According to a survey by the Huffington Post earlier this year, one in ten people believe that the Mayan calendar is an indicator of doomsday. In a 2012 survey conducted by National Geographic, more than 62 percent of Americans think the world will experience a major catastrophe in less than 20 years. Americans have always been intrigued by futurists and prognosticators who predict Wall Street trends, weather patterns, and even their personal fortunes, presumably to prepare for the future.
For those who tend the soil, the Farmer’s Almanac has been a steady source of interest and amusement since 1818. No doubt, knowing future weather trends can be a key to the financial success of a farm. Plant early to take advantage of soil moisture. Plant too early and lose a crop to frost. Plant corn in flat Annemessex Silt Loam soil (also known as “Othello”) in a wet year and you risk losing the crop due to poor drainage. Farming is always dependent on weather conditions.
Farmers as a whole, tend to be optimists. According to Will Rogers, “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.” However, after facing several years of major dry spells, farmers have cause to be cautious. Are these droughts an isolated pattern or part of a longer trend? What are the weather experts saying?
Yesterday, the USDA released its prediction of winter weather. Even as the first snow storm began to advance across the plains, Brad Rippey, USDA Meteorologist, predicted that “Drought conditions could persist and possibly expand if, as expected a mild and dry winter affects most of the nation.” Rippey noted that “we still have nearly two-thirds of the contiguous U.S. in drought, about sixty-two to sixty-three percent at this time, with the core drought areas covering the Plains, parts of the Western Corn Belt, and into the Southwest. The greatest risk for dry conditions and mild conditions during the winter months would be across the southern tier of the country, particularly from Southern California to the Southern Plains. Those areas are at great risk for drought intensification or expansion during the winter months.” The lower parts of the southeast, especially from parts of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida northward into Virginia; those areas have been missing out on the moisture and may continue to do so as we head through the winter months.” While he did not mention Maryland, it has experienced the same drought conditions as Virginia, particularly the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland.
As mentioned in the November 1st Post, farmers are reminded that the best way to prepare for adverse weather conditions is to prepare the soil. In a new research study published in Ecology and Society, entitled “Ecosystem Services in Biologically Diversified versus Conventional Farming Systems: Benefits, Externalities, and Trade-Offs“, authors Claire Kremen and Albie Miles report that soils with high organic matter content exhibit much better resiliency to severe weather conditions. “For example, over a 5-year period that included three drought years, legume and legume+manure-based organic systems from the 21-year Rodale trial captured, respectively, 16 to 25% more water than the conventional system (Lotter et al. 2003). In four of five drought years, maize yield was significantly greater in organic systems than in conventional systems. In the most extreme drought year, mean corn yields were 137% higher in the legume+manure-based organic system than in the conventional system (but were reduced relative to conventional in the legume treatment due to weed competition), while mean soybean yields were 196% (and 152%) higher. The enhanced water storage and infiltration properties of organic soils also improved the response to an extreme rainfall event. Water capture in the organic plots was approximately double that in the conventional plots, indicating higher rates of percolation, lower volumes of surface runoff, and reduced rates of erosion (Lotter et al. 2003, Pimentel et al. 2005).”
If weather patterns continue to produce summers with major drought periods, farmers will do well to build organic matter in their soils. Meanwhile, we will continue to be regaled with projections and prognostications. Does anyone have a good crystal ball?