November 5, 2017

From the Ashes.

 

Winter has set its cold white teeth into Blue Dasher Farm, and we are wrapping up final tasks that will secure us for the long dark of the Frigid North’s season that most defines us. The cold is bearable, but the wind finds every hairline crack in our preparations. The past 3 months have not been idle. We have travelled the world promoting regenerative agriculture, seen dear faces move forward and welcomed new ones. So many things have happened that present a fan of new opportunities in the paths that lie before us. We try to capture key snapshots on facebook and twitter, but sketches on social media leaves aside the heart of what we experience. I wish there was more time in a day to record everything that we are living through. Still, time gives perspective, and I’ll try to touch on a few things that I feel like will have particular meaning as we reflect on our history.

 

Field day. Community events are important to our identity at Blue Dasher Farm. Most days, it would be easiest to simply focus on confronting a bouquet of hurdles and trials as we attempt to build the farm, bees, livestock, and research laboratory at BDF. We have to remind ourselves sometimes that our identity is more than this, and the whole reason for our existence is that the community got behind us and has skin in the game. So we had to make time for a field event, and only after investing in this day were reminded just how important and rewarding it is to be a part of such a ground breaking initiative. The date was secured around 2-3 weeks before the event; in my mind, I said “Three whole weeks to prepare!”, but Jenna viewed this as “Only 3 weeks? How are we going to pull this off?”. I see now that there were supporters that would have loved a little more lead time, and so we have set the date for our 2018 event “Back to the Future of Farming” for August 11 (put it on your calendar!). Despite a little scrambling, we put together a great line up of speakers for an event we titled “Ecological Farming: Making money when margins are thin”. Mike Bredeson, resident PhD student at BDF, presented on interseeding in cropland, then Carter Johnson talked about the Ecosun Prairie Farm, Carmen Fernholz spoke about the benefits of organic business models and Kernza perennial wheat, and I gave an overview of Blue Dasher and how we came to be. This year, we even had sponsors! The DNB National Bank in Clear Lake and North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program both provided the funds to keep our event free to the public. We served Svec beef at the locally catered supper, and featured booths by several local farms and bee operations that are producing nutritious food while conserving soil and biodiversity on their farms.

Around 150 people showed up to the field day; more than last year’s Keep the Hives Alive event, and more than we ever had at the USDA’s field days. They came from around the region: SD, ND, MN, NE, KS. What was really heartening is that several neighbors came, and one even returned afterward to make a donation to our efforts. The talks probably took a bit more time than they should have- interesting stuff and the speakers did fantastic, just a little too much for a normal human to digest. Then we split the group into two for the tours. One group got to see the lab, hives, and chickens, while I brought the other group for a tour around the crops and sheep. Then we switched groups, so everyone got to see everything. For those that still hadn’t had enough, we went on a prairie walk following supper until dark. Many stayed for 6+ hours, seeing everything we had to offer. It was really a great day. The lab crew performed admirably in every sense. And of course, none of it would have been possible without the lovely Jenna coordinating the set up.

 

Visitors. August added substantially to a line up visitors from many corners of the world. In addition to the common pop in from area bee keepers and farmers that check in on us, we had visiting scientists from other universities, and farmers from afar. In one week, No till on the Plains brought a group of Russian farmers on Wednesday, followed by Ray Archuleta with a group of South Africans on Thursday. We were accommodating as possible, with the whole BDF team giving tours of the farm and lab. The timing with the South Africans worked out so that we had them to a good ol’ fashioned BDF potluck and campfire. It quickly became clear that our farming operation was nothing like anything they had seen before. We planted our cash crops (weird cash crops at that!) directly into warm season grasses? We had weeds that we were feeding to sheep instead of spraying out? We could lose entire crops, and still make more money than area farmers per acre, because we stacked enterprises like honey production and grazing on top of a single piece of land? There was skepticism that these ideas could work. But farmers like Rick Bieber were there to help translate, and Ray helped explain what farmers were seeing in our soil that was not present on many other farms. These visitors also questioned whether what we were doing could scale and transfer to their own operations. All I can say is that it is weird, but it works. Earlier in the summer, Gail Fuller and Lynette Miller stopped by after visiting Gabe Brown’s place. “Gabe is pushing the rules. But Blue Dasher Farm throws the rule book out the window.” And we make a lot of mistakes because of it. Most of what we have accomplished is because I simply don’t know any better than to think that what we are doing can work. Friday of this same week brought good friends Allen Williams and David Bartok. They walked the prairie and were astounded by the diversity of life and sheer vegetative biomass of what used to be present on the Northern Plains. I just can’t wait to give the prairie its first burn in decades to see what forbs spring out of the ground. These last gentlemen, both world experts on soil health and holistic grazing, gave many pointers to me on managing our sheep herd. This was perhaps the best thing about all of these visitors. Every new face to the farm- be they students or farmers or beekeepers or academics- each brought some new perspective that helped us to learn about what we are doing here and to make our operations even better. Failure is pretty tough when you have a support network like ours.

 

Changes in the ranks. Late August and September are two of the hardest parts of the year; this is when the student return to their normal lives after making our lives so much better. It happens every year, and never comes as a surprise. But invariably it leaves a sense of emptiness at the end of the summer that takes time to heal. No one felt this more acutely than Shell Baby. An 8-inch, ceramic statue of a smiling, diapered baby standing beside a large clam shell showed up in our lab one day. One of those statues that at once makes one question “Who thought making this thing would be a good idea?”, quickly followed by “Who legitimately bought this thing?” prior to donating it to Good Will. It wasn’t long before Shell Baby began showing up in unexpected places. Desk drawers. The bathroom. My bed. Always to the wonder and delight of the discoverer. But then Shell Baby, through miracle or demonic possession, found his way to California to surprise Liz as she migrated south for the winter like a ginger dragonfly. And to France, where Shell Baby greeted Cedric when he came home scarred and bruised from fiddle-farting around (a term we taught our French ami) the farm all summer. Clearly, that delightful little imp was left empty by the closing of summer. Who knows where this little wonder will appear next?

This year we had three young, wonderful scientists living with our family at Blue Dasher Farm, and they became an important part of our lives. Cedric, who lived in our basement, had a particularly big impact, as he was often at my side whenever we needed an extra hand with farm duties or research activities. Being around him reminded me what an infectious asset a positive attitude is- we all missed him terribly when he returned home. One of his gifts to us was his final report to the University (Purpan), in which he provided us a bird’s eye view of Blue Dasher Farm. It becomes so easy to focus on proximate tasks, and tempting to forget how it all fits together into a recipe for having a major impact, or how it is all unique. It is just our lives. Cedric was always active and sometimes quiet- at first he was self-conscious of his English, or just was wondering how he wound up with this insane group of people. It was so cool to see how well he “got” what we are about at Blue Dasher. We also had the USGS girls at the farm. They shared our downstairs bathroom, and could be found most evenings in the breakroom relaxing or in our basement having video game tournaments with the kids. We were honored to get to know these three girls Savannah, Mia, and Lauren, over the summer, and have them be part of our lives. Add to this the technicians Kassidy, Alex, MacKenzie, and Liz, and we had an amazing team this summer.

The exodus of old faces accompanied the introduction of some new staff too. We brought on two new graduate students to the Blue Dasher Team (or Ecdysis Foundation, formally). Sarah Bond is a new PhD student at SDSU who will be studying neonicotinoid seed treatments and how they affect native, threatened butterfly species. And Tommy Fenster is a Master’s student at California State University who will be documenting the efficacy of diversifying understories to the business model of almond orchards. This diversity is key to keeping bees alive during almond pollination. Add to this our long-term fixtures of Mike, Roger, and Nicole, and a growing presence of Jenna in marketing our growing farm products, and our winter team at Blue Dasher will continue to thrive and make important in roads into diversifying agriculture. 

 

Barn fire. We spent a year and a half conditioning our livestock barn to meet our ever evolving needs, and prepared it for the winter, only to watch the hard work and investment of so many people burn to the ground. I had just finished speaking for the Dakota Rural Action’s annual meeting and arrived home. I put Leif (our Border Collie) in the fenced paddock to run constantly for several hours as only a dog of this breed can do, and nothing was amiss. I ate a small lunch, and was about to go to Watertown to purchase some gutters for the livestock and hive barns. In rooting through the hive barn, I smelled something funny, but thought nothing of it. Then, I looked up from the trailer’s tire I was filling to see the livestock barn aflame. There are few things so powerful or imperative as a blazing building. I ran to the other side to find the building completely consumed by fire and dialed 9-1-1. I sputtered my address and an explanation of the crisis, and they deployed the Clear Lake and Brandt Fire Departments. There was nothing to be done to save the livestock barn, so I turned my attention to the other buildings. The hive barn, with many supplies and all of our hive gear, was within 2 ft of the blazing livestock building. I hooked a functional hose (several were melted) to the house, and began to spray water on the corner of the hive barn closest to the livestock shed. The water hitting the hive shed caused smoke to rise from the heating steel siding. I continued to pour water on it, hoping not to lose any more than we had. Within 15 minutes, the livestock shed had largely burned to the ground, and the seeming eternity that it took the fire departments to reach me (it was in reality only 10-15 minutes, I’ll bet), brought immense relief.

