When the Weather Puts Food on Your Table

A lot of industries are obviously weather-dependent — agriculture, tourism, etc. — but I hadn’t known that the traditional production of roofing slate in the U.K. was also at the mercy of the weather. Here is but one of many fascinating things you can learn from Simon Winchester‘s excellent book The Map That Changed the World, about the proto-geologist William Smith:

The quarry sap … plays a vital part in the making of Stonesfield slate — which, not being a proper slate, cannot be manually split along its bedding planes. Quarrymen would only remove the pendle … between October and Christmas, and then leave the rocks set in clamps until the onset of the first sharp frost. The moment that this frost came — invariably in the middle of some January night, and the church bells would have to be rung to summon everyone — the miners would dash out to their waiting clamps of pendle and see if the iced-up quarry sap had done its work, shattering the limestone into tile-thin slabs. If it had, then the men spent the summer cutting and shaping the slates — 120,000 of them in one Victorian summer at the Kineton Thorns pit alone. But if it had not, then the uncracked slabs of pendle would have to be buried in the cold earth to preserve their sap — for if this quarry water was allowed to leach out it could never return, the rock could never be split, the slates would go unmade, and the men would go unpaid. … The villages of Stonesfield and Collyweston, unique in the land, came to rely for centuries on the regular onset of bitter cold, just as a Punjabi farmer would rely, year after year, on the coming of the monsoon.

Having grown up on a small farm in upstate New York, the youngest of eight kids, I couldn’t help but recall our annual response to the first frost. For us, the stakes were just as high. As I once wrote in a family memoir:

Around late September, when the weather forecast was calling for the first frost, I would come home straight from school to help my mother strip the garden. We would haul rickety bushel baskets up from the cellar and stuff them with corn and zucchini and pole beans, all of which we’d can or freeze in the coming weeks. I’d lay an old blanket on the ground beneath the Seckel pear tree, then climb it to shake down the fruit. There were too many tomatoes to pick by hand, and the green ones might still ripen if given a chance, so we’d uproot the plants, haul them into the cellar, and tie them upside down from the crossbeams. As darkness unfolded, we’d use flashlights to pick the last of the cucumbers, our noses running, fingers burning with the chill, the clear black sky pushing its first kiss of winter upon our sacred soil, the two of us scrambling like some eastern cousins of Ma and Tom Joad, prying from the land every last bit God would allow. Too exhausted to eat supper, we’d just sit in the kitchen with a pot of coffee, leaning in toward the woodstove.

Would be interested to hear your examples of weather-dependent behavior.

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  1. Brendan says:

    There are definitely fewer gun shots to be heard during colder months

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  2. Kel says:

    Growing up in an area with lots of Appalachian foothills and not enough snowplows, a good ice storm would basically shut the entire county down. There were levels of snow emergencies at which it was illegal for non-emergency vehicles to be on the road.

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  3. Tristan says:

    I don’t have anything as dramatic as those stories, but since buying a scooter to commute to work on I’ve become much more interested in the weather forecast, both the temprature and the chance of rain. If it’s nice out I’ll take the scooter in to work, which is a quick and easy commute (about 20-25 minutes), not to mention practically free of any marginal cost (it uses about 1/2 gallon of gas a week).

    If it’s too rainy or too cold out, I’ll take the subway in, which ends up being about a 45 min commute that costs $3.40 each way, and involves a lot more uncertainty and cramped spaces.

    Although I still see some hardy souls riding their scooters in just about any weather, I’ve found that the discomfort outweighs the benefits around 48 F, or maybe a few degrees cooler if it’s nice and sunny out, or a few degrees cooler if it’s a little drizzly out.

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  4. JohnnyE says:

    The Erie Canal opened up the products from the American frontier to the rest of the wold. Water transportation is 50x cheaper than land transportation so it’s especially good for bulk products. But because of winter freezing, floods, and droughts it wasn’t always reliable on a regular basis. Because emerging railroads didn’t have as many weather problems they quickly replaced canals for many types of cargo.

    The Great Lakes used to close for the winter to freighter traffic. It might not be as big a problem now, or at least not as long.

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  5. Laurie says:

    We raise grass hay for our horses on a very small Wyoming farm, and by mid July, when the hay should be coming in, I watch the weather anxiously and helplessly. This summer, my hay-expert neighbor watched the weather carefully, and put off cutting his (and our) hay until late in July. Our neighbors, however, cut their hay “on schedule” and many found that, after unexpected and unusual mid-summer rains, all they had was “cow hay” – wet or damp rows of grass that bale into slightly mouldy feed which cows process just fine but which would kill a horse. I’m thankful my neighbor is so generous with his expertise — he cuts and bales for us for half our yield, which wasn’t as high as we expected this year. But my hay’s in the barn, dry and stacked, good “horse hay,” enough to feed my two horses until the grass grows again in the spring. Meanwhile, many of my horse friends, dependent on other hay growers in the area, are still trying to find to feed as winter blows in.

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  6. Morrow says:

    Brendan: except, of course, for hunting season.

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  7. Garrett Pendergast says:

    In the clay soilded oilfields of Southern Illinois oilmen had to wait for a hard freeze so the oil trucks could come and haul your oil . Warm wet winters met months without a paycheck.

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  8. Claire says:

    There were two things I thought of when it came to the weather and our behaviors. The first weather event that drove our decision making here in tornado alley, of course, is the coming of a twister. Our family garden, vegetable, fruit and flowers included were all in danger of being pummeled or uprooted by the spring or fall storm. Tornado weather could bring wind, rain, hail, sudden cold or sudden heat and humidity. I remember watching my mother watching all the subtle signs out our windows while she did her ironing at the ironing board in the living room. Anyone in the midwest considered a “Michigan Basement” a must have, for canned goods and for shelter when the sky got green or black enough. The second weather event was the blizzard. We lived in South Bend, Indiana, near Lake Michigan. South Bend is a lake effect town. My mother grew up on a farm in Ohio. When there is a blizzard, the saying went, a family should be able to shut up tight and live for a month without going outside!

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