"July was proving to be unusually hot, and rain was sorely needed. The leaves on Isaac's potato plants were drying, even the ones in his garden patch that he watered daily. The corn was suffering too, drying before ears had formed or silk was out, and leaves turning white. The ground was too dry and hard most places to stir the wheat stubble, such droughty conditions being exactly what Professor Hicks had predicted. According to the current almanac, the drought was to set in after June and continue into the 1891 and 1892 seasons. Isaac could only hope that this time Professor Hicks was wrong."
The above quote is from Chapter 8, 1890, of my manuscript. Did you think I might be quoting from this week's newspaper? The passage certainly sounds familiar to many farmers in Isaac's old Kansas community.
In Isaac's time, he turned to almanacs for long range weather predictions. The almanac pictured at right was published in 1892 by Dr. J. A. McLean to promote his patent medicines, but the "Storm Calendar and Weather Forecasts" were prepared by Rev. Irl R. Hicks, the "Storm Prophet," whose weather predictions Isaac came to respect.
Today's farmers have more sophisticated forecasting methods available to them. The United States Seasonal Drought Outlook map shown below was issued by the National Weather Service.
According to the news report accompanying the map, the current drought is the most widespread since 1956, with 56% of pastures and rangelands in poor to very poor conditions and stream flows at or near record low values across much of the Midwest and parts of the Central Plains, West, Southeast, and even parts of New England. Sixty-four percent of the contiguous U.S. is in some degree of drought, with another 17% abnormally dry.
Working on my manuscript this week, tweaking and deleting to tighten the text in preparation for submitting to publishers, I read the paragraph quoted above. Like so many issues from the 1880s and 1890s that relate to what we face today, today's farmers can obviously identify with the challenges faced by Isaac during the drought a century and a quarter ago. Careful weather records like those kept in Isaac's journal are part of our present consideration of whether such climatic events are only cyclical weather patterns or whether today's weather is becoming more extreme and erratic. Farming since Isaac's time has obviously become more sophisticated, but like Isaac, today's farmers remain subject to the challenges of unfavorable weather.