SF Special: Total Eclipse of a Farm
A blizzard in August: That’s the closest gauge David Cansler has for what’s coming. In his 58 years as a farmer, he’s never seen anything like it. “Never before in history and never probably again,” he says, shaking his head from side to side. His sister, Lisa Beth Bell, agrees. “It’s just so hard to figure it out. You have no comparison.”
Like others in Christian County, Kentucky, Cansler and Bell are concerned about how a solar eclipse will impact their farm.
On August 21, 2017, the Great American Eclipse will be the first total solar eclipse exclusive to the United States since 1776. Its path begins in Oregon and ends in South Carolina, cutting a 70-mile-wide band of darkness wherever it goes. Those who don’t live in the path will still be affected: All of North America will see at least a partial eclipse. At the point of greatest eclipse, the world will go completely dark for two minutes and 40 seconds at approximately 1:25 p.m. CDT. And in the center of that darkness you’ll find Orchardale, a farm Cansler and Bell co-own with five family members.
Four miles away, Cansler has 186 acres of his own to worry about. Ask him how a solar eclipse impacts a farm and he’ll say the problem starts with traffic. While the local convention and visitors’ bureau currently forecasts 25,000 to 50,000 guests, Christian County judge/executive Steve Tribble has heard rumors of up to 200,000 for the whole weekend. Either way, you can only get so many people down a two-lane road, which, according to Cansler, means “when that weekend occurs, everything will have to shut down. It’s just going to be swamped with people.”
In West Kentucky tobacco country, late August is cutting season. Inability to get in and out limits how many wagons you can move from field to barn and back, which could leave crops to burn in the fields, a concern county magistrate Mark Wells voiced at a recent town hall. “The loss of work time will be sort of devastating there for a few days if the number of people show up that they’re forecasting,” says Kent Boyd, vice president of Christian County Farm Bureau in Kentucky.
Increased traffic doesn’t just affect tobacco cutting, but other farming matters. “They won’t be able to get the cattle up and down the road to get them to the sales; they won’t be able to truck grain or anything like that,” Cansler says, explaining that two local livestock yards will most likely close eclipse week while tourists trickle in. That’s why Cansler (shown below) compares the event to a blizzard: “They’re just going to have to shut everything down.”
When it comes to weather changes, Cansler has owned his farm since 1978 and knows nature makes the difference between fat and lean, that no matter how hard you work sometimes there's simply too much rain – or not enough – and you lose the field regardless. Like other farmers, he prepares for what he cannot prevent. That’s why he’s ordering extra grain beforehand. “We’ll have to anticipate having the feed on hand that we need for a period there of at least a week or maybe 10 days.”
Cansler is not the only one stocking up as Mary Jane Cornelius, whose farm shares the point of greatest eclipse with Orchardale, mentions she’ll also make sure she has “plenty of what she needs” beforehand.
In addition to the basic question of getting to work, traffic presents yet another highly pragmatic concern, and one Tribble says “could be a serious problem. You could have some crops destroyed” because where are all these people going to park, he asks.
In Christian County, the problem is partially solved by Cansler’s neighbor, David Ginn. Ginn has set aside 75 acres for a Christian tent revival, which includes free parking and camping all eclipse weekend-long.
People parking on land where they shouldn’t, though, is more of a concern in Carbondale, Illinois, where the total solar eclipse finds its point of greatest duration. Unlike the point of greatest eclipse, which is where the moon covers the sun most fully, the point of greatest duration is where the moon covers the sun for the longest period of time.
Much like its counterpart, Carbondale expects an unprecedented tourism boom as well. In fact, Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau predicts 50,000 to 100,000 people. To indicate no trespassing, Illinois relies on the Purple Paint Law, a state rule that you’re not allowed to enter or park on land where fence posts are painted purple. “They’re not going to know what a purple post means,” Jackson County (Il) Farm Bureau manager Jessica Hahn says about anticipated guests. “To them, it’s just purple painted on there.”
In fact, neither Cornelius nor Cansler knew what purple posts were, and they’re farmers. That’s because Purple Post is only a law in 13 states, five of which lie in the eclipse path: Illinois, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, and North Carolina. Considering both Carbondale and Christian County expect out-of-state and international guests, Hahn is most likely right.
It’s what these guests do and don’t know that concerns Cornelius and Cansler. In a farming area where even those who don’t farm understand the basic principles, a large influx of people who may or may not know the rules raises a lot of emotions. “It’s kind of frightening in a way,” Cornelius says. “There are just so many unknown people who are going to be here.”
When asked if these tourists will honor her no-trespassing requests, Cornelius answers, “Some will, some won’t.”
Keeping cars off crops is why Carbondale is directing as many of its tourists toward Shawnee National Forest as the city can. There, the farmland nearest the point of greatest duration also tends to be hillier, which hinders trespassing as well.
Folding Into the Eclipse’s Path
“When you look at the map,” Hopkinsville’s Solar Eclipse marketing and event coordinator Brooke Jung folds a map of the U.S. in half while she speaks. “It starts in Salem, Oregon, and goes all the way to Charleston, South Carolina, so essentially 80% of the U.S. population is within 600 miles of this path of totality. When you think about that, 80% of the U.S. population can just drive into that line," she says.
This means no matter where you are, if you’re in the eclipse’s path, tourists north and south are most likely folding into you.
“Be very observant,” Cansler cautions, “of what’s taking place and keep up with your local towns and all to see what kind of crowd they’re anticipating and what traffic flow is because it’s definitely going to affect everything there for several days and to a degree that really no one knows. Although they’ve got more of an idea than you might think by going by the hotels and motels. If they’re all full, then they can come up with a fairly decent number.”
Farmers along the eclipse path may want to consider the economics of officially renting land to campers or, as the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau recommends, designating paid (or free) parking sections.
Cornelius’s advice may be the best of all, though: Have the conversation. In order to keep all of her land in rotation, Cornelius leases most of her 400 acres. Eclipse season is her lessee’s second year on a three-year contract, so the two spoke about the upcoming event before signing.
In his first year working Cornelius’s farm, there wasn’t a blizzard, but there was flood damage to clean up from an overflowing highway culvert that emptied out in neighboring fields. “I hated it being his first year,” she said, “but that’s just changes.”
Whether it’s a blizzard in August, a flood, or a once-in-a-lifetime eclipse, crops must be harvested and livestock must be fed, so farmers will carry on with their work across the eclipse path.