANA regions that depended on Ukrainian and Russian wheat with little supply. We will likely see suffering on the scale of 2008 or greater. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian agricultural administration declared that it will keep the wheat it has for domestic consumption.

Given disruptions to roads, work, and utilities, I wonder how the reserve wheat and other foods will be distributed through Ukraine. I think of my mom’s stories about needing to stock food in case of shortages, clean dirty, rationed grain, and ferment foods for when the family was forced to hide for an indeterminable duration of time. I think of how the youth of my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins–the spring of their lives–was taken away by war. In that time of blossoming, many lives were lost before even budding and others pushed into life’s latter seasons too quickly.

We need spring’s warm sun, cool breezes, nourishing rains, and sweet scents to prepare us for subsequent seasons. Otherwise, the summer heat is too hot, fall decay is too soon, and winter more barren. So, what happens when there’s no spring? I suppose we support each other to make the best of the remaining seasons, and, during them, to endeavor together to stop climate change and prevent violent conflicts such that future generations may experience spring.

Your farmer,
Mai