Seamus McGraw | Betting the Farm on a Drought | University of Texas Press | April 2015 | 41 minutes (7,419 words)

The sun wasn’t even up yet when Ethan Cox tugged his work boots on, along with his old barn coat, the lighter one. He knew he wouldn’t need the heavier one. He didn’t even have to check the local forecast. It was going to be warm that day, low to mid-80s as the day wore on, he guessed, pretty much the same as it had been for quite a while. He glanced out the bedroom window at the sky. It was gray and brittle. It was going to be dry, too. That was no surprise either. The first week of March 2012 had been unusually dry. So had the whole month of February. In fact, the whole winter had been warm and dry. The yuppies and the liberals across the river in St. Louis or up in Chicago or out in San Francisco and New York all talked about that as being evidence that the climate was changing, that the bill was coming due for a century’s worth of pouring all manner of poison into the atmosphere.

Ethan’s neighbors thought that was kind of amusing. They saw the warm, dry weather as a godsend. After two years of record or near-record flooding, a deluge in 2011 so powerful that the Army Corps of Engineers decided to blow up the levees along the Mississippi River to keep Cairo, Illinois, from being washed off the map and such brutal rainstorms a year earlier that the region suffered $3 billion in losses and crop and infrastructure damage that forced many farmers in the region to the brink of bankruptcy, to them the unseasonably warm and dry spring of 2012 was a sign from above that the worst was over, at least for now.

Ethan didn’t think much of the liberals’ point of view. They were always warning that something — the weather, the pesticides and fertilizers the farmers used, the very crops they grew, modified by biochemists in some corporate lab someplace — was going to tilt Earth on its axis and unleash all kinds of demonic forces. And it always seemed as if the only solution was to rein in farmers like Ethan, make them toe the line, regardless of what it cost in terms of productivity, regardless of what it cost the rest of the world in terms of slowing down the rate of food production even as the number of hungry mouths to feed skyrocketed around the globe. Not that he was entirely hostile to liberal ideas — he didn’t mind the farm subsidies that came his way.

Ethan paused in the sleepy kitchen of the White Hall, Illinois, farm where he had been born sixty-five years earlier, poured himself a cup of coffee, and then trudged out the side door, across the yard toward the workshop, a kind of tractor shed and makeshift office that he had turned into the nerve center of the 3,000-acre corn and soy and cattle farm he had built the place into. He was moving a little slower these days. His knees weren’t what they used to be. Neither was his heart. Seemed as if his body was every bit as creaky as the old corrugated metal sliding door to the workshop that grumbled and screeched in protest every time he hauled it open.

No, Ethan didn’t think much of the liberals’ point of view. But he didn’t think much of his neighbors’ unbounded optimism either.

No, Ethan didn’t think much of the liberals’ point of view. But he didn’t think much of his neighbors’ unbounded optimism either. Maybe the liberals’ warnings about global warming were overblown, but something was happening. Those two years of back-to-back storms were like nothing he had ever seen, and despite his best efforts to gird his land against nature’s ravages — adopting no-till or strip-till farming to leave a protective cover on the ground and reduce the worst effects of erosion, for example — those storms had taken a toll, even on a farsighted farmer like him. His 2011 crop was a fraction of what it should have been. So was his 2010 harvest. Another year like that, and instead of getting paid, he’d owe money to the corporation that took his corn.

The thing was, there had been an ever-increasing number of years like that. In the fifty years since Ethan was a teenager, the number of extreme rain events — storms dumping more than three inches of rain on the sprawling farm fields of Illinois — had increased by 83 percent. There were years like 1993 and 2008, years that saw the worst flooding in the Mississippi basin since the 1930s, and years like 2010 and 2011, when one after another, storms of amazing fury threatened to drown the young corn and soy before they got their heads up.

The good years were getting to be fewer and fewer. Ethan understood that. And as far forward as he could peer into the future, he saw that continuing.

He also understood in a way that most of his neighbors and even many scientists didn’t yet that the volatility in the weather, those forces that were driving the rains, could—and no doubt would — just as easily shut off the tap altogether, leaving the same fields that only a year earlier had been inundated baking under a relentless, desiccating drought.

