Water, Heat & Smoke: On the front lines of climate change

This is a letter from one farmer to all the eaters out there. This is a small look into how the extreme weather changes from climate change is affecting your farmer neighbors. I hope this will help folks understand what we’re up against, what to expect from your hard-working farmers, farm-workers & ranchers and what you can do to help.

Water

This morning my neighbor and mentor Sandy called with news that set my day in motion and made my heart sink. “We’re out of water. We’re trying to figure something out, but I had nightmares about it all night. This is bad.”

Sandy and her husband Dick are used to their water sources–a ditch and a spring–running dry for a few weeks at the end of August. This year it happened July 18th. And they are not the only ones. I had already planned to go borrow some 50 gallon barrels from some friends this morning to help another neighbor, Jorge, who’s out of water. He bought his place a year ago along with five steers–it was a dream he worked toward for the last 25 years. He relied on the ditch to water them and now he is in trouble. Yesterday we made due hauling 5 gallon buckets from our place to his, but today we needed a better solution.

Sandy had already been preparing for lower flows for several weeks. She put shade cloth on four of her greenhouses to reduce heat and conserve water. She was trying to get more of her mature native plants out the door and decrease her inventory. My other mentors, Andrea & Tony, had seen the drought coming and started decreasing their herd in April to prepare. I followed their lead and didn’t buy cattle this year because I was worried about having enough pasture. We all did the best we could to prepare. Year by year we are trying to build resilience into our soil and systems, but at some point, it is out of our hands. Sandy didn’t know when the water would dry up. Andrea didn’t know her pump switch would fail in the middle of this drought and she’d have to scramble to get animals watered and the pump fixed.

As each of these issues arose for us, we leaned on each other and on other neighbors for help. One loaned us an additional shade cloth. One brought over huge tanks to store water. I searched for 50 gallon barrels to haul water. My dad offered up his 500 gallon water tank. Some friends from town dropped everything to come help harvest a bed of beets that we couldn’t water and pull the shade cloth over the greenhouse. We are working together because we have developed a functional community that acts for mutual aid. What we don’t have is climate policy that will keep this situation from repeating and worsening.

Shade cloth goes over the chiles, eggplants & basil. We are nearly out of water so this is an extra measure to conserve.

HEAT

The old joke is “if you have to buy zucchinis, you don’t have any friends.” This year I planted zucchinis three times by seed and finally transplanted them into the ground from seed pots. First they were killed off by very low temperatures. Then they wouldn’t germinate because of the very early high temperatures. Now, after weeks over 100 degrees followed by weeks over 90 degrees, they are slowly coming along. I’m a professional–I should be able to grow a zucchini! Bu, the climate change-driven temperatures are out of my hands and the multiple zucchini failures are outside my experience.

One thing many folks might not understand is that each species of plant has ideal heat and soil temperature ranges. Spinach is a spring crop because it hates hot temperatures. Mature plants bolt (go to flower) after a few days of hot temperatures, and the seeds won’t even germinate if the soil is over 85 degrees.

Similarly, while tomatoes love heat, but their blossoms are particular. If the nights get below 55F or stay above 75F, the flowers will drop, which means less fruit. Daytime temperatures above 90F can also cause blossom drop. Prolonged high day and night temperatures are the worst, which is what we’ve had. When I look out at my tomato plants that should be heavy with big green fruit, I see that the excessive heat has left me with only a smattering of fruit and a handful of blossoms.

Perhaps the biggest source of stress for me during the heat is concern for my co-workers and livestock. We have started working earlier and quitting earlier in order to stay safe. Even at 90, much less 100 or 110, folks start to wilt. A farm worker in the Willamette Valley died working during the heat wave in late June. I take this concern seriously because usually by the time folks know they are in trouble it is very serious.

We do the best we can for livestock making sure they have plenty of shade and cold water. My daughter’s bunny even got to live in the luxury of the mudroom for a few weeks during the heat wave.

We just have to make adjustments and adaptations as the temperatures spike but is this a permanent trend? Climate projections says yes. I keep asking myself, how do I keep my co-workers safe out in the field? How do I keep farming when nothing wants to germinate in this heat? I have to be able to plant continuously through the season to feed the people in my community. If I can’t direct seed my crops, I will need more space, more water and more labor to transplant more crops. How can I afford this or ramp up in time?

SMOKE

Smokey sunrise over Twin Butts on Mt Fanny.

Just like heat, smoke makes me worry about my co-workers. I watch the air quality index, require masks, reduce hours, take more breaks, find things to do inside–but it is hard to know what the best course of action is. I still need to farm when it is smokey. My co-workers still need a paycheck and cutting hours hurts them and productivity on the farm. As I write this the bindweed is taking over and beds go unplanted as we try to avoid working outside in the smoke. We will see the consequences of these decisions in a few short weeks when I don’t have enough lettuce to fill orders or miss my window for the final crop of carrots.

One thing folks don’t realize is that unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke also slows down the ripening of produce. Tomatoes can’t ripen without enough sunlight. Even wheat maturity slows when there is too much smoke in the air. Farmers all have a lot of tricks, but no one can make crops ripen when the sun is blocked out.

WHAT EATERS CAN DO

  1. Be patient with us

We growers are up against a lot right now–water, heat, smoke, and the regular stuff too. Your tomatoes may be late this year. You may not be able to get lettuce in the heat of August. Please understand we’re doing our best to plan and adapt, but we’re seeing problems we haven’t encountered before.

2. Heed the “Bat Call”

When I have an emergency, I send out a “Bat Call” (a text message rather than a spotlight in the sky.) I ask for folks to come help me. Tell your farmer and rancher friends to put you on their “Bat Call” list. Today when I sent out the Bat Call around our water emergency, I had friends and a husband show up and we got done in two hours what it would have taken me all day to do.

3. Push for climate change legislation NOW

Call your members of Congress and tell them to support climate change legislation in the current infrastructure bill (aka “Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework as of July 2021.) This life-changing, world-changing, critical legislation may be compromised out of the bill. Tell your members of Congress you want clean energy production, a Green New Deal, and effective climate change mitigation NOW.

(P.S. Calling is more effective than emailing your reps. It just takes a few minutes! Once is not enough. Do it as daily as possible!)

Find phone numbers for your members of Congress here: https://www.congress.gov/members/find-your-member

Thank you for reading and for acting.

Your farmer,

Nella Mae

We lost one of my favorite white pines to drought this year. Even closely watched and watered.