“We are suffering from drought terribly at this place. Half a crop of wheat, and tobacco, and two-thirds a crop of corn are the most we can expect.” — Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, August 31, 1815
For a week now the skies have been overcast, threatening rain. Plump, gray clouds heavy with moisture loom overhead. Instinctively, we reach for our umbrellas before we go outdoors. It seems inconceivable that the heavens will not open and release a torrential downpour. And yet the heavens do not. There is not even a sprinkle. The clouds move on sluggishly to taunt others, and blue skies return.
As we drive through rural Monroe County, Illinois, the air buzzing with the hum of locusts, we pass rows of sweet corn withering on the stalk. Since the spring, the St. Louis area has experienced two brief periods of precipitation, one lasted a few hours, the other a few minutes. Mr. Kruze, a family farmer from nearby Columbia, Illinois, from whom we buy heirloom tomatoes and freestone peaches at the Soulard Farmer’s Market (est. 1779), has not seen a drop. The Kruzes farm some of the best cropland in the valley, the rich, black bottomland beneath the Mississippi River bluffs. From his fields, situated farther west than downtown St. Louis, you can see on a clear day the Gateway Arch to the north.
The Kruzes have been watering their fields daily with Columbia city water, which they purchase by the gallon. Some crops require more care than others. “I’ve got a soaker hose on the tomatoes 24 hours a day,” Mr. Kruze says. Each day the drought drags on his profit margin shrinks. Others are finding creative ways to address the lack of rainfall. Mr. Kruze’s sister, who owns the farm next door, has an old well with water high in nitrates. The water is undrinkable, but it can be salvaged to water root crops like carrots and potatoes.
Those of us with a weak connection to the soil and watersheds scarcely notice the drought, save those suburbanites who have had to run the sprinklers continually to keep their lawns fresh and green (in some subdivisions, a brown lawn can result in a steep fine for homeowners) and have noticed an extra zero on the water bill. Those who work with the land or on the water, however, have felt it profoundly. Soon we will all feel it at the checkout line of our local grocery store. We may think we have lost our connection to farming, but we are deluding ourselves. “Eating is an agricultural act,” the poet Wendell Berry reminds us.
THE DROUGHT HAS slowed commerce on the nearby Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri rivers as barge operators have had to reduce cargo loads. Every one inch loss of water decreases the carrying capacity of a barge by 17 tons, according to the American Waterways Operators. Some barges have stopped running altogether. Some end up on sandbars stalling river traffic. This too increases costs to farmers.
All of this will mean higher prices for us urban-dwellers. Such things used to be common knowledge, back when we were only one or two generations removed from the land. What happens to the land and water affects us all. This summer we are having to relearn this.