The Bounty of Fallow Time

Though modern agriculture has revved up planting and harvesting, here comes winter. Put on the brakes.

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Agriculture today, especially row crops, still must follow the rhythms of the seasons. Corn and soybeans just won’t grow with snow on the ground.

But at other times of the year, the pace of agriculture is frantic, especially at planting and harvest. It is kind of a status thing for farmers to have their fields planted and harvested early, truly a mad rush at the beginning and end of the growing season. For farmers who work 3,000 acres, 5,000 acres or more – with costly big equipment, farmland, and seed and fertilizer – weather is, as it always has been, the threat or the boon. Timing is everything.  

Meanwhile, seeds and plants are on fast forward, too. They have been genetically engineered to sprout quickly, even under adverse conditions; they’ve been selected to grow faster, improve yield, and even dry out faster to speed up the harvest. The performances of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are facts of life, governing farmers’ decision-making in the face of competition and costly risks. Like it or not, farming is business, big business for rural Illinois, even if it’s carried out, for the most part, on a family scale. For farmers who grow the crops, time is money, needed for the survival of their families.

Our system of agriculture is problematic. As we enter the fallow time, I find myself wondering if there are different, better ways that will work for farmers and their communities. The basic problem, of course, is that the very act of cutting into the soil for planting transforms the environment. When you factor in the use of everything that speeds up agriculture – from fuel for tractors and harvesters through all of the highly sophisticated chemicals and seeds – production tends to increase, but the practices produce a host of widespread impacts. With modern growing and harvesting, consequences are double edged.

More than five years after returning to my native Midwest, after almost 25 years of living in and around the central Appalachians, I still wonder at the changes in rural landscapes, the loss of farms, people, and communities. The transitions have not come easily. People, their places, and the land have been hurt. The damage is real, although it can be subtle.

Timothy Collins

Winter-weary landscape near Bardolph, IL, late January 2010.


Despite the changes, there remains something mysterious and marvelous about it all, something that transcends the workings of agribusiness operators who may or may not care about the land and water or the lives of people in nearby towns. Humans work this landscape hard, for better or for worse. But something much larger is going on here. Through it all, the sun rises and sets; the weather warms and cools; rains and snows come and go. Seasons still change the pace of life as humans, aided by fossil fuels, labor to control the environment.

Only 200 years ago, Illinois was mostly prairie and patches of woodlands. Even today, with that landscape largely gone, the transition from autumn to winter starts gradually in mid-August. Crops mature in the fields and trees begin to turn as the sun moves lower on the horizon. Shadows grow noticeably longer as the days grow shorter in September. The light plays with the landscape as crops are shorn off the fields by huge combines that raise clouds of dust. When the snow begins to fall, usually in early December, the change is particularly abrupt, unless you’ve been watching and waiting for it. This is truly the fallow time.

I’ll learn to love the fallow way
When all my colors fade to white


And flying birds fold back their wings

Upon my anxious wanderings….

 
— from “Fallow Way,” Judy Collins

The coming of winter in rural areas heralds the fallow time, and it nurtures the fallow way, a surrendering to the powers of nature and an appreciation of its beauties: sunrises, sunsets, stunning clouds, and brilliant stars on crystal clear nights. At these times, the silence on the land can be awesome, even in a small city or village.

Perhaps city folk don’t notice the fallow time as much. But in the countryside, nature slows things down, making travel across the landscape unpredictable, possibly hazardous. Winds on the one-time prairies can be brutal. Heavy snowfalls, piling into drifts, close roads. Cancelled events can be inconvenient, frustrating. The weather has taken control.

Timothy
Collins
First snowfall near Bushnell, Illinois, at dawn in December 2009.

Meanwhile, at home, it’s time to be more resourceful. We rediscover books, board games, old movies, and hobbies that went neglected through the warmer and longer days of summer. We may have more time to get together with friends over dinner. 

I’m coming to the conclusion that the fallow way may be one thing that clearly distinguishes rural from urban life. We certainly may find ourselves more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature and we don’t have the range of cultural and social activities that are available year ‘round in cities to while away the winter.

During the fallow time, good weather and a long-anticipated event don’t always coincide. We have to seek out concerts, plays, museums, and art galleries with deliberation and, when weather permits, launch out for them on the spur of the moment. The nearby university is definitely a cultural center, though it can’t offer the diversity of the larger cities an hour or more away.

The fallow way offers a chance for an important and needed change of pace. It challenges us to appreciate the unpredictability of nature and to find something deep within ourselves to endure and even enjoy the quiet landscape in our sometimes anxious wanderings.

I look forward to it.

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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