RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Climate Change Still in Early Innings

It’s another surprisingly beautiful day in the neighborhood … one of a string of them, going back a week or so. Climate change? Puh-LEEZ! If this is climate change, I’ll take another helping.

And, anyway, we’re not supposed to talk about it, here in Trumpland, it doesn’t exist. And if it does, that means opportunity, with a capital O. And that stands for Oil! As the ice caps recede, new deposits of fossil fuels are exposed and if we can get there before the Russians … or maybe WITH the Russians, we’ll have enough to drive our SUVs to the moon and back a zillion times.

But, back here on planet Earth, the phone rings and it’s my cousin in Florida. They haven’t had rain and a couple of weeks ago the damn woods were on fire. And, last night, again here on Earth, I had a conversation with a friend from south Missouri. An ecologist, he has been evaluating damage after the entire Ozark waterway system flooded. They’re calling it a “1,000-year” rainfall, meaning that this won’t surprise us again for 1,000 years: 4 inches in Springfield, 7 inches in Branson and more than 10 inches in Texas County.

I can’t really top these stories, so I just stay mum. Here in my neighborhood, the losses are much more subtle. The rains, for example, are much more severe and last much longer. So the creeks have been scrubbed down to a point where, if the kids want to go after polliwogs, it’s not just a simple wade. We have to rappel down the bank 10 or 12 feet to reach the water. The deeper creekbed means that tree roots are exposed, the trees fall in, the land erodes and, well, you get the picture. When the county has to put in new culverts under a road, the culverts used these days are twice as big as the culverts of 20 years ago, just to carry the excessive water.

I’m told that the extraordinary rains will last, and even get heavier, for as long as the air gets warmer and holds more moisture. Indeed, folks around here remark that we almost never have a cloudless day any more. Another surprise. And, for several years, the spring rains have lasted longer than usual, overlapping the blooming of most of the fruit trees. When it rains, sensible bugs stay inside, so that means that pollinators aren’t flying in the blossoms when they should. That means for us humans, the trees don’t bear as much fruit as they did.

Because fruit is always available in the store, people don’t notice so much, but decreased income for fruit farmers is just one of the economic problems that comes with the excessive rain. In 2015, the rainfall continued through June, when the wheat crop blooms. That bloom isn’t very showy—just a head of wheat emerging from its casing, shedding pollen onto the grains. It only take a few minutes for each head of wheat to be fertilized, but if there is rainfall during those few moments, a terrible blight called fusarium finds the conditions perfect, creating a toxin — vomitoxin — that is named for its ability to make animals and humans, you know, vomit.

So, if the toxin is discovered, that wheat becomes unusable. If it’s not tested for, it’s not discovered, and that is occasionally the case. But, once it is discovered, rather than take it to market, the farmers are composting it or simply letting it rot in the field. In 2015, the blight extended over much of the Midwest, rendering our wheat unusable. Sadly, vomitoxin has also been discovered in corn harvested in 2016. Note that this blight doesn’t need much rain to get going—it’s about the timing rather than the quantity. Surprise!

And, speaking of timing, this year we’ve been out-of-sync with the monarch butterflies. They’ve been coming through this spring, when we don’t have any milkweed for them to eat. We are more accustomed to seeing them in the fall when the milkweed is plentiful. My monarch-feeding friends are just frantic over the worry that the poor caterpillars are out there, creeping through the garden from plant to plant, looking for milkweed when it’s not ready yet.

Back when USDA was tracking such things, they published booklets about the expected stress on crops and livestock that came with a changing climate. New livestock diseases were predicted, excessive weed growth, bugs that overwintered and thrived in warmer climates. Being an optimistic agency, they also predicted that agriculture would overcome those things with innovation and — surprise! — new technology and chemical fixes. Science would find new ways to engineer the Big Two — corn and soybeans — so that the combines could keep chugging along.

But Nature Bats Last, as the old bumper sticker used to say. And that means we can’t even begin to predict the changes that the planet has in store. With Braggadocio in charge, it will all be a big surprise.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2017

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