Sowing and weeping

Photo by Rick Chamberlin


“Laughter and tears are meant to turn the wheels of the same machinery of sensibility; one is wind-power, and the other water-power.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.


Midwest corn farmers have an expression: “knee high by the 4th of July.” It’s generally considered a sign of a good harvest if corn plants are at least as tall as an adult’s knee by Independence Day. The corn in the field across the road from my home is already almost knee high, but we’re more than a month away from July 4th. An unusually warm and dry April allowed most Wisconsin farmers to get their seeds in the ground about two weeks ahead of schedule this year.

Despite this, many of our farmers are not optimistic about the future, according to a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Much of their pessimism is due to higher input costs and lower commodity prices, it seems, but plow a little deeper and I suspect you’ll find there is a bit more to the story.

Those who have tilled the soil for years, be they farmers or gardeners, notice climate trends and not just the yearly peaks and valleys of weather. Many food growers are acutely aware of  Wisconsin’s warming climate, and this knowledge must add to their anxiety about the future.

John Ingham and his wife Dawn live on a small farm north of Dodgeville on which they grow much of their own food. In addition to being a Wisconsin Master Gardener, John is also a writer, book editor and communications consultant. I’ve appended his song poem “Ballad of the Garden Boys” to the end of this post because I think it speaks to many of the emotions — worry, anger, desperation and helplessness in particular — that observant people, not just farmers, feel as they contemplate our changing climate and what it will probably mean for our families, our communities and the world. It’s dark verse, John’s poetry, but not without flashes of light, much of it in the form of wry humor.

Another saying that leaps to mind as I ponder all of this is “you reap what you sow.” It’s often forgotten, even among the faithful, that the section of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians from which we get that adage is first and foremost an admonishment against selfishness. Paul’s readers are urged to stop fighting amongst themselves and “bear one another’s burdens” and “work for the good of all.”

This same contentious and selfish spirit has led us to the global climate crisis. Narrow self interest and greed have thwarted most of the meaningful attempts to address the crisis: energy and climate legislation in Congress, an international climate treaty, and our own Clean Energy and Jobs Act here in Wisconsin. We’ve become a Galatian nation.

“You reap what you sow” also roughly encapsulates the Hindu/Buddhist concept of karma. You get what you give. And yet the earth has always given humans much more than we give it. If you happen to be of the Judeo-Christian persuasion, you might express the principle this way: humans plant the seed but God gives the increase. Farmers, and humanity as a whole, have always depended on nature’s (or God’s) extravagance. But because of the bitter seed we’ve sown in the skies since the Industrial Revolution, this formula (if I can put it so crudely) is beginning to break down. Worldwide wheat, corn and barley yields are down by about 40 million tons due to increased aridity. It’s not only crop yields that will decline as the planet warms; according to one recent study; the amount of nutrition those crops contain may also drop as carbon dioxide concentrations climb.

The sowing and reaping will continue here in the heartland for a long time, but there will be no little amount of weeping, too. Farmers will shed tears for, well, for a host of reasons. We should all weep for the ecological destruction we have caused, for the ways we have let our agricultural and economic systems become subservient to the pursuit of profit. Our tears may be the best moisture we can offer our thirsty Earth today, because they indicate the kind of change of heart that must precede a change of our ways. Until we grieve for the damage we’ve done and are doing, we will continue to give the Earth less than it needs to give us more of what we need to survive.

Largely to fuel our insatiable appetite for more and more things, we have been seeding the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses for millennia, in earnest for more than a century. Now we are reaping a harvest that includes much more extreme precipitation events that flatten or drown our crops in the field, heat waves that reduce yields, and new insect invaders that sweep up from the south. A recent study of 23 separate climate models predicted wide scale crop failures by 2030.

Ironically, it is farmers who may be the first and hardest hit if such forecasts prove accurate.

I say “ironically” because agriculture in this country accounts for a significant and growing portion of all greenhouse gas emissions in this country. Estimates vary, but the EPA puts it at just over 6 percent. That 6 percent is made up mostly of methane from animals (primarily beef cattle), yes, but a lot of it comes from fertilizers and pesticides derived from gas and oil, as well as the gasoline burned in farm equipment.

The crops farmers grow and the set-aside lands they maintain absorb and sequester some carbon, it’s true, but most modern farms are far from carbon neutral operations.

If our food growers suffer, we all eventually suffer because we depend on them for our food. That’s a no-brainer. We also depend on their deep silos of knowledge and talent. We got into this crisis with their help; we won’t get out of it without their help.

Wise, carbon-negative alternatives to modern conventional farming exist, methods that small-scale growers and gardeners like John and Dawn Ingham have been demonstrating successfully for decades and which are capable of producing yields that rival, acre for acre, those of large conventional operations: biodynamic farming, organic farming, rotational grazing of cattle, even the use of biochar to increase soil fertility and sequester carbon. Such methods are capable of producing yields that far exceed, in volume and nutritional content, those of conventionally grown, genetically modified crops. Hopefully we will soon begin to subsidize practices like these more than we now subsidize conventional, chemically dependent farming. At the very least, we will need to scale down many of our farms, because a nation of large farms is far more vulnerable to the kinds of impacts that climate change brings.

Here’s the poem. Let us read it and weep … and then get back to work sowing better seed, in better ways.

Ballad of the Garden Boys

by John Ingham

It’s only April but it feels like June.

I’m ridin’ the heat wave, pushed by the moon,

Hoe in my left hand, rake in my right,

Gotta get this garden in tonight.


The whirl of seasons slipped a gear

And jumped us right past spring this year —

No time to till, no time to plan,

It’s just a fistful of seeds and a hurried man.



When climate turns its wrath on man,

Disaster wrought by his own hand,

Us garden boys’ll be cursin and cryin’,

Fightin’ the weather to the finish line.


The crusty soil is hard to hoe

Air hot and dry as a desert blow,

My seeds unkissed by April rains

And I’m plantin’ em deep, ‘count of hurricanes.


No time to sow seeds one by one,

Just pour ‘em down the barrel of my old shotgun.

Stand back kids, give Daddy some room,

Gonna start our crops with a boom boom boom.



When the climate turns, as the climate must,

And the crops cling tight to their bed of dust

Us garden boys’ll be cursin and cryin’,

Fightin’ the weather to the finish line.


When the sea winds blow and the waves reach high

And the last oil dims the noonday sky

And the ships and the trucks and the planes shut down

There’ll be menu changes all around.


Say farewell to your morning brew,

Tropical fruit and seafood, too —

All delicacies from far and near.

We’ll have to eat what we grow right here.



When you feel our climate heading south

And we all start living hand to mouth

Us garden boys’ll be cursin and cryin’,

Fightin’ the weather to the finish line.


Give us mulch enough, and time,

And we’ll feed you down to the finish line.


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