10 June 2008

The Rain Keeps Falling

We've been getting an unbelievable amount of rain here, as has much of the middle of the country. As detailed in a recent post, we barely got the first cutting of hay into the barn before the rains started. In the time since, we haven't had another rain-free stretch that would have been long enough to have gotten the hay in. In other words: it's very fortunate we got the hay in when we got it in.

With all the moisture, the hay field has jumped right back into production. According to locals, last summer was so dry, the second cutting yielded only 25 bales (from a six-acre field). This year's second cutting should be a bumper crop.

But the rain also has a downside: Mrs Yeoman Farmer has been unable to plant her garden. We got the sod busted earlier in the spring, and the ground tilled up, but potatoes are the only thing she managed to put in. Those plants are doing great. But all her other seedlings are still sitting in peat pots, waiting to go in the ground.

The NY Times has a story today about the broader effects of all this rain; there are a lot of commercial grain farmers who have been unable to get crops planted. While things could turn around later, the prospects for this year's corn and soybean harvest is looking bleak:

Bob Biehl, whose farm is near St. Louis, has managed to plant only 140 of the 650 acres he wanted to devote to corn. Some farmers in his area “haven’t even been able to take the tractor out of the shed,” he said.

United States soybean plantings are running 16 percent behind last year. Rice is tardy in Arkansas, which produces nearly half the country’s crop. “We’re certainly not going to have as good a crop as we had hoped,” said Harvey Howington of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. “I don’t think this is good news for anybody.”

Harvests ebb and flow, of course. But with supplies of most of the key commodities at their lowest levels in decades, there is little room for error this year. American farmers are among the world’s top producers, supplying 60 percent of the corn that moves across international borders in a typical year, as well as a third of the soybeans, a quarter of the wheat and a tenth of the rice.

“If we have bad crops, it’s going to be a wild ride,” said the Agriculture Department’s chief economist, Joseph Glauber. “There’s just no cushion.”

No cushion. That, it seems to me, is one of the biggest problems with ethanol subsidies and mandates --- and the wildlife conservation programs that pay farmers to take land out of production. They may seem like good ideas when harvests are bountiful, but it's hard to tell when a year like this current one may be coming. And by the time we're in the midst of a year like this one, it's far too late to reverse course.

Few of us can do anything about soaring gas prices; backyard oil wells are impractical, and backyard oil refineries are even less so. But food is different: nearly everyone with a bit of sunny yard can plant a garden. My hope is that this year of soaring food prices will lead more Americans to rediscover gardening and other ways of producing their own food.

Assuming, of course, that the rain ever lets up enough for even us backyard gardeners to get our plots planted...

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