Timing is everything — especially in farming

Storm rolling in a sunset over a soybean field

Dear September,

You sure weren’t yourself this year. The warm, sunny, dry, harvest days you usually provide happened ever so briefly the first week you were here. Then the rains, which we had longed for all spring and summer, came pouring down, bringing a sudden halt to harvest for the remainder of the month. What was up with that?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we didn’t appreciate you bringing some much-needed moisture to our drought-stricken area of Manitoba. But you really threw us a curve-ball. Over 3 times the amount of rain we had all growing season – in your brief 30 days here — was, well…badly timed.

If only you could have relinquished, at least a portion of, those excessive rains to May, June and July. You must know those are the ever-important formative months of growth for plants.

Didn’t you see us watching the skies in dire hopelessness, praying for moisture, as our crops and hay-lands struggled to grow and thrive? It was heartbreaking to see them dry up from excessive heat and lack of moisture, creeks run dry and river levels at record lows. Not sure if you caught the news, but twelve municipalities across Manitoba declared an agriculture state of emergency as drought and grasshoppers hindered crops.

So September, you can understand our disappointment and frustration, when you come along and completely shut down what little harvest we had with your heavy rains, hail, and in some parts of the prairies — snow.

It’s not that we’re ungrateful to you for restoring soil moisture and bringing pastures back to life for livestock in drought-stricken areas, but you got a little carried away with the “2nd wettest September in 150 years”. And snow? That was just mean.

You’re right, you’re right. Not all farmers are in the same boat. Some of us did manage to get all, or most of, our wheat and canola in the bins. Yes, others, in parts of the prairies where rains were more timely during the growing season, had healthier crops and better yields. But do you have any idea how difficult it is to sit and watch a bountiful crop deteriorate in quality and value from too much rain and snow? Or be totally decimated in a hail storm?

It might be hard for you to understand, but our income is totally dependent on the weather. Every. Single. Year. The timing of weather events is crucial for our crops to thrive and be harvested. When one or several months don’t deliver what is required, the toll it takes on farmers, and their families, is financially, emotionally and even physically exhausting. And I’m sorry to say, September, but you added even more stress and anxiety, which we really didn’t expect. After all, you are normally the driest month.

To date, October is following your lead with cloudy, dreary days, albeit with a little less rain. And now snow? For potentially the next 5 days? But we still need at least a few weeks of warm, sunny, dry weather.

Just take a look around. Potato and vegetable growers are struggling in the mud trying to salvage their crop before frost hits and destroys them as happened last year. There’s a hay shortage. It’s critical for livestock producers to get their silage made, and secure any other available feed and straw to ensure they can care for their animals over the winter months. And surely you see the all the wheat, canola, soybeans, sunflowers, corn and many other crops still out there — wet conditions and muddy fields making it a challenge to get to them.

So much food, feed and even next year’s seed is waiting to be harvested across the prairies. Some of it deteriorating beyond the point of being salvaged. So many resources have gone into growing it all. You might not be able to see the stress and turmoil the caretakers of those crops are going through, but with each passing day, it grows.

I know. What’s done is done. You’re sorry you were off your usual harvest-weather game this year. So what do I want you do about it now?

Well, could you please pass on a message to October? Enough is enough. Stop with the rain and snow. Please send a long stretch of decent harvest weather. The farmers of western Canada could really use a break.


If you or someone you know is struggling with this challenging year, please reach out for help. 

Do More Ag – Resources:   www.domore.ag/resources/

Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services:    www.supportline.ca

Calm in the Storm:    www.calminthestormapp.com

 

Waiting on the weather…

An early evening storm rolled along Highway 16. The heat of the +33 Celcius day dissipated as a much-needed rain began to fall. A rainbow arched across the sky ahead of me, beckoning me home from my road trip to a nearby town.

As I turned on the windshield wipers, I let hope slip in for the ride. Maybe, just maybe, the storm would reach our farm. But the closer I got to home, the lighter the rain became. The showy rainbow held out, but only a mere 3 millimeters* of precipitation fell. We needed 10–15 times that much. Crops suffering from lack of moisture, dry pastures and haylands in our area, would get no relief that night.

And unfortunately, not much in the weeks since. The heat is intense, temperatures about 10 degrees above normal. It feels like August, yet it is only the end of June.

We are still waiting on the weather, longing and hoping for a significant rainfall. We’re not saying the ‘D’ word (drought) out loud yet, but it’s in the back of our minds.

