Given that the forecast didn’t help Brock, he would be forgiven for not wanting to give the forecast a second chance. Yet there he was back at the row crop meeting in February 2011 wanting to hear Zierden’s forecast for the next six months.
“There’s no doubt that whenever you’re talking about climate data, you can’t say ‘this is what you need to do,’” Birdsong said. “It just means you’ve got to take that [forecast] information and look at it as either an asset or obstacle out there that you need to navigate through or navigate around.”
For Brock, the forecast is absolutely an asset even if it’s not always right. “As a dryland farmer, you’ve got to do what you can to stay in business because there’s going to be those tough times,” Brock said. “What I learn over the next two to three years [about seasonal forecasts], long-term it’s going to make me money.”
He even has a specific figure in mind. When Bartels asked why he was back at the meeting Brock said, “this is going to make me $50,000.” I asked him where he thought those savings would come from. “I’m hoping to use the information to alter planting dates and crop selection,” Brock noted. “Another thing in the fall is, if we know we’re going into El Niño, and a wet winter, we maybe have to spend more money hiring extra harvesting help.”
Paying for that help is better than leaving crops in the fields, though. In 2009, Brock didn’t anticipate El Niño affecting rainfall in the region as early as it did. Because of earlier-than-expected rains that fall, Brock couldn’t hire help in time and had to leave $25,000 worth of peanuts in his field. For a farmer putting $400,000 a year into his fields, that represents a fairly substantial loss. Brock believes learning to integrate the seasonal forecast effectively with the knowledge from his father’s “50 one-year experiences” will help him avert losses like that and ultimately turn even bigger profits.
Back in Alabama, Johnson also sees specific applications of the forecast that have the potential to save him money. “They’re laying on the dash of my truck and I’m going to make that decision in a week,” he says, referring to his crop insurance policy. Last year he took out extra insurance based on the warm and dry forecast. His great timing with flattening his cover crop and his bumper year of cotton meant he ultimately hurt his bottom line a bit by taking out extra insurance.
Still, having that extra insurance in his back pocket is worth it to Johnson. “It’ll actually cost me money if I have a good crop,” he said. “But I would consider it a good risk with all the information [from seasonal climate forecasts] that’s out there.”
It’s that attitude that Bartels hopes to understand better going forward. “The magic is not in the climate information,” she said as we were driving away from Johnson’s farm. “It’s in how the farmer connects this knowledge with what he already knows.” Together with Birdsong, Brock, and the other members of the group, they hope to continue on their journey and distill a little more of that magic.
Perhaps Peter Pan land is a fitting analogy for where they’d like to go. As Johnson laughed about his trip there last year, Bartels laughed with him. “Well, I am Wendy,” she noted, alluding to another of the Peter Pan story’s characters, making Johnson laugh even harder.
Brian Kahn is a science writer for NOAA’s Climate Program Office based at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society in New York. This article was reviewed by Wendy-Lin Bartels, University of Florida; William Birdsong, Alabama Cooperative Extension; Kirk Brock; Myron Johnson; and David Zierden, Florida State Climatologist.
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The Southeast Climate Consortium
Seasonal Forecasts from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center
Florida Climate Center – Office of the State Climatologist
Alabama Office of the State Climatologist
Soils in the United States
Global Climate Change Impacts in the U.S. – the Southeast