We remind ourselves that it could have been so much worse. No one was hurt. We lost the rabbit and some chickens, but most of the chickens were out to pasture. We lost the insulated coop we built for the chickens, but no major equipment was stored there for the winter. We caught the fire before it burned anything else, and the fire occurred on the first windless day we have had in weeks. But it was still a tremendous kick in the gut. So much work burned. In 15 minutes, so many plans were gone.

As has happened so often since even before we began BDF, our community instantly sprang into action. Svec’s were over while the wreckage still smoked, and we began outfitting their livestock trailer to keep the chickens in that night. Kristi and Peter Mogen and their family recruited a livestock trailer outfitted for raising laying hens that sat unused at Abbey on the Hill near Milbank, and helped us to find hay and alfalfa for the sheep’s winter feed. We hope to clean up the blackened shell of our building next weekend, and will hopefully get a chance to lay the new footings for a replacement shed before the deep freeze of winter sets in.

As the flames turned to smoke and the firemen began to relax, one approached me. “Do you ever take volunteers out here? I heard about what you were trying to do with the bees, and I would like to help if I can.” I was still a little dazed over the whole experience, and explained that “Yes, we take volunteers for sure. But maybe ask me again on a different day regarding details.” The power of that simple request from a random stranger who had just busted his ass trying to suppress the destruction of our building had importance. At once, I was caught between despair at losing so much and hope and absolution that we would move on. Given everything that we have been through, from the whistleblower junk, to family trials, to burning buildings, to sprayed-out fruit trees, to…so many things. From this list of failures, it would be easy to conclude that Blue Dasher Farm is somehow cursed. But people that don’t try anything new don’t fail. And we are trying more than most ever do, and our list of successes far outpaces the list of shortcomings. And amidst even our harshest losses, there is gleaming hope that we are on the right path and that even strangers are there to support what is bigger than just a barn.

 

When we built Blue Dasher, the vision was that we would have farmers, students, and supporters from all over come and be part of something good and important. That a culture of sanctuary, creativity, and camaraderie and support would develop that could fuel our mission of changing agriculture. But we didn’t have a formal plan for how we would attract people to this place; we were more focused on the task of building it. Despite our lack of a plan, our vision is becoming a reality. We had resident scientists that relaxed playing games and watching movies and talking in the evenings. Internationals found us and included us in their national tours. And of critical importance, we have become a growing presence in our own community, helping to change the lands around us into something better for all. Although we continue to focus on building and improving what we have made (and even expanding it!), we still lack a clear plan for attracting the movement here. But we planted a flag to rally around; the time is right, and the mission is clear and right. My expectation is that this community will expand next year.

September 11, 2017

Waking up in Asia

I have spent a lot of time on the road lately, moving from speaking engagement to engagement in a bit of a haze. I arrive, speak, hopefully inspire some farmers, beekeepers, or young scientists to think about food production differently. Then I move on to the next gig. It is difficult to have meaningful relationships with the thousands of people that I interact with annually. These were my expectations when I arrived in Beijing China. I was slated to give two presentations on biological control (pest management using predators), and then I envisioned myself quietly sitting in the back of the room to write papers and answer emails while others orchestrated a workshop on . This is not what happened, and it was the kind of cold, wet slap across the face that I needed but didn’t know it.  

Five minutes before the workshop would begin, I had nestled into a perch in the back of the room when a nervous-looking graduate student from Beijing touched my arm, and whispered “Professor, we would like for you to host this course.” My jaw tensed as I realized that 40+ graduate students and early professionals had travelled from 10 different countries to Beijing to attend a weeklong workshop, few of them with strong English skills, and there was only a sketch of what the course would entail (mostly involving lectures). Most of the instructors were located in Hanoi Vietnam, where another cohort of students had been organized, and Kris Wyckhuys was leading the group. The nervous Chinese graduate students who were left in charge of local arrangements for this course were looking for someone willing to assume responsibility for the next 7 days, and they were kind of stuck with me.

This is not to say that I was alone on the Beijing side of the course. Fan Yang and Xiangming (two PhD students) had deftly arranged for details on local arrangements, finding rooms, snacks, transportation, etc to make the course a success. Some top scientists in conservation biocontrol were providing cutting edge lectures. And the overall course organizer Kris Wyckhuys (a good, long time friend) would arrive from Hanoi on Thursday to assist with the largely undefined field aspects of the course. And a brilliant Australian colleague would be present for pieces of the course, but had other obligations elsewhere in China to attend to. And a Chilean post-doc was present who helped in coordinating some of the group activities that evolved. But there remained large gaps in the content of the course, and a local “decision maker” was sorely needed.

Nor should we diminish what had been accomplished simply by organizing the course. Quite simply, an agroecology course of this nature has never been conducted in southeast Asia before. Students from various university and government agencies from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Chile, Ecuador, and the US had been recruited to China for the workshop. Additional countries were represented in Hanoi. Funds had been secured to recruit some of the top minds in agroecological pest management from around the world, including France, Sweden, USA, Australia, New Zealand, and Belgium. Frankly, most of the students had never been exposed to systems-level thinking in their degree programs. And all of it was accomplished amidst tremendous political and logistical constraints, the scale of which can only be found by working in the developing world. The course’s very existence was a major accomplishment orchestrated by Wyckhuys.

So here is some of the story from my perspective.

 

Arrival

Mike Bredeson (a PhD student at Ecdysis Foundation) would be a travel buddy, and we would meet up with a former student of mine, Ryan Schmid (now finishing his doctorate at K-State), in Beijing. It is a long flight, >24 hours door to door to arrive at the hotel in Beijing, which included a 14 h oversea flight. All went well, and we arrived in Beijing to find a local graduate student holding a greeting sign for Ryan (whose flight had been delayed). We exited the airport in a private car to our first experience of Beijing China.

The rate and scale of growth of Beijing and the surrounding region cannot be overstated. Beneath a hazy, grey sky, enormous cranes are adding anonymous sky scrapers to a horizon filled with industry. 20-40 million people live in this city (the population of Canada), and the degree of growth has been overwhelming over the past 10 years. On streets that used to be filled with bicycles and motorbikes, millions of Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, and various other makes and models of cars now lawlessly weave their way through a seemingly unending stream of cars. Motorbikes and carts with riders wearing large oven mitts (sometimes body-sized) provide obstacles for vehicles to hopefully avoid. An apartment in Beijing (there are no houses that we ever saw) costs $10,000 per square yard.

 

Day 1. The Summer Palace

For our first day, Ryan, Mike and I decided to visit the Summer Palace, one of the top-ranked tourist destinations in Beijing. The well-lit breakfast area of the hotel, with its white tables and lemon and lime color scheme, was our introduction to Chinese cuisine. They had a buffet with foods not typically regarded as breakfast fare in the western world. Familiar faces were fried eggs and Bimbo Bread (a Chinese equivalent to Wonderbread). But most of the other foods were strange to us. Sausages on a stick abounded in the breakfast buffet and on the street, and likely represent a major source of protein for Beijing citizens. The origin of the meat was somewhat questionable, and I believe contain more dubious ingredients than the “lips and assholes” contained in U.S. hot dogs. Rice, dim sum dumplings, fried vegetables and meats were common fare. It took us more than one try to figure out the drink dispenser, which gave warm white or brown soy milk, sweetened or not, depending on the button selected. All of it was explained clearly in Chinese characters that were useless to us. The juice was sugar water of various colors. It was all perfectly good, and options changed daily.

Following a nice breakfast, we decided to grab a bus to the Summer Palace. Mike had done some reconnaissance to find the exact bus that we needed to take, as well as the bus stop. But upon leaving the hotel, we would have no internet to retrieve maps. So we had to have our poop in a group before we left. It cost around $1 for all three of us to get a bus ride, which took us on a 40 minute trip, and deposited us near the destination. The bus was clean, and the people were helpful, despite having no English. Mike and Ryan are both 6’ 3” tall, skinny, good-looking Midwestern men, and I was white and wearing my Tilly hat that made me look quite adventure-prone (if I do say so myself). In the eyes of the Beijingers, we may as well have fallen from outer space. If the Chinese government wanted to keep track of our whereabouts, they needed only follow the social media, where literally hundreds of photos of us were deposited daily over the next 10 days, starting when we stepped foot into the Summer Palace.

The ride to the Summer Palace would introduce us to a blot on our mind’s eye that cannot be erased: what we later found out was termed “The Beijing Bikini”. Middle aged men, nearly all of whom would be best served covering as much skin as possible, inexplicably would pull the bottom front of their shirt up and tuck it into their neckline. We can only be thankful that the brassiere-like final product did not reveal more. What made it so striking, in addition to the fact that uncovered pot-bellies were flaring at all in public, is how ubiquitous it was. Some young boys also sported the fashion, but this was mostly middle-aged thing. It seemed a waste for these men to buy a full t-shirt, since so few of them used the shirt to its fullest coverage.

The summer palace itself was a cool experience, and we spent nearly the whole day there. We each rented a set of earphones that would explain tourist stops in English, our locations in the palace revealed by GPS. They didn’t work well, and we would receive facts about buildings in random places as we walked, and would stop still when we began hearing the device engage as though ready to spill knowledge into our brains. The Summer Palace was originally built by an empress (perhaps the mother to the emporer?). A woman of great power. Let’s put it that way. Anyways, she really shafted the country because she spent so much on building the Summer Palace that she emptied the treasury, and when the British and French invaded Beijing, the army had been gutted due to lack of funds. Which set about a string of events that culminated in the Communists taking power under Chairman Mao. Way to go, aristocratic bee-otch. There was surprisingly little information about each building on the information placards, except that each said explained that the buildings were destroyed in 1858 when the British and French invaded, and were rebuilt later. Clearly, it is still a sore point.

