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The View from Here: Rhythmic balance of nature

Mike Gangwer Published on 07 December 2012

We have turned into early winter here. The harvesters of machines, green and red, have taken their kernels and bean pods, the trucks parked alongside the road are gone and the stubble disk is moving across the field.

Snow is forecast for this weekend. Among the field slope and bordering the fence row are a line of trees, naked against the cool afternoon, their leaves sitting on the soil and rotting into another life. We have snow up north. But when the first snowfall comes, and gently it comes, the fields turn white.

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There are a few birds flitting around, searching for the small weed seeds that might remain. At times we see geese who have remained behind, not yet airborne south. They enter the field in search of the winter wheat, the smallish shoots of green that balance the white snow on an orange afternoon. Winter wheat is remarkable. When I fly my airplane above the fields of winter, it is the greenery of winter wheat that stands out as life in winter.

Yet in the cornfield there is life even in winter. In the field next to our house, there is a drainage ditch carrying water from a series of subsurface drainage tiles to a creek waterway. Even in the cold snowy days of winter, there are animals living in these ditches. They burrow into the dike and stay out of the ice layer. I see tracks and know they are near.

We have a small herd of white-tail deer living in the woods to the north. Our road, Winans Road, is a popular winter crossing for deer and a few remaining turkeys. We drive carefully down the road, especially at dawn and at dusk.

Behind our house is a pond, a small one that is man-made. Some decades ago gravel was removed and the water table supported a pond. There are fish here and insects. Our yellow Labrador, Jake, now 16 years old, carefully walks out across the deck to the frozen surface.

In usual cadence, before the first snow, farmers are turning over residue into the topsoil. There is much interest in minimum tillage and carbon sequestration. Except that farmers here in central Michigan know that if the spring is wet, then any tillage done in the fall is one less task in the spring.

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We often think about the science of farming and all the reasons why farmers should do this or that. Yet in the practical is the real world of farming, with weather as a scheduler. This fact has been so for millennia. I remember on our own farm in Parkdale, Oregon, trying to finish corn silage chopping in front of a snowstorm.

I marvel at the size and horsepower of the equipment here. Earlier this fall, I rode in a new John Deere combine. The driver let me sit in the jumpseat of the cab. I asked him if he had any idea of his corn yield for this field. He promptly pointed to a little device in the windshield and said 236 bushels per acre. He was smiling, of course.

For those of us farm kids now entering our later years (I turn 60 in December 2012), the transformation of farms and farming has been overwhelming. A 240-acre soybean field about one quarter-mile from our house was all planted with GPS steering. Rows as straight as a ruler. The technology gains and the information available to the grower and farmer are simply overwhelming.

What does not change is the power of the weather and the seasons it brings. We cannot do anything about the snow coming except prepare for its arrival. Farmers adjust with larger equipment with comfortable cabs and lights so they can work around the clock.

The foundations of farming, while science-based, are still rooted in the farmer and his relationship with weather. Yes, a farmer can adjust, but only so much so. The laws of energy and mass have to drive the behavior of all things living and all things decomposing in the crop field. The onset of the first snow is merely a cadence of nature that is rhythmic and in balance with the winds and temperatures and humidity of our atmosphere.

In fact, we must have winter. The period of stasis gives rise to rest, the slowing of metabolism in the microbe to the great tree and those that transit though the cycling of life, death, rebirth and life again. Some may believe the soil is merely inert. But it is not, even in winter.

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It is home to those who sleep and those slowed and those merely adapted to the cold. The brown rabbit races across the corn stubble. The turkey slowly walks across the soybean field. The geese dig in the snow for a wheat shoot. And the small birds live in the fence row in search of a seed.

I am imagining that if we had no winter, what might become of our soils. Would they be as productive? How would we recharge them with water? And what organisms might exist that otherwise are killed at the first frost or the first soil freeze?

Maybe winter is necessary so that we humans can change our pace. We rest more and we have time to catch up on indoor activities. We have time to repair machinery or perhaps take time off for a vacation to a warm spot in the south. But we can assume that winter is a time many folks look forward to … a time of transition between that which is harvested and that which is soon living again.

I have not seen snow for several winters. I have been in parts of the world without winters of snow. I have not shoveled snow, fallen down in snow, run in the snow or flown my airplane on a snow-covered runway. I will soon do all these things.

Snow is forecast for this weekend. I eagerly anticipate its arrival. I shall put on my boots and walk across the wooded area to the north, cross the channel of drainage water, step over the fence row and find myself in a cornfield where the residue is partly embedded in the soil and some is exposed to the wind out of the west.

I have been entering cornfields like this my entire life. When I do, I am quite humbled to explain what I see here. The science baffles me but the poetry does not. It is in this realm the scientist becomes the artist, explaining what we can only imagine, not know.

I enjoy the time in the cornfield, and someday will return here … entering the rhythmic balance of nature. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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