C.W. Gusewell

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Summer closes a sweaty fist around plants, planters

Important bulletins come to me by phone from country friends.

Always in April, it’s “The morel mushrooms are up.”

A month ago, it was “The blackberries are ripening.”

Crucial information like that is not to be found in any newspaper I know of, or on any TV or radio station. For dependable alerts about seasonal miracles, one has to have spotters in the field.

My address of record is in the city, but my heart’s home is situated a couple of hours to the south, in the northern Ozarks – a region of quick streams and shaded woodlands, gentle meadows, stony hillsides and steep ravines, occasional scoundrels and a wealth of friends.

The call about blackberries was from Nancy, one of those friends. Her residence, just across the country road from land of mine, looks out on a fine grassy field where deer and wild turkeys are regular visitors.

She and her companion, Curt, keep me updated on matters they know I’ll find of interest. And the blackberry status report was welcome.

“They’re starting to turn red,” she said. “They’re still small, but they’re coming on.”

When summer closes its sweaty fist around our heartland, the berries compensate a bit for the discomfort. In a good season, the thickets are so loaded with fruit that only clawing thorns and armies of thirsty chiggers limit the quantity of the harvest.

July 4 usually is the prime time for picking. By then the berries are a deep purple, as large nearly as the first joint of your thumb and so unbelievably sweet that the challenge is to put them in your pail faster than you put them in your mouth.

Last year was dry, the berry crop a bit lean. But this spring the rains were abundant. So the outlook was promising. But then the terrible heat and awful drought set in – a spell as brutal as any in recent memory.

City folk are much disheartened by lawns burned brown, by withered flower beds, by the cost of watering and running air conditioners to make 100-plus-degree days bearable.

But for rural folk – farming families and the merchants and suppliers who depend on their patronage – the issue isn’t comfort or aesthetics. What’s at stake are their livelihoods.

My wife and I drove south last week to take stock of the situation in the country neighborhood we know. And while conditions vary – depending on timeliness of planting and spotty local rain showers – the general outlook is bleak.

We passed great acreages of six-inch soybeans with no promise of a harvest. And cattle hunting shade in pastures that showed not a hint of green.

Some fields of corn – raked by scalding winds – failed to tassel and pollinate and have produced no ears as all. The only use is to be chopped for silage.

I asked one of my friends in that area what it cost to grow a single acre of corn. His itemized reply: $70 for seed, $100 for nitrogen and $70 for other fertilizer, $35 for chemicals. Including fuel and machinery wear, it came to roughly $300 in all.

In other words, a man who plants 100 acres, a modest tract, has put at risk an investment of $30,000, subject to the vagaries of weather and the market – exposure that can be partly eased, though never eliminated, by the purchase of federal crop insurance.

Multiply that by the number of acres and number of producers affected across our Midwest region and you begin to understand the extreme pain this nightmarish summer of searing, rainless weeks has inflicted.