This is the third post in a three-part series on the impact of this year’s drought on the farm. The first post was about the impact on our crop production, and the second about the impact on our beef production.
A System in Recovery
As we transition to organic agriculture and to more sustainable food production, we are trying to restore the health of this land.
Decades of chemical-intensive production and lack of crop diversity and crop rotation have depleted the resource that is at the base of agriculture – soil.
I think of the soil as the “immune system” of our farm; if you have healthy, vibrant soil, then you have a healthy agricultural system that can withstand illness and disease and recover more quickly from shocks to the system.
Soil health is complex and depends upon a wide range of nutrients, micronutrients, organic matter, moisture…. Just like human health depends on many factors, so does soil health.
The transition to organic agriculture requires restoring soil health through practices like crop rotation and the use of cover crops.
Like with human health, one of the most important ingredients in recovery is time. While it varies greatly by farm, region, and former land use, it is not uncommon for it to take about ten years before an organic system finds its stride.
I started the transition to organic just under two years ago, and we are still at the beginning of the recovery process. The remnants of the previous chemical-based system are still winding down and the benefits of practices like crop rotation and cover cropping are not yet apparent.
And so the impact of this year’s drought really feels like a strong hit to a system in the early phases of recovery – not unlike a patient who is recovering from a long-term illness and catches a cold. The cold is harder to take care of and impacts the patient more than it would a healthy human because the immune system is weak.
The drought has come at a time when the agricultural system is still weak. The raw feeling in the past several months as the days go by without rain has been that the system just cannot handle the hit – and so we have had crop failure, crops unplanted, low yields.
It’s as if the land were saying, “I simply cannot produce under these conditions.”
Impossible to Ignore the Elephant in the Room
As climate change takes hold, the forecast for this part of Italy is increased frequency of drought and desertification.
It is impossible to feel like drought is just a one-off and happens infrequently enough to just chalk it up to a bad year.
Don’t get me wrong – in six months, I may be writing up epic rainfall.
It’s not that I expect drought every year from now on. But the predictions are that this area will be frequently hit by drought.
What This Means For the Future
There is an immediate situation to deal with – the equivalent of making sure the sick patient recovers from the immediate cold while still working on the underlying illness.
Certain crops failed, and certain crops struggled but produced nonetheless. As I put together the crop plan for the fall, winter, and next spring, I am heavily favoring the crops that managed better through the drought. There is at least one crop that has performed poorly in the past and that completely failed this year that I will simply not plant again.
As I prepare for the fall planting season, I am thinking – weather permitting – of planting earlier than I might otherwise. That increases the chance that the crops planted will get some rain.
But the challenges are really in the mid-to-long term. How do you restore the health of the land? What does a healthy landscape look like in this area and with climate change? How do I prepare a system for more regular drought?
Apart from the immediate economic challenges, these are the questions that are the most pressing.
They are also the hardest to answer. Should I plan for growing different crops? How does livestock play into the system? Are spring-planted crops essentially out of the question? What are effective techniques for growing rice with less water?
The answers are hard because they take several years to figure out, they take time to implement, and they usually require financial investment in an uncertain future.
Last week I put together and submitted my drought assistance application. I am eligible because I am able to show a profit loss of more than 30 percent on our agricultural production due to drought.
The pay out, if my application gets approved, is estimated at about 5 percent of the loss. It is not much, but every bit helps.
The economic impact of this period – low yields, crops not harvested, calves sold early – will play out over the next couple of years as we try to make back the loss.
The Silver Lining
If there has been one silver lining on the cloud of this year’s drought, it has been the knowledge gained of how the system reacts under such stress. Early on in my tenure here, I’ve had a really bad year. That experience over time will influence how I manage this land and will help me plan more effectively for bad years.
The drought has certainly served as a wake-up call on climate change. I had already been taking steps to adapt to a more uncertain climate, but this has put the issue front-and-center. Climate change – even if it rains a lot over the next couple of years – no longer feels like something in the future. It is right here, today.
— Ariane Lotti