Reflections on Wildfires and Agriculture

I’ll begin this entry with the earnest hope that all who read this are healthy and in a safe situation and that any of your friends or loved ones affected by the wildfires have been able to reach safety. Additionally, I hope that you’ve found the recent rain to be as refreshing and relieving as we have on the farm.

Before I get into the heart of what I’ve been thinking about regarding the wildfires, I’ll give you an account of what was happening on the farm at the height of the smokiness. When we stepped outside that Tuesday morning a few weeks back, rather than being greeted with the typical blanket of fog and light blue sky we were choked up by smoke and an eerie yellow-orange atmosphere. At our usual morning meeting we acknowledged the strange nature of the scenario and discussed our altered plan for the day. The smoke posed obvious challenges to the work day in terms of the health of our lungs, but perhaps the more urgent problem was that the power was out at the farm, the negative implication of that being that no power meant no water. Therefore, Bill wouldn’t be able to irrigate the fields and we wouldn’t be able to wash anything we harvested, not to mention that the lack of power also meant our walk in cooler was temporarily out of commission. Obviously we had to adapt in order to have a productive day, and that adaptation came in the form of harvesting onions. Our task board had one message written on it: “HARVEST ALL OF THE ONIONS.” So that’s what we did all morning. We didn’t quite harvest all of the onions and shallots, but we nearly filled an entire greenhouse in just a few hours.

Still without power on Wednesday we were relegated to more onion harvesting. However, the morning began with a team effort to haul buckets of water out to the salad greens field where Debra was using a backpack sprayer to manually give those greens the water they were desperate for. Luckily, the power came back on Thursday morning so Bill was able to relieve the rest of the parched crops. All of the markets in Eugene had been cancelled so our only priority on Thursday was getting CSA boxes packed for all of you lovely members. And unsurprisingly, the week ended with another short work day filled only with harvesting and preparing wholesale orders. To say that it was a strange week would be an understatement.

These fires and their resulting smoke have had great implications for the farm as a business. I was harvesting with Debra on Thursday morning of that first smoky week and she mentioned that this is the largest financial loss the farm has experienced in its nearly thirty year history (she gave me permission to share that tidbit with you). Putting it in perspective for me, she said that there have been plenty of times when events taking place on the same day as Saturday markets have reduced their sales…but a market has never been entirely cancelled. And yet five consecutive markets were cancelled, and during peak season no less. That’s a huge loss in sales. I’m confident that farms like Horton Road Organics will be fine, with their strong customer base and solid footing in the community. But what about the young farm businesses? Margins tend to be slim already, so how on earth are small scale farmers supposed to account for the losses resulting from wildfires or a pandemic? Even worse, what about the farms that laid in the path of the blaze? How do they recover? The importance of regenerative agriculture is becoming more apparent as farming conditions become tougher and more unpredictable.

I would say that these wildfires are just another abnormality in the anomaly that is 2020, but if I really think about it, this situation shouldn’t really leave us feeling surprised. Perhaps we could be surprised that the Earth is capable of looking more like Mars for a day or two, but we shouldn’t be surprised at the scale of these wildfires. After all, fire season has been getting worse year after year, to the point that saying “This has been the worst fire season on record” doesn’t sound like breaking news anymore. Climate scientists are probably least surprised of all. They predicted this. All of the evidence suggests that human activity is causing and accelerating climate change, one effect of which is the increased frequency of weather-related disasters like wildfires. And our human fingerprints lie on this problem in more than one way. Yes, we have accelerated rising global temperatures via burning fossil fuels and their resulting greenhouse gas emissions, but we have also mismanaged our forests. Fire has always been a crucial part of the forest cycle. Forests burn periodically, clearing the way for new growth, and reducing the amount of highly flammable underbrush and old wood. Historically, societies have used “prescribed burns” to promote this life cycle and prevent wildfires from having enough fuel to reach disastrous magnitude. However, modern North American forest management has systematically suppressed cyclical fires in order to protect profitable trees that were headed for sawmills, and out of fear that small fires could spread to inhabited areas. Without regular natural burns, forests are chock full of fuel. That fact combined with increasingly hotter, drier weather means that a small spark could lead to a wildfire of epic proportion. And the final bit of bad news is that wildfires play a part in some of the positive feedback loops that climate scientists fear. Wildfires release an enormous amount of carbon into the atmosphere as a result of the burning trees and vegetation. This additional carbon further raises global temps, thus leading to long dry periods without rain, which results in more fires, which leads to more carbon release, then even higher temps, and so on and so forth.

