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Climate Change | New World Seeds & Tubers

Corn that is lodged, not sweet enough, and over-ripe

Tom and I went to our farm yesterday to harvest potatoes, garlic, and a few odds-and-ends.

Most of the farm is rented out to tenants. One of the tenants grew sweet corn.

Not an unusual choice for the area despite the high latitude, but a bad choice for this particular growing season; spring was cold and wintery, essentially non-existent. There were a few short warm spells late summer, but mostly it was cooler than average. The corn failed to develop the sweetness the prospective buyer was looking for.

Which is consistent with the expectations of scientists such as the late Dr. Theodore Landscheidt who claim(ed) that the El Niña/La Niña cycle is driven by sunspot activity. Other German scientists have found historical evidence of correlations going back up to thousands of years in tree rings and coral reefs.

As far as I can tell, long-range weather predictions tend to impact farm planning only if they’re optimistic. My buddy Tom Kleffman (Three Daughters Farm–hmm, soon to be Four Daughter’s farm, congratulations old boy!) tells me that in Minnesota, most of the commercial farms have switched from wheat and short-season corns to long-season corns and soy. They seem to think the sunbelt is creeping north.

As a result, much of Minnesota’s corn crop was damaged on September 15th when a severe frost hit. Note that September 15th falls before the autumnal equinox that comes around Sept. 21-22. In other words, the corn was damaged by a summer frost.

That was after getting a late start due to a cold spring. Minnesota got it too.

My tenant was unable to sell his corn, and it’s now over-ripe and much of it lodged. A number of issues doomed my tenant’s corn. Here’s a short list:

  • The deciding factor for choosing corn over less heat-loving crops was buyer demand not what was a safer bet.
  • Weather risks were never considered in the equation, even though evidence of a La Niña event was already overwhelming when the corn was planted.
  • Buyer demand trumped ALL other considerations even though the buyer decided to opt out of the deal at the last minute when the quality was not to their liking. The corn never got enough heat units to be sweet enough for market.
  • The farmer had no risk mitigation plan as far as I am aware.

The farmer’s woes became our woes. Earlier this year, Tom and I got an unpleasant surprise when our share of the field was unusable, being barely worked and full of clods and intact roots of weeds. I had to use a pick-mattock on it to plant anything, no joke. His attention diverted to his own problems, the farmer didn’t give our needs attention.

Even after I emphasized our need to have the field plowed promptly, I doubt it’s going to happen, so I’m going to recruit someone else to do it. I’m sorry for his difficulties, but I can’t afford to make them ours any more than they already have.

It seems to me that the balance-of-power among producers, market-makers, and consumers has gotten out-of-whack. We are now in the ridiculous situation that farmers are going bankrupt while consumers can’t afford food!

Speaking of which, I got an unpleasant shock last time I was at the local market looking for some lunch. I kept thinking “I can’t afford that…I can’t afford that…I can’t afford that…”.

What’s supposed to happen, to keep supply and demand dynamics in somewhat equilibrium, is that demand drives up prices, which creates an incentive for the farmers to grow more food, which attracts prices back to an equilibrium point. What’s happening instead is that higher prices at the retail end are not (yet) translating into higher prices at the production end. Independent farmers have little leverage in negotiating prices, so the higher food prices are not trickling down to them, at least not enough to save their operations from chronic cash-flow problems.

I don’t have an answer, but I know what we’ll be doing. Food is getting expensive and supplies are tight. We will continue to be more cautious as regards what we think we can deliver in terms of crops and will continue working on crops where reliability is given a higher priority than productivity. In an unstable environment, reliability is productivity in the sense that having some food gets you more food than losing a gambling bet and having none at all.

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This just in from Zack Guido and Mike Crimmins, and referred to my attention by Jeuri:

Evidence suggests La Nina will return this winter

The authors have a bias for a different part of the country than we live and grow our crops in: our weather turns wetter, not drier, though I know that many parts of the world do turn drier in a La Niña event, due to the Jet Stream weakening.

An intense La Niña tends to persist for multiple years; one even lasted for 34 consecutive months between 1954 and 1957.

1955 was the year that Sea-Tac registered its record low temperature of 0F (roughly -18C). Temperatures that low kill native plants here; Salal (a ubiquitous native evergreen shrub here, known to outlanders as “Lemon Leaf” in flower arrangements) was killed in Whatcom County.

I don’t think that’s cold enough to kill wheat; some Brassicas might be in trouble; hopefully there will be enough snow cover to protect them if we see cold like that.

We don’t own a single greenhouse. Last year I overwintered some plants in a “grow hole”. Then I had trouble keeping them alive when spring never happened.

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