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Spring means the three W’s of farming

It’s officially spring. You know how I know that? It’s not the calendar, it’s not the weather and it’s not even the tree leaves popping out. It’s that tractors are in the fields. For me, that always officially marks the first day of spring. Trust me, farmers have an intrinsic instinct that just knows when spring is here. I blame it on being cooped up all winter with nothing to do but fix equipment and dream about being out in the fields. All farmers do it. But with the beginning of spring comes the three W’s of farming.

The first W is want. Farmers want mild spring weather with lots of sunshine and an occasional gentle rain. Spring is a crucial time for farmers; getting crops into the field is entirely dependent on dry fields and weather forecasts. Too much rain and fields turn into muddy swamps and nothing likes growing in a muddy bog. Not enough rain and the ground gets really hard fast and seeds don’t germinate or break the surface. See, despite all of the amazing things that science can do, seeds are still dependent on the right conditions to grow and produce. Yes, science has helped to create seeds that grow better in adverse conditions, like drought-resistant corn and soybeans, but notice the wording is just “resistant,” not “immune.”

Resistant means that the plant or seed has a few defenses against unfavorable conditions or diseases but can still be affected by them. Think of resistance like a flu shot, you are protected from a certain strain of the flu but you still might get a different strain of the flu or you might get pneumonia or a cold instead. Even the best seeds still need to get the right environmental factors to grow. While a lot of society has become mechanized and almost foolproof, farming is one of the few professions in which the success of the final product is largely left up to nature, weather and factors that humans cannot control. Science has helped farmers tremendously.  Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), of which there are only eight – corn, both field and sweet, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash – have helped to make sure that these products are universally and constantly available at a reasonable price with no health concerns. Did you know that it takes 13 years and 150 million dollars to bring a GMO crop to market?

W No. 2 is tied right into W No. 1. Farmers worry, a lot! In fact, I think the majority of the time that farmers aren’t fixing equipment, tinkering with things or in the field, they spend their time worrying. Weather, prices, wind, diseases, water, livestock health, machinery, family, land prices, the list goes on and on and on without an end in sight. Worry is a constant part of farming that you just learn to live with.

Waiting is the third W and the best friend of worry. Crop farmers plant their seeds in May and do not harvest until September or later, patiently waiting for the plants to grow, mature and become ready for harvest. Livestock farmers are playing the same waiting game; animals need to grow in order to provide milk, meat or goods.  And while farmers can take preventive measures, like spraying for bugs or weeds, giving vaccines and medication and providing healthy feed, comfortable bedding and safe places, nature isn’t always nice. Sometimes it floods, sometimes there are droughts, sometimes disease can’t be stopped, sometimes new diseases happen, sometimes nature just overpowers all of our man-made solutions and death happens. At that point, farmers pick themselves back up and try it again, hoping that science has improved enough that we can beat nature at her worst.  After all, it’s not just our livelihood that depends on it, but also our families, our livestock and you, the consumer who want nutritious, safe and delicious food.  And let me tell you, in a farming world fraught with peril, worry and waiting, any safe and proven advantage over nature is welcome by farmers.

Written by Christen Clemson, a Trumbull County Farm Bureau member and county board trustee. She and her family farm in Mecca Township.