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Published June 11, 2012, 08:05 AM

Willows, weather and rains

When I was a kid, my family hayed most of a low, damp meadow. Thickets of willows grew in spots too wet to hay.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

When I was a kid, my family hayed most of a low, damp meadow. Thickets of willows grew in spots too wet to hay.

Then a protracted dry spell hit the region, and the areas with willows became dry enough to hay. But those spots couldn’t be hayed efficiently until the willows were removed. I was given a hatchet and ordered to do the job. My protests — generated by both teenage sloth and genuine respect for trees — were ignored. Trust me, hacking away thickets of willows beneath a hot sun was no fun.

But the region’s long wet cycle has brought another change. Parts of the meadow haven’t been hayed in years, and willows have returned in the wet-again spots.

Those willows are my personal barometer of the region’s long-term weather. I think of them every time someone speculates about big-picture weather trends. Most of the region has been unusually dry since last fall, and it’s natural to wonder whether what had been the region’s roughly 18-year wet cycle is over.

The experts — and I say this respectfully — are of limited value in supplying answers. They’re smart, knowledgeable folks, but they can only make educated guesses about the long-term outlook.

This past winter, a climatologist who spoke at an area farm event was commendably candid about his profession and long-range predictions. He essentially said this: We’re good on short-term forecasts. We’re not so good on the long-range stuff.

All of us involved in area agriculture would love to know in advance what the weather the next few years will bring. Crucial decisions about what crops to plant and how much to pay for land would be vastly easier.

Scientists have made amazing strides in understanding how the universe works. Wheat’s genetic code has been cracked. The treatment of cancer has advanced greatly. New discoveries of planets orbiting distant suns are routine.

So maybe some day scientists will have a thoroughly reliable handle on long-term weather plans on the Northern Plains. I’m not holding my breath, though.

Rain at the right time

One thing is clear: our growing season has been different so far this year.

In recent growing seasons, much of the region saw a lot of rain: heavy rains, frequent rains, pull-out-your-hair unwanted rains. Rain was often excessive and undesirable. It was more of an enemy than an ally.

But precipitation generally has been a good thing so far this year. There’s renewed attention on what farmers call timely rains, or precipitation that comes at a key point in crops’ development.

With a few timely rains, farming can be a joy. Without them, it can be a disaster.

Already this spring and summer, I’ve heard “timely rains” used by at least 30 people involved in area agriculture. I’ve used it myself at least a dozen times. We’ll probably be hearing, and using, the term many more times before harvest.

Beyond that, I have no idea of what the region’s weather will bring. I quit trying to figure that out years ago.

But I sure hope we’re not beginning another long dry cycle. I’m not eager to take a hatchet to those willows again.

Editor's Note: Jonathan Knutson welcomes comments about his column. Mail comments to him at Box 6008, Grand Forks, N.D. 58206-6008. Email him at jknutson@agweek.com or phone him at 701-780-1111. Knutson is a staff writer for Agweek.

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