Thursday, July 26, 2012

Drought on the Prairie

"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.    


The Blog Fodder said...

One difference between today and over a hundred years ago is cash inputs per acre of crop. Far higher yields, even with some drought but if it doesn't rain, all the high tech is still for nothing and the operating expenses are gone, leaving the farmer in huge debt.
How did Isaac and his neighbours cope with no crop/no money?

Kim said...

This is a good reminder that life is cyclical - whether we're talking weather or the human condition. It's hard to live through drought times - whether we're talking the lack of rain or life experiences. But I guess the message found in Isaac's diaries is that we need to persevere. Thanks for sharing.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

To answer your question--1. Debt, and while the amounts seem small, they were just as impossible to repay in that economy as they are today; 2. Starvation, quite literally they lived on ground wheat mixed with water and had no seed wheat the following season, or potatoes, meal after meal; 3. Relocation, moving on further West or returning to family in the East; 4. Assistance, Isaac sought help via the Farmers' Alliance for neighbors with the ability to borrow to join in loans for "food and blacksmithing" for other members who had no hope of getting through winter without help. Only 40% of those staking claims managed to stick it out and get a patent, so many claims were abandoned. The question of "no crop/no money?" that you asked was quite literally a matter of life or death for many, with many children dying during those times, and life expectancy for adults a much younger age.

Donna said...

We are in much better times now even tho this is a terrible year. In 1980 no one had crop insurance and interest rates went up to 18%. A year we will never forget. In 2012 most farmers have crop insurance and interest rates are very low. Farmers who have cattle are in a very bad spot now as the pastures are dried up and hay is very high if there is any for sale. As always in farming it will be better next year and we pray not another dry year.

Anne Current said...

While in northwest Kansas and northeast Colorado about a week ago we observed corn on dry land fields was short and turning yellow. It looked very sad. I wonder what my corn in Stafford County looks like right now or if it is still upright.

The Blog Fodder said...

Thanks, Lyn. Scary way to live ... or die. Our homesteaders ate canned gophers on occasion but nothing like that which you describe.