One farmer's almanac
By Harry MacCormack
The primary effect of global warming for agriculture is inclement weather. Across the world, growers of foods, fiber, and fuel have lost somewhat predictable weather patterns. 2008 saw month after month of record setting weather.
Over-wintered grains dealt with 90-degree temperatures in March. Soil temperatures suddenly jumped into the high 50s and 60s awakening soil biology and bio activations at a level usually associated with May. Then just as suddenly, soil and air temperatures plummeted into the low 40’s. A sudden spurt of faster than normal growth was followed by a sudden slow down. This condition set the stage for disease as nutrient cycles started then stopped. Rusts and other diseases grabbed some grain varieties and never let go, lowering yields. May was more normal -but drier- allowing many plants to recover and grow out of their weakened stages, in the end producing superior yields.
April-May were dry enough to allow for planting of spring wheat, oats, buckwheat, flax, sunflower, quinoa, amaranth and dry beans which included lentils, garbanzo, black, pinto, red chile, anasazi, and soy. Fairly normal soil moisture levels allowed for germination and about two weeks of good growth.
Then came June, which except for the last two days of the month, was the coldest ever recorded. Plants that had not germinated earlier didn’t germinate or did so very slowly, setting them up to insect attack. Plants growing normally stalled for a month. We had a 34-degree night in late June almost killing some bean varieties. Just west of us, it froze and killed everything. This month-long event set back plant development, including development of seed heads on winter crops.
One positive development, pigweed which is amaranth, did not germinate during this cold. Our edible amaranth either didn’t germinate or wouldn’t grow.
It took several July foliar feedings to get beans back on track for what we had planned as a mid to late August harvest.
Basically, all our 13 kinds of wheat, seven kinds of rye, six kinds of triticale, seven kinds of dry beans and five kinds of edible seeds were set back by two to three weeks. Some crops were stunted by the cold. Some at harvest show production levels in terms of yield lowered. Rather than mid July ripening for grain, ripening was late July and early August. Some, like one variety of triticale, weren’t finished until late August. Some Spring wheat also didn’t finish until late August. What happened for a full week in late August? Unseasonal rain, a week of it.
Most of the beans were in a dry-down state by that time. The danger is that moisture during dry down can bring on sprouting or molds. We were fortunate that there was enough sun that was hot enough to dry out wet crops. The rains resulted in some bean crops attempting regrowth during a dry-off period. Also during this period, leaves dry and fall off. The rain germinated weed seed and harvest which looked like it would be clean suddenly had some weed pressure. One of the late germinating weeds was pigweed, first delayed, then growing toward seed with a fury, pushed by lower, fall-approaching, light-heat levels.
Sunbow, and the other small farms working at a homestead scale have been able to handle all of these unexpected, weather related, crop changes. Stalford farm has also broken their large acreage into smaller 20-acre plots. Scale for any dry land commodity crop here on the valley floor reduces some of the gamble. Our project, which embraces both homestead and small industrial farming transitions, learned a lot of lessons about how to grow and harvest in what might be our future weather conditions.
These weather conditions were not limited to our locality. For five weather related articles see the September 5 Capital Press showing similar conditions in Eastern Oregon and Washington which are major commodity production areas. Our caloric food future has gotten trickier due to the complex syndrome known as global warming.
Light-heat hours are marginal in our maritime climate for growing commodity crops. Although this valley produced almost all of its foods 100 years ago, that has not been done in recent history with our large urban consumer populations.
The South Willamette Valley Bean, Grain and Edible Seed Project lists this fact as the over-arching parameter (along with fuel expense) that limits and drives our attempt to localize what amounts to at least 80 percent of typical human caloric intake, see www.mudcitypress.com. Our project hopes to reverse that trend by taking grass seed lands into food production. Stalford Farms, a 9,000 acre operation has 147 acres devoted so far to the project. Sunbow farm in Corvallis, and five other small growers are experimenting at homestead levels.
Localizing 80 percent of our food intake may be best done on smaller acreages where risks are easier to mange and where the consuming community can be organized to share in these risks.
Harry MacCormack is a pioneering organic farmer in the Willamette Valley and co-runs The Institute for Biowisdom at Sunbow Farm, Corvallis.