Those clear, warm blue skies that had raised his neighbors’ hopes were, for Ethan, a bit more ominous. All winter long, it had been gnawing at him. Every time he’d head out on his ATV across snowless fields, he’d think back to those days six decades ago when he had been out here with his own father, plowing through axle-deep drifts in the first of several old Jeeps his father had bought — he had fallen in love with the things after a visit to Ethan’s uncle in the mountains of New Mexico in the years after the Second World War, one of the few times Ethan had ever been that far from southern Illinois. That was back in 1954. The old man had figured that a Jeep like that would come in handy; they could use it to chase cattle or to haul back a deer after hunting, and it could even help them earn a couple of extra bucks if he fitted a blade to the front of it and hired himself out to clear his neighbors’ lanes and driveways of snow. His father had been right. He usually was, Ethan thought. Maybe that was part of the reason why Ethan still kept an old Jeep around the place, as a kind of rolling monument to his father’s foresight.

Of course, Ethan hadn’t really needed the Jeep much lately. The snows just weren’t falling the way they used to. The cold didn’t settle long enough or deep enough to freeze the water lines that snaked from the house his family had lived in for six generations to the livestock pens anymore. It seemed to Ethan that the deep cold and snows of his childhood were now as unusual as January thaws used to be.

Maybe it wasn’t climate change, at least not the way the liberals talked about it. But something was changing — call it the weather if you like — and it had been changing for a long time. And there was no reason to believe that it wasn’t going to continue. For how long? He didn’t know for sure.

Ethan was a guy who measured time by the sort of work he did and when he did it, and by that reckoning, they hadn’t experienced the kind of winters that were common when he was a kid, not in any of the years since he had sold a chunk of land to a corporate hog operation and leased it back, with the proviso that he not only would plant 800 acres of hay and 600 of corn on the land, but would also handle snowplowing operations for them for $75 an hour. There hadn’t much snow to speak of since then. That was about fifteen years now.

That previous winter had been an especially mild one, and all winter long Ethan had been thinking about the lessons his father had taught him — how in those years when the real deep freezes and the snows didn’t come, those years when the water lines never froze and they never had to haul water by hand to the hogs and cows, how those winters were, as often as not, followed by drought. Ethan’s father didn’t know the first thing about interdecadal variations in ocean temperatures, about how El Niño/La Niña cycles in the Pacific Ocean could cause flooding one year in the Mississippi River basin and drought the next. Hell, the old man didn’t even believe that glaciers really existed. But he knew how to read the signs on his own land. And he taught his son how to do the same thing.

And all winter long, the signs were pointing toward drought.

The meteorologists who worked for NOAA didn’t have any evidence to suggest that a drought was coming. The bean counters in St. Louis and Chicago and Rapid City, South Dakota — the folks who kept their eyes on such things and told farmers when they should plant — certainly hadn’t seemed at all alarmed. Neither did Ethan’s neighbors. After two destructive years, they were almost giddy about the odds for this year’s crop. They would start planting by the end of March, or maybe early April at the latest, right when the bean counters told them they should. If they were worried about anything, it was the idea that maybe the storms were just laying low for a while, and that later in the year — May, June, maybe even into July — the savage rains would return. They thought that was unlikely, though. And as long as they could count on crop insurance, they’d probably be safe. But that meant they had to follow the rules. Plant too late, plant too early, and you ran the risk of not being able to get crop insurance. That was all right with them.

The good years were getting to be fewer and fewer. Ethan understood that.

But it wasn’t all right with Ethan. He was as sure as he had ever been about anything that the flooding rains weren’t going to come. In fact, he was sure that pretty much no rain would come. In fact, he was so sure, he was willing to bet the farm on it. He wasn’t at all certain that the farm could survive another year of bad crops, and there was even less of a chance that he’d be able to survive it if he didn’t have crop insurance.

But a good yield could help him gain back some of the economic ground the last two years had washed out from under him. Especially if he could get his crops in early, before the other farmers got theirs to the elevators and while prices were still high. The way he figured it, there was enough of the winter’s scant moisture still trapped under the matting of last year’s crops—matting left behind because he had adopted no-till, strip-till, and minimum-till techniques long before most of his neighbors did—that his corn and his soy could get a head start, and be far enough along and strong enough to withstand the drought if and when it did hit. Of course, there was a major risk. If he was wrong, if there was no drought but instead those storms returned, with their flooding rains, their wicked winds, and hailstones the size of your fist, his lanky corn might be even more vulnerable than his neighbors’. He certainly would be more vulnerable, because he’d have little or no insurance.

