Planting Things Anyway — Gardening with El Nino

Spring crops in the background, summer crops coming up. New ground underway.

As I look forward to the very near future when I dig new ground and till the old, work in the compost, and look through my seed bank for what I have and what I need and what I just want to try out or try again, I remember this past summer.

Every few years, you have a bad year. I did see good gardens here later in the summer, but they were standard gardens with standard crops like corn, cabbage and tomatoes. I’m not sure how well they did, but later in the summer in some places here those standard gardens did look good. Here in my garden, it was the aftermath of El Nino, the summer drought that follows the spring deluge. I was busy, and I made mistakes, and I still got a good amount of vegetables but I’m very lucky that I put away surplus from previous years because I didn’t get a lot of extra. I spent most of my summer carrying water to just keep a few plants alive. I depend on my garden for food. For me it’s not a hobby. Since I retired it has become my vocation. Well, add foraging and fishing and otherwise having fun to that, but the garden is the most important thing I own. If the county decided I am violating local codes and came to the door to tell me to shut it down and start mowing my lawn, I’d meet them with a shotgun. Seriously, if someone tells you that you can’t have food any more, that’s how you should respond.

Every year is different. I plant many things over and over and some varieties work in particular years, other varieties never work, and from year to year I sort all this out. If I’m paying attention, I make a profit and I have plenty of food, but this is farming in the old sense, when you had feast years and famine years. This past year, the aftermath of the El Nino in the Pacific, I took a big hit and compounded the effect of the weather with my own poor decisions and my choice to spend time getting another project going. Plus, having some fun : ).

This past summer, I didn’t make a profit. I got food, but not enough to put much away for succeeding years, and the garden cost me more than it yielded. If you farm you do expect that to happen sometimes. I recall a news story from the American Midwest after a bad harvest a decade or so past. A farmer’s son was talking to his father about the losses they took, and asked his father how long did he think it would take to make that back? His father, who knew the ways of farming, said, Oh! Son, we’ll never make that back. That’s a true view of farming. In this business, you don’t recover, you just keep going and try again. My brother-in-law, now gone, grew wheat in Texas. In reality, he farmed insurance and never expected to make a profit on the wheat. That’s not traditional farming but it’s been how a lot of our farms get by, for a long time now. Some people are back to reality, though, with no help from crop insurance, and that’s me.

Everyone has their own opinion about climate change, and there are lots of people my own age who will disagree with what I say about it, but I will tell you that things now are tougher and we should all be scared. The decades right after WWII were bonus times, weather was perfect, it was hard to make a mistake. We had good gardens in the Ozarks then, and the only water the garden got was what fell from the sky. We weren’t even good farmers, and we got food that way.

A lot of what we ate came from the natural world around us back then. We spent a lot of time harvesting wild fruits, nuts, and greens; not to mention fish and game. Since I have lived a long time, I can look back to those days and compare those to now. Let me tell you, we do live in poor times. I still depend on the wild part of the country for food, but it’s lean pickin’s now. I eat things I’d have skipped before. Every year I learn new plants, and they aren’t all that great. I feel sad that the wild fruits have declined or are gone. I feel cheated that open lands publicly owned are now sealed off by regulations. Here in Indiana, on state land, you can’t dig. You can’t mark a tree. You can’t cut a sapling or dig a root or an herb or even disturb a rock. You can pick mushrooms and you can pick leaves, although with the leaves the regulations leave it open to the rangers how much you can take. You can pick up nuts and pick berries. But what used to be public land is now government land, and the government thinks that the only reason to have government land is to prevent the public from using it. In some places you can walk through, but all you can do is look. In other places you have to stay on the trail. Here, you can’t even take dead wood. This is worse than the royal restrictions in medieval England when the King owned all the public land. Back then, you could break off dead limbs in the King’s forest by hook or by crook. Now that the government owns the public land here you can’t even do that. What used to be open country, there for the good of all, is now a “park” where no one ever does anything unless they have a license.

This year when I went berry picking in a local state park, within my rights and not violating any laws, I had picked out a good spot bordering the mowed lands. Yeah, the government can mow all they want, build parking lots, cut trees. When the blackberries were ripe I went back to the good spots I had found and the park maintenance guys had been through there with a bushhog and cut everything back three feet. I got about a pint of berries, the rest got chopped to bits.

A couple of years ago I read that farmers in the Philippines were complaining that the weather is all crazy now, the rains don’t come when they should and you can’t plan ahead. Well, to some degree that is always part of farming. You have good years and you have bad years. Lately we are into a long streak of bad years, and it does have something to do with climate change. It also has something to do with social change, the government’s decision to look at wild lands as nothing more than parks, and to see human involvement as unnecessary.

I do not agree with Trump’s decision to turn over more than a million acres of Utah land to strip miners, but I also disagree with the quiet decision to put public lands apart from human life. We are part of the land around us, and in the past we have depended on common ground to get us through hard times. We are a part of nature, not living apart from it. Now, in a bad year, I have to break laws to get by.

Where’s that free country we were told we have? the one that we defended by serving our time in the military and doing the right things? Now we’re told we are about to lose it, and although there are serious things happening that we do need to counter, that’s not all the truth. We lost it already.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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