The poet tells us that April is the cruelest month, but he was just talking about the weather. For my money, January is the roughest month for farmers and it has nothing to do with climate.
January is the month when we know everything. All through the growing season, we worried about the cold, wet spring that delayed seeding and then the relentless rain that went on to the end of July. When the rain finally stopped, we soon turned to worrying about a late-season drought.
(Readers of this space will recall that last July I predicted things would probably turn out just as they did in 1997, that other famously cold and rainy El Nino year that eventually gave us record soybean and corn harvests and a happy ending to the season.)
So as snow piles up on the fields and the land turns to stone, for one brief moment, the worrying can stop. The crop is in the bin and all the yield data, costs, prices, taxes, moisture, bushel weights, grades and dockage are finally on paper. There is nothing more to be done. And this is the most difficult time for a farmer.
I took my friend, the minister, to lunch down at the diner in the village last week and we joined the G-4 session at the corner table by the window. The guys were looking exceptionally gloomy.
“Did they all suffer a crop failure this year?” asked my friend.
“Much worse,” I replied. “The Ontario corn and soybean harvest is at record levels. It’s the same across North America so supply is up and prices are sitting in the tank.”
“Ahh,” said the minister. “I see. They are a strange lot. On the one hand they pray for good weather and on the other hand they seem to require bad weather for everyone else. It’s hardly Christian.”
Every farmer is driven by two things: Fear and the unknown. Fear makes him cautious but the unknown makes him a gambler. He wouldn’t get out of bed unless he woke up with some gnawing combination of fear for the worst and hope for the best. January is the worst month because for a week or two he knows too much . . . he even knows what was under the Christmas tree and no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t stand that amount of certainty.
“Well, it’s my job to give comfort to my flock if I can. Let me see if I can’t find something.” The minister shook out a copy of the World Relief quarterly he was holding. “I was just reading here that drought, flooding and conflict have interrupted food supplies for 37 countries and they will need food assistance. Patchy drought and cold rains have made things very difficult for winter wheat plantings in many parts of Europe. Quite a disaster, they say.”
Several faces lifted and brightened at the news. Encouraged, the minister went on.
“And I see that the National Geographic has suggested the prairie states may be entering a dry spell that could last until the next Ice Age. Oh, and the Australians are fighting a soybean aphid the size of a Buick . . . producers are switching from soybeans to sugar beets in droves. Am I boring you?”
“No, no,” said several voices around the table. “Could I borrow that when you’re done with it?”
Within a few moments, the murmur in the diner swelled to its pre-harvest levels and they were all happily complaining and predicting and debating again as visions of Australian sugar beets displacing soybeans danced in their heads.
“Thank you for buying lunch,” said the minister as we went back out to the truck. I told him he had certainly earned it.
“Why? What did I do?” he asked.
“You nursed them through that difficult moment of knowing too much. You got them back into that fog where they are so comfortable. Once again, they’re thinking about how life can be turned upside down with a swarm of aphids or two minutes of hail, and that is where they are always happiest.”
“They are a strange lot, indeed,” said the minister, and we drove the rest of the way home in silent contemplation.