Perhaps the best part of the visit, and one of the top experiences of the trip, was our randomly stumbling across an impromptu choir. As we walked around the lake, the huge lotus flowers were blooming in full, we heard human voices in song. Taking a side trail led us to a wooded pavilion, where perhaps 50-60 Chinese people, mostly elderly, had assembled and were each holding a tattered song book. They were singing loudly and none of them were particularly good. And we couldn’t understand a word that they were saying. But it was the most mesmerizing and joyful feeling and experience, and it defies explanation for someone that wasn’t there. We stood listening to them for perhaps 20-30 minutes. The little old ladies would dance occasionally, and just seemed so happy to be there and be a part of this song. And just being close to them singing made you a part of something special. I’ll never forget it.

Day 2. The Olympic Park

I will skip course topics until later, moving instead to the next day of the trip, when we did more fun touristy stuff. The night before, we met a large Chilean man named Mauricio at the course, and he would be a travel buddy for much of the rest of the trip. The next morning would bring us and all of the newly met international students to the Olympic park. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 saw the city transform a large swath of the city into a series of boardwalks, immense stadiums, and meeting areas. The investment must have been considerable. We were allowed approximately 1.5 hours of free time in the Olympic park. Mike, Ryan, Mauricio, and myself decided to make our way to the Bird’s Nest, a huge stadium where the track competitions were held. On our mile or so walk over to the stadium, we passed the Aquatic Center, resembling a huge box-like building adorned with swatches of blue bubble-like panels that each could have been a swimming pool on their own. Walking further, we saw an increasing number of Beijing residents wearing white t-shirts with some sort of contest described on them. We came closer to where there was loud rock music playing, and the tightest cluster of people gathered around. An announcer blared instruction, and a football field sized area was filled with soap bubbles. Masses of foam covered the people, who all became soaked in the stuff. It wasn’t clear if this was a contest, or just an opportunity to get soaked in bubbles, but it was remarkable. As the people exited the bubble zone, their shirts had been turned colors by the soap into a tie-die of red and blue and purple. We walked on.

The Birds Nest loomed as we came closer and closer to the giant stadium. There was a fee to enter the stadium, which we decided was worth doing. The kiosk ticket counter explained the ticket prices in English, but only in a cursory fashion. It appeared that students would get a decent discount, so I encouraged the other three to play that card. It was around $20 for a tour, and the students were somehow entitled to a VIP behind the scenes tour. We didn’t really know what that meant, but we figured we were only at the Olympic Park once, so we may as well make the most of it.

We walked in, and the tour was entirely in Chinese. As is often the case, Mike turned on his charm and managed to get the young lady tour guide to translate into English at least some of what she was explaining to the chinese visitors. I am no sports fanatic, but this stadium is really impressive. We walked about the bleachers for a little while, and then the tour turned toward the VIP and press boxes. We went behind the scenes to see the red carpeted area where the Olympic President stayed and watched the games, as well as Chinese dignitaries. They even made us where little booties, which didn’t fit well over our American-sized feet. The tour culminated by taking the elevator to the roof of the Bird’s Nest. Yes, we walked around the roof of the stadium on a series of catwalks. It was really, really cool. The view was spectacular, and we could see much of the surrounding city from this height. Even the polluted haze couldn’t totally stifle the view. We took the elevator back down to ground level, and made our way to the bus and the short course that would begin that afternoon.

 

Day 9. The Great Wall

Mike, Ryan, Mauricio and I embarked bright and early for a hike of the unrestored area of the Great Wall in what was to be the highlight of the trip. We took the subway to the correct station, got cash to pay for the organized tour, and awaited the private bus that would bring us to the excursion. The hike was organized by a commercial hiking club comprised primarily of expats. There was a couple of brothers from the East Coast, a bunch of Germans, a couple from Colorado, and several others. The tour guide was Chinese and had fluent English.

It wasn’t long before we were out of Beijing and into some mountainous and rural areas that suited us much better than the urban crowds. It had started to rain, and I had brought some Ziploc bags that would protect our phones and valuables. The landscape north of Beijing is spectacular. The steep slopes covered in deciduous trees and shrubs reminded me very much of the vegetation of the northern U.S. (not the contour, of course).

I had eaten some funny lunchmeat the night before, and this began to adversely affect me on the bus through the mountainous roads up to the trailhead. We graciously stopped at a public restroom, and for the first time all trip I used the traditional Chinese toilet. It is essentially a shallow ceramic basin pushed into the floor with a hole at the rear base of it. No seat, no handles. Just squat down, and hopefully you don’t pee in your pants at your legs, and that there is no lateral sprayage during the dumping process. Fuck the handicapped. There is no accommodation whatsoever for them. I performed admirably, as poop came from me like a squeeze-bottle of jelly. I lost track of time in the process, and the boys were all happy to see me emerge from the bathroom in one piece, as the entire bus awaited my return. I was worried that this was the start of a full day’s battle with diarrhea, but it was not to be. The ol’ Lundgren digestive system came through for me, once again.

The bus dropped us off next at the trail head. The rain had stopped, and a nice cloud cover kept us cool during our hike. There was a 4-acre cornfield adjacent to a small river that was to be our first non-city landscape. This was common for most of the agriculture we had encountered. Small fields of a diverse list of crops that were often grown in close proximity to one another. In other regions, the Chinese were adopting western style monocultures, but a large presence of small farms persist. The trail dirt trail was damp as it meandered up higher and higher in elevation. Everyone was just getting to know one another, but as the climb became steeper and steeper the conversation became more challenging. Soon we were into the switchbacks, and the climb became pretty challenging. We quietly plodded upward through the shady understory of the Chinese mountainside. All conversation had stopped by this point; folks were focused on making the next milestone. More and more sky became visible above us, which lent hope that we were nearing the wall.

We summited into a guard station made of crumbling and ancient stones. The wall rode the spine of the mountain chain in either direction for as far as the eye can see, punctuated by small guard houses on its undulating journey. A sheer drop to either side gave spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. The width of the wall is perhaps 10-15 feet at this section of the wall. Mosses, lichens, and small trees and shrubs spilled out of the rock. This area of the wall had not been restored for several thousand years, and it had become woven into the natural world around it.

The Mongols must have been absolutely terrifying to justify building the Great Wall of China. The resources, time, and human capital that was expended on building a large stone wall on the spine of a mountain chain must have been astounding. Then extend this to the 5500 miles and various terrains that the wall cuts through. That is nearly twice the length of continental U.S. Our tour guide explained that the Mongolians were brilliant tacticians and very brave, but they were crappy farmers. So whenever they would run out of food, they would ride south and pillage some Chinese. After losing my breath trying to climb the steep slope as a Mongolian might have, only to meet a wall defended by soldiers; well, it must have been a tremendously effective defense once it was built.

As we began to hike, we chatted with the tour guide who happened to be a history major amidst many other jobs and interests. With little coaxing, she began to tell us some of the political history of China leading to the modern day communist regime. The various empires with vaguely familiar names (Ming Dynasty, for example) painted a rich and long standing history that makes even European history seem nascent. She mentioned that it is law that every day of the emporer’s life needs to be recorded, and this law has been in place for 2000 years. At one point, Mike naively asked her whether Taiwan should be a part of China (the last Royal Family fled to Taiwan during the Communist Revolution, and declared independence from China). She hesitated, and replied “Of course I need to say that Taiwan belongs to China”. The people of China seem happy, but there is this latent fear that raises its head if one probes into certain topics. It is ingrained not step out of line.

And so we walked leisurely along the old wall until we reached a transition to the restored area. Most tourists arrive at the restored entrance to the Great Wall. We sat and ate some snacks before embarking on this new terrain. The restored wall is cleaner and beautiful, but it lacks the history and story that the unrestored section had. And as we walked, an ass ton of tourists from all over the world pervaded.

Make no mistake: walking the Great Wall is not an easy task. There are hundreds of steps, and some staircases are very steep. We mostly walked down the steps, passing by exhausted tourists that looked to us for some sign of hope that they were nearing some landmark of note. Our route via the hiking path was challenging, but it was a stroll compared to mounting the 2-300 steps at a time that folks coming the

 

 

 

 

A take home message that we can learn from in the U.S. We are bombarded by media that strikes fear of the Chinese in our hearts. A world power that threatens our standing. And perhaps they are right. But after being there, I couldn’t help but feel like China is poised to implode. So many people consuming so many resources. The air that they breathe and the water they live with are polluted, the food that they normally eat is processed garbage meant to deliver inexpensive calories, and there are so many people all striving for an identity but with a latent fear of what might happen if they attain it. Honestly, I saw into a crystal ball of what America will look like if we do not prioritize our natural resources and communities. 

August 6-20, 2017

Redefining normal

Last year brought numerous changes to our lives. Starting a research facility, farm, and bee operation accompanied no small number of challenges and daily surprises. The disruption and insecurity of our lives was made bearable with the knowledge that at some point this adventure would somehow be “done”. That life would calm to a steady state of existence that might be described as normal. A schedule that would certainly be full, but one that would permit reflection and prediction. Several have visited this summer to help record aspects of our story. They commit to following us around, requesting to record our “normal lives”. Recently hearing this request again, I furrowed my brow and struggled to define what that might look like. In weaving what has become Blue Dasher, we created a system that defies normality. A complex, constantly evolving entity that is defined by mission, not routine. I don’t know if our new “normal” will ever be captured in prose or film.

