At least the sunsets were pretty.
That’s the best I can say about the summer of 2021. Here in Washington state, we felt like we were living in an inferno. Rain failed to fall, temperatures soared, and smoke clouded our skies.
For a farmer like me, this mix presented a series of hard challenges—and demanded an extra dose of resilience.
The low point for me probably came on June 20. The heat peaked at 118 degrees. I’d been sick for a couple of days and knew that it was too hot for work. Yet some jobs can’t wait. They must be done.
So there I was, in the sweltering out-of-doors and helping to scoop a bunch of spilled peas into a loader. I began to feel lightheaded and realized I was suffering from heat exhaustion.
I got out of the heat and allowed myself enough time to recover. I didn’t have another episode of heat exhaustion, but on reflection that moment was like a metaphor: The whole summer was hot and exhausting.
In my time as a farmer—I started in the 1970s—I’ve lived through a lot of bad weather. In 1977, we had the worst drought I’ve ever seen. In 1992, we lost access to our irrigation water in May, the time of year that our crops need that water the most. Last year, the smoke from the forest fires were as bad as I’ve ever seen.
This year, however, our misery achieved a kind of hybrid vigor.
The drought began in the spring. We essentially had no rain in March, April, or May. This is when a lot of our crops germinate. They need water to grow.
We irrigate our fields, which means that even if there’s no rain, we can still supply our fields with water. Yet we were weeks behind our normal schedule. A deep freeze in April also hurt, knocking us back even further.
Farmers don’t like getting a late start in the spring, but we’re beholden to the weather and all we can do is adapt. And a good summer can make up for a bad spring.
Around the middle of June, our alfalfa looked promising. Then we lost access to the source of our irrigation water. The Walla Walla River had fallen so low that its water couldn’t feed farms. At the same time, temperatures pushed upward. For about two months, they hit triple digits every day.
The alfalfa was severely stressed by July 4.
Plants can’t grow in the punishing heat, and people shouldn’t work. For much of the summer, we ordered our employees not to work in the afternoons, when temperatures were highest.
Rather than keeping the regular hours of a typical day, we labored in morning and evening shifts. I’ve never been more grateful for air-conditioned cabs on farm equipment. It was still incredibly hot, but we escaped the worst of it.
I can’t say the same for our leaf cutter bees. We rely on these pollinators, along with alkali bees, to grow our alfalfa seeds. Every year, we bring the leaf cutter bees in from Canada, put them out in the field the first week of June and let them do their work. This year, though, the heat brutalized them. The leaf cutter bee requires extensive management and we tried everything we could, such as waiting for the weather to cool off and keeping them in cold storage. Eventually, we were able to put them out and most of the bees survived but unfortunately, we experienced very poor pollination.
The smoke from forest fires arrived in July. It turned the sky grey and blocked the sunlight—another thing that crops need to grow.
Around the middle of August, the worst of it was over. We harvested what we could. We had done our best to keep our crops alive, but it looks like our yields are down about 30 percent.
We won’t make any money this season.
I was going to replace my tractor this year. That plan is now on hold until next year.
Yet that’s how agriculture goes: booms and busts amid a lot of years that are average. If you do your work well, you’re ready for the lean years. They don’t surprise you. They’re a part of a farmer’s life and agriculture production cycles.
You never know what you’re going to get. Five years ago, our biggest problem was too much rain.
One thing is certain: You can’t fight Mother Nature. You just accept what she does, adapt as you can, and be resilient.
And if the smoke turns the sunsets into an otherworldly orange, like something from a science-fiction movie, then enjoy them while you can.