How is your summer going? Did you have a juicy peach? How about a crisp watermelon?
It’s harvest season and I’ve cleared two fields. The stand looked good: even, tall, abundantly tillered, and few weeds. But when I transferred grain from the hopper (where wheat goes in the combine harvester) into totes, I noticed much green matter. The goosefoot weed I saw in the field was more abundant in the bag than it seemed in the field. I worried about the moisture it contributed to the wheat, which needs to be dry.
My concern was justified. Of the 10,000 lbs I harvested, I got 2,800 lbs back from the grain cleaners. The hot conditions in Chico, where the only available cleaners were located, caused the wet matter to rot and mold the wheat. The spoilage and clean-out between varieties led to this significant loss in sellable volume.
The abnormal abundance of goosefoot has to do with our changing climate. We experienced an unusually dry winter, then a warm, wet spring that brought up goosefoot to be taller than the already tall heritage wheat. Spring wheat needs a succession of moist and cold conditions, rain, and then heat. In another, wetter spring I would have brought sheep to weed, but, as I predicted, we didn’t receive spring rains that would have allowed wheat to regenerate after a grazing. Instead we received an intense storm, then nothing.
Organic farming with nature during climate change… it’s devastating.
In post-harvest, crop loss could have been prevented by having a seed cleaner on site for a preliminary separation of wet and dry matter. I’ve been working for years to save for a cleaner and to create a cooperative to own a cleaning facility with other farmers. Someday people will value human and environmental health and food security enough to invest in this infrastructure. Someday farmers will see past their egos for personal and common good. Until then, major loss of seeds for the commons, whole grains for health, and capital for this farmer.
This year’s poor harvest amidst another season of fires brought a disillusionment as thick and stifling as the smoke that engulfs the north. This is not the exhaustion of harvesting wheat. This is the exhaustion of reaping the results of over a hundred years of extractive capitalism and colonialism, and the harvest is poison. As farmers, we face this poison first. Society is buffered by global imports that mask our diminishing diversity and local resilience with an abundance of toxic crops.
Immediately after harvest, I went to meet my co-workers in Durango, Colorado. I got to relish in a richly flavored, refreshingly sweet, slurp-inducing peach. My supervisor brought these peaches along with southwest Colorado’s prized watermelons and cherries to share at our Western team strategic planning meeting. I savored each bite as I worked on our strategy to save farming in the face of climate change and consolidation of wealth. Each bite reminded me of what’s at stake. Will these fruits, these flavors be available again in my lifetime? Will the farmers whose hands delicately handled these peaches be able to harvest again, or will they be busy packing their belongings?
We sat on a patio to escape the still, indoor air and instead found ourselves stifled by pervasive smoke. Colorado, California, the West is burning. I thought of the Mendocino fires currently blazing a few miles from where I used to farm. We used to console each other with ecological optimism and say that fire will clear the brush to make room for new plants. Our voices falter now that we see the same areas burning again — more frequently than in previous generations and with insufficient water to germinate growth. Only fifteen years have passed since the last fire in that area, the same fifteen years of our drought state.
The scarcity of California’s water and the urgency of our fires blinded me to my Colorado compatriots’ experience. While in southwest Colorado, we visited a farmer I met a few years ago. Mike Nolan is from California and, after a circuitous path, settled in Colorado with his now partner, Mindy Perkovich, to start Mountain Roots Produce. Mike showed us their twelve acres, of which they only farmed seven this year. The water shortage forced them to cut down to nearly half, and as they farm they could see neighbors driving to the neighboring water district to fill up water tanks to meet drinking water needs. Wells are dry and the district shut off the water. For Mike and Mindy, this meant cutting down the number of crop rotations as well. “I told our CSA members that they’re getting the last of the pole beans, whatever we have, but then I have to pull them out. We can’t keep watering them. I’ll put in a cover crop so the ground isn’t bare, at least.”
Keeping plants alive has been a struggle this year. “I’ll water for hours overnight, and the next morning the ground is bone dry. It just migrates or evaporates before the plants can soak it in,” said Mike. Not enough water, and too many pests. New pests. This unusually hot and humid summer was punctuated by a sudden hailstorm that brought an unprecedented two inches of rain. This rare combination of hot, hail, and high water hatched an insect hardly seen: the false chinch bug.
There’s nothing false about the ensuring damage they lay on all of Mike and Mindy’s succession plantings. All of it.
With no water in sight and not enough income from this year to kickstart next year, they’re considering not farming next year. Mike is considering ramping up his time, ironically, to mentor other young farmers. Mindy will take on other odd jobs as they see what the next season brings.
Before I left Colorado, Mike dropped off some wheat seed that he promised me two years ago.
Farmers are connected through seed, solidarity, and hope. We are also connected as land-based people who are on the front lines of experiencing climate change on behalf of society. Society may not notice that climate change is happening because a global economy that amasses abundance from across the world obscures this patchwork of famine. As farmers, we see it in our fields and we know that climate change isn’t a moment, like the Christian concept of an apocalypse. It’s not a climactic event of judgment wherein some will be absolved. Climate change is now, is all the time, is everywhere, and none are spared.
So, let’s take action now, everywhere, all of us. We are our own saviors.