Adam has always been determined to make the most of our short growing season in Upstate New York. He resists planning summer trips, arrives at daytime parties after dusk, commits to nothing farther out on the calendar than the meteorologist can (sort of) foresee.
But as we come to the end of the wettest July on record, “make hay while the sun shines” has been shifting from self-evident axiom to rueful irony. Yes, you have to make hay while you can. But also you need sunshine to make hay.
Here’s how it works. It takes at least two sunny days to complete the cycle: mow, dry, rake, bale. Much of that time is waiting for the sun to do its work. (The hay must dry completely, because moisture can breed heat-producing bacteria deep inside a bale — which might then spontaneously combust and burn down a barn.) In theory, if Adam mowed a field on a Tuesday morning, he could expect to bale it late Wednesday afternoon.
In a good year — what we used to call a normal year — Adam would have extended stretches of sunny days that went like this: Mow in the morning, then unload wagons piled with bales from fields mowed two days before, then, in the afternoon, rake and finally bale the field he mowed yesterday.
In a good year — what we used to call a normal year — he would have 8,000 or 9,000 bales in the barns by now. This year, he’s got around 2,000.
That’s because Adam can’t mow if it’s raining, or if rain is forecast that day or the next. He can’t mow if the fields are so wet that his tractor would sink in the mud. And this year, we’ve had record-breaking rainfall.
Last year, there was a drought. The hay was easy to get in, but there wasn’t much of it (most local farmers had a terrible year). The year before that was extremely wet; it was the first summer ever that Adam couldn’t get all the fields cut.
But, along with the rest of the country, we’re starting to realize that anomalous years are now, paradoxically, the norm. There’s no longer any standard from which each summer might or might not deviate. All we can rely on is increasingly extreme weather wrought by climate change.
Here’s how it works. Climate change means higher air temperatures, and higher air temperatures produce more heat waves, more evaporation (causing more droughts and wildfires), more saturated air (causing more extreme rainfall) and hotter ocean temperatures (giving hurricanes more energy).
More heat, more drought, more rain, more flooding, more unbreathable air. (Yes, we’ve had that, too.)
Extreme drought took a heavy toll on U.S. farms last year: Corn, wheat and rice yields suffered; Texas cotton farmers abandoned two-thirds of their crop. This year, extreme heat and drought are wreaking havoc on Sun Belt farms, while flooding has destroyed crops throughout the Northeast.
“I’m always amazed at how farmers are able to adapt,” Aaron Gabriel, an agronomy educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension, told me genially when I called to complain about the weather — er, ask him about the New York farmers he serves. He agreed that the climate crisis has caused some fundamental changes, but he said, “I try to give a little bit of hope by having old-time farmers think about how many things they’ve had to change over the decades.”
Adam has stopped planting alfalfa, his most lucrative crop, because it doesn’t grow well in wetter fields. He has changed the order and reduced the number of fields he hays. He’s willing to work in extreme heat and yellow haze, when the weatherman (and his own wife) say he shouldn’t.
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But the effects and hence the agricultural impact of climate change are just going to get worse. In his other job, as a councilman for the town of New Scotland, N.Y., Adam has helped update the law to allow for more solar projects and led an effort to bring 13 towns into a collective with the power to choose greener energy. His own efforts to stem the climate crisis as a public servant and as a citizen might help future farmers, if we’re lucky — but not him.
He’s had a good run, doing the job for as long as the conditions allowed. I guess you could say that he … struck while the iron was hot.
After four decades, though, Adam is wondering what farmers across the country must be wondering, whether they’re considering different crops or different careers: Now what?
NOTE – This article was originally published in washingtonpost and can be viewed here
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