These days, my eyes are often on the sky. I squint and wonder if those wispy formations at the edge of the horizon might group into a rain-bearing system. It’s a hopeful practice.
I’d never been much of a weather watcher before my family started farming. Sure, I would give a casual glance at the morning paper or my cat-themed weather app before running out the door to the office. I thought of rain was an unfortunate event, something that might ruin an outing to Duluth’s Park Point beach or a hike up the shore. Or offer an excuse to spend the afternoon reading on the couch.
But now that we’re farming, and our operation has diversified beyond pasture-raised eggs to include several acres of tender berry plants, I’ve come to see precipitation differently. Not to put too fine a point on it: Rain is life.
While a wet May took our Northland region out of what the DNR classified as Moderate Drought, we’re still in the category of Abnormally Dry. This means the water tables that feed our wells contain only about 80 percent of their normal levels. Not horrific, but not ideal either.
Already this summer, northern Minnesota has seen several days in the upper 80s, a full 20 degrees above our average for this time of year. In my prior life, I would’ve experienced this fact as an innocuous tidbit overheard on the radio, but having spent hours on my knees weeding in the pounding sun recently, it’s no longer trivia. The consequences are everywhere — from the withering leaves of our farm to the hours my husband and his brother spent fiddling with irrigation tape and pumps.
Under this expansive vista of bright blue skies, what I once saw as a Perfect Duluth Day, I now experience fears as old as cultivation itself. I feel the same desperation that drove scores of Midwesterners into the hands of charlatan Rainmakers in the early 1890s. The farmers handed over handsome sums of money for the rainmakers to blow gases and smoke particles into the clouds, even to detonate explosions hoped to cause downpours over state fairs. Not many years later, farmers turned away from this quack science and embraced irrigation.
As do we.
Making the most of what precipitation falls on our property, we’re setting up a system to collect rainwater off the vast roof of our pole barn, pumping it into our newest Craigslist find: a 3,700-gallon tankard plumbed for irrigation. It will help. But to maximize this water we’ve also cast our eyes to the ground. As I’m learning, soil matters.
My husband spent the spring tilling in manure and truckloads of compost. He even sprayed on unlikely products with names like liquid fish (it smells as good as it sounds). This all improves the soil’s biology, reinforcing its water-holding capacity with an invisible net of microbes. Our new-to-us fields probably haven’t been farmed this way for some 60 years, but all we can do is try, talk to other farmers and keep reading.
A 30-year study found that land farmed this way acts like a sponge, holding water as it prevents runoff during pelting storms. The moisture retention in our fields may be 20 percent higher over synthetically farmed soil — numbers that take on new meaning under the shadow of California’s drought troubles.
Now that the water collecting and soil amending is done, like all farmers we’re left to wait, to yearn for fortune to fall from the sky. Bent over the swirling radar maps on our phones, my husband and I shade our eyes with one hand and look skyward, playing the agricultural version of the children’s cloud game — we search for promising shapes in the blue.
Lucie B. Amundsen is a writer, marketer and reluctant farmer. She and her husband co-own Locally Laid Egg Company, a collection of partner farms that provide pasture-raised eggs, always sold locally. Her narrative nonfiction, "Locally Laid," is slated for release March 2016 from Avery Penguin Books.