 

Livestock. Let me preface this section by stating that if we can’t building something with pallets, silage cover, and duct tape, it isn’t worth building. Winter is fast approaching, and we now have 120 layers that are going to need a bigger winter home than the little 8x8 ft hut we erected last December to keep the first batch of hens from freezing to death. Never fear, Cedric is on it. He developed some plans, and we are in the midst of building what may be one of the crazier structures we have devised. We did the numbers on the materials we would need, and I estimated that this little chicken coop was going to cost us around $1000. I think of myself as thrifty, not miserly (Blue Dasher staff and my children may disagree), and instantly my brain started to think about how to make this coop a lot cheaper. Cedric and I were patrolling Menards, looking for supplies. For context, Roger and I trade war stories about victorious crusades at Menards, where we save money by finding little stashes of clearance items tucked away, or get a free hammer after rebate, or pick up copper pans for little more than free that end up changing the way we look at cooking. One rainy days, we fondly recount every stray piece of lumber that we have purchased for ridiculously low prices, reduced just because of small imperfections or cracks, and congratulate one another whether we needed the bargained item or not. As Cedric and I patrol the lumber section of Menards like vultures, we became despondent in tallying what the studwall and plywood was going to cost us to accomplish this little project. By chance I looked pensively beneath the lumber, and asked Cedric “How do you think pallets would work for a studwall?” We chittered excitedly as the logistics all fell into place and we looked in amazement at how we never thought of this before. To finish the exterior and interior of the walls, we would cover them with silage cover. Cattle operations frequently have a large pile of cut corn stalks that they slowly feed to their animals. This tube of silage is covered in a threaded, heavy duty plastic that is cut away and thrown out weekly in large chunks. But when washed, it is a durable fabric suitable for all sorts of needs (we built a small hut in the barn with it, use it as a weed fabric, and will built a wind fence and hive covers this winter). Throw in some old batted insulation that was sitting in Roger’s attic, and our chicken coop is slowly coming together. As Cedric has constructed the walls, I asked him “How much have we spent on this coop so far?” “Almost nothing!” he replied, shaking his head. The walls are incredibly strong and well insulated; the rest of the barn could blow away, and this coop will be staying still. We can’t wait to get it finished, with fancy door timers, and egg collection technology.

Early August means it is time to castrate the lambs. I can’t lie; this whole procedure really gives me the heebie jeebies. Using a special metallic tool that looks like something out of a horror movie, the goal is to stretch a rubber band with the diameter of a thumb until it reaches the diameter of a wrist. Then one lowers the fist-sized ballsack through the rubber band, and SNAP! The band cuts off circulation to the testicles, which then atrophy. Options are to separate the ram lambs (we have 11) so that they don’t mate with the ewes, or have nine-headed lambs in January from son-mother matings. Neither alternative is well situated for our operation. So I have been kicking the can on doing this job; but all of the pieces of the puzzle are in place, and I decided that we would confront the inevitable on Tuesday. Dark, dark Tuesday.

We put up some hard cattle panels into the net fence, and then gently corralled the flock into the castration arena. They entered with little concern, not knowing the horror that awaited them (psychological, not physical. And referring more to us than them). At this point, our denutting team cast aside any human resource training that had ever counselled against acknowledging the existence of testicles in the workplace. Our job was ball-slaying and it was time to get to work. For those of you who haven’t been around sheep, their manhood is enormous. Because the rams were allowed to mature a bit, we had to tug the nuts through the circlet of doom one at a time. The band looked so small, as Nicole wrenched the tool away, sealing the munchkins’ fate. There was no reaction at all in the lambs, as we released each back into the paddock in their turn. They weren’t hurt; they were just…well, no longer intact. At one point in the process, I decided that we needed to commemorate the experience with a photo. Mike, Nicole, and I hovered over the lamb, who relaxed on his back in full display. It was an awkward photo that won’t be put on facebook. Farm life isn’t always glamorous. And many times we do things that we know we have to but don’t want to; trying our best to distance oneself from what can sometimes be a hard reality on the farm.

Otherwise the sheep are doing amazingly well, and have been so much fun. They have done a terrific job of cleaning up the weedy portions of a crop field. Now I am beginning to think about expanding our flock; I think that Blue Dasher will need approximately 40-50 ewes at full capacity. This will allow us to flash graze the cropland weeds in the fall and spring, but not overtax our prairie. Going into 2018, we will have eight ewes, so it looks like we will need a few years to ramp up to this level. After our first winter with the sheep, we may change our tune a bit. But having the livestock (layers, broilers, ducks, sheep, bees) has been one of my favorite aspects of the farm.

 

Lab team. Summer is almost over for a lot of the students- most have left or are leaving in the next few days to head back to school or wrap up a few loose ends before going back to school. And still, a few new faces have emerged. Liz and Tommy are great additions to the team, and all will miss Mackenzie and Mia. Having the students living on site has been a great experience for us. It is hard to imagine our life before Cedric became such an important part of Blue Dasher Farm; always with a smile, eager to help on any project, and greeting each new challenge with an extraordinarily positive attitude. Many evenings can find folks on the farm playing board games or Smash Brothers on the Wii in the basement, and it is great to have their energy and perspectives here.

Bees. A cool wet August means a slow honey crop. The sweet clover and borage are blooming. We have been monitoring some hives, weighing them every two weeks to see their growth as part of an experiment. The hives didn’t change in weight a bit for 2 weeks of what is usually the peak honey flow. Indeed, a few of the hives that didn’t receive Citronella oil even lost weight. The same can be said of some hives we have been monitoring in Minnesota. Beekeeping is a balancing act, and really is playing the lottery more than any other farming practice that I have experienced. The bees in the hives have to be at just the right density in the spring in order for them to grow and pack on honey when flower hit in June. For growth to the next hive box, there has to be enough bees and brood and honey in the previous box. Pollen has to be there for brood to build up. Rains wash the nectar from flowers, sometimes for days. If temperatures aren’t just right, the bees slow foraging. If temperatures are correct, but it is too windy, same result. And so many things disrupt this delicate balance in the hive. The sensitivity of the bees to their environment makes them tremendous bellwethers for stressors that affect everything else in the system but show few immediate symptoms (things like humans, for example). I am learning so much from these creatures.

 

Horticultural crops. The no-till garden is growing well. The straw was incorporated within 8 weeks of us putting it out there, so weeds started to come in. It took a few of us several hours to weed it, and then we spread some more chicken litter down. Tomatoes are kicking butt, but the peppers are slow. There are pockets of the garden that thrive, while others seem struggle. Not sure what the history is there? Perhaps some herbicide legacy is to blame. The raspberries will likely take most over most of the north side of the garden next year, which was the intention all along.

Our prairie restoration for the orchard understory has been slow to start. Prairie seedings follow the adage “first year they sleep, next year they creep, and third year they leap”. I fear that our prairie is narcoleptic. Weeds quickly overtook the seeding, and although we mowed several times to suppress the pigweed, lambsquarters, and buffaloburr, but no germination of prairie species ensued. By accident, we found that large, free swaths of used silage cover make a tremendous weed cover (this is large, string reinforced tarps that are used to cover large piles of cow feed. Dairies cut them and discard them weekly to free up new sections of feed), and so we started to use this to cover the prairie and reduce herbicide effects and costs. A week of solarization, and the weeds were largely dead. But what was even better is that some of the first seeds to wake up were non-weed grasses and forbs. I am hoping that these are not simply bluegrass, but certainly the solarization from that silage cover diversified the planting a lot. We have set the date for moving the fruit trees into the orchard for October 14th: come one and all tree planters.

 

Last night I sat on the prairie looking at Blue Dasher Pond. It is beautiful and I breathe it in. The scents. The overwhelming intricacies of sounds and images that only sitting quietly amidst the complexity of the natural world can paint. I missed Sarah, our dog. She was a steady symbol in the chaos. A different set of laws govern the lives of these species than those that support any hierarchy that I have known. The complexity of Blue Dasher Farm fits really well here. And it is beautiful and I exhale.  

July 25, 2017

The Dog Days of Summer

For every summer, there is a honeymoon period. Early in the season, everything is new, the work is fresh, and there is so much energy and life. People are on good behavior, and all seem to get along pretty well. Frankly, I think a lot of us are just happy not to be snowed in. As the calendar turns into mid-July, the temperatures become hot and muggy, punctuated with severe thunderstorms in the evenings that remind us on the prairie how small we are. It is at this time of the summer that pretenses are abandoned and we really get to know one another. Not everyone gets along every day, but hopefully the mission drives us closer together. It is a poor time to make rash decisions, because the memories and stories that define us aren’t made during the easy, fun times. It is helping one another wade through the rough or stagnant that makes us stronger as both individuals and as a community.

The summer heat has been hard, and with a lot of irons in the fire the past few weeks has not allowed me to sit and process much. A lot of days it feels like I am losing more battles than I win. And I can rationalize a silver lining to every cloud, thinking about how I am still better off by entering into a commitment or pursuing an idea. But failure leaves a residue that takes time to scrape away. Rejections on grants and papers can fester in a scientist. Fear of future failures are so insidious. Petty disagreements, wishing that I could be more than I am, and an inability to meet others’ expectations all aggregate. But at heart, I am an optimist, and am reminded so when I take a moment to reflect and watch the evening lightning show that seems to have been planned for just that purpose. Ultimately, I believe in the people around me, and our collective strength makes light of even heavy burdens. But only if I choose to let it.

