By Ken Root
Editor’s note: Ken is traveling this week. We hope you enjoy this Root Zone column originally published in spring 2009.
I’m a daylight junkie. I love long days and become a bit depressed as I see them begin to shorten. At this time of year, I am in full spring mode as each day is two minutes longer than the previous one. On the first day of winter, the earth slowly tilts its northern pole back toward the sun and its track crosses the equator in spring with three more months of expansion of sunlight until we reach the first day of summer. During the lengthening days of spring, the northern hemisphere comes alive with the warming of the soil and activity from plants and animals. Within their midst is the farmer who knows that the time of production is at hand and nature has given him an opportunity he cannot dismiss.
Those who were raised in an agrarian culture are almost instinctive about the longer days and warming temperatures. Winter’s grip is broken only by the sun and the energy it transfers to the land. The snow melts, the pond ice melts and the soil on a southern slope warms enough to allow the first plants to break dormancy and begin their cycle of flowering and seed production. A farmer’s goal is very similar: Plant at the opportune time, hope for rain to allow growth and maturity, then harvest with haste. In abstraction, the bins and barns are refilled and mankind survives for another year.
Our cropping is so industrialized that most of us can only drive by and see the rapid progress made by the planters and drills covering a wide swath as the landscape is seeded in only a few weeks. The growth, sometimes hesitant at first, soon becomes an utter transformation of the landscape. Whether it’s the wheat fields of the Plains, the cotton of the Delta or the corn and soybeans of the Upper Midwest, it is hard to believe that this land that lay bare now brings forth such an abundance of green and gold.
Only in a backyard garden can the common man today enjoy the cycle of agricultural production. I planted tomato seeds in small pots this weekend as I count the weeks before the last risk of frost will pass and the conditions are right to transplant the small and delicate plants into the soil. If rain or garden hose are used to advantage, the fruit will form and ripen here in Iowa by early July—the same date for the first sweet corn, and all summer vegetables will flourish for a few short weeks. The first taste of a vine-ripened tomato brings an indescribable satisfaction, and the first ear of hot buttered corn assures me that you can find heaven on earth.
But the season runs swiftly and nature allows only a brief peak as the heat and diminishing days push all crops toward maturity. The goal of reproduction is maturity of seeds, not fleshy fruit. We’ve tricked the apple and peach into giving us both and, in their season, they are as satisfying from the tree as any of nature’s bounty.
Midsummer is hard for agriculture. The sun bakes the land and all its creatures. Early morning and late evening are the only times when temperatures are moderate enough to venture out with any joy in one’s heart. Plants reach for water and farmers pray for rain. Then the day length, once longed for, begins to diminish and the coolness of fall begins to be sensed. Crops change color. Some shed their leaves and stand as bare stems with mature pods and bowls filled with seeds. The time of harvest is at hand.
Running as many hours as daylight and headlight will allow, the farmer captures and shells an ear of corn that was only a hope four months earlier. One seed becomes hundreds and the wonderful multiplication of life is achieved. Work has its reward. The ever present threat of starvation is pushed back for one more winter and we become comfortable in our accomplishments as the days shorten and the earth cools.
We see the sun go down more quickly and know that it has to move away to do its work in the southern climes before returning the next year. It is a rhythm that we cannot change but only exploit. Our lives and livelihoods depend on it and we can only make incremental improvements in what the earth was doing long before our existence.
I long for spring. I suffer in summer. I revel in fall and I endure winter.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.