Two days after Christmas, my agronomist, Giovanni, stopped by the farm. Gruff and sun-worn from 30 years of helping farmers coax seeds into harvestable organic crops, Giovanni would make a terrible salesman. As my agronomist, he helps me put together a yearly crop plan, answers questions about seeding rates, and generally makes sure that our crops are growing as they should be.
I hadn’t seen Giovanni in well over a month because it had rained so much in November and December that any hope of doing the bulk of fall planting on time vanished by Christmas. The amount of rain that fell broke a record from 1955, and in the middle of November the whole area south of Grosseto flooded; our farm was fortunately protected by a levee, that held.
Giovanni was agitated. “When are you going to start planting?” he asked. “Are you ready to plant as soon as the fields dry out? There are no holidays, days-off, Saturdays, or Sundays once you can get into the fields and plant!”
It had stopped raining five days earlier and it would take at least another 7-10 days to dry out the fields with the sandier soils. It would take at least two weeks to dry out the majority of the heavier clay fields. There was nothing I could do to dry the fields out faster beyond all of the additional drainage we had put in. I could not stop any additional rain from falling. It was now just a question of waiting.
Giovanni and I hold too-high expectations of each other. I expect him to magically know how all of the crops will grow and develop throughout the season, and he expects me to operate in a parallel universe where the weather is always perfect. Our inability to meet these expectations often leads to heated conversations about when to plant, the field prep necessary, and the readiness of crops at harvest. We’ve slammed fists on tables, raised our voices, and gesticulated enough to make any Italian grandmother proud. Crop management is a dynamic sector.
In protest to his are-you-ready-to-plant attitude, I stayed, arms crossed, in my Fiat Panda 4×4 as he inspected the fields. I already knew what he would see: wet clay soils and full drainage ditches. I should open a pottery studio, I thought, as he felt the soil in his hands, kicked large clods, and tried to understand if there was any dry ground. “You know, Ariane,” Giovanni said, subdued by the reality of the fields, “if you can’t get the wheat in by mid-January you will have to decide whether to plant it anyway and risk far lower yields, or not plant at all and not have any wheat this year.”
Putting aside the fact that wheat was, after rice, my second most important crop and that I already had a production contract in place for the purchase of the wheat that I had not yet planted, I grew agitated. How was this supposed to work? How was I meant to produce, literally produce, a result when the external factors out of my control increasingly just weren’t cooperating? How was I supposed to execute my crop plan, and all of my plans, for that matter, when things just weren’t as they should be?
Sometimes I feel like we live in complex times. The weather is unpredictable and becomes more so as the years pass; the climate is changing dramatically. Economic systems and markets go up and down, and there are tenuous political situations throughout the globe. The tools I was taught in school to define goals and objectives and make a plan to achieve them appear to be insufficient for operating in the reality that surrounds us daily.
Other times I think that that feeling of complexity is the result of how we have distanced ourselves from nature, our environment, and our surroundings. Step-by-step processes to achieve goals are easier when imagined and carried out inside an office, at a computer, where the environment can be more controlled. A lot of scenarios look good on paper that when put to the operational test don’t work. And so why do we keep on thinking that things will work as they should, in a linear way? I’ve never seen nature work that way.
The longer I farm, the less I expect my step-by-step plans to come into being. Nothing ever does go as planned, so with time I try to learn how to adapt and be resilient and set different types of goals. I have become less focused on goals around yields and more focused on the ability to understand the soil, climate, and market conditions at each step of the way to then decide what makes sense.
When Giovanni and I finished our field tour, we talked about the alternatives to planting wheat and how to change the field prep for an eventual planting given the wetness of the soils. Not planting wheat would be a big economic hit, so the decision not to plant would come at the end of January, with current field conditions in hand. But the piece of information that I’ve tucked away in the back of my mind for now is that we’ve had two years of extremely rainy fall weather, and wheat may not be the right crop for us in the future.
As Giovanni was leaving, I gave him a belated Christmas gift. In thanking me, he apologized for being so anxious about planting and for making me anxious. He acknowledged that our crop plan was ambitious, and that we would have to take it one step at a time to make it through this fall – now winter – planting season.
And that’s how we’re going to approach 2020: with big, ambitious dreams but firmly grounded in our environment and on this land.