Over the course of the winter, he sat in his workshop on an overstuffed couch — no longer presentable enough to remain in the old farmhouse where company might see it, but serviceable enough for the workshop — under the collection of arrowheads his father and grandfather had plowed up over the decades. Some of them were fake, but most were artifacts of people who had once lived on this land, including, perhaps, some of the same people who had built the massive ceremonial mounds at nearby Cahokia and who had vanished, possibly partly because they couldn’t adapt to changes — call it what you will, the weather, the climate. Those challenges may not have been all that different from the challenges Ethan and his neighbors were facing.

Ethan sat on the couch and considered his options.

By the end of February, he had pretty much made up his mind. He called his twin grown daughters, Lydia Cox Hiesterman, newly married, living on a farm in Kansas with her husband and infant daughter, and Maria Cox, who was pursuing the life of a thoroughly modern professional woman in Rapid City. Both of them knew the risks. Not only had they grown up on the farm, they had both found their way into the crop insurance business. But they also knew their father, and though they certainly didn’t see eye to eye with him on a lot of things — list any of the controversial issues of the day, from abortion to immigration — when it came to something like this, they believed with almost perfect faith that their father’s instincts were worth more than all the carefully vetted analyses of all the bean counters in the world.

If their father was going to gamble everything on an early planting, they would stand behind him. Maria had one condition. If he was going to do it, she was going to stand behind him not just figuratively but literally as well.

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The truth was, she had been reconsidering her place in the world for a long time, and it had slowly started to dawn on her that all the things she had gone to Rapid City to find in herself — that sense of independence, the ability to make your own decisions and make your own way in the world, to trust your instincts, and reap the benefits or bear the consequences — those things weren’t in the water in Rapid City. They were in her. It was what her father liked to call “the tilth gene,” a peculiar sense of the connection between place and the people who live there and a sense that for either to be truly independent, the one is wholly dependent on the other. It had been planted in her by her father, just as it had been planted in him by his father, and by his father before him. If Ethan Cox was going to bet it all on his instincts, Maria Cox would be right there with him, making the gamble, too. She had a few changes to Ethan’s plan, of course, but they could talk those over when she got there.

That pleased Ethan. It would be nice to have his daughter home. But first he had work to do. And so, on that unseasonably warm morning, March 13, 2012, weeks earlier than he had ever done it before, at precisely the moment that NOAA meteorologist Hoerling would later say no farmer could have gone out into the fields and predicted a drought, Ethan Cox fired up his tractor and headed out to his fields to plant. Because he was sure a drought was coming.

He was right. That summer, the rains were rare, and by the end of the season most of his neighbors, like farmers across the Midwest, saw their crops wither in the fields. Ethan, meanwhile, having listened to his land, harvested early and had one of his best crops in years.

* * *

The word the scientists use is “adaptation,” and for a very long time it was considered a dirty word among many of those involved in the environmental movement. In his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore warned that any attempt to adapt, to try to make peace with a changing climate, was in effect a capitulation. By 2013, faced with rising sea levels and with the prospect of more furious storms, with more vicious prolonged droughts, like the one that has settled over much of Texas for years, or, as in the case of the Midwest drought of 2012, with droughts that appear suddenly, Gore had changed his mind. “I was wrong,” he stated bluntly in his 2013 book, The Future: Six Drivers of Social Change. Adaptation and mitigation, efforts to reduce the amounts of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere, had to work hand in hand. By 2013 that message was beginning to be heard. Sure, there were still those who resisted, extreme voices on the far right, people like Oklahoma senator James Inhofe who insisted that the whole idea of human-driven climate change was a hoax perpetrated on a gullible populace as a kind of stalking horse for a left-wing plot to turn the whole country into a dystopian, socialistic hellscape like Cuba or, worse, like Ithaca, New York. But increasingly, and on a very local level, places that were already starting to see the devastating cost of inaction, places like New York City in the wake of Sandy, South Florida, and the coast of California, were beginning to realize that in this polarized nation, action from above was unlikely, at least in the near term, and that they needed to adopt measures that recognized the changing reality — to adapt.

In other words, they were starting to realize what Ethan Cox and thousands of other farmers and ranchers all across the country had understood for a very long time: It was up to them.

Hell, the old man didn’t even believe that glaciers really existed. But he knew how to read the signs on his own land.

As I’ve traveled around the country these past few years, I’ve seen it again and again, that deep, in-your-bones understanding that things are changing, carved into the brows of farmers and ranchers and fishermen. But there was something else there as well — a sense of responsibility, a belief that if they work hard enough, farm smart enough, have enough faith in themselves and their abilities that have been handed down from generation to generation, they can survive.

Scratch any of them and you’ll as likely as not find a climate skeptic. These are, after all, conservative people, by and large, and the issue of climate has become a cultural touchstone, a defining dogma that fits neatly into the whole catechism of both the right and the left and occupies a space somewhere between gay marriage and gun control.

But probe a little deeper and what you find is that fundamental sense of pragmatism mixed with self-reliance that has always been a part of the character of rural Americans. A lot of them, like Ethan, are facing a problem that shows no sign of improving on its own. And so they believe it’s up to them to take steps to plan for the future. There are fancy words the academics use to describe those steps: “Mitigation.” “Adaptation.” A lot of rural Americans just call it farming.

I saw that in the spring of 2013 when I wandered onto David Ford’s 7,000-acre cattle, corn, wheat, and cotton operation on a sun-bleached stretch of back road outside the little Panhandle town of Dumas, Texas. Just two days earlier, I had been sitting in the College Station office of the Texas state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, a man who has the unenviable task of having to consistently deliver bad news to farmers and ranchers like Ford, and I asked him for a prediction. He told me that the merciless drought that had been hammering the Panhandle for years, punctuated only by sporadic brief and often violent rain, hail, and snowstorms, was likely to last as far into the future as he could peer. Part of it was natural, he told me. Part of it, perhaps 10 or 20 percent, was the perfectly predictable result of adding roughly 1 degree Celsius to the temperature in that region through our profligate use of fossil fuels and our release of other greenhouse gases, actions that would continue to alter the climate for centuries. This was the new normal, he said. I told him I was heading up to the Panhandle and asked him what he would advise a guy like David Ford to do.

“I generally assume that they’re in a much better position to evaluate all of the considerations than I am,” Nielsen-Gammon told me. “So I don’t tell people what to do.”

And that was just fine with David Ford. As he leaned against his gigantic Case 500 tractor, a 600-horsepower air-conditioned, computer-guided monster, and surveyed the enormous spread his family had amassed over the past three generations, Ford told me he doesn’t know whether he believes in man-made global warming. “You get into this global warming,” he said, “everybody gets pretty hot over that. I don’t know that I agree with global warming.” But he does believe in the drought. And like Nielsen-Gammon, he doesn’t see an end to it. More importantly, he told me, he believes in his sons, both grown men who have returned to the family farm, and in himself, and their ability to battle the weather, at least for now.

As the drought has persisted, he’s come to understand that a deeply held belief was deeply flawed. “We had what we thought was an unlimited amount of water,” he said. The drought taught them that they didn’t. “We thought it had to rain sooner or later. No, it didn’t.”

And so, he said, he and his sons have changed the way they work the land to adapt to the new reality. Like Ethan Cox in Illinois, they’ve aggressively adopted a policy of doing as little plowing as possible to get their seeds into the ground. Not only does it help preserve moisture during those protracted periods when there isn’t a drop of rain — he got less than an inch from January to the end of May 2013, meaning he can draw less from his already overburdened aquifer — it also protects the soil when those sudden quickly vanishing gully washers do occur. “We leave this mulch,” he told me, pointing to a field littered with last year’s corn stubble. “If we get any moisture, it’ll get underneath that. That helps shade the ground and keeps the moisture there longer. If we get a big rain, in my fields there [isn’t] any water running out of them because the organic matter left in the field is holding the water.” He spent the first few years designing and perfecting a rig to handle the ground precisely the way he wanted it to. It’s an ongoing experiment, he said.

They’ve experimented with different kinds of crops, different kinds of seeds, including the genetically modified drought-tolerant seeds made by a handful of multinational companies —  Monsanto, Pioneer, a company for which Ford tests and sells seeds, and others — products that, he notes with some degree of amusement, raise the ire of many of the same people who argue

most passionately for the need to do something immediately to fend off the hazards of a changing climate. And they’ve experimented with different techniques to reduce water consumption, discovering in the process that corn planted earlier in the year seemed to use about four inches less water per acre than corn planted later. For now, that experiment is limited to a few test rows at the edge of Ford’s farm. He’s tried to interest scientists from the state and its universities in expanding the experiment, but so far he’s had no takers. He’s at a loss to explain why.

A lot of them, like Ethan, are facing a problem that shows no sign of improving on its own. And so they believe it’s up to them to take steps to plan for the future.

It doesn’t matter. He and his sons have other options for trying to adapt. In recent years that eff ort has included changing the mix of crops that they plant, quadrupling the amount of cotton they produce — their yield went from 300 to 1,200 pounds in less than four years, because cotton fares better in the relentlessly arid environment of the Texas Panhandle than corn or wheat, he says. Besides, they don’t need as much corn anymore. Unlike other areas of the country where much of the corn crop goes to the production of ethanol, most of Ford’s harvest — 98 percent of it, he estimates — used to go to feed the vast herds of cattle that used to roam the region. Most of those cows are gone, sold off or moved out of state, he says, victims of the drought. He’s kept his own herd together, in part by culling out the temperamental, high-impact European breeds he once ran — Charolais, Salers — in favor of more rugged, smaller frame, and less voracious Angus crosses, and he feeds them not just the corn he grows, but the residue left over when his cotton is ginned. To be sure, Ford is aware that there is a raging debate in some quarters over whether operations like his are the most effective use of farmland, whether we might be better served in the long run by evolving to the point where rather than growing food to feed cattle, we’d raise crops that people could eat, but for the moment, he says, that’s a debate for academics. Adaptation, he says, doesn’t mean just adapting to the changing realities of rainfall and temperature; it also means adapting to the economic realities, which, if they ever change, will change glacially.

What’s most intriguing about David Ford’s experiments in adapting to a changing environment is that they also are driving a bit of what scientists like to call mitigation as well. The experiments he’s conducting demand less diesel fuel, he told me. He now makes about a third as many passes on a field as he did before he adopted minimum-till practices, and he spends two-thirds fewer hours in the tractor seat over the course of a year. At the same time, however, he requires more-precise and more-powerful machines, hence that massive beast of a tractor that he climbed down from when I first showed up on his land. He had guided me by cell phone as I made my way to the back field in my rented ecobox (a car that got about 39 miles to the gallon), and he got a bit frustrated with me when I kept getting lost, making a left at the corral when I should have made a right, or heading straight past the tractor shed when I should have looped around it.

I understood his frustration when he showed me the machine that he had just been driving. It was outfitted with a GPS-guided auto-steering system so utterly precise that it could travel the length of his longest field and never deviate more than an inch in a half mile or more. Though it churned out about the same bone-crushing levels of horsepower as a NASCAR racer, the computer-managed tractor seldom crept above an idle. That was a little disconcerting at first for a guy like Ford who had grown up jamming gears on old-fashioned tractors. “I’m used to the old school,” he told me, “the old tractors shuddering and pulling, that’s the way she ought to run, and all of a sudden I get in there, I watch the RPMs drop 400 and I go up three gears from where I was. And I’m like, this does not make sense. I don’t hear the engine roaring. But yet my fuel consumption is down.”

In fact, even fitted with a Diesel Exhaust Fluid system, which uses synthetic urea to reduce noxious emissions from the tractor’s exhaust pipe, the lumbering machine burns less fuel in a month than he used to burn in a week in the old days.

AP Photo/The Courier, Karl Anderson

To be sure, the amount of fuel he’s saving is a drop in an ever-rising ocean of fossil fuels that we continue to consume at an increasing pace, but in some small way, the experiments that David Ford and his sons are running are evidence that maybe Al Gore was right in 2013 when he said that he had been wrong in 1992, that maybe adaptation and mitigation didn’t have to be at odds with each other. Maybe they could complement each other, and even if you didn’t necessarily believe that humans were altering the climate, maybe there were good economic reasons to continue the experiment. At least that’s the way Ford sees it.

