Quiet Heroism down on the Farm

Friday, January 25, 2013
flood near Modesto in January 2012
Image credit: 
© ZUMA/Marty Bicek

American farmers suffered ruinous drought and crop-destroying heat during much of last year’s growing season. Corn, wheat, dairy, and meat prices will probably climb still higher, offering American consumers a rare reminder of who creates the bounty they take for granted.

Most Americans pay little attention to the nation’s annual crop production, unless it falters before agriculture’s multifarious natural enemies: drought, flood, infestation, and disease. That’s understandable. We are an insular suburban culture. Our food is grown by only about 1 percent of the population. Usually an impressive variety of produce simply appears—safe, plentiful, fresh, and relatively cheap—on our grocery store shelves.

Americans don’t expect the weather to be absolutely predictable, but when it turns for the worse, we assume that any pernicious effects will be either temporary or ameliorated by modern ingenuity. And it is true that much of the historic uncertainty in farming disappeared in the twentieth century, thanks to sophisticated new irrigation systems, high-tech farm machinery, computers, better pesticides and herbicides, and genetic engineering.

The result has been that at a time of table talk about American decline—staggering deficits, lackluster manufacturing, mediocre public schools, and insolvent entitlement programs—American farming keeps producing record harvests that earn critical foreign exchange and ensure relatively low food prices. At least until last summer.

flood near Modesto in January 2012
Farmworkers flood an orchard near Modesto in January 2012, as a dry winter begins to take its toll on Central Valley crops. Drought in much of the United States has stressed farmers’ finances and raised food prices, evidence that uncertainty can never be entirely removed from the enterprise of farming.

The drought provoked some public alarm: news clips sounded almost like apocalyptic Hollywood films, with portentous voices warning about long-term food shortages and permanently changed farming conditions. I doubt both scenarios. In my own experience, farmers have proved to be among the nation’s most ingenious, self-reliant, and audacious citizens. They continue in adversity when most others would quit.

I certainly have found it far harder to produce a profitable raisin or plum crop each year on my family’s California farm than to teach classical Greek, write books on history, or lecture university audiences. After all, ideas like tenure, defined pensions, employer-supplied health care, and sick leave do not exist on the farm—at least not for the independent operator and his family. Being able to weld does not preclude the need to master sophisticated math to figure out crop-spray calibrations. The requisite politeness shown your banker is not so wise an hour later with a tough neighbor or belligerent hired hand.

In the past few decades, Americans have increasingly entrusted their futures to technocrats, deemed brilliant by virtue of their blue-chip-university brands—as if their studied divorce from the brutal world of human muscle and natural disaster made them more, rather than less, reliable stewards of our fate. That the country’s aggregate debt is nearly unsustainable, and that many in our nation’s capital are reluctant to tap vast new gas and oil wealth, should remind us that PhDs, MAs, and JDs may be less well-rounded, and certainly less pragmatic, than the vanishing thousands who produce our food.

The mystery isn’t that we have devastating droughts, but that so few Americans manage to produce so much food against such daunting odds.

While the drought will hurt all farmers and may bankrupt some, the threat of disaster is a constant for growers, who by their nature and habit cope. In the 1930s, ’50s, and ’60s, serial droughts nearly wiped out the Midwest farming belt. The seemingly endless dry weather of 1988 was the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Thankfully, far more farmers now carry crop insurance than in ’88, which will help keep them afloat.

I once asked my mother why, all of a sudden, unseasonable September rains of 1976, 1978, and 1982 ruined our drying raisins in California’s predictably arid Central Valley—in a way that hadn’t happened before during the raisin industry’s first century. She paused and then offered, “Well, isn’t it a little unnatural to put your entire year’s work on the ground each year to dry, as if there can never be a gray cloud in the sky?”

So it is with all farming—an unnatural enterprise to coax food from the unforgiving earth. The mystery isn’t that we have devastating droughts like last year’s, but that so few Americans manage to produce so much food against such daunting odds. The ancient Greeks were so baffled by how each season a tiny seed grew into a wheat stalk, which in turn provided life-giving bread, that they created the goddess Demeter, their “Earth Mother.” Worship of her sacrosanct mysteries was vital for the goddess’s food miracles to continue.

Can we learn anything new from present-day drought? At a time when American gas and oil reserves seem to be expanding daily, given breakthrough technologies like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling, it makes no sense to divert 40 percent of the corn crop to ethanol production. For all the uncertainty of drilling a gas or oil well, it is a far more inexact science to produce corn, wheat, or soy—given drought, flood, disease, pests, and human error.

Farmers are among the nation’s most ingenious, self-reliant, and audacious citizens. They continue in adversity when most others would quit.

We might also recalibrate our notion of “flyover country,” that vast and productive region that rarely earns attention except during close national elections. The federal government is insolvent; high finance is still suspect. Yet thousands of mostly unknown farmers in Iowa, Indiana, or Ohio get better at what they do, and better too than all their counterparts across the globe—drought or no drought.

Dry seasons remind us that we still live in an often-tragic world that all our high-tech devices and therapeutic gobbledygook cannot overcome. The comfortable life of smartphones, reality TV, and Facebook seems a birthright only because it is predicated on the talents of Americans who, with little fanfare, put a bounty of food on our tables and the world’s.