Monday, September 22, 2014

Letter from Langdon: Reliably Unpredictable

07/21/2014

Photo via Risky Business Road washed away by extreme flood in Jamestown, Colorado.

Back in his day, Dad always stressed the risky side of farming. As proof he’d pull from a desk drawer his personal handwritten record of Langdon yearly corn prices during the 1950’s. Next to those were annual yields. The message was clear; if prices don’t get you, yield and weather will.

I should have asked more questions.

I thought I had all the answers. When I looked around the neighborhood all I saw was accumulated wealth of successful farmers rooted all the way down to the Depression era. Now I’ve figured out the hard way, secrets are held not in the answers you have, but in the questions you ask, like:

Why were they there?

Because the only farmers I saw were those who had survived.

How does one farmer succeed where so many have failed?

Being optimistic helps. Farmers believe hail storm losses won’t be total, the drought won’t last and rain will fall, the levee could hold if the river drops and, if all else fails, prices should rise. But as optimistic farmers like me grow older, they’ve learned that even if the government doesn’t mess things up, Mother Nature might.

Like an old farmer once said, “I’d rather be lucky than smart.”

Anyhow, Dad was right.

Farming is risky.

Now we have Risky Business, a group that believes climate change and rising sea levels are fact, not fiction. In the past big agribusiness and a lot of farmers in the U.S. have been naysayers on climate change. But Greg Page, chairman of the board of Cargill, Inc., happens to be on the Risky Business committee.

With interests in at least 65 different nations, Cargill has obviously learned to manage risk. One of the most diversified and best connected food and agriculture corporations in the world, neither Cargill nor Mr. Page is known for going out on thin ice.

Regardless of whether you believe scientist’s 150 years’ worth of temperature records or your favorite political party, you have to believe Cargill. Weather is making farming even riskier.

How risky is it?

For a farmer, risk comes from every direction. It happens when Cargills of the world raise the cost of fertilizer, cut the price of hogs, cattle or grain. It hits when fuel prices go up or ethanol prices go down.

Or maybe when Cargill gets the things I have to sell from some distant shore instead of from me.

But the biggest personal risk farmers accept is weather. The effects of local weather aren’t felt across all sectors of business the same way individual mom and pop farms do. Sure, supply and demand eventually come into play no matter how much corporations try to manipulate prices. But if a tornado blows machine sheds away or hail beats crops to the ground, all a farmer has is insurance and savings (if that) to survive. And insurance is becoming more costly as storm intensities rise – even with bigger deductibles demanded by risk averse insurance companies.

Most scientists say the climate is warming. One friend, amused by controversy surrounding  climate, pointed out to me that global temperatures have been rising since the last ice age  – and will probably continue until the next. Iowa State ag meteorologist Elwynn Taylor upholds cyclical patterns as having the greatest effect on weather, giving only 5% blame to higher CO2 levels and climate change.  Taylor is quoted widely throughout the Corn Belt for his forecasts as well as his views on climate change. But even Taylor seems to bend toward conservation as a way to limit CO2’s effects, especially when he speaks to agriculture’s special interest groups.

Since climate has a lot to do with how much food we can grow, and because Iowa sits at the heart of America’s most productive farmland, Iowa’s land grant universities have a vested interest in studying every aspect of food production. That’s why it’s understandable that more than one opinion on climate emanates from ISU. 

Jerry Hatfield is a Ph.D. USDA research scientist based on the Iowa State campus at Ames. Last month Hatfield was one of the presenters at the Institute on the Environment in St. Paul, Minnesota, during a meeting hosted by Oxfam America. Besides Hatfield, University of Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley and farmers Virginia Ñuñonca from Peru and Richard Oswald from Langdon, Missouri (that’s me), were also on the program.

Virginia Ñuñonca.

Author Richard Oswald.

Seeley, who also hosts a weekly program on Minneaota Public Radio, served as moderator. Both farmers discussed increasingly arid conditions in one place while record flooding happened in others. But it was Jerry Hatfield who got my attention with one statement.

Between now and the year 2040, farmers will need to produce as much food as was grown in the previous 1,500 years. That’s because by then, world population levels are expected to exceed 9 billion. On top of that, greater weather variability means higher temperatures, and production shifts to the north, to places like North Dakota where it used to be impossible to produce long maturity crops like corn.

But not any more.

So what’s going on?

Most scientists say average temperatures are rising. But that is obscured by an increasingly turbulent atmosphere that carries unusual frost events briefly southward, destroying fruit tree crops. As a result, fruit production is becoming less predictable. And while average air temperatures at the poles aren’t much different today, the same atmospheric turbulence that affects more moderate latitudes drives warm ocean water to the poles where it melts ice caps from underneath. The result is a thin edge of ice that breaks off more easily as icebergs simply float away and melt.

People like Hatfield emphasize that farm crop production will be highly variable as weather becomes less predictable. All this will happen as food availability is expected to increase to meet population demands. We are using our soil and water at a faster pace than ever before with little emphasis placed on sustainability – which is to say we’re growing food in ways we can’t continue to do forever.

How can we get people to think about that?

Industrial food models don’t offer sustainability. But like developers in coastal areas, who lobby against real-estate-depressing government warnings of rising sea levels, promoters of industrial food don’t want to talk about where or how they get raw food products or what they make of them.

That was one purpose of the meeting in St. Paul, to call attention to the plight of farmers and consumers as weather becomes more predictably unreliable, so companies like Cargill and Minneapolis-based General Mills will purchase sustainably produced food ingredients instead of getting them from palm oil plantations that burn trees.

But it always comes down to asking the right question. Since no one has all the answers, maybe the best question is also the simplest:

How can we do it better?

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.