A lunch party in the village with friends who are leaving their home and garden after 25 years and ‘downsizing’ to a townhouse in St Mary’s Square in Bury St Edmunds. I’m talking to a neighbouring farmer. ‘We’ve started irrigating the wheat,’ I tell him. ‘First time in 10 years we have irrigated wheat. Some patches have already burned up.’ ‘You’re lucky. I’ve lost 100 acres of barley.’ He looks me in the eye. ‘It’s worse than ’76.’
Farmers are good at singing the blues. We moan about yields and prices, whine about weather/Defra/the high cost of diesel/fertiliser/seed/electricity. I can’t resist telling anyone who’ll listen how the frost three nights ago took out 25% of my vineyard. The hottest April on record pushed the vines forward. On Monday morning, they looked ready for anything: for setting a perfect bumper crop, for making a memorable wine. By Thursday morning, the bottom of the vineyard looked as if there had been a forest fire.
Like most disasters, you don’t know the full extent of the damage immediately. It’s mid afternoon before the green shoots wither and turn black, and the vines look as mournful as a First World War battlefield. As I talk, my fellow farmer’s eyes glaze over. In the arable scheme of things, a barley baron doesn’t think 100 acres of corn and a few acres of vines are equal. I know he’s right. I can survive with a smaller grape harvest, but this drought is making us all jumpy. Irrigation doesn’t mean an infinite supply of water. A reservoir is no substitute for waking in the night, hearing the rain and going back to sleep.
But I know I’m lucky. For a start, I’m not farming on the flood plains of the Mississippi, where the heavy rains and melting snow have created ‘river rage’ that already surpasses the levels of the great floods of 1927. More than 500,000 acres of farmland in the Mississippi Delta are under water. Emails arrive nightly from cousins who have watched the water swallow up their cotton, soybean and corn fields, leaving behind a biblical nightmare of venomous copperheads and water moccasins, alligators and rats. And the crest is still days away.
Most of the anxiety in the Delta is concentrated on the Yazoo River, a confluence where the Tallahatchie meets the Yalobusha before marching beside the Mississippi. I was born on the banks of the Yazoo. As a tomboy, I was proud that Yazoo was Choctaw for ‘river of death’. In later years, I was less proud of its role in the American Civil War, when the Confederates used the first electrically detonated underwater mine in the river in 1862 near Vicksburg to sink the Union iron-clad USS Cairo. Twenty-nine sunken ships from the Civil War still rest in the waters of the river.
But sunken ships don’t concern farmers along the Yazoo right now. Estimates put the loss of cultivated crops, from Illinois and Missouri, down to Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, at 11 million acres. It’s not only crops that are gone. Also lost is a trillion tons of topsoil that is a farmer’s everything. Tornados. Earthquakes. Floods. Record temperatures. Drought. It’s not just river rage, it’s Earth rage.
Like a stuck record, I hear the 1960s song that begins ‘There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.’ The power of hurricanes has almost doubled in the past 30 years as tropical sea-surface temperatures rose by roughly one degree. The Arctic icecap is melting. Rivers flood. Scientists are seeing signs that temperature rises trigger earthquakes. Something’s happening here…
Suffolk farmers are sick with worry about the drought, but they still feel lucky. As I write these words, I look up at a piece of paper taped to the wall above my desk. It’s from a Q&A on global warming in New Scientist six years ago. The last question is: ‘How worried should we be?’ The answer is: ‘How lucky do you feel?’