Of course, not all the strategies to deal with the changes that rising temperatures have wrought on the Panhandle are as encouraging as the ones Ford has employed. You can see that when you pull into the little town of Guthrie, 50 miles south of Dumas, across some of the most drought-stricken land in all of Texas. If you had driven through these parched lands just a few years ago, you would have seen something very different. You would have seen thousands upon thousands of black baldies and other breeds of beef cattle grazing in pastureland that was never the greenest on earth but was enough to support a massive cattle industry. You would have seen water tanks brimming and ranch hands for massive operations like the historic 6666 Ranch, the foundation upon which the little town of Guthrie was built, tending it all.

It had never been easy to tend thousands of cows on just under 300,000 acres split between the two ranges that the 140-year-old outfit runs, one in Guthrie and the other in Central Texas, said Joe Leathers, manager of the 6666 cattle operation. There was always competition for water between the ranchers and the others who depended on the limited rainfall and struggling aquifers, among them the burgeoning natural gas industry, though for the most part they were able to accommodate each other and both were able to thrive.

At least as long as the rain kept falling. But then the rain stopped falling. It was the summer of 2011 when things started to get really bad, Leathers told me. “We went into . . . summer as dry as we’ve been in years, with no predicted rain.” In a lifetime spent ranching in Texas, Leathers had seen plenty of droughts, and at first he and the other ranchers assumed that it would pass. After all, droughts had always passed before. “We did the typical ranch deal during drought situations. We culled our cows. Got rid of our old cows, weaned our calves early, and lightened up.”

For the next several months, he said, he and the nearby ranchers bided their time, hoping that things would change. “We were kind of kicking the can down the road two months at a time, thinking it’s gonna rain.” But it didn’t rain. “Our earth tanks started drying up,” he said. “We were down to windmills and pipelines.”

‘What we’ve got to do in agriculture is the same thing that we’ve done my whole life and my forefathers before us — learn to live with nature and work with nature.’

In Austin, in Washington, in the think tanks in the East and the universities, there were a lot of people who had the luxury of debating whether climate change was real, whether it was manmade, whether we could do anything about it, or whether we should.

No one in Guthrie had that luxury. It wasn’t raining. It wasn’t going to rain, at least not anytime soon, and so Leathers and some of the other ranchers got together and faced some hard facts. They took a survey of their water supplies, factored that out over three quarters, and then decided that they’d have to cut their herds in half.

But even that turned out to be too little, too late, and at last, faced with the prospect of a drought that could go on for years, Leathers and a few other ranchers decided to do the unthinkable. For the first time in 140 years, 6666 Ranch would move its herd, virtually all of it, out of Texas. “By the end of that summer I had moved approximately 4,000 cows and had eight different places leased from Nebraska and South Dakota to Montana.”

Joe Leathers would never put it this way, but in a sense, the 6666 cattle operation had become a salvage operation, one of the nation’s first climate refugees, perhaps — among the first to adopt the most daunting of adaptation strategies. Retreat.

It may be hard to believe, but that strategy has, at its core, a fundamentally hopeful message. And it also contains a hefty dose of respect for the power of nature and for the responsibility to tend it. Joe Leathers wouldn’t use those words, though. Not exactly.

Instead, he used these words: “The goal is to stay there, and hopefully when it rains here, we can restock.

“The big deal here in Texas for us ranchers — and I can’t speak for anybody else in Texas — but for us ranchers, you have to take care of your country. The worst thing you can do in my opinion is overstock your country and feed it off down to the dirt just trying to hang on. So we’re trying to leave the country in good enough shape that when it does rain we’ll be back in business pretty quick.”

And tending to that country, for a guy like Leathers, also means tending to the people who tend it. In 2013, more than a year after Leathers moved the herd out of Texas, 6666 was continuing to pay its ranch hands, some of whom have been with the outfit for three generations. They were spending most of their time mending fences or hacking back the drought-loving brush that threatens to swallow more of the range with each passing rainless day, and periodically, he’d round up some of them — young Steve Briggs and Steve’s father-in-law and a few other guys — and head north to tend the herd for a few weeks. For as long as Leathers can manage, they’ll still collect a paycheck, and that paycheck will help support the little town of Guthrie, Texas. Because someday, he believes, it will rain.

