Sunday, 2 March 2014

Weather Extremes

Forget whether you believe the world is warming, and if you do, what is causing it. Think instead about what you have seen and read about in the last three months. I have been confined indoors for a lot of that time due to continuing wet and windy weather. My winter outside work schedule has not been met, but being restricted has let me see what is happening to others less fortunate than me – when I have an Internet signal.
The usual Australian heat and bushfires have been reported as well as blizzards in America. Floods and gales have made the news in Britain and some European mainland countries, and Portugal’s Atlantic islands have also suffered. The difference this winter/summer appears to be the severity of these events and the geographic and time extension over past years.
Some parts of Australia that normally receive summer rainfall are in drought conditions – and unless you have seen first hand what an Australian (or similar country) drought looks like, then you cannot imagine it. People in places like Britain talk about having a drought. No they do not, they have a short spell without rain. Where I now live it does not rain between May and at least the end of September. Every year. That is just a dry spell. Drought means absolutely no grass whatsoever, and water supplies drying out completely. No food, no water and the inevitable outcome is that enormous numbers of farm livestock and wild animals die.
Drought is particularly bad in the SW of the U.S.  “Natural disaster” status was declared for counties in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Utah, Arkansas, Idaho, Oklahoma and California. California has been dry for 3 years and is running out of drinking water. Hawaii is included in the natural disaster status too and other countries worldwide are similarly suffering. The Eastern part of the U.S. suffered from winter storms with unprecedented snow in some southern states. As I post I am aware of temperatures in at least one area of Kansas being close to zero Fahrenheit. One thing I came across that many will have missed is the flooding in Bolivia. More than 40 people killed and about 50,000 homes totally destroyed in January, plus an estimated 100,000 cattle lost. I saw one aerial photo of an isolated higher bit of ground tightly packed with a large number of cattle that would obviously starve to death. 

It seems a lot of vegetables have been lost around the world, including those in large numbers of glasshouses and plastic tunnels for out of season supplies. We can feel as sorry as we may for all the farmers worse off than ourselves, and indeed those non-farmers who have lost their lives or homes and possessions, but there is little we can do. I am sure that more than one reader has suffered losses themselves in recent weeks due to the weather. It is not so long ago either that many in Scotland had sheds collapse due to excessive snow. Recent wet seasons have caused havoc too to farmers’ cash flows. For a couple of years I have been half-heartedly planning future action in the event that extreme weather and declining supplies of petrochemicals make what we now consider normal life to become unobtainable and/or unaffordable. 

I have made a couple of posts already about “what if” scenarios, and these were on the basis that I did not really expect to need to resort to putting the ideas into practice, just a sort of insurance policy. If these extreme conditions continue for another couple of years there will be severe shortages of several food commodities for those in “developed” countries. Millions are already starving and an inability for other countries to supply food aid does not bear thinking about, but we should. 

Along with some farmers in other countries I had noticed that weather patterns were staying around longer, meaning that when it is wet it stays wet for longer, and when it is cold (always relative of course) it stays cold for longer. The only difference is that in this part of the world it definitely is warmer than even 10 years ago. We have not had what I would call a "hard" frost (that is below minus 5ÂșC here) for about 6 winters. I have the old records but it takes some time to search them all. We have not been below freezing point since 10th Dec and that was only minus one. Soil temperatures have been in double figures at 9.30 a.m. and the mean temperatures for January and February 2014 were well above anything we have experienced in the past. 

I have also noticed in my trawling of news and general agricultural sites around the world that more and more large scale farmers are switching from traditional livestock and crops into so-called niche markets. I think it has always been this way, but probably on a smaller scale. I wonder if this shift means that grazing livestock numbers will fall rather quickly and that staple cereals acreages will also fall around the world. 

This would give opportunites to some - but who? Similar opportunities will arise for those not into broadacre farming, hence my interest in the lack of water in California, which produces more than 80% of the world’s almonds. Growers there are struggling with the lack of rain and snowmelt. Little snowmelt will be available this spring. California also supplies virtually all of several different vegetables consumed in the US. 

We all have try to survive and feed ourselves and families, and this led me to wonder how I might change my farming system. I intend to plant almonds. I will fit this change into my intentions for 2014 after the ground dries sufficiently for me to begin thinking how I will catch up on the backlog of work around the farm and what I will be able to achieve through the summer.