Last year was tough. Rains were spotty and more often than not, they missed our farm. It was a long, hot, dry, dusty summer. Harvest was discouraging with below-average yields. There were no celebratory moments. It was a year of trudging through, filled with worry, concern and disappointment. When the rains finally came in the midst of harvest, there was a bit of relief — at least soil moisture was building for next year.

Now here we are, looking at a seemingly carbon-copy of last year — possibly worse. It’s difficult to remain positive and hopeful for the growing season ahead.

As a result, I find myself reluctant to share our farming story. Even writing, which usually flows easily for me, has become a challenge. I want to be open and transparent, to convey an understanding of what we do and the crops we grow. But right now, concern outweighs good news. There is no joy in photographing crops that aren’t lush and healthy. And how do you talk about tough times without sounding like you’re complaining? After all, this is our chosen field of work.

A friend gently reminded me, as I was deflecting worry and not doing a good job at trying to be upbeat, it is perfectly normal to be concerned about your livelihood. Farming isn’t easy. Being authentic means being honest about tough times as well. Even if it makes us feel vulnerable.

So truth be told, the worry and weight of farming last year, and again now, is a tough slog. Watching the sky, chasing rainbows and counting raindrops takes an emotional toll. For me, gratitude is a daily practice. I strive to find the beauty in every day and share optomistic, encouraging moments. But even the most positive attitude can’t shift the weather. And as much as I try to push worry away, it still sits on my shoulders, jostling for position with hope.

The weather always determines the outcome, and our income. Every. Single. Year. You would think, after 30 years of farmlife, I’d be used to it. But that 100% reliance on Mother Nature is the most difficult reality of farming.

I’m not sharing this for sympathy, but rather empathy and understanding — for farmers everywhere. Imagine if the weather determined your paycheck. You work the equal amount of time every year, your living costs remain the same, or may even go up, but if it rains too much or too little, your take-home pay is cut — perhaps by 25% – 50%, or possibly more.

So if farmers appear to be obsessing or complaining about the weather, it’s because that connection ultimately decides the results of their labours — even when they’ve done everything within their control, to the best of their ability.

Lack of rain is causing stress and anxiety in our area of the prairies. Eastern Canada has struggled with excessive rains and flooding, wreaking havoc with planting. Cutting hay for livestock feed has been extremely challenging. The excitement and optimism a new growing season generally brings has been dashed for many.

So if you know a farmer, reach out – ask how they are really doing. Listen to concerns. Get together for a coffee, a meal, a movie. It won’t change the reality of too little or too much rain, but it always makes a difference knowing someone else cares. Often simply sharing our worries out loud, lightens the emotional load.

As for me, you’ll still see those positive posts and gorgeous prairie sunsets, but I’ll strive to be more open about the difficulties and disappointments as well. For now, it’s still eyes to the sky, waiting on the weather and a desperately-needed rain.

 

 


*Millimeter to inch conversion:    25 mm = 1 inch

Not as strong as I think I am

Originally published in the Manitoba Co-operator August 2, 2018


I thought I was doing fine. Not too worried or concerned. I kept telling myself, it would all work out, and if it didn’t we’d be okay.

We’ve always had a crop. We would this year too. It wouldn’t be a bumper crop. Not even an average one, but after being married to a farmer for 29 years, I knew the risks. Only two years ago, we’d struggled with the reverse — three months of excessive rain. Weather challenges are not a shock nor surprise. Disappointing, yes, but I know worrying doesn’t change it, or help me in any way.

So I tucked my worries away, concerned for the pressure my farmer was feeling, but confident I was dealing well with the lack of rain. I kept busy, focused on other things, took advantages of get-togethers with friends and carried on.

Then on June 29th it rained! Such relief! We woke to 13.4 mm in the rain gauge! The most substantial rainfall we’d had all spring. The crops looked so much better that day.

But I noticed something else. I felt happier, lighter. There was a spring in my step I hadn’t had for a while. I was smiling more. Despite believing I was dealing well with the drought-like conditions, it was still a weight I carried on my shoulders. I wasn’t immune to worry. Damn. Not as strong as I think I am.

I talked to a couple of other farming friends who could relate. It was a reminder to be aware, to look out not only for our farming partners in times of stress, but also to look after ourselves. To talk about what’s going on if we need to, even if we don’t want to be seen as that person complaining about the weather — again, despite those concerns being valid.

The business of producing food has many rewards, but it isn’t easy dealing with the weather-dependent aspect of farming. We can do absolutely everything to the best of our ability but ultimately Mother Nature holds the cards, determines the outcome — and our income. Every. Single. Year. I’m not sure it’s a risk you ever get used to, so finding ways to cope is important.

