Spring arrives with the first warm breezes and fogless mornings in our Valley. On our 80-acre organic farm near Fresno, I disk our soil, breaking winter's crust. The peaches and nectarines awaken with blossoms, initially revealing their pink buds then blooming into a glorious canopy. Millions of pink dots blanket the landscape. A new year has begun.
But harsh memories of a cold, bitter winter linger because it rarely rained. Welcome to a new climate age, massive swings in weather have become the rule.
Every spring, I plow the earth and something is plowed into me. Usually it's the spirit of the land, a sense of renewal, a bonding of family with the earth -- and now including our daughter who has come back home to work the farm.
But this year that something is a new realization: Change, especially with the weather, is the new normal.
The lack of rain troubles me the most. Most of the Central Valley has received less than half of normal rainfall. Of course, what is normal? Typical weather models are based on 30-year increments, counted by decades. So if you were born in the 1960s or earlier, your weather memories don't count. (Lending credence to my claim, that as I get older, the weather just isn't what it used to be).
Droughts are common, a lack of rain has been fairly common in the past century. But we have been spoiled -- we're ending a century of abnormally consistent weather years. We developed farming systems built on a culture of expectation. Our few dry years have typically been followed by extremely wet seasons.
We're entering a new "weirding time." Much more volatility is to be expected, with extremes in weather part of the new norm. There's still a debate concerning how much is a direct result of climate change, but it's clear: something is changing.
This past year, the USDA updated its climate zone guide. Nationwide, a warming trend has advanced northward. Planting guides suggest gardeners can experiment with new plants typically grown in warmer regions. That doesn't mean I'll plant bananas and pineapples on my farm. It may simply mean spring comes sooner and lasts longer with more erratic weather.
I know change comes slow to a farm and farmers. But I do recognize a few years of severe drought demands action. Even on our small farm, we've begun a gradual process of change. One of the best acts I did years ago was to fallow 15 acres, much to the chagrin of my father. He grew up with the premise you farm every precious acre you had.
Major shifts in weather point to a new challenge: Survival in agriculture will be based on the ability to change. I can imagine a two-tier strategy. One is based on the very large model: economies of scale benefiting the largest and most efficient operations. The other works for us small operators who are adept at the culture of change; we easily accept, adapt and adopt, finding our niche in the new food chain.
What I'm not so confident about is policy and technology. We don't have policies in place that are equipped to cope with the new normal. For example, we are still fighting over water as if we're clans locked in tribal warfare. We cling to a myopic sense of time: What happens with a 30-year drought?
Also, many believe that we can invent our way out of problems. Technology has created miracles, productivity increased, labor-saving machines introduced and are now part of the landscape. But efficiencies can only reach a certain level before there's a decline on a return of investment. Have we begun to max out technological benefits?
I'm an optimist who has faith in a new creative human spirit that will foster hope on the farm. I believe in the art of farming. Great farmers will balance the forces of economics and productivity with the forces of nature, we will respond to weather as opposed to the fallacy of controlling nature. I don't seek solutions, thinking I have all the answers. Farming in the future is more like a mystery to live; I accept that I won't (and can't) farm the same way every year.
Recently, farm timelines have changed for me. Our daughter, Nikiko, has returned home after college and graduate school and is taking over the farm. She's better equipped to handle change: She doesn't expect to nor wants to do it all my way. She's young. She's naive. She's full of enthusiasm. All that's exactly required for future springs.
Spring does this to me: I think a lot about what is and what is to be. At the same time, plowing the earth is an ancient rite, a renewal of the past, a ritual others have done for centuries and hopefully will do for many more. Like many, I'm reborn every spring.
Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.