 

Cropland. The crops are growing strong, and it has been fun to watch the farm change to a warm season plant community. We planted our hubam into living warm season perennial grasses. This is a bold move, but fits within our philosophy of farming within a biodiverse system. The hubam seems to be taking to this well. The timely rains and heat help the clover, but also help the grasses. And for now it is a war to see who is going to win. Interestingly, volunteer borage is going strong in this field. Indeed, the borage looks better here than in the field I planted to borage. I doubt we will harvest the volunteer borage crop from the hubam field, but we certainly will pull some honey out of it. The Phacelia is flowering full steam, but in a very strange pattern. The outer perimeter of the field is blooming well. Inside the field is an odd dead zone. Few plants at all are growing there, including the grasses and forbs characteristic of the farm. I am not really sure what is going on there; perhaps it is a moisture thing. But we should generate plenty of Phacelia seed to expand the planting for next season. And I think that there are more bees than flowers out there. The Canada wild rye field turned into a mixture of volunteer hubam and forage. A neighbor came by and asked what we were going to do for weed control. I looked out over the field, and replied “I don’t see any weeds…I see forage” The sheep have been grazing the weeds to the ground as I slowly move their paddock through the field. I am hoping that the $700 in grass seed I planted there will germinate and put on some growth this summer. But regardless, I am taking forage and honey off of the resulting forbs that sprung up. Ah, an integrated system!

 

Livestock. We met quite a few of our neighbors while trying to find our rampant sheep earlier in the spring. The other morning, one that we hadn’t met drove into the driveway in their side by side and introduced himself and young son. Last year, we didn’t hay the ditches around the properties, and we have quite a perimeter of grass. He asked if he could hay this year, which I had no problem with. But I asked whether he could provide a few square bales for the sheep in exchange for the lion’s share of the hay. After two long, hot days of work, our neighbor stopped by the house. “Is 41 square bales enough?” Our sheep will be well fed if forage is scarce this winter. For now, and as I mentioned above, the sheep are grazing on our cropland that had something of a weed problem. Instead of spending money on weed control and spreading toxins onto our farm, we are making money off of this weed patch. They have slowed feeding down a bit since cleaning our entire shelter belt, but have done a good job. The sunflower tops are left, along with amaranth seed heads. But 15 minutes with a weed whacker after they move to the next paddock is sufficient to clean everything up. A couple of weeks ago, I switched our weed whacker’s business end to one with plastic blades. Whoever forwarded the idea that we should remove overgrown plant material with a fast-spinning, thin plastic string probably giggles maniacally to themselves. Many hours were wasted this summer and last on resetting that demonic green plastic fiber.

The broilers are dead! In a Saturday morning filled with carnage and merriment, we butchered 100 chickens at our friend’s place, Prairie Couteau Farm. We raised Freedom Rangers and they lived their lives bumbling around the homestead on the farm, being housed at night in a somewhat-mobile former dog kennel made of chain link fence. They started getting more aggressive toward the layer chicks as they got a bit older, so it was certainly time for them to go. We had around 8-9 people helping us on the butchering project, each with a job to play along our assembly line. I was the head and leg man. The birds cleaned beautifully (sharp knives make a huge difference), and looked like those at the grocery store but tasted much better. I think we will try Cornish crosses next time and see if they have a little more tender meat, but as a first try at raising meat birds Jenna, Gabby and many other chicken wranglers did really well.

 

Bees. Our hives on Blue Dasher have become zombies again. The bottom box or two are filled to the brim with bees, sometimes with 9 frames of capped brood. But they have an empty box on top and the bees cannot figure out how to move into it. The hives actually lost weight during the strongest period of the honey flow, within spitting distance of a field of their favorite flowers. It is as though they have forgotten how to be bees. Hives off of Blue Dasher seem to be doing better- we added several honey supers to the 40 off-site hives over the past 2 weeks.

I have talked with many beekeepers and thought long and hard about it. This is likely pesticide related, and through observations I now believe that the contaminant is in the comb. Possibly some genetic problems are at play as well. One source of our bees this summer gave us 15 nucs that have almost caught up with the splits we made in early May. The splits consisted of an entire box full of bees each, and should have launched into the summer season. I have a couple of leads that might help.

 

Research. 

Our bee research has started to yield some strong leads, especially given our recent trials with the hives on Blue Dasher. I am leaning toward a causative issue with bee declines being pesticide disruption of hormones in the honey bees. Initially, we devoted 20 hives to a study on Stratiolaelaps releases to control Varroa mites. A single release indicated a small positive effect of the predator mites on Varroa counts and hive weights (data hasn’t been formally analyzed yet), but nothing that looked biologically or economically relevant (several other predators are yet to be tested). In our final observations on the experiment, we noticed a decline in all hives. I decided to try some of the Citronella (lemon grass) essential oil that I had been hearing about. Half of the hives were treated with the oil, and the others received a placebo. The change in vigor overnight as a result of citronella treatment were surprising and positive. The main active component of the lemongrass oil is citral, which is a component of bee hormones (the Nasonov hormone) which is used in communicating foraging cues and in relocating the hive by foragers. I feel like we are onto something here, and have devoted more time and resources to sleuthing this out for the beekeepers.

July 28, 2017

Hard to Be Away

Blue Dasher has gone from being a alien-like responsibility fraught with challenges and insecurity to something that I frankly couldn’t see our lives without. I have largely sworn off of travel for the summer, trying to repeat as few of last summer’s mistakes as possible. Despite this, I committed to travel to Pierre to speak with the South Dakota Honey Producers for the day. I pulled in around noon, and literally couldn’t wait to walk the farm, checking for any changes or little projects that need being done. There has been a transformation in me and us over the past year. Our confidence is up, and we can relish in the incremental successes that we achieve.

Research. We have no fewer than 14 research projects going on at Ecdysis Foundation this summer; all of them are focused in their way on improving the diversity of cropland and making life easier for the innovative farmers and the bees. Indeed, the strong focus on hive health has really changed the dynamics of this summer from previous years, when we typically just monitored someone else’s hives. One of the more time consuming projects for this summer involves releasing predators into bee hives to eat the Varroa mite. I ran a preliminary trial of this system on a road trip to CA in March (which is another long story for another blog), as well as a substantial number of laboratory assays.  This is the definitive study for Stratiolaelaps releases in the field, and then we will move on to the next predators (I have a list of a dozen or so putative options). Stratiolaelaps is a predatory mite that specializes on eating other mites. So the idea that has been put out there is that these predators will eat the Varroa and leave the bees alone. We should have a better idea on how this is working soon. Another promising avenue of non-chemical Varroa control has been essential oils. Last year, I ran a small preliminary trial on Citronella oil on a hive heavy with Varroa mites (this research idea was prompted by Bernie Hendricks, who knows one heckuva lot about bees). Treated hives that were on a downward spiral reversed their trajectory after one treatment. This year, working with Birds and the Bees Honey and Old Mill Honey in MN, we will be doing a more quantitative assessment of these oils, with the hope of giving beekeepers a Varroa control option that they can make themselves for cheap.

What if we could control pests without insecticides and feed the bees with one simple practice? Another major research area for us has been working out how to get non-crop vegetation into cropland. Mike is pursuing his PhD in developing intercropping schemes in corn that can reduce chemical fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide input costs. We have been working with area farmers like Lyle Kruse, Bret Adee, and Roger Svec, who are big advocates for undersowing their corn with legumes and other pollinator-friendly plants. Predation on surrogate pests is through the roof in these interseeded cornfields compared to the cornfields with bare soil. A greenhouse experiment (yes, we converted one of our labs into a plant production room) that we were asked by farmers to run involves Brassica cover crops (things like radishes, collards, etc). Many anecdotal reports suggest that Brassica covers can reduce pests, including soybean cyst nematodes- a really bad soil pest of soybeans. There really hasn’t been a quantitative study of this in soybeans, nor does anyone really know how these covers might be suppressing pests. These sorts of questions are right in the wheelhouse for Ecdysis Foundation, and fertile ground that could help us continue to diversify agriculture. Following this theme of Brassicas and positive effects on biodiversity, we are working together with a team from SDSU (led by Charlie Fenster) and USDA to develop Brassica carinata (known commonly as black rape- an unsavory google search term, trust me; or better called Ethiopian kale) for our region. More specifically, we are interested in how adding a bee-friendly crop into the landscape affects the ecosystem services provided by that landscape and the overall resilience of a community (including farmers, beekeepers, etc.). Because everybody wins in a diversified food production system, or at least this is the hypothesis that we are testing. Well, that is science overload for now- I will explain our research on risk assessment of pesticides in an upcoming blog.

 

Cropland. Who convinced us that it makes sense to plant as early as possible? I am now convinced that- with few exceptions- it doesn’t. After a slow start, our crops look amazing right now. We sowed hubam sweet clover within the first few days of June directly into a warm season perennial grass mix. And it is as happy as I have seen. Gail Fuller and Lynette Miller were visiting and we walked the fields; Gail has a strong interest in pasture cropping, which he suggested is essentially what I am doing without really thinking about it. The first planting hubam in early May looked like hell and died following a cold wet period. Same story with the borage, which also really liked a late May/early June planting date into standing grasses. Our Phacelia crop did well with early planting, and is just starting to flower now.

