The old guys used to say that in a dry year you worry to death but in a wet year you starve to death.
This has been a wild and wet summer. We’ve seen fields re-planted three times, fish flapping on the fields after a rain, first crop hay taken in mid-August. My neighbour Josh claims that he has seen hundreds of frogs drowned because they never got the chance to learn how to swim during last year’s drought. That may be an exaggeration, but I feel compelled to file all reports faithfully as they come to my desk.
The last time Ontario went through a washout like this was 1997. A huge, wet air mass hung over Hudson Bay for months, bringing us a miserable spring with high winds and endless cold rains. It also brought the flood of the century for the Red River and Winnipeg. Closer to home it was a year of waiting and fretting alone in your kitchen staring at the Weather Channel, which had just been invented by people who discovered you can make a fortune by catastrophizing the weather. I remember driving down through the southwest on an extended crop tour in July with my brothers-in-law. In each field you could tell exactly where the tile drains were because that was the only place the crop was growing.
A neighbour lost a tractor just trying to put in his crop. It bogged to the axles and stayed there for two months waiting for things to dry out. The whole neighbourhood showed up to watch it get winched out of the field like an exhausted water buffalo.
So, it’s true that 2017 has been pretty weird, but I’ve seen worse. I have now turned into one of those old guys who watch the seasons unfold and say, “This is bad but not nearly as bad as the summer of 1997.” Or 1968, which was the other washout that comes to mind. I remember it because I was trying to frame a calf barn with an old guy named Russell Thompson, the one-armed carpenter from Mono Centre. It rained every single day in June. Not a gentle spring shower either; it came down in sheets that swelled the little creek to a torrent and took chunks out of the hillsides. I grew a burdock in the pig pen that reached a height of eight feet which I assumed must have set some sort of record for the township. But Russell claimed he had seen higher ones and he had seen a wetter year, too. That was in the Great Wet of 1899 when a travelling tinker, his horse and his cart were swallowed in the mud on Fergus Road and never recovered. I can’t drive by that spot today without thinking of the poor lost tinker of 1899.
We will now see a flurry of tile drainage installations, just as we did after 1997. And there will be a spike in kitchen alterations, too. My two brothers-in-law both installed extra couches in their kitchens so that if El Nino ever struck again they wouldn’t have to sit alone waiting and fretting and staring at the Weather Channel until their wives were ready to join a convent.
We all remember the Red River flood of 1997, but something else every bit as remarkable happened that year. The sun eventually came out and the fields dried up and Ontario and Quebec harvested a record soybean crop of 2.7 million tonnes, proving once again that you can’t drown a soybean plant any more than you can drown a goose. The same goes for hybrid corn in a drought. You can plant corn in a sandstorm at high noon in hell and if a camel comes by and spits on it, it will sprout and grow six feet high. But it seems to need a farmer nearby muttering that it doesn’t look too good and he doubts that it will complete before the first frost. That is the tonic a corn plant needs as badly as it craves nitrogen.
So things turned out pretty much okay in 1997 and 1968 and 1899 and probably will again in 2017.
As for myself, I will remember 1997 as the year I finally stopped worrying about my brothers-in-law and my next door neighbour and everybody else I know who rolls the dice and bets the farm every spring. I just stopped. It was taking too much out of me.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.