Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

Ranch Musings: Drought and the perilous bounty

Anyone running over fields can see where the soil containing adequate organic matter greens up

Like most farmers and ranchers, I am loath to “waste” good harvesting weather. In fact, with recent years poor harvesting weather for hay crops, we rush to get the job done.

My time making seemingly endless rounds of fields cutting, raking, maybe twice, and then baling gives time to reflect. The beauty of a decent crop that is not in danger of spoiling is a farmer’s treasure.

On the serious side, farmers fear drought unless they have a well-supplied irrigation system.

Drought by itself can be overcome in time as weather changes and rain comes, but higher average temperatures coupled with less winter precipitation stored in snow pack and glaciers is a serious threat to world food supply.

Shortages or spoilage of crops can raise regional and worldwide food price increases. A crop failure in China or Russia can dramatically affect the price of food and feed grains here in North America, simply by buying millions and millions of tons of our production.

“Perilous Bounty” is a recent book by Tom Philpot in which he describes the loss of topsoil and the continuation of distorting subsidies of agriculture which supports over-production and has been keeping the price of food low.

In his book he notes the peril that looms for areas that through fertilization and pesticides has kept producing more and more food and energy crops. The Central Valley in California produces half of the food eaten in the US. But, he says, a flood such as the Valley had in the late 1880s and which is due any day would imperil the huge dairy industry and the water supply of the human population.

The answers to the threatened American farming ( and Canadian too) lies in more diversity of crops and soil conservation practices like keeping the bare soil covered in growing fertility crops that replenish soil — actually make new soil from the mineral substrate by ”farming” the soil microbes.

Anyone running over fields about now can see where the soil containing adequate organic matter greens up just from the moisture stored in the soil. This too will be short-lived unless and until we create more carbon in the soil.

If technology is going to come to the rescue and help preserve our bountiful resource of soil it will be in assisting in laying out cultural practices suited to the ever-varying types of soil we have within our relatively small fields.

Similarly, on a large North America scale rather than exploiting fields suited to diverse crops by planting corn and barley or soybeans and lentils and other “pulse” crops. Let the technologists assist farmers to design growing systems and rotations that enhance rather than waste the “gift of good land.”

Right now there is a shortage of agronomic generalists that can advise farmers on the science and economics of suitable strategies. This leaves the larger companies who can hire their own to prevail and succeed. The B.C. government has made some positive steps to extend knowledge to farmers.

However, there is a long way to go to revise farming practices which will reduce the perils to our agricultural bounty.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher, member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake.