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Risky Business

The Economist, a British newsmagazine, recently asked the question: “What does [the Icelandic Volcano’s disruption of global air travel] say about man’s apparent inability to control nature?

Their answer was, in short, not much. Man’s apparent inability to control nature is just that — mostly apparent. The disruption caused by the volcano was largely a result of human over-reaction to an otherwise benign spectacle. The author argues that this submission to “the charms of powerlessness in the face of nature” is merely a way of saying we “don’t want to be bothered with facing up to what humans can do.”

Farming presents a unique vantage point from which to ask the same basic question posed by The Economist, because, in a sense, farmers work out the answers every growing season.

The history of farming over the past 60 years in North America is complex, but in some ways it has given farmers a degree of control over nature (though this may, in the end, turn out to be merely apparent). Just to name a few things: farmers now have control over encroaching weeds through the use of herbicide, they have more control over drought through the use of drought resistant plants, and they have some control over unfertile soil by using synthetic fertilizer. Now some of the companies who produce and sell the products I’ve listed would love for farmers to believe that they can, in fact, have total control over all the variables that combine to make farming such a risky venture. If farmers just apply this herbicide, or buy this seed, or use this method, then all is well and farmers can sit back and swim in their profits.

All that said, no one has yet stopped a hailstorm in its tracks, or rung water out of the hot, dry blue sky in late July, or turned off the flood that prevents their planting. As much control as farmers might appear to have, any farmer would admit that he or she in fact feels quite humbled by the vagaries of life on the plains.

North Dakota boasts some of the most extreme weather in our country. Representing the “geographical center of North America,” North Dakota is far removed from the meteorological calming and moderating effect of large bodies of water. Some of the highest and lowest temperatures ever recorded in the United States came from North Dakota — 121 degrees in Steele, ND, and -60 degrees in Parshall, ND. This extreme weather can, and often does wreak havoc for ND farmers.

From my vantage point, our powerlessness in the face of nature is neither apparent nor charming. Record warmth and hardly a drop of precipitation (rain or snow) this April allowed us to plant wheat earlier than we have in two decades. May is now on course to be one of the coldest on record, and this morning the early-planted wheat, now 3 inches tall is covered in snow!

When planting good seed, applying an adequate amount of fertilizer, and protecting the crops from weeds, farmers indeed may feel the outcome relies on them, but at other times, they sense that the growth and completion of a crop is mostly out of their control. Do farmers have control? Yes. Are farmers powerless at times? Yes. Is this charming? No, but probably healthy, healthy to remain ‘grounded’ in our role in and relationship with nature.

*The article, entitled “Earthly Powers: Disasters are about people and planning, not nature’s pomp,” appeared in the April 27, 2010 edition of the weekly magazine. To read the entire article, go to http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15951696


  1. Peter
    May 10th, 2010 at 15:15 | #1

    I remember one time when I was younger, the day started like any other summer day. I was playing outside enjoying the warm sun when, seemingly out of nowhere, the sky turned black. I remember walking into the house and watching my dad look out the window as the biggest hailstorm I ever saw (to this day) pass through. It took about 30 minutes for it to come and go, but it destroyed the majority of our crop for the year. We had some land south of town with crop, but we spent the rest of the fall custom combining for other farmers.

    I’ve said it before but I don’t know how anyone can farm without some sort of faith in something outside themselves. You can make all the right decisions and your success/failure still lies primarily in things outside of your control. This is true of all areas in our lives, I think that farming brings it more to life for myself.

  2. Peter
    May 10th, 2010 at 16:26 | #2

    added links for article

  3. simplefarmgirl
    May 14th, 2010 at 04:20 | #3

    Actually, our machine shed burned down just the night before last. With both our tractors, a new one and a 1954 farmall super H, our lawn mower, planter, etc in it. Pretty much nothing is salvageable except maybe the farmall (with a lot of work), since it held up better than the new one. Since it was new it was financed & therefore had insurance. Not sure how much that’ll cover but I’m really grateful for it. We’re in the process of wading through all the insurance mess on the shed. Things happen and there’s not much you can do about it, except being prepared & carefully managing everything.
    P.S. American Agri-Women has a 30 min TV show on risk management. It’s Tuesday nights at 6 on In Country (ICTV) which is like one channel away from RFDTV.

  1. May 10th, 2010 at 15:02 | #1