I am always looking for ways to reduce or eliminate my input costs on our cropland. This year, the only costs with my cropland that I have is $700 in Canada wild rye seed, $200 in herbicides, a tank of diesel, and my time. But I think I can largely eliminate that herbicide bill for 2018. Roger Svec gave me a kit for a wicking bar that uses about 1/8 the herbicide rate relative to spraying herbicides- why did we stop using this back in the ‘80s? Probably because the herbicide companies weren’t selling enough product with those wicking bars, and Roundup Ready crops came in. All you do is drive over the crop (slowly) and wipe herbicide on the weeds that have exceeded the crop canopy. I will be testing this out as a follow up to intense weed grazing by our sheep (they are about to be released onto our Canada wild rye field tomorrow.

One of the biggest bottlenecks that we have encountered in our specialty seed operation is how to get the seed clean. This is made particularly true when the agronomy of the crop is unresolved, and my experience in farming leaves much to be desired. I have been stressing about seed cleaning for more than 2 years, thinking and researching it as I have time. The issue is that this truly is an art form, new seed cleaning is expensive, and there are seemingly few within my network with a lot of experience in cleaning these weird species of ours. Last December was an eye opener for us. We hired a mobile seed cleaner who got our clover seed partially cleaned (the seed was not dry enough for complete cleaning), and this left us with a $4,000 bill. I was convinced that we could buy our own equipment for this and avoid an annual charge. So we started looking for what we needed. I ended up taking out an advertisement in the Green Sheet (a regional ag newspaper), asking for a “Forsberg #2 scarifier”, the first in a line of equipment needed for cleaning our clover seed. After 10 days, a fellow called up and said he happened to have that exact machine, but it hadn’t been used in 32 years since his father passed away. Added to this good news, he also had a screen mill and a gravity table for cleaning the dehulled clover seed. For a very reasonable price, I travelled to southern SD to pick up our new seed cleaning machines. Last steps in this process will be to get a new small shed built and concrete pad laid for the new machinery, and 3-phase power added to run the suckers. I also need to find an old gravity wagon or bin and a few augers for drying and moving seed around the farm, but those should be pretty easy (holler if you have anything, please!).

 

Livestock. The chickens are getting braver, and are growing up quickly. We finally got around to deep cleaning the chicken barn, and are laying the groundwork for winter plans; namely, extending the coop to accommodate the 100 new layers. The Wyandottes from last year can be found ranging throughout the farm on any given day, but especially have taken to following the sheep as they make their way paddock to paddock through the shelter belt. The broilers are big and seem to get dumber by the day. A few of them have adopted the daily habit of walking under Jenna and my window at 4:45 AM and squawking to help us greet the day. Their end will taste sweet. We have had no escapes or problems with the sheep. Although Cedric and I agree that there is likely a special place in hell where inhabitants are forced to drag an electronet fence through a shelterbelt laden with sticks and branches. The sheep are about to move onto pasture ground, and I cannot wait to make unobscured square paddocks with those fences.

 

Honey bees. After last year, it is great to see our hives growing. Many of the splits we made in May are starting to move into the next box, but they are not jumping into 4 boxes like I see on other hives around the area. This is fine- I am not feeding them sugar water, and this probably slows them down a bit. Also, we are not treating them with anything, hoping to select for some strong genetic strains that can survive in the current matrix of heavy monoculture cropland and the unpredictable winters of the frigid north. Another factor that slows our bees down is that they have to build a lot of comb- our frames have foundation but are not drawn out yet. The phacelia is starting to bloom, and my hope is that this will change everything on the hives we kept on the farm. Forty of our hives have been dispersed throughout a few counties as part of an experiment, and one of a proud moment during the past week was seeing our hives buzzing away off of Blue Dasher Farm.

 

Horticultural crops. Our no-till garden looks absolutely fantastic right now- probably the best garden we have ever grown. Every crop plant is bookended by flowering annuals to provide habitat for predators and pollinators that we need to make our veggies grow. Jenna, Gabby, Mia, Savannah and Cedric all helped spread the chicken litter over the past two weekends to mulch the whole garden. This has largely smothered the weeds, and helps to retain moisture in the soil (which has become particularly important during the hot, dry, windy July we have been experiencing thus far). I arranged a trellis system to support the tomato plants, and plants are thriving. Our raspberries are starting to fruit, and we got our pumpkins, melons, cukes, and squash planted and mulched.

The ornamental and fruit trees and shrubs we got last year are starting to make their way to a permanent home around the farm. Several weeks ago, I sprayed out a 1 acre patch of lawn, in part to reduce mowing, but also to set the stage for our orchard that will be getting established this fall. Into the grass residue, we seeded 45 native prairie species. The idea is that these plants will provide forage for our sheep, chickens, and bees, all of which will graze under our orchard trees. Plants are finally germinating through the duff, but nearly all are pigweed and lambsquarters, with an occasional buffalo burr to add injury to insult. Perhaps a few prairie species are evident, but it will likely be next year that prairie species become more pronounced. Meanwhile, we planted 60 trees and flowering shrubs into the recently grazed (and remarkably clear) shelterbelt, trying to add some structure and diversity to an aging woodland. Oh, and we expect to provide some early season forage to boot. I am also getting a better picture of which of last year’s bare root trees survived. A majority of the trees we planted last summer survived, but not a great majority. It turns my stomach to see those beautiful trees go, especially after all the work we put into getting them established. What killed them? No hardening off in early winter (we went from 60-degree temps in late November, to -30 in December), the biting SD wind, and 60-degree temps in February that woke trees up, which then promptly froze in March. Wonder how changing climates will affect you? Well, there is one example. The remaining fruit and nut trees will be moved to permanent homes in October, after they have started into dormancy for the winter. Looking forward to having that huge project done!

June 25, 2017

Still working hard!

 

Well, half the summer is gone and I haven’t blogged a bit (this time last year, I had six blogs written!). This is a problem, since so much has happened this summer already. All I can do is try to make up for lost time. Life abounds on the farm this year, and although we have accomplished so much, it does not feel hopelessly overwhelming as it did last year. This can be explained by the fact that we have achieved many of our establishment goals. But also we have changed profoundly since even last summer, and have adapted to a life style that sometimes defies explanation.

 

Team. We have an amazing team this year that extends beyond our nucleus lab team. Claire and Jacob graduated with their Master’s degrees in May. It was hard to see them move on, but that is often the way that apprenticeships go; they may be gone, but they are still an important part of Blue Dasher’s legacy and identity. We are particularly lucky to have Kassidy and Alex on for the summer; nice to have their continuity, and they have both grown in confidence so much since May 2016 when they started. McKenzie rounds out our undergraduate squad, and her experience and drive for both entomology and sustainable farming make her a great new member of the team. Mike and his PhD program continue to push the lab toward exciting new areas (I’ll give a research update soon), and Jenna remains an important force behind the administrative duties and farm logistics. Perhaps the biggest additions have been Nicole and Roger. Nicole is in charge of keeping the research side of Ecdysis Foundation running, managing many of the day-to-day activities. Roger is our odd-job expert, and has helped with many of the facilities and maintenance issues that we encounter trying to run farm, bee, and livestock operations, along with a research facility.

Another big difference for us this year is that we have young resident scientists that are living on site for the summer. Colleagues with USGS that are working on honey bees asked to house some of their summer technicians on Blue Dasher, and we thankfully agreed. Having Mia and Savannah living in a camper near our shelterbelt has been a really positive presence on the farm. Cedric arrived from France earlier this week, and he will also be living on site while he pursues an internship in ecological farming and agroecology research. In some ways, this is what we expected Blue Dasher Farm to be- a community of different races, ages, genders, and backgrounds unified by everyone’s devotion to a mission. But we had no real plan or strategy for how to make that happen aside from building the right environment and watching it evolve on its own.

 

Cropland. We followed last year’s successful strategy of minimizing inputs and growing weird specialty crops that support multiple revenue streams. This year we selected Canada wild rye, phacelia, hubam clover, and borage. The hubam clover was an amazing crop last year in so many ways. It was competitive against weeds, and left a legacy of spring weed suppression to boot. It was six feet tall at maturity, and covered in flowers. The seed with no input (aside from some early season herbicide) yielded 300 lbs per acre. And the honey off of this crop was delicious. We planted 4-5 acres of hubam this year, and the stand looks good as of now. Borage was a partial success last year- harvest is a problem for this. We used last year’s field of borage (2-3 acres) to play around with the agronomy of the crop. If we can get this one in the bin, it will be very profitable for farmers and bee keepers alike. Phacelia is one of the top honey producing plants known, and we have around 2-3 acres of it for seed this year. It jumped out of the ground, and it is looking like some of the first flower heads are apparent. It is not very competitive against weeds, so we will try to suppress some grasses and pigweed in the standing crop. More on that soon. We needed a grass in our rotation, so decided to try Canada wild rye. It is a high value, perennial seed that is well adapted to our region. So far, it hasn’t taken well.

The cropping season was a weird one. It started out fine in early May, then we had around 10 days of cold and wet (this killed a lot of young seeds). Then it got in the 90s for a few weeks and no rain in sight. Now into June we are getting decent temperatures and a shot of rain every few days, so things are looking good for those guys who made it this far.