I’ve been thinking more about what this means for the future of agriculture. In January I read ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ by David Wallace-Wells, which I would highly recommend. Wallace-Wells spends an entire chapter going into detail about how rising temperatures and violent weather patterns will make growing food more difficult. Within this problem lies the intersection of three facts. 1) Rising temperatures are making it more difficult to grow crops in the regions where they’ve been grown since the advent of agriculture. This is particularly problematic in the case of grain. Globally, grain comprises 40% of the human diet. That figure escalates to 67% if you include corn and soybeans. But as the earth warms, grain won’t grow successfully where it does now. The world’s “wheat belt” is moving poleward 160 miles each decade. And you may wonder “Well why don’t we just grow wheat and grains in those new latitudes?”, but we can’t just begin to grow grain further north because much of that land is already in use and because the soil in places like Canada and Russia, for example, aren’t fertile enough to grow the amount of food we’d require. 2) Land mismanagement, particularly in the United States, has led to a loss of nutrients and fertility in the soil as well as increased rates of erosion. We are depleting the soil faster than it is regenerating, mostly through intensive chemical-dependent farming practices, among other causes. In the U.S. the rate of erosion is 10x higher than the natural replenishment rate. In China and India it is 30-40x higher. Some experts hypothesize that the world’s topsoil could be completely diminished in just sixty years if current rates of degradation continue. And 3) The global population is expected to swell to approximately 10 billion by 2050. With those three factors in mind, that means we’re looking at a future where there’ll be less arable land, poorer soil on that land, and yet substantially more mouths to feed (not to mention that approximately 815 million people globally are already suffering from chronic undernourishment, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). As an aspiring young farmer, it’s difficult to confront this future without losing sleep at night.

The wildfires and smoke have brought back into the frame something which we’ve known for some time. We know that we, as individuals, hold a piece of the blame for these disasters. Climate writer Naomi Klein, author of ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate’ and ‘On Fire’, put it best when she posed the rhetorical question “Aren’t we all guilty, in one way or another, of sleepwalking toward apocalypse?” And that isn’t to say that I blame the individual person for this crisis, because without question, governments, corporations, and specific individuals with immense power are more responsible for this crisis than the average person. But it’s possible to recognize that fact and still feel that one could have done more to reduce their personal negative impact on the planet.

Thinking too much about the global scale can be daunting and exhausting, so I’ll bring it back to our farm to round out this post. Amidst the chaos of those two weeks of smoke, we can at least take solace in having harvested all of the onions. That is worthy of recognition. I’ve been anticipating the onion harvest for months now, partly because I love onions, but also because one of my favorite poems is about onions, as odd as that might seem. It’s titled ‘The Traveling Onion’ by Naomi Shihab Nye:

When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block, a history revealed.
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,

My favorite part of that poem has always been “And I would never scold the onion for causing tears. It is right that tears fall for something small and forgotten.” And interestingly, that has new meaning to me in this present moment. At one point on that first smoky day I was looking out at my surroundings and I thought about how the smoke could serve as a sort of metaphor for our blindness to the consequences of our actions. And then I thought back to that line from the poem. It seems fitting then that the smoke might disturb our eyes and cause us to cry. Again, “It is right that tears fall for something small and forgotten,” but this time what we forgot isn’t the onion–we forgot to take care of the earth that is responsible for things as beautiful as the onion. We forgot to take care of that which takes care of us. So if Mother Nature can’t stir us by appealing to our emotions or reason, it seems she may have resorted to smoke as a means to cause tears. And we should be crying, shouldn’t we? Crying for all of those who lost family or homes or livelihoods to the fires. Crying for all of the plant and animal life that laid in the path of the blaze, and all of the life that is still in jeopardy as the fire is still incompletely contained. But most of all, we should cry for what this means for the future of the planet and all that inhabit it. And then once those tears dry, we ought to get to work trying to fix this problem we’ve created.

My intention for this reflection was not to be fatalistic, but it appears that I wound up there anyhow. The future may look bleak, but there are a lot of passionate, dedicated people working to preserve and defend the planet. Those people know that the earth is worth fighting for. There are certainly small things that we can do as individuals, one of which you already do by supporting a local farm. In closing though, I’ll just ask that you do one of the things that we as individuals can do most right now. VOTE.

Take Care Friends,
Randy, Farm Apprentice

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