Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Farmer’s Perspective:
Forecasts, Farming, and the Food Supply

Paula Manalo, Redwood Valley, California

On the farm we’re always looking up to the sky and feeling the air. What will this week’s weather be like? Even with all the technological advances in weather forecasting, we are never 100 percent sure of what the atmosphere will bring to the farm: rain or shine, heat or cold. But my partner and I still have to plan ahead each growing season, so we depend on seasonal patterns based on past experience. Then we can schedule our crop plantings and harvests, estimate when we’ll need to move our animals to and from different pastures, and plan other work. Every year I look forward to the farm’s complex cycles and rhythms that determine my work with the land.

Patterns and expectations only get us so far with planning and risk management, though. Flood, drought, hail, extreme heat, bitter frost, and strong winds — any of these extreme weather events can be catastrophic for crops and animals. Sometimes, the weather forecast cannot warn us in time to prepare. Other times, there just isn’t anything we can do when severe weather hits. This summer I feel badly for fellow farmers in the East, who have experienced one of the worst droughts in decades.

Even though on the North Coast of California we plan on drought in the summer (we say we have two seasons here: dust and mud), and although we have irrigation, our farm will not be isolated from the drought across the country. We still buy grain for our hogs and poultry, and in one month, for example, we saw the price of organic rolled corn go up 8 percent. The predictions of food prices going up are real. We will have to find ways to cut our costs or increase our prices to ensure a profit with the animals we are already raising. It’s a waiting game, too, where we will see what prices our current markets can bear, or if demand for our local, sustainably raised meats will decline over time.

With severe weather events we cannot guarantee a consistent food supply at the same price. This means, for example, that there would be amazing greens at the same time every spring at the same quantity and quality. Sometimes, even a slight difference in the temperature will prompt a boom year for certain insect pests, making them harder to battle organically. Long heat spells can also stress livestock, preventing them from gaining weight efficiently and ultimately increasing the time and cost to raise them for market. It seems that more conscious eaters are becoming knowledgeable about the seasonality of food, and I hope that awareness of local agriculture and its relationship to the weather will grow.

On the farm we aim to be self-sustaining, such that we don’t import a lot of inputs and don’t waste resources. It is the same with our personal food supply. As we love eating our own food, my partner and I also relish putting by seasonal items and using less-valued things so nothing goes to waste. We can and ferment surplus vegetables and utilize lesser meat cuts; for example, we make headcheese and cure pork products. Then we can satisfy our cravings when those items are not available fresh from our farm. I think this kind of economy will be necessary, as consumers also comprehend the seasonality of certain foods. It is thrifty, but it’s also a fuller relationship with the land and nature that nourishes us. With our vegetable CSA we try to promote the value of using and enjoying what is available so that CSA shareholders are not missing what did not grow well during a particular season. Reaping what is bountiful and being creative in the kitchen can turn what seems like an inconvenience into a flavorful, delicious thrill.

Just as eating food that I have grown with my two hands is more fulfilling than buying it at the store, I hope that consumers can experience the rewards of a deeper understanding of agriculture. For us farmers we need to adapt our farming systems to be more resilient to severe weather. My partner and I want to set up another high tunnel to grow more vegetables when the spring or fall is too rainy or cold. A monoculture makes a farm more vulnerable, so we plan to continue to farm a diversity of crops and animals. As long as we have diverse farms throughout the country and seasonal eating habits amenable to varied foods, I believe our food supply will be okay. And I’ll plan to continue contributing to the food supply by farming into my old age, extreme weather and all.

Paula Manalo comanages Mendocino Organics, a biodynamic farm in Northern California. She is a founding member of Greenhorns and is on the board of directors of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. She is an editor of Greenhorns.

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