There’s a big freeze in California, a damaging ice storm in Oklahoma. The price of corn is high…but that means dairy farmers who lost their hay this year to flood and drought can’t feed their cattle. If you think that disaster talk, and in fact actual disasters, have been taking over lately, you’re right. Just last year, there were 52 declared disasters in 36 states. Over the past 10 years, there have been an average of 52.2 declared disasters, compared to 35.6 in the 1990’s and 14.7 in the 1960's. At this pace, it seems timely to start thinking about the impacts of global warming on agriculture.
Through my years at Farm Aid, I have been working with a group of farm advocates and farm policy experts on issues of access to credit and disaster programs. This team put together the disaster trainings that toured the Southeast last year in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A year and a half later after the hurricanes we got together at the annual Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference to discuss lessons learned and our next steps to make sure that farmers are getting what they need and that they are able to prepare for future disasters.
While wading through existing disaster assistance programs, one of our team members mentioned a friend who grows diversified fruits and vegetables, crops that are not covered by most disaster programs. This team member asked his friend, “How do you deal with disaster? How are you protected?” The farmer answered “Diversity is my protection.” Crops are lost every year but with multiple crops in the ground this farmer can bank on getting by. Now, this plan doesn’t work for everyone and there are a lot of disasters that could pose a problem for farmers across the board BUT it started us thinking.
Diversified crops, well maintained soil, wind rows and any number of farming techniques that often fall into the world of sustainable agriculture make farms more resilient in the face of disaster. For farmers to weather a storm they also need a healthy marketplace that ensures a fair price for their crops. In essence, healthy food and farm systems are our first line of defense. A simple idea perhaps, but that single thought reframed and reorganized our entire conversation about disaster response. New programs, improvements on old programs, everything was reorganized towards an ideal of disaster preparedness through a sustainable and elastic system. One farmer who joined us for breakfast said “I had no idea you folks were out there doing this work but I sure am glad that you are!”
I don’t mean to make light of any farmer struggling with weather disaster right now. At Farm Aid, we hear from farmers every day and their difficulties feed my motivation to understand these programs and to create a big picture for family farm agriculture that is safe and sustainable. Some people may not get excited about spending their weekend talking about tax forms and labor policies, but this past weekend I had the privilege of sitting down with some folks to talk about the big picture and for a second, enjoy the idea that if no one else was going to fix everything that we could.