Measuring a movement: one seed at a time

February 13, 2019

Blue Dasher Farm (and Ecdysis Foundation, our non-profit research entity) was made to fill a niche. We wanted to use science to transform, not maintain. We aimed to take the current rule books on agriculture and applied science, and throw them out the window. Distill these fields down to principles and rebuild a whole new approach. Inherent in this is producing outcome-motivated, high quality science, developing many-faceted education programs, and leading by example.

We all want some measurement that we can compare our current situation to our beginnings with, or to our peers, to know whether all of our toil and hardship is…well, whether it is working. In science these metrics are straightforward, if somewhat misguided. Scientists are largely evaluated on 1) grant dollars brought into the institution, 2) papers published, 3) how many students are funneled through the system, 4) how many committees are served upon, etc. Disturbingly, there is little incentive for solving real problems. Multidisciplinary, global scale problems. Young scientists only obtain a job if they subscribe to this system, and so the culture is maintained until it collapses… or someone boldly changes it.

In farming, metrics are also straightforward. Prizes are awarded to the top yielding farmers in the state. How clean their fields are to passersby. Youth are encouraged to raise livestock of certain dimensions and size and confidence. None of these metrics are reflective of the long term resilience of a farm, or its profitability. Yet farmers that need to know if they are successful have a way to measure up.

I think one of the hardest things for me to adapt to since starting Blue Dasher Farm is that there aren’t clearly defined metrics to assess our success. I know what our goal was: transformation. But how do you measure that? We have many accomplishments, but are these real measures of “success”? Is it that we spoke at the UN conference? Hosted visitors from all over the planet? Our peer reviewed papers? Land acres changed to a regenerative style? Scientists on staff? Eggs produced? Pounds of honey? Income generated and facilities built? The diversity of the operation and lack of clear metrics has meant that I and our staff wear many different hats all of the time, and we kind of always feel… pulled thin (“Like butter spread over too much bread” to quote Bilbo Baggins). I think it is in the nature of Blue Dasher that it must be ever evolving to stay on the front edge of this movement (being on the front edge of an evolving monolith is our niche, after all).  But I envision a time when I can help advise a whole new set of metrics that applied science is evaluated by.

Staff

We are assembling a cohort of young scientists from all over the world, and we are so excited to have our team start for this summer’s research and farm activities. Ryan Schmid, our research scientist who recently finished his PhD from KS, won the “best graduate student in entomology” award from the Entomological Society of America for the north central region of the US. This is an amazing achievement- there are hundreds of students eligible. Life always quiets down during the winter; we process the mountain of samples, write a lot of grants and papers, and strategize and formulate new projects for the coming year that will help us toward our mission. This isn’t some band that was clandestinely selected as the perfect people for the job. It is just…us. We have strengths and weaknesses and loves and fears. And a tremendous group of family, friends and supporters who believe in us. But we know why we are here, and are committed to working together for something bigger than ourselves. So welcome to the team Alex, Jay, Kirstyn, Nolan, Priscila, Pauline, and Tia. In so many ways, you are what makes this place special. Hold on tight.

Crops

Gabby, Ian and I planted the seeds for the Blue Dasher garden in the greenhouse room. There is so much hope associated with planting the garden starts in February. It somehow recognizes and assertively stands in defiance that the long, cold winter of the frigid north cannot last forever. This year we will be growing a diversity of things: tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, peppers, herbs, etc. Nothing has sprouted just yet, but we are excited for seeing these little babies. We had a hoop house donated to us last year, and are looking forward to building it this summer. We hope it will extend our growing season and provide a bit of shelter for the sheep during next winter if needed. A long term goal might be to produce horticultural plants for local sale. Roger is particularly excited to put in a hot greenhouse (we have the paneling for it, but not the other infrastructure); this project may have to wait until life’s finances settle (donations of time and building supplies are welcome!).

Livestock

The livestock are the main winter activity on the farm, and they are miserable right now. Frankly, we are all pretty tired of weeks of 0 degree high temperatures (down to -30 below at night). The three lambs we have born this season are jaunty and fun, and we look forward to more as the younger ewes start to poop out newbies. We are making some plans for creating a bit more logic to our grazing scheme for the coming year that will keep the sheep moving throughout the farm, and keep the ram separate from the ewes so that we don’t have more winter lambing. We hope to purchase another dozen or so ewes to keep the flock growing this year. I think we now have enough experience that we can manage this number of sheep competently.

The poultry are tired. Every morning I open the door and the new duck hens burst forth. They can’t wait to escape their imprisonment. Then they feel the temperatures outside, and within minutes most of the hens, turkeys and ducks push their way to far end of the coop, where it is warmest. Egg production has slowed to nil. I think that the layers are producing, but the poultry is eating them due to confinement and sheer boredom. Gabby helped to select the breeds, and we ordered 100 new layer hens for this coming year. Our market has been strong for the eggs, and I think with a little effort, we can find customers for these new eggs. The coop could easily handle another 100 birds, but we will make sure that the roosts are better designed (and we will add a little shelter for the ducks, who currently get pooped on throughout the night when they nest under the chickens). Upon hearing about the increased egg production, Gabby’s eyes rolled to the back of her head (a technique mastered by many teenagers) and she not-so-delicately requested that we consider buying an egg washing machine. It looks like there are some schematic plans on the internet, so we will try to build one and see how it works.

 

There is a part of me that is most happy when I am trying to do something that people tell me cannot be done. This week we started a campaign to save the bees, pledging that if funded we can offer some realistic and natural solutions that beekeepers can use themselves to stop hive losses. We completely recognize that the answer to the bee problem is reforming agriculture (we were the ones who coined the phrase “to save the bees, heal the soil”), but we need some short-term solutions to stem the hemorrhaging hive losses or there won’t be many bees left to save. Really though, the proposal is meant to transform how science solves problems in agriculture. We need a tractable problem that we can demonstrate how efficient this approach to science is (think “Manhattan project” style incubators for key problems in agriculture). We hope you will consider supporting this game-changing program.

 

Jonathan Lundgren