What can I say about a month like June in Oklahoma. Too many days on the wrong side of 100 degrees Farenheit and extreme drought? It’s easy to just not notice this in urban areas, but in fact, it is not just a problem, it is rapidly becoming a crisis. I know, everything is a crisis these days, but that’s just an indication of how bad things are getting. It’s easy to be numbed by the extent of all that is happening, but the Gospel call to solidarity remains true, so this is a call to open our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds, to the climate crisis in rural America.
The news from Oklahoma is that the drought is “officially” extreme, over half the state, and getting worse everywhere else. The fact that we don’t see giant dust clouds in the air is a testimony to what farmers have learned since the 1930s, but the problems that drought presents to rural producers and communities remain the same today as they were in the 1930s.
Elsewhere, the problem is too much water. Heavy rains are followed by extreme floods. People speak of “500 year flood events” and hundreds of thousands of fertile acres are underwater. There are rumors of foreclosures and transnational financial interests attempting to get control of major tracts of farm land. While a flood can be a bringer of fertility (think of the Nile and Egypt), one wonders about the consequences for farmland of the flooding of a river like the Mississippi in our area, which concentrates the toxic run-offs from a dozen states and thousands of municipalities, to the point that each year there is a growing “dead zone” where the river empties into the Gulf.
But I don’t know about floods, because in Oklahoma, our problem is drought. Right now the grass and hay crops should be growing, putting on height and weight. There should be plenty of grazing for cattle and other herd beasts, the farm ponds should be full. But the pastures are not growing; they are brown and the ponds are dry. As hay crops shrivel, those responsible for livestock look ahead to the winter months, estimate the dwindling supply of hay in their barns and sheds, wonder about what they will be able to cut this fall … and then they count their cattle and try to figure out how many head of cattle they can afford to take through this winter into an uncertain spring. Will the drought break this fall? This winter? Next spring? Or is this part of a multi-year drought cycle? If they borrow money to buy feed for the winter, but the drought doesn’t break over the winter spring, the price of cattle will be even lower next year, which calls into question their ability to repay loans. So maybe they don’t borrow for feed, and instead send their cattle to market, reducing their mother cow herd to a bare minimum. And if there is no rain next year?
We in cities are not so far removed from our pastoral ancestry, where wealth was measured in cattle, or sheep, or goats, or horses, or some combination thereof. We are steeped in those stories in the Bible—the Hebrew word for cattle appears 56 times in the book of Genesis! My father certainly measured his wealth in cattle—the cattle count was a regular feature of our regular round of chores on our family farm in southwest Oklahoma.
The number of mother cows a producer can maintain is determined by how much feed they can produce and/or buy. “Feed” includes pasture and hay crops (alfalfa, etc), it may include some grain and/or soybeans. Cattle also require water, and in the heat of the summer, that means more water, not less. All of this is true of other livestock—sheep, goats, and pigs. I habitually talk about cattle because that’s what my family raised in southwest Oklahoma.
During drought years, the amount of feed produced on a given farmer’s pastures and hay fields will be less than a good year with sufficient moisture, unless the producer has access to irrigation water, which is not the case for many Oklahoma farmers and ranchers. There’s also less water in the farm ponds and prolonged drought can effect the underground water table that supplies wells. Less feed plus less water equals fewer mother cows and fewer mother cows mean fewer steers and fewer steers means less revenue for farmers and ranchers.
This problem adds up fast. Every mother cow sold into the marketplace is the destruction of productive wealth. That mother cow will produce no more mother cows or steers. The destruction of productive wealth is not good for farmers and ranchers and it’s not good for rural communities and it’s not good for our urban communities either. It’s called “eating your capital” and is a sign of desperation wherever it occurs.
What happens at your house when there’s less money? What happens if it becomes a permanent decline because some of your productive effort is simply no longer there? What can people in cities do about this?
First and foremost, we can buy food directly from our farmers. With less revenue in farm country, any money siphoned off to the giant corporate food aggregators like Cargill and Archers Daniels Midland is money taken out of rural areas to enrich giant corporations. There is little enough going around this year anyway (this drought also killed the Oklahoma wheat crop this year). Buying food from farmers strengthens rural economies and that is good for everyone.
Second, we can work together to mitigate the on-rushing impact of climate change/weather weirding by reducing carbon footprints and fossil fuel usage. One easy and simple strategy is to cook outside this summer! Sure, you can afford to air condition your house, and cook inside, and just run your AC overtime to get rid of all that heat and humidity—but can the Earth afford it? Look at the weather calamities across the planet and tell yourself that what you do doesn’t matter, except that you won’t believe that because you know it isn’t true. The truth of the modern dilemma is that EVERYTHING that we do matters—for good, or for ill.
Cooking outside isn’t the One Solution to climate change, but there isn’t any such thing as the One Solution. Instead, there are ten thousand little things that need to be done, or done differently, and cooking outside is one of those. Do that, get good at it, and then move on and do something else, meanwhile, tell others about how they can save money and help the planet by cooking outside during the summer so they do the same and can move on to something else too.
Sometimes accepting this kind of responsibility is scary. It was sure scary when we decided to build new walls 5-1/2 inches inside of all of our exterior walls so we could put 9 inches of insulation in our walls and 14 inches in the attic. But we have never regretted that work and that expense, not even once. It was, in fact, the best financial investment I have ever made. It is certainly a better investment than the money market account that presently holds my 403b retirement fund from my job as a parish musician.
It was scary when the founders of the Oklahoma Food Coop came together and one day in the hot summer of 2003 decided, “OK, we are going to start this thing in November 2003.” Is there anyone who regrets that decision? Not me, even though it has hardly been a smooth ride, indeed, it has often been a rough, bumpy, and contentious ride, but that’s fine, because the cause is just and the food is tasty and those two things make it possible for us to persevere through times of difficulty.
And then there’s the “invisible structures” which make it easy to do harm and hard to do good. We need fewer of those “easy to do harm” situations, and we need more of the “easy to do good and hard to do bad” flavors.
So that’s the story of July. Everything that you do matters. For good, or for ill. There’s very little neutrality these days. I’m hoping that more people will decide this month that they are part of the solution and buy some food from local farmers and then cook it outside to keep from working their AC so hard. No pressure folks, just a frank realization of our own personal responsibility for the consequences of our actions.
The final, but certainly not the last, thing on my list is an appeal to pray for our farmers and ranchers. Pray that they will receive the grace of fortitude to make it through these hard times. Pray for rain, or for an end to flooding depending on your local situation, and for protection for all life from the climate craziness that is even as we speak come upon us, for the drought is as hard on the wildlife and birds and bees as it is on the livestock. (I don’t know about anyone else, but I have seen very few bees and other pollinators this year.)