Not Quite Drought

When we talk about weather we mostly discuss events, like deluges, lightning, exceptional heat or cold, wind strong enough to pull over trees, and the stories that result from these are appropriately dramatic. In the years I’ve lived here there’s been a blizzard that blew into drifts higher than my head, the remnants of a hurricane that flipped the chicken coop onto its roof, floods that have washed our road, and several mornings cold enough to freeze my face off. What makes drought exceptional, then, is its insidiousness; it is an absence of something, and it is indeterminate. It grows by degrees, with the future offering a possibility of relief that keeps failing to materialize.

Central New York is officially in a period of abnormal dryness, which means the shortage of precipitation isn’t yet severe enough to qualify as a drought. But the farm is nevertheless showing sign of moisture stress. Pasture growth has slowed, and the seed heads have turned pale brown. Flies buzz around the cows. The streams are trickles that vanish between their rocky beds for long stretches. The air is hot and sticky, and towards evening the clouds pile up into vertiginous towers that never quite break into the downpour they seem to promise.

Lots of farming is managing stress. Most of raising livestock well is thinking about both acute and chronic stressors and how both can be reduced. But managing farmer stress is important too, and in some ways its more difficult, because - at least in my case - it has a tendency to crop up around things that are beyond human control. On freezing winter nights I lie awake thinking of the animals, and on dry summer mornings I gaze fretfully at the weather map, monitoring the splotches of green and yellow and red that aren't crossing my land.

Last night as I returned from a delivery I drove through a wall of thunderstorms twenty minutes south. Rain fell in sheets so thick it looked like heavy fog, the point where clouds ended and it began uncertain. Flashes of lightning reflected in the wet surface of the road. But far faster than it started it stopped, and even though I was only a few miles from home I knew the rain had completely bypassed my farm. At least there are storms predicted for early this week, but until I actually see my ground being watered I’ll have my worry.

Garth Brown

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