If you ask Joe Leathers whether he believes in man-made global climate change, he’ll tell you no in no uncertain terms. “We have faced droughts and severe rain and severe weather conditions in the United States and globally since the beginning of time. . . . I think the worst thing anybody can do is think that this is some sort of man-made problem and get men to try to fix it.”

But ask him what his responsibility is and you get a very different answer. “What we’ve got to do in agriculture is the same thing that we’ve done my whole life and my forefathers before us — learn to live with nature and work with nature.”

In essence that’s the same answer that Ethan Cox had given me when I turned up on his front porch to talk to him about his all-or-nothing-at-all gamble against the drought. He had, of course, been right.

Cox admitted that at first he had been reluctant to meet with me. “I never met a liberal before,” he said, and so, he confessed, he had his daughter Maria, who was, in his estimation, a bit worldlier than he, vet me first, to make sure that I wasn’t some tie-dyed extremist.

I had already known that, of course.

He needn’t have worried, I told him. Though there was a time in my youth when I strutted around with a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book peeking out of the back pocket of my jeans, these days all that was likely to be stuffed in there was a pack of Rolaids. At this stage in my life I’m a lot less interested in stoking the fire in my belly than I am in simply finding a way to manage it.

Besides, I wasn’t there to lecture him. I was there so he could lecture me, explain to me how it was that he had seen the devastating drought coming when no one else, not even the scientists paid to warn him, did. I was there so he could explain to me how it was that even if he didn’t believe that we were responsible for at least a portion of the changes, he still had the foresight to armor himself against them.

He turned to his daughter and smiled. “You’re gonna think your dad’s a flaming northeastern liberal,” he began. She smiled back. “There’s two types of farmers,” he said. “One either has the tire gene or the tilth gene. You either want a big shiny red or green tractor to disc up all the ground or you want to conserve that ground and make sure you have the right tilth.

“I’d like to say that I have the tilth gene rather than the tire gene.”

We had been sitting there, sipping coffee and talking, for more than two hours, Ethan hunching forward every time I reached into my tobacco pouch and rolled a cigarette. Knowing about his health problems, I had offered not to smoke, at least not inside the workshop, but he would have none of it. His doctor may have ordered him to give it up a few years earlier after his heart had started giving him trouble, and he had reluctantly kicked the habit, his only real vice, but he still enjoyed smoking vicariously. Besides, he hadn’t seen anybody roll one in decades, he told me, and it sort of took him back to his youth.

We had, by that point, covered everything I had come there to talk with him about: his prescience about the drought, his strategies to combat it, the risks he had taken, the way his approach to farming had changed and adapted with the times and with the increasingly volatile weather. That’s when Ethan turned the tables on me. He had not been kidding when he said that he had never met a liberal before.

He was part of the place, and the place was one of those places where things change slowly, if at all.

Where would he have met one? He had, he told me, never been on an airplane, never taken his kids on vacation — the cows wouldn’t permit it — and rarely ventured more than a few miles from the little house where he had been born or off the prairies that stretched out forever from the little village of White Hall. He was part of the place, and the place was one of those places where things change slowly, if at all. I had recognized that earlier that Sunday morning when I stopped at a little convenience store in White Hall to grab a cup of coffee and to phone the Coxes to tell them that I was a few minutes away. I could have been in any farm town in America, sitting there at a chipped Formica table, listening over my shoulder as the slightly overweight middle-aged guy behind me talked about the local bars he had visited the night before in celebration of his fiftieth birthday. His friends called him “Cheetah,” a nickname he had picked up in high school because, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him now, back then Cheetah could run like the wind.

