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Timothy R. Allan: Wait for saving rain has farmers digging in

High summer – the cicada screams its love song from its abdominal tymbals. Its sound churns up from a low hum to a high whine before quavering off.

And still the farmers wait for the saving rain – and wait. Months of waiting. Rainfall is down 6 to 8 inches, they say. Ponds and wells shrivel. Crops – especially the miracle crop, corn – gasp, stunted in the baking sun. Grass is dry and brittle.

At least the armyworms haven’t come this year – not yet. When last they visited they came like a cancer, metastasizing into squirming billions. They greased the roads as they moved from one field to another, devouring everything we need to live.

To be sure, the growers and dairy farmers have been cruelly teased by rare fleeting showers. But their wells are going dry. A near snowless winter hurt badly. And not yet has the “million dollar” rain that will save them come.

The constant blue of the sky has become a reproach. Some farmers are already surrendering. The price of almost everything they use is ramping up – and will go far higher next year while the price they get for their milk has collapsed by half.

Farmers are admirable people. They can be a bit touchy about some things at times like this. But they’re strong and tough and always generous. They talk but don’t whine. They talk less these days. And that’s ominous.

They’re digging in now. Thinking about how to save this year’s production, how to buy water in tank-truck loads, how to gather feed to keep their herds alive through the winter and how to save themselves. It’s scary, especially for dairy farmers who raise the crops that feed their milking herds.

In farming, the constants are these: soil, weather and work. These are its fundamental and unavoidable elements. Risk is in the very nature, in the genetic code, of farming. Luck has a lot to do with success – even if success means merely surviving.

Farms live or die on the realities of nature, the whims of bankers and the interests of children. If a generation of children, two at the most, is drawn or driven away from the farm to, say, computer science, urban blandishments or dentistry – that family’s farm dies. It dies as surely as if the barn burned and killed the livestock, bankrupting the farmer. Or drought sucked the life out of the soybeans, corn or wheat. Or credit fizzled and prices fell, taking with them into the vapor the farmer’s hopes and dreams.

When those things overwhelm the farmer, the farm’s remains might be sold at auction, where the bones of its tractors and plows and cows are picked clean by the highest bidder (whose bid is never very high, of course, when weighed against the blood and sweat that went into that herd of Holsteins).

At the end, the last sad cow is pulled and kicked into a trailer and the last John Deere is hauled away. It’s worse than a funeral. Even the bidders avert their faces. They get no joy from another’s pain. They could be next – and they know it.

Knowing what farmers face, who would go into that business? The brutal fact is this: They control none of the key elements upon which their lives and livelihood depend. They produce the milk, but don’t set the price they get for it. They need fertilizer, fuel and expensive equipment, but don’t set those prices either. Bankers are an always-hovering menace. Weather tells farmers what to do and when to do it. It curses or blesses them, and wipes them out. They are beset by everything, and so, have learned virtue the hard way. Their strength is in their patience. It is their last and greatest resource. And now they wait, as the Good Book says, for the grace of the “late rain.”

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