Saturday, September 20, 2014

How We Eat the Climate

If I had been farming this year, I might not have had the chance to stay quite as up-to-date with all the stuff going on in the world news right now.  I might not know that scientists say we are hinging on the edge of ecological disaster, that the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose faster this year than they have for the past 30 years, and that if we continue burning fossil fuels like we are now, we cross a few tipping points that set the good earth on a sure path of destruction.  The UN scientists are using words like "cataclysmic consequences."

I might not have heard that the ice caps really are melting, and the oceans really are rising.  Faster than we thought.

I would certainly not have heard it direct from the mouth of another woman farmer on the other side of the globe, whose family for generations has cultivated a dry, terraced, olive grove in the Mediterranean, planted in medieval times.  Her biggest worry?  Climate change.  It wasn’t a very dry summer for her trees.  More on this later.

If I had been farming this year, I might not have skills of dealing with the overwhelming despair I feel when I hear these things.  I might not have learned how to meditate, how to be gentle with myself, how to generate joy, happiness, and compassion to help take care of my other, more difficult, feelings.  More on this later too.

I would have experienced the climate in a much more intimate way:  every day in the muddy fields.

I met up with Ruth to get a download on how the season went -- she gave me a two-page list of all the challenges she faced, from learning the particularities of new fields to too much rain.  I stopped by the farm in early September, to find everyone bundled up in sweatshirts and wool hats.  Usually we'd have been sweating out in the fields, picking tomatoes frantically in their peak of production.

While I secretly rejoice in choosing this season to take a year off farming, my heart goes out to Ruth and all the other farmers in the region who had to deal with some "extreme weather events" and a very un-summery summer.  

To begin with, the coldest winter in 20 years was very very slow to let up, and the ground stayed frozen well into April.  This delayed everything on the farm.  Pushing back the plowing dates means pushing back the planting dates, which in turn pushes back harvest dates.  It also means losing critical time in the spring to deal with weeds.

This summer we also had twice the average rainfall expected for the region!  Wet fields mean no chance to get a cultivating tractor in, so the weeds get tall enough that you have to pull them out by hand:  on the scale of more than five acres, this is a nightmare!  What Ruth might not have been aware of as well is that the weeds could be growing even better due to the higher carbon dioxide in the air.

Several articles alerted me to the dire situation of incredibly soggy Western NY fields (Read them here: D & C and TWC News), and a few weeks ago the Attorney General of the State declared that all this extra rain is in fact a symptom of climate change.  The press release states "the need to focus on greater resiliency planning and response measures for our infrastructure, neighborhoods and landscape in order to promote a safer and more sustainable New York."  I assume that farms fall into all three categories, as their presence in our region's infrastructure and physical landscape provides neighborhoods with food security, if done well.  

Resiliency planning is built into the basic organic farming model.  CSA farmers plant hundreds of different varieties of vegetables, so that when extreme weather hits, usually something will do well, even if other crops fail.  Diversity is really the key when you are gambling with such uncertainty.  Farmers practicing sustainable growing also create more resilient soil, through practices like cover cropping, adding compost, and avoiding chemicals which destroy the living soil ecosystem.  The healthier the soil is, the better it can withstand drought and flooding.

The extra moisture this summer also brought more disease into the fields -- tomatoes were decimated again by Late Blight, the serious fungus that brought about the Irish Potato Famine, and the poor basil got Downy Mildew, a relatively new disease occurance.  Fungi LOVE wet weather.  And they hate sunshine-- on a good sunny day, UV rays will destroy the fungal spores and slow the spread of the disease.  Not like we had too many sunny days this summer...

Farmers make a living from working with natural systems-- soil, water, seeds -- and all of these systems are dependent on the ever-changing and unpredictable weather, which, as we know, is becoming more and more unpredictable.

Remember last spring?  We also had too much rain, early on in the season.  Luckily, it warmed up enough for us later in the summer.  This year, Ruth had less of a break.  She educated me on "growing degree days," which is a fancy farmer word for calculating the rate that plants grow based on the ambient temperature they experience.  And, yep, it was a cold summer.  The growing degree days were even down 25% from the average this season in some areas, delaying the ability of the crop to mature for harvest!

The climate scientists also talk about more heat waves and droughts, and in the five years that I've farmed in the area, I have experienced these firsthand as well.  Working in the heat is not fun.  Neither is breathing in dust blowing off your fields after five weeks of no rain.  These occupational hazards are probably some of the big reasons the reasons people give up farming.  Oh, yeah, and it doesn't make any money.  But if we all stopped farming, who would grow the food? 

We'll have to figure it out somehow, and adapt our growing techniques and choice of crops to the changes happening.  The EPA is even going so far to suggest that by the end of the century, "Large portions of the region may become unsuitable for growing some fruit varieties and some crops, such as apples, blueberries, grain, and soybeans.”  It's obvious we are facing a whole new world out there.  

Farmers are the first to feel the effects of climate change, because they work outside every day, and their whole livelihood depends on the weather.  But as consumers, if we look deeply, we can see that three times a day, we eat the climate.

(Insert David Bowie song)
“Turn and face the strange Ch-ch-changes, Don't want to be a richer man, Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes,
Turn and face the strange Ch-ch-changes, Just gonna have to be a different man"

As a modern humans in today's society, we could live our whole lives indoors, in our climate-controlled houses and cars, giving us an illusion of protection from the changes happening outside our windows.  When we step outside, we have no control over things like the temperature, whether the lights are on or not, and what falls from the sky.

This is why so many farmers are moving indoors themselves to grow their crops -- hoop-houses, high tunnels, low tunnels, greenhouses, hydroponics…  I understand all the logic behind it.  Controlled environments are easier, more comfortable, more predictable.  And for a farmer's bottom line, it can make all the difference.  But I believe this is a step in the wrong direction.
I want to live in a world where I can be outside.  I want to feel the sun on my skin, the breeze in my hair, see a hawk circling over a field.  I want to walk the weedy edges in my boots and see jack rabbits bolt to the woods.  I want to look up into the clouds to feel the first raindrops on my face, and stick my hands down into the rich moist loam to say “thank you” for the nourishment of another season.  I want to see the determined bees and hummingbirds take their nourishment from flowers, while they simultaneously ensure the flowers’ continuation, and provide me with such joy.  

I want to ensure the continuation of the things that nourish me.

Step outside for a break after reading this.  What does the climate feel like to you right now?  How do things smell, how does the air feel on your skin?  Can you hear birds or crickets?  Look up into a tree.  An old tree has seen a lot of seasons in its time, maybe more than you have.  What will it see in the coming years, and will it be ready?

Are you ready? 

Supporting local farmers who are using sustainable growing practices, who are committed to taking care of the soil, who are looking for more ways to be resilient in the face of climate change, is one of the things we can do to ensure a hopeful future.  It's going to be a wild ride, but together we can build a more resilient community and learn to adapt to the crazy changes together.

(And I almost forgot: Stay tuned for stories about my adventures with an olive farmer in the Mediterranean, and my discovery of a Zen Buddhist monastery in the Catskills, in a future blog entry!  It's good to be back.)

1 comment:

Suzanne Farrell said...

You have learned so much this past year, Erin! Thanks for sharing!