Building a support system helps. Personally I have friends — farming and non-farming — who truly understand and are always there for me. I met with a counselor last winter whose door is always open any time I need to talk. As well, there are many resources available at Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services.

More recently, the Do More Ag Foundation was founded by a group of people passionate about mental health in agriculture. They are not only creating awareness, educating and breaking the stigma, but are also creating a community for people to connect and find the resources they need — national, provincial and territorial — in times of stress and anxiety.

Through their website I discovered there’s even an app for that. Calm in the Storm is a free app, created by mental health professionals in Manitoba, launched in December 2014. The easy to use app and website are designed to reduce, manage, and learn about stress in your life using clinically proven information and strategies. Features include guided audio meditations, tools for assessing your stress with ways to customize and track your experience and even create a personalized safety plan.

A helpful tool for anyone and one I will be exploring as our crops continue to struggle with lack of rain. The recent heat wave has taken its toll on our farm and those around us. Other areas have been hit hard with storms and hail. With farming we rarely get the perfect year, but the extremes are especially challenging. The hold the weather has on our lives and livelihoods can, at times, be tiring.

A friend recently posted a picture of a canola field damaged by hail, stating, “Farmers are proud to share the good stories but suffer silently with the bad ones.” So true. It is much easier to share our successes than our hardships. But the culture is slowly shifting, for the better. There is more openness, increased awareness and many resources available for our mental well-being. No need to suffer silently in times of stress. Strength is being redefined. It no longer means carrying the load on your own.


Links:

Do More Ag – Resources:   www.domore.ag/resources/

Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services:    www.supportline.ca

Calm in the Storm:    www.calminthestormapp.com

 

 

Weathering the Rain

Originally published in the Manitoba Cooperator October 6, 2016 

Reflections on the seemingly endless rains this past growing season. For many across western Canada, snow was added to the mix in early October and harvest continues to be an ongoing challenge for far too farmers.  Thinking of those who are struggling to get their crops from the field to bin and hoping everyone will soon be done with #Harvest16.  


facebook_1474855006708I used to be that girl, the one who would joyfully head outside when it rained. I loved everything about it. The rhythmic sound on rooftops. The patterns it made as it rolled down windows. The feel of rain on my cheeks. The way it would it soak through and soften my wild, curly hair. If the rain was coming down fast and furious, I was content to sit under the cover of the front porch and watch. But the best rains were gentle, light, perfect for walking. The air so fresh, the streets quiet and still. Those rains offered a refuge from troubles and worries. I can still see my younger self soaking in the peace and serenity of those walks.

Yet there I sat, staring at the computer screen, tears instead of raindrops, slowly rolling down my cheeks. A friend was embracing and enjoying that night’s rain. Her post on social media read, “Jammies, slippers, hoodie, book, veranda, rain! Wonderful combination. .oh yes..glass of wine.”  She was doing exactly what I believe in and strive for — embracing the moment. But instead of being happy for her, I was jealous. Not of what she had, or what she was doing, but of that feeling, that freedom, that joyful connection to the rain.

I had the comfy clothes, books and wine, maybe not the veranda to relax in; that wasn’t the issue. What really got to me was the fact that she was enjoying the rain — and I wasn’t. In fact, after almost 3 months of excessive rains, I was cursing yet another downpour that was downgrading our wheat and delaying the start of harvest.

You would think after 27 years of farming, I would be used to it, but that night the dismal weather really weighed me down. I missed being that girl and my past laissez-faire relationship with the weather.

When your income is dependent on Mother Nature, your relationship with the sun and rain becomes fickle.  Excess amounts of either, especially at critical times during the growing season, can cause anything but joy and relaxation. The hold the weather has on our lives, can at times, be tiring.

I’m rather embarrassed by my feelings that night; jealousy is not an admirable trait. And being jealous of a feeling — well, that borders on absurd. I confessed to my friend. She totally understood, but we agreed the next time that happens, I am to join her.

rainbowI spoke to another woman, who has long since retired from farming and asked her if concern for the weather ever goes away. She laughed, “No.” So I guess I’ll have to be content with my memories of that girl. Look back on her fondly and smile. Even when we no longer work the land, concern for farmers will always be there, and I will be that little old lady who politely asks, “So, was that a good rain?”

 


It helps to talk to someone who listens and understands. No matter the issue, you can contact the Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services. They offer free, confidential information and non-judgmental support, for anyone who lives on farm, rural or northern community. Call Toll-Free 1-866-367-3276 Monday – Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. After hours 1-888-322-3016

A list of nationwide resources in Canada can be found here