There’s no such thing as “perfect” in farming. Unfortunately, that is rarely obvious — especially to consumers. For every spotless, perfect, uniform piece of fruit or vegetable in the store, there is an ugly, pockmarked, moldy or otherwise entirely unperfect one that stayed in the field or ended up in a compost pile. And it’s pretty rare to walk into a grocery store in the U.S. and find the shelves empty.
The overwhelming perception of Americans is that food is bountiful and abundant, every day of the year. That’s not an accident — it’s the result of a concerted campaign to make sure that citizens of the U.S.A. never have a shortage of food of any kind. But crop failures happen all the time, on our farm and in general. It’s not a positive, feel-good subject but it’s an important one that gets far too little attention.
Crop failures are often caused by the weather, but they can also be caused by diseases, pests, weeds and occasionally, “operator error”. They can happen at any time during the life cycle of the crop, from the moment the seeds sprout in the ground (or don’t, when they are supposed to) to the day of harvest. Sometimes a crop failure is tiny in scope, limited to just one farm. Other times, it can happen across a broad geographical area, such as in 2015, when the unusually warm winter led to most pistachio orchards in California aborting their flowers before they produced any nuts.
It can take a while to recognize the extent of a crop failure. Last fall, we planted garlic in mid-October as always. We had purchased the “seed” (actually individual cloves) from the same company we always do. By December, we knew something was wrong: very few cloves sprouted, and the ones that did were spindly and weak. We called around to other farmers who had purchased the same seed and heard the same story.
We ended up with an almost total loss on the garlic, as you probably realize given how little you have received in your boxes this year. You probably also noticed the garlic was tiny, with tiny cloves. We finally learned from the supplier that they had had a crop failure on their own garlic (the “seed”) and so had had to source from another grower. That outsourced garlic had ended being somehow “defective” — every farm they had sold it to had also experienced a total failure of their garlic crop.
As we move forward into a future with a changed climate, crop failures large and small are going to become more and more common. This will become a critical issue, not just because of interruptions in supply but also because it is going to put farmers out of business or push them to farming the safest possible crops — commodity crops that are protected by federal crop insurance when disaster strikes.
No one in the U.S. is ever going to starve due to a crop failure, even a massive one. Commodity crops like corn and soybeans are overproduced on a global scale. But at some point in the future, all farmers are going to need to be ensured against the vagaries of the changing climate — especially if we want to continue to enjoy the wonderful variety of fresh fruits and vegetables we have come to enjoy.
We don’t know which crop will fail next on our farm — we never do. As far as the garlic is concerned, we were happy to find out that our supplier had a good crop of “seed garlic” this year and we hope it will flourish and produce well for us when we plant it in a few weeks.