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Soaking up the sun

By Ken Root

Snow in May is not a good sign of spring! Yet, the aftermath of the historic late cold spell is almost breathtaking. Nature is ready to go. It appears the next month will have double speed flowering and leafing of trees as well as vegetative growth of pastures and lawns. The challenge will be the actual planting of spring crops into soil that has yet to gain enough warmth to turn into media that links sprouting seeds with nurturing minerals and moisture for the seasons ahead.

Abstract as it may seem, the key to all physical life is the sun. We convert its energy into plants that feed the animal kingdom and create a cycle of life, growth, death and decay that starts over again as the sun warms the soil each spring. It is an elegant existence that we take for granted in years when the seasons show up at the calendar indicates they should.

This year would not be so extreme if it hadn’t been for last year, which was skewed wildly in the opposite direction. I question how we are going to document climate change in this part of the world when the variation, year to year, is as wide ranging as we have recorded in three generations of historical records.

“This was the largest snowfall for a single day in May, and the largest for the month of May, in 147 years of records,” stated the chief meteorologist at WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa.

Farmers may not yet be feeling the love this year, as the Internet was full of pictures of planters that were covered with snow. The only warm spell came just a week ago as farmers were able to put down spring fertilizer and contemplate planting ahead of the snow storm or waiting until the cold and wet period had passed. Those who planted now have to let nature determine whether they were sages or stooges as the crop emerges.

But the joy of the season cannot be overstated by anyone who has walked on green grass in a warm breeze. The power of the sun is unmistakable and the response of the world is symphonic. The sounds of spring are a wonderful accompaniment to the beauty of a changing environment.

This year the odds are low that a very late frost will take out the fruit crop. If it happens, it is one more for the record books, but it looks like the apple trees are safe and the berry crop will be late but bountiful. Farmers markets are suffering in the early season with asparagus and spinach as about the only crops that are mature enough to sell from outdoor gardens. A lot of growers have gone to high-tunnel greenhouses that will give a couple of weeks’ advantage to their products and should command a higher price from a starved public.

For me, I put up a hammock on Sunday and plopped down in it to soak up the sunshine on my abundant acreage of skin. “You are as white as a toad’s belly,” was my mother’s phrase each spring as men’s shirts would come off at the beginning of haying season. That was often followed by: “You are as red as a beet,” when they kept their shirts in the truck too long as they toiled in the bright sunshine. I slathered sunscreen to avoid my memories of her admonishment.

This is going to be a compressed crop year unless the first frost of fall comes late. That concern has farmers trying to figure what corn hybrid to plant or whether soybeans will mature before being nipped and damaged. Wheat farmers have had the reverse. Multiple freezes, far later than normal, are offsetting increased moisture that might have brought yields back to normal. The assurance of a late harvest, even with good moisture will make it risky to plant a second crop that may not mature before fall.

We don’t want another drought but we want lots of growing degree days…now! The ideal for corn is to get temperatures into the high 80s during the day and then cool down at night. Strong sunshine and low humidity will bring that but the need for rain is still great over the western Corn Belt. It could be a cool summer. It could be a hot and humid summer. It could be another year of below average rainfall. The meteorologists don’t know what is to come but we still listen to their historical projections of the future.

No matter what comes, I love this season. It is the redemption all manner of environmental insults and extremes that we endure in the Plains and Midwest. The sun is bright, the wind is light, the grass is green and the air is clean. Soak it up!

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 kenroot@gmail.com.

Date: 5/13/2013



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