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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.



Brendan: except, of course, for hunting season.

Garrett Pendergast

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.


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!



Iceroad truckers.


Growing up in Northern California we had two sharply defined weather phenomena that we lived by.1) We would not see a drop of rain between April and September in Sacramento.2) If we didn't get the snow shutters closed in the Sierra before the first snow we risked losing that house. 18 foot snowpacks at Echo Summit were routine. Otherwise it was top down for six months and skiing the rest of the year. Having lived in New Egland for 26 years, I've come to organize a much greater part of my life around far more subtle progressions of the weather year. This year the hosebibs are still open on the outside of my CT house, a month later than usual, but the oil truck has started to show up every week. Time to take the tomatoes in. Can't wait for Mud Season in Vermont and sugaring in a few months.


As a snowboard instructor, my work is obviously weather-dependent. However, I have found it be somewhat less so than I had presumed. In a lean start to the season a few years ago, I taught a young boy for three days on a tiny strip of man made snow. This boy and his family had flown to Colorado from California for a ski vacation, and he had never seen snow before. This tiny strip of snow, and the unseasonably warm weather, did not do anything to diminish his enthusiasm, and he had more fun than many of the clients I have had in the best snow conditions...

Daniel Botkin

For years, upon the arrival of the true, hard frost, I dutifully harvested all the final dregs of beans, beets and basil by flashlight from our backyard gardens, postponing winter by savoring every last windowsill-ripened beefsteak, eggplant and pepper.

But these days, having learned to grow food year round (permaculture) in unheated high tunnels (steel and plastic greenhouses) the coming of winter weather only means that most of the crops come indoors where the temps are fair, even balmy, well into December...

Only the late planting of garlic fits with this December chill, the newly placed cloves sending down preliminary roots before going dormant for three or four months.


Not just iceroad truckers, almost any kind of transportation. I book a lot of wide truck loads (not houses, but similar size). This time of year my loads can take an extra day because they're only allowed to drive during daylight. Vessels are delayed by weather all times of year. I had one delayed a week by a typhoon earlier this year, and another one's currently fogbound.

john purdue

35 or so years ago down on the farm, my uncle promised me I could do the actual killing at hog killing time. It was an honor and a rite of passage from boyish tasks (prepping the salt cellar, carrying pork, grinding,...generally dealing with pork) to manly tasks (far more dangerous, generally dealing with hogs in what would become a messy, slippery killing field and also involving bourbon once business was finished.) But that year there was no frost at Thanksgiving and so hog killing had to be put off. This was a minor catastrophe, because Thanksgiving weekend was a time when the whole family, including the factory workers, could be there to make the work easier. At any rate, the hog killing went off without me the next week because my parents had to work their real jobs. The next year factory farming pushed my uncle out of the pork business and I remain to this day robbed of my rite of passage by a warm Thanksgiving weekend.


Eric M. Jones

I have to wonder if the slate tale is a bit apocryphal, but regardless, the dependence of weather and industry is certainly linked even tighter than the Dube suspects.

I would argue that all industry is tightly linked to weather (which is "climate" after all). As examples--

1) The industrial revolution took place where workers could work in shops and factories most of the year. Similar work is simply impossible most of the year without air conditioning in tropical or desert climates.

2) African slaves were believed to be able to stand the heat and humidity in tropical or desert lands. Thus, slaves were imported to the Caribbean, etc., to work on sugar plantations, etc.

3) Every industry I can think of, from steel making to brewing to harvesting ice for icehouses, depends on the control of temperatures. One for the process, one for the humans. The weather and climate determine if this is or is possible or economical.

4) In southern Mexico and most places at that latitude, and at low altitudes, working from noon till late afternoon is usually simply impossible most of the year (again no a/c). This determines how life itself is conducted.


Scott Irwin

During hot summer nights in our un-airconditioned Iowa farmhouse, my sisters and I would sleep on mattresses in the southernmost room in the upstairs in order to catch what little wind would come up from the south. I can vividly recall laying on those mattresses during hot July nights when "million dollar" thunderstorms would pass through the area, saving thirsty corn and soybean crops at the last minute. Forty years later I still get a warm fuzzy feeling during summer thunderstorms.

Brian Potter

1- Military actions - George Washington was an excellent weather observer and based some of his tactics on weather forecasts (For example, the Battle of Trenton in Jan. 1777, reliance on freeze-thaw to out maneuver the British.)
2 - Wildland fire management - Whether and how to fight wildland fire, or whether to light a prescribed fire and how to do so, are almost entirely weather-driven issues. Although smoke impacts and social issues like homes, politics are increasingly driving these decisions (though smoke impact is also weather dependent.)
3 - Coffee choices. Do you want that latte iced or hot?


In oil and gas fields of northern Alberta and BC in Western Canada, roads are too soft most of the year for heavy trucks to carry drilling equipment. So drillers must wait for a small window between late December/January and March/April when the ground is frozen solid enough to gain access. Warm winters shrink the window and can cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars.


Here in Japan, most people don't use dryers for their clothes. They hang their clothes out to dry, so very little laundry gets done on rainy days. When you consider that June is the rainy season in most of the population centers, there is a higher demand for cleaning services during that time of year. There is also a large market for detergents that fight the accumulation of mold when people hang their clothes in their (tiny) apartments.

Here in Hokkaido, we get a lot of tourists from Taiwan and southern China who come for the snow.

Panama Hotel

I live in the Republic of Panama where, in many provinces, weather is synonymous with livelihood. Not only in the traditional sense (rain=crops=food) but also considering rainfall is what supplies the lake which powers the nation's greatest asset (the Panama Canal). We own a small boutique hotel here (http://www.loscuatrotulipanes.com) and see a distinct rise/fall in occupancy due to our season (Panama has a high and a low season which is to say a time when weather is perfect and time when its...well, not.) In the high season we're slammed, in the low season, rain keeps occupancy low. I suppose weather puts food on tables in so many more ways than one!