We live on opposite sides of the world and we’ve never met in person—but as farmers who have confronted major natural disasters this month, we have a lot in common.
You’ve probably seen the headlines and news reports. In southern Africa, hundreds died as Cyclone Idai ripped across Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The death toll continues to rise. Meanwhile, in the upper Midwest of the United States, snow followed by heavy rains and massive flooding have caused billions of dollars in damage to roads, bridges, and private property in Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota.
These are two of the worst weather-related disasters ever to strike the places where we live and work. While neither of us was directly affected we know lots of people whose lives are forever changed.
We’re both members of the Global Farmer Network, an international organization that brings farmers together to discuss challenges and opportunities, providing us a platform to tell our stories, share our experiences and learn from each other. One of us grows snap peas, rice, maize and sorghum in Zimbabwe and the other produces corn and soybeans in Iowa. Beneath our superficial differences, it turns out that we share many of the same interests: We both depend on cutting-edge technology, global trade, and good infrastructure.
Now we’re dealing with the effects of unprecedented extreme weather.
Both of us experienced heavy rain and saw roads become impassable, watched as rivers and the sea overtook communities and wiped whole farmsteads away. We didn’t personally suffer like so many others. Parts of Zimbabwe even benefitted from the downpour, which broke up a dry spell.
The people of Mozambique have borne the worst of the weather. A major humanitarian relief effort is now underway. In the near-term, our focus must be simply on survival: making sure as many people as possible live through this crisis.
Soon, though, our thoughts must turn to recovery and prevention. We may also learn a lesson about our interconnectedness. The epicenter of devastation in Mozambique is the port of Beira—and people in Zimbabwe count on this seacoast city for imports and exports. Long after the floodwaters have receded, we will bear the additional pain of economic disruption.
Farmers in Zimbabwe and Iowa may live a world apart, but we’re both in landlocked areas and we count on infrastructure to help us move goods and services across borders and oceans.
Even though Iowa and the US Midwest hasn’t seen anything like the deaths that have afflicted southern Africa, its people have endured much. We’ve seen entire towns flooded, family farms washed away, and dead livestock piling up everywhere.
No matter where we live, whether it’s in a developing country or in the most advanced nation on the planet, farmers know that we’re not just in the business of agriculture. We’re in the business of risk management. Everything we do is about taking advantage of our natural resources and the good opportunities while reducing the impact of the challenges like extreme weather events.
In Zimbabwe, the cyclone will remind us about the proper handling of crops. We can’t just leave grain in the field and assume it will still be there months later, ready for the taking. Instead, we must put more of it in storage, using driers and silos to protect it from the elements. It would also help to have a better insurance market, so that we can buy policies that allow us to hedge our bets.
Moreover, we should invest in seed genetics, so that our crops can enjoy not just the drought-tolerance technologies that we desperately need, but also resistance to floods and salt.
In Iowa and the Midwest, the flooding may teach a lesson in the value of soil conservation. As the waters recede and we move into planting season, farmers who practice no-till and use cover crops may see an immediate return on these investments. These sustainable strategies deserve to become more popular.
What we both need is first-rate infrastructure. This includes roads and rails that help us keep our links to the wider world as well as dams and dikes that improve our water management and guard against ruin.
Above all, we must combine resilience with faith. We must remain committed to getting through the worst of times, knowing that the best of times may still lie ahead.
Farmers behold a version of this every year. In the Midwest, we rejoice as bleak winter transforms into vibrant spring. For both of us, it’s the renewed energy and resolve as we begin a new planting season. Despite all the frustrations that can come with agriculture, this may be its great, redeeming joy: We’re always getting to see and experience new life.
* This column first appeared at the Des Moines Register.