It’s hard, I’m sure, for a lot of Americans, a nomadic people who for the better part of the last six decades have moved from identical suburb to identical suburb, to imagine that there are still places where a guy who’s eligible for his first AARP card is still called by his high school nickname, and is still called that by the guys who gave it to him. But there are. And there are millions of people out there who live not far from their fathers’ graves in places like Dumas, Texas, and Ellsworth Hill, Pennsylvania, places where the rules of the game change slowly, if at all, and where when change does come, it is often viewed with suspicion. These are places where individuality is prized, in large part because there is a social support structure that has been tested over generations, and certain key values are so much a part of that social fabric that there’s no need to talk about them at all except to use them as a marker to draw the boundary line between who “we” are and who “they” are out there in the suburbs and the cities.

It would be easy to dismiss all that as quaint and provincial, and too often in our political and cultural discourse, we do just that, with the right trotting out cartoon images of good, hardworking rural Americans to bolster some political argument, and the left using equally cartoonish images to depict them at best as rubes and at worst as ignorant cogs in a vast machine who are working against their own best interests.

That, of course, presupposes that people in rural America are willing to accept, hook, line, and sinker, whatever some guy with polished shoes tells them, and anybody who’s spent any time in rural America can tell you that is certainly not true.

It was precisely because Ethan understood that he couldn’t believe what he had been told that he began quizzing me, not on my attitudes about global climate change but on a series of issues that, at least on the surface, had nothing to do with the subject. We talked about abortion, a subject that he sees as an indication of social decline, and he understood when I told him that I was pro-choice but that didn’t mean that I was pro-abortion.

We talked about people we knew who had struggled with the decision, we put faces on the issue, and talked about our shared responsibility to those people we knew, and to those we didn’t. The subject changed to guns. We talked about the semiautomatic rifle with the 30-round clip that he keeps in the back of his Jeep, on the off chance that he has to plink a coyote before it gets a calf (he seldom hits one), and he allows that if it would stop the kinds of massacres that had taken place a few months earlier at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, or a few months before that at a movie theater in Colorado, he’d gladly swap his .226 for the flintlock rifle I use to hunt deer in Pennsylvania. He even chuckled when I told him that I carry the gun that the Second Amendment more or less explicitly permits me to carry.

For the next two hours or so, Ethan and I talked. It wasn’t an interview anymore. It was a conversation between two old men who, while we may come from different ideological camps, have each managed in our lives to cheat catastrophe long enough to learn to listen to each other.

And at the end of the conversation, I rolled a final cigarette, and Ethan took a deep breath when I lit it. “You know what, Ethan?” I said. “We’ve just sat here for the better part of four and half hours, a good old-fashioned rock-ribbed conservative like you and a good old-fashioned dyed-in-the-wool liberal like me, and we’ve touched on most of the major hot-button issues in the culture wars — abortion, same-sex marriage, guns, even climate. On about 85 percent of those issues, you and I could find enough common ground to find a shared purpose. On another 10 percent or so, we could at least reach an understanding. There was maybe about 5 percent where the differences were just too great. But we could set those aside, at least for now.”

He agreed.

“So why is it,” I asked, “that when I hear people talking about you, and you hear people talking about me, the only thing they ever talk about is that 5 percent?”

Certainly we need to heed the warnings of scientists who tell us that the evidence is mounting, the climate is in flux, and there is a profound risk that if we don’t both armor ourselves against those changes and work diligently to reduce whatever part of it we are responsible for, the consequences could be extreme.

It is also true that there are profound lessons that must be learned from folks like Ethan Cox and Joe Leathers and David Ford, lessons about how to adapt to a changing world, lessons that they learned from their fathers and are passing on to their children. These are people who, even if they don’t believe in manmade global climate change, are adapting to the consequences of a wild climate nonetheless. They’re not doing it because of what they believe. They’re doing it because of what they know, what’s inscribed in their DNA. They’re doing it because they have the tilth gene.

We need to listen to them, even if it’s sometimes hard to hear them over the shrieks of protest from partisans on both sides of the climate debate who demand strict adherence to their almost religious orthodoxy.


Seamus McGraw is the author of a few books, including the critically acclaimed The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone, and A Thirsty Land The Making of an American Water Crisis, and has been a regular contributor to many publications, including The New York Times, Huffington Post, Reader’s Digest, Spin, and, The Forward.

Excerpted from Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change, by Seamus McGraw. Published by University of Texas Press. Copyright © 2015 by Seamus McGraw. All rights reserved.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath