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Farming is all about timing, but climate change is changing the rules

By Mai Nguyen

There was a worrying absence of metronomic clicks. I took out my voltmeter and detected only a faint current in the sheep fencing. In search of the impediment, I checked the solar panel output, connections, and electric twine that made up the portable fence. The problem lay in an entanglement of wire and brambles.

I wondered if I should corral the sheep into their pen while I fixed the problem or leave them grazing. It was already late in the day, and I needed the sheep to finish mowing the field before seeding time—before the big rain that was forecasted to arrive three weeks earlier than usual. I decided to leave the sheep to their urgent task as I worked on mine, delicately untangling the barbed twine.

I must have tugged too hard. An adjacent post fell, then another, and the one after that teased the wire’s tautness with a wavering tilt. The domino of poles provided a sufficient opening to new pasture: the neighbor’s vineyard.

Did the sheep notice? Sheep don’t naturally stampede into new terrain. Rather, when one moves forward to graze, another goes a few feet in front creating a leap-frog pattern of alternating movement. Factor that by 50 and there’s a fast moving herd. I walked-jogged-skipped in front of the lead sheep so as to not alarm them and ran perpendicular to their trajectory, which, if you’ll take a moment to imagine, meant running in a circle. I was a human sheepdog.

Much of farming involves a balance of doing something well and doing it on time. Unlike final exams, driver’s license renewal, or tax day, farming deadlines aren’t definitive dates. At least there are patterns to follow! Take the pattern of rain and heat that affect the fields and dictate my crop’s fate: gentle fall rains germinate weed seeds; Thanksgiving downpours alternate with warm days; then comes constant rain through February until a window of March sunshine allows for spring planting. April and May bring more rain, and summer shines a bright light that penetrates and desiccates so I can harvest grain without fear of moisture and sprouting. These patterns allow me to plan when to bring out the sheep to mow and fertilize, and the draft horses to broadcast seed and harrow in time for rain. I know when I’ll be able to reintroduce sheep to manage weeds and top-dress with enough time to avoid mistakes that come with being rushed, as in the story above. Each of these practices requires care and time, and patterns provide predictability for effective execution.

But these patterns are changing. In their place are not new patterns, but perpetual variability. In 2015, my crops received less than 10 inches of rain during California’s worst drought, thereby reducing yields of already low-producing heritage grains. Then, unprecedented rain and humidity came in July and threatened grain marketability. This year’s deluge of rain was a mixed blessing. Decades of drought made the soil impermeable, so the watery wealth went unabsorbed and instead wreaked havoc. Farms flooded, soil slid, winter crops became moldy, and that March planting window never opened. Many farmers didn’t have a spring crop at all.

The skies above my farm in August 2015, when fire engulfed the whole county.

The rainfall pattern changed too quickly for fields and forests to adapt. Crops became parched, so farmers pumped wells to the point where soil boron poisoned crops and prevented farming on once arable land. During the great drought, springs in the hills dried up, leading deer, mountain lions, wild pigs, and other animals to risk drinking from rivers that run alongside roads, and their death-toll demonstrated their desperation. Despite high fences, I found them or their impressions in my field, where they had lain for reprieve from the heat. They ate crops or rendered them unharvestable, but I didn’t resent them. Their water, food, and habitat were diminishing. Their home—the forests—dried and fueled devastating fires that engulfed 8,500 acres just 30 miles north of me one year, and 31,000 acres only eight miles east of me the following year. The changing patterns affected everyone and everything.

We know these patterns are changing because of human-generated greenhouse gases. Farmers can help reduce emissions and capture what’s in the atmosphere through how we farm, what we farm, and where we send our products. I reduce tillage to retain carbon in the ground, knowing that a third of atmospheric greenhouse gases came from the soil. I drive a combine because it’s difficult to find an efficient replacement, but I opt for animal or renewable power when possible. These animals and planting intercropped nitrogen fixers, such as crimson clover, minimize my reliance on imported nutrients. I grow heritage grains that develop deep roots (carbon) when mowed, and have long stalks (carbon) that I use as ground cover to retain moisture.

Nature is a dynamic system that I strive to farm synchronously with. That task becomes harder as human-induced climate change creates discord and disrupts long-standing patterns. We can slow this change through how we farm.


About this series: The National Young Farmers Coalition and King Arthur Flour present Heart and Grain, a new blog and film series profiling three pioneering young grain farmers. While all farmers face challenges, the high start-up costs associated with grain farming can make it an especially difficult field to enter for new and young farmers. Learn more about the series here.

About our series sponsor: Farmers are at the heart of baking. That’s why King Arthur Flour proudly supports the National Young Farmers Coalition and its mission of empowering the next generation of grain growers. As America’s appetite for sustainable food increases, King Arthur Flour is dedicated to helping farms grow with demand and strengthening people’s connection to real food.
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