Nature: Friend and Adversary

Today is a pleasant rainy Sunday, which allows for time to slow down, read, reflect and catch up on built up chores. These calm showers provide just the sort of moisture to saturate annual row crops and helps ease the burden of irrigation for our regions farmers. However, while the weather is gentle today, there were some rather torrential periods yesterday. The thermometer is still bouncing between hot and cool, providing rather inconsistent range of air and soil temperatures; this also makes for variable forms of precipitation. Mixed in with Saturday’s precipitation were heavy bouts of hail, which as you can imagine, spells danger for vulnerable crops out in the field. During one such spell Story Hill Farm suffered a tragic loss of spring crops. Farmer Jack Bridges, and 20 others on a chicken coop tour, watched as cold chunks of hail pelted his lush vegetables. Lettuce, radishes, kale, onions, and anything else growing outside was at the whim of nature. Situations like these leave farmers feeling helpless to intervene. When the climate is cruel, there in only so much that can be done to fight it. While the damage may be done, plants often demonstrate their unabashed resilience in the wake of such an event. I have seen rows of corn and kale plowed down by heavy winds and rain, only to bounce back and continue with life when the sun reemerges from behind the clouds. Let us hope that Jack enjoys similar fortune in the wake of this storm; but, in any case this is a scary moment for any farmer and is a moment that all have endured.

Weather is the pivot around with all life hinges; it both provides life and takes it away. When climatic conditions are favorable, plants grow strong, water tables are full and human nutritional needs are met economically. When conditions shift unfavorably, plants suffer, wells are drained, yields diminish and we pay the price at the store. Rarely does a season pass without any sort of drought, flood or pest outbreak, so building resilience to these  events is constitutional to any farm economy. And we simply cannot accurately predict when those shocks will happen, nor can we anticipate how pests will adapt to conventional control. Since weather is fluid, adapting to climate patterns is an iterative process; never perfect, and always improving. Our developing passion for decentralized food markets is a part of this learning.

In the years since the Green Revolution of the 1950’s, large scale agrarian specialization has proven vulnerable to adapting to such shocks. Food systems catering to economies of scale often grow one crop variety over wide acreage. This allows for streamlined planting, cultivation and harvesting, from which consumers enjoy lower prices. But that price we enjoy is just a stagnant number at the store, and does not recognize the quieter costs we are paying. One such cost is vulnerability. While the price might be low in up front economic terms, it balances on a dangerous precipice of one storm cycle or pest outbreak from wiping out the majority of something like carrots in one region of the U.S. The price of all carrots then shifts, forcing us to then pay a scarcity price for what remains after the shock.

If you are of a business mind, think of our food system like your investment portfolio. If you just buy into  a high number of valuable shares, consolidated to one or two firms, then that investment stands vulnerable to much bigger losses when the firms suffer. Conversely, a diversified stock portfolio holds a balanced volume shares, spread horizontally across firms and vertically between businesses in the same industry. Much like diversified business investment, farmers invest in diversity to bolster security from variable weather conditions. But these are not stock and bond markets, these are farms. Farms produce food, and food is the second most basic component to fuel human life. Much hinges in how we invest in the sustainable security of our food system.

It is always sad to hear of losses in the fields. Thankfully our food portfolio is diversified here in Central Oregon, so we can continue eating spring radishes and lettuce without freighting it in from distant farms.

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