 

Honey bees. The importance of hives’ ability to maintain temperatures is a facet of beekeeping that I have learned well so far this year. We had two hives survive the winter, but they were snuffed out in early and middle May; a blizzard on May 1st and freezing days when they were supposed to be packing on honey. These winter survivors weren’t particularly strong; I gave them too much space, and they couldn’t maintain hive temperature, is my guess. In early May, I received 70 strong hives, each two boxes deep that we used to make splits and increase our hive count to 110. The bees came from down south, a honey operation that unfortunately went under, and there were several hives that were extremely aggressive. They likely had Africanized genetics hybridized with European honey bees. Literally, they chased us through the shelterbelt and into the barns, pinging off of our bee veils. During one hive project, I had a hole in my veil and received 10 stings on my face, neck and head, my extremities swelled and face felt like what I can only presume a boxer must experience. After another Hive Hill project, the hives were so upset that for two days, we would be working in the yard on the garden, and everyone in the family started to get stung in the face by random bees. One beekeeper told me “You aren’t smoking them enough!” No, my body could be on fire, and these asshole bees would be stinging my burning corpse’s face. Not a lot of fun.

We received a batch of 50 mated queens from a donor, and 15 additional nucs from another beekeeper friend. After Kassidy, Alex, and I assessed the aggression on each of the hives, we identified the problem children, and the queens from all aggressive hives were killed without mercy. The requeening process has been onging, and Hive Hill is finally calming down. The new hives are now a blast to work with. But I had some sleepless nights worrying about the visitors that would walk onto Blue Dasher Farm expecting a special experience and instead get stung by angry bees with no provocation. Sixty of the hives have now been moved from Hive Hill into various places around the region for some research experiments. We thank Adee Honey Farms, Rufers Apiaries, and Birds and the Bees Honey for their generous support- we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for their generosity, knowledge, and advice.

 

Livestock. A major limit on Blue Dasher Farm’s profitability in 2016 was a lack of livestock in the system. Over winter, we cut our teeth on 25 laying hens (Silver-laced Wyandottes), who now produce several dozen eggs per week and have been a lot of fun. In May, we received a gift of 100 more laying hens from Murray McMurray hatcheries. These layers are every color of the rainbow, and it has been so much fun to watch them grow and get braver. All of our chickens have the run of the entire farm, and it is a wonderful surprise to find the older hens venturing out further and further from the coop. All of them overwinter in the Livestock Barn, so are protected at night. We also partnered up with some friends (Prairie Coteau Farm) to purchase some broiler chickens for meat production. The breed we selected was Freedom Rangers. They take a little longer to develop, but supposedly have fewer health issues and are a bit better suited to free range conditions. We have largely kept them separate from the other chickens, in large part because the broilers are too stupid to find the layer hens. This is not me being mean- these broilers are noticeably dumber than the other chickens on the farm. And they grow remarkably faster than any laying hen. During early June, the temperatures were very hot and the open, mobile chicken cage the broilers were in was sitting in the sun. A wonderful shady hedge was within 15 feet of the broilers’ cage, and it took them days/weeks before they figured out that it was a preferred site to the blazing sun. Nevertheless, they have been a lot of fun. It has now been a year, and we really haven’t lost much to predators given the free-range nature of the flocks. Two of last year’s roosters (destined for the abattoir anyway) were killed by a Great Horned Owl who liked to roost in the Livestock Barn at night, and two ducks (the remaining ducks now waddle into a small dog kennel every night for bed) were killed by a weasel or some such animal. There is a real hatred of predators in farming communities. In the few instances on our farm, the predation events were a result of us not protecting our livestock well enough.

A huge addition to the farm has been a flock of hair sheep. Around a month ago, Paul Ackley donated six ewes and their 13 offspring from his flock down in western Iowa. Jenna and I had no direct experience with managing livestock, but we are both competent folks that typically accept a worthy challenge. The plan is to replace much of our herbicide use through a planned high intensity grazing scheme with these sheep. The sheep had never been in a barn before, and are hardy and healthy. We may keep them in shelter for the South Dakota winter- we’ll have to see how they are doing. Essentially, we create an 80 x 80 foot paddock with an electric sheep net, and allow the sheep to graze it heavily for 2 days. Then we move the sheep to an adjacent paddock and slowly move them across the farm. The sheep may not return to a paddock for as long as a year, but certainly never before 80 days. Fall and spring intense grazing should help reduce a lot of the weed competition on our cropland.

In the first week, the sheep were pretty nervous and got through the fence once. But they always walked calmly back in when given the opportunity. This was not always to be the case, to our surprise. I decided to move the sheep from their first paddock to a second paddock across the yard that was pretty weedy. Not having had any trouble with them in the past, I had a few team members create a 150 foot corridor and thought we’d just encourage the sheep to walk through to the next grazing ground. I opened the fence, and started to chase them through. The first group went one way, and the second group went the other way. And neither of them went toward the next paddock. After 2-3 hours of coaxing, we managed to gently drive the sheep back into their original paddock.

A few days later I woke to hear a bleating lamb. I went to check on the sheep, and only a single lamb remained. The fence had been broken down on both sides, and the flock was nowhere to be found. We were beside ourselves with worry. How do you find a missing flock of sheep, let alone get them home?!? As I searched Blue Dasher, a strange truck pulled into the driveway. Our neighbor from across the interstate asked if we were missing some sheep. Six of them had showed up at his place, leaving 12 yet to be found. Jenna and Ian took one vehicle, Leif and I took the truck, and our two new residents Mia and Savannah took their car, and we all began searching the region in different directions. After 2 hours, all neighbors had been alerted, the sheriff called, and I had asked several friends for advice on this conundrum. There was no sign of the missing sheep, but when they turned up, we hoped that someone would alert us. We returned to our neighbor’s place to fetch the few found members of the herd. Our wonderful neighbor informed us that he had just loaded them up and helpfully brought them back to the paddock to rejoin the lamb. He also explained “I may have misled you a bit. There were 6 ewes and all of their lambs. Not six sheep total.” Our flock had been returned. We still don’t know what happened that night to chase the sheep out of a 5,000 volt fence. Neighbors unanimously blamed coyotes, but I doubt that. There was not a scratch on any of them, and those lambs would have been easy prey. I think it was a deer fleeting through the shelter belt and getting tied up in the net. Certainly, that would have spooked those sheep into a stampede. But we may never know for sure. Since these early incidents, the sheep have learned their routine, and love being on Blue Dasher. I even have them trained to move paddocks to the ring of a Christmas bell. I would say we probably spend 7-8 hours per week working on them- and they have largely helped us with thistles, nettles, and rejuvenating our shelterbelt understory.

 

Nursery crops. It was a hard winter for the hundreds of trees and shrubs donated last season by Norms Greenhouse and Nursery. It was in the 60s in late November, and dropped to -30 (-50 with windchill) in December, with almost no hardening off period. Then in February, the temps got into the 60s, waking up trees (especially oaks and ironwoods), that then promptly froze solid in March. Needless to say, while the majority of plants we spent so much time on getting established last season survived, many of the trees are still struggling to wake up. I haven’t given up on them. We started to prepare the orchard and disperse bee-friendly trees and shrubs into the existing shelterbelt. For the orchard, I burned out (with herbicide) the lawn on approximately 1 acre east of the livestock barn. I let some of the lawn resurge, and then hit it again. I followed this by broadcasting around 250 lbs of native prairie seed that was donated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Forty-five species of native grasses and forbs that are just now starting to poke their heads through the residue of the lawn. Into this diverse mix, we will integrate our fruit and nut trees. So revenue streams coming off of our orchard will include honey, lamb meat, eggs, and fruit. We may also integrate vegetables into the understory.

A big project this summer has been turning another portion of our lawn into a no-till vegetable garden. Seemingly competing to outdo themselves, Norm’s came through for us again this summer. As we were beginning our garden, they donated 150 tomato plants, 85 pepper plants, a range of other veggies and herbs, as well as an equal number of companion annual flowers (marigold, zinnia, tobacco, salvia, etc.). The previous owners had a 200 x 20 ft strip along the western edge of the yard that was basically annual weeds and thistles. Last year, we established our raspberries in this area. So around mid-June, we mowed the weeds down, made a series of narrow furrows, and planted onions, tomatoes, peppers and the like. In between each plant, we planted a flower to diversify the garden and attract beneficial insects like predators and pollinators. The tomatoes and peppers will be supported with trellises as they grow. Meanwhile, the biology of the soil remains entirely intact to feed our veggies, unlike heavily tilled gardens which are the norm. The plan is to make and market Blue Dasher Farm salsa this fall as an additional product to support our research program.

In May, I travelled east to Minnesota. The Midwest Elderberry Cooperative agreed to donate a handful of cuttings and bare root elderberry plants (four different varieties) to help us demonstrate the utility of this fruit in a diversified farm. We established the cuttings and potted the bare roots. The plan is to integrate perennial fruit strips into our annual cropland. And elderberries are a great source of mid-season flowers for the bees as well. We will keep folks posted on this

November 11, 2016

What a difference a year makes

A few weeks ago, a list was created of all of the things we had to accomplish before the snow begins to fly here in the frigid north. It wasn’t a short list- a full sheet of paper by the time we were done. Winterizing vehicles, getting livestock barns in place, moving nursery stock, insulating buildings. But I am proud to say that almost all has been accomplished, and the winter has yet to set in on us. This has been the nature of things over the past eight months: create a seemingly insurmountable list of things to accomplish to make the vision of Blue Dasher Farm a reality. Then we throw ourselves against the wall, making mistakes, and overcoming hurdles as we tumble through each challenge. Like in many stories, we are not the same people as when we started. But we have built something good here.

 

Facilities/renovations. The break room, kitchen, and bathroom are complete, except for a bit of trim work and final decorating, which is actively ongoing. The biggest project was finishing the floor; Jacob and I sealed the floors with some epoxy (and paint in the lab). This made the stained concrete floor we applied shine and gave a really cool finished look. It has been nice to be able to use this space, and for the students to have a home base for lunches and whatnot. We transferred most of the molecular equipment into the new laboratory, and are now using the smallest lab for a rearing room for our numerous predator colonies (for the Varroa mite work) and the monarchs (which are quickly dying…bloody milkweed plants are a pain in the neck to grow in the laboratory). Elsewhere on the farm, I wired both of the barns (the hive shed and the chicken barn). In a long day, Jenna and I installed outlets, lights, and ran the wiring into the breakers all by ourselves. This was not something I would not have been able to do in March, but I had a very good teacher. This electrical should make working out there after hours a lot easier. The sun rises at 7:00 and sets at 5:30 these days, which doesn’t give us a lot of daylight. There will always be something else to do for the facilities, but we are in really good shape heading into winter.

 

Research. Claire harvested her last corn plot, and this grain analysis finalizes our field season. Projects worked out well, and now we have to make sense of all of the data and process a bunch of samples. Both Jacob and Claire are already working on their theses, hoping to graduate in May with their Master’s degrees. The Varroa mite predation project has quickly risen to prominence. Old Mill Honey Farm generously donated a few rogue, heavily infested hives so that we could have live Varroa for assays with our mites and other predators. A big constraint will be getting pure cultures of these predators that we can release en masse into hives to see how the Varroa-infested hives respond to having these predators in place. Our students are world-class; at the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando, our students formed a debate team to discuss issues facing the bees. They were ranked 2nd overall against the university departments, and won their individual debates. As if this weren’t enough, Jacob’s presentation won first prize in his session, and Mike took 2nd prize in his session. These students are truly exceptional, and are going to make some substantive contributions to our world- I am really proud to get the chance to work with them.

 

Cropland. All of the trees and shrubs have landed in the fenced paddock, and we are starting to wrap some chicken wire around the stems to fend off rabbits. Leif, our pup, spends quite a bit of time in the same paddock, and we hope that this presence will deter deer from causing too many problems. The Euonymous bush on the side of the house has been nibbled quite a bit, an indication of an active deer population. After dark the other night, we flushed a deer that ran through our harvested cropland. The crops are now all in, and we are trying to figure out how to dry and clean the seed. Seed cleaning of specialty crops is largely a lost art form; luckily Corey from Timber Lake has been willing to try to clean this sweet clover up. Not only does the seed need to be dried, but it also needs to have the hull scarified (rubbed) off. It ends up being a 4-step process, once the seed is out of the field and dried. Combining the hubam clover went really smoothly, and we got a good crop off of that 4.5 acres (approximately 250-300 lbs per acre of cleaned seed). Not bad for a first try with no fertilizers nor insecticides/fungicides. A lack of seed cleaning is going to be a hurdle as we continue to develop new crops.

 

Honey bees. We harvested the honey last weekend; results were disappointing. We gave the hives everything that they could want- these 25 hives were embedded in acres of some of their favorite flowers, which were chemical free (at least, no chemicals on our land). We poured resources into getting them to expand their hives and put on some honey. But they just limped along all year, so honey production was less than stellar, and the number that will survive the winter is questionable. Still, it is our first year getting our hives established, and several beekeeper friends said that we should be happy to see any honey extraction in our first year. The big barn is all cleaned up, and ready to receive the hives for overwintering. We need to build some new deep boxes, and have had a pledge or two for new queens first thing in the spring. This should bump us up to our goal of 100 hives next year, if all goes well. We converted a closet in the lab barn into a honey warming room that worked really well for us.

 

I am convinced now more than ever that the colony troubles is a queen issue, and I believe that it is pesticides that are hurting the reproductive capacity of the queen. Recent studies have shown that the queens are less vigorous and drones less functional after exposure to insecticides, and there are dozens of pesticides found in the hives’ comb. What are we going to do about it? Well, big picture is reforming how we produce food, and that is the point of Blue Dasher. But more proximal in our own operation is that we are going to try to get my hives off of their drugs. We aren’t going to do much for these hives over the winter season, and we are going to base our hives next spring on the strongest survivors. I suspect that feeding and treatment probably has hurt the resilience of our hives. This could be naïve of me, but our constant intervention to stem the hemorrhaging may be hurting more than helping in the long run.

 

Travel and outreach. The travel season has begun in earnest. I presented for the HMI- the Savory Institutes’ educational arm. We were lucky enough to get to see Joel Salatin speak there, which was my first exposure to his style and message. The meeting was held at Paicines Ranch in Central California, and it was great to spend time with Kelly, Elaine, and Sally who run the joint. What an amazing place this 7600 acre ranch is. Another highlight of the trip was hanging out with my old post-doc Michael and his wife Bonnie (and kids). It has been good to get to know these guys again after a few years away. I just got back from New York, where the Empire State Beekeepers had me out again this year. What a great group of folks there, and we wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for their tremendous support.

 

I believe that things happen for a reason. Some reasons we can see and others we can’t. It was one year ago that I decided to defend myself against my former employers for their research suppression and retaliation against inconvenient science. The anniversary of the Washington Post story that sent my life and the lives of everyone I care about down a different and unsure path was on October 28. Nobody celebrated. The motivation for this decision was sound, and I don’t regret my decision. The path we are on is a good one. I know that now, but we didn’t know it then. Ultimately, it was the farmers and beekeepers that showed us this direction, and we will continue to work on their behalf.

September 29, 2016

The summer winds down.

 

After several crazy weeks since our last blog post, fall will quickly be approaching up here in the frigid north. A 10 day trip to Australia to visit with farmers and some sight-seeing with Gabby, a busy field season, harvesting sweet clover and getting the equipment into shape, a longer-than welcome bout with bronchitis and a touch of pneumonia, finishing the laboratory facility, and a nearly constant stream of visitors curious to see our new operation and even help out on whatever task needs doing. I don’t think I will touch on July or the first half of August beyond this cursory sketch, instead favoring a bit more in depth discussion of recent events of the past few weeks.

Research. The undergraduate interns have all returned to classes, and we will miss them dearly. Many thanks to Amy, Kassidy, and Alex, and hope they will return to help us in the future as their schedules allow. Claire’s project has been busy with assessing insect communities in pollen-shedding cornfields, when most corn insects can be found. We have been doing whole plant counts on corn for approximately 7 or 8 years. It is remarkable how few insects we see in this habitat compared to when we first started. Biodiversity declines are tough to measure, but these combined studies may give us an indication of species losses from corn habitats. Regardless, Claire sampled her last cornfield for insects. Just need to collect yields and final soil metrics to complete her thesis research. And analyze a bunch of soil samples for various physical and chemical properties. Jacob’s project has also been busy. By restricting insects from dung pats, Jacob has been able to show how quickly insect communities reduce dung (a remarkable rate!). And he is also documenting how these communities change over time as the pat ages. The research should be useful to ranchers wanting to reduce their reliance on pesticides. On Blue Dasher, we have monarch adults, and plenty of milkweed. But almost no reproduction by the monarchs, which is really disturbing. We started a small study to try to see if monarch females can distinguish between neonicotinoid-contaminated milkweed plants or not. If they do, it could explain a lot. The Varroa mite predator project is also building momentum. We are doing our best to increase Varroa in some of our hives (thanks to Hackenberg Apiaries for the drone frames, and Old Mill Honey Farm graciously donated as many living Varroa mites as we can stomach) as prey for some of the predators we are evaluating. Our fingers are crossed we get the numbers we need to help the beekeepers on this.

The lab team was mostly in Orlando for the past week or so, presenting their research to the International Congress of Entomology. Around 6,000 entomologists from around the world all convened in sticky Florida for the chance to exchange viruses and latest information on entomology. It was good to see colleagues, and see the fruits of Ecdysis Foundation presented to the scientific community.

Laboratory renovation. We are so close to being finished with our laboratory facility. It is hard to put into words how much I am looking forward to having a desk again. It has been nearly a year that I have been working off of my kitchen table (between finishing up at the old position and starting this new initiative), and am looking forward to a little space of my own. This hopefully will lead to a little more structure in life. Thanks to an amazing group of friends, we were able to get the newly sheet-rocked renovation all painted up. Dr. Lorena Pumarino, one of my former students from Spain, came back to South Dakota for two whole weeks and helped us with all kinds of projects around the farm. Especially with getting the floor finished in the new lab, kitchen, bathroom, and break room. A little bit of trim work, and we are ready to go! We also recently brightened up the lab by adding a bunch of new lights in there, and bought several new fixtures (including a much needed work bench) at a facility auction in Clear Lake. We should be ready to go by the time the snow flies. A bit later than my predicted June 15th finish date, but better late than never.

 

Farm. Our cropping systems have been going well. A major deficiency in my knowledge that I need to find a way around is that I lack experience in mechanical repair. And old farm equipment needs A LOT of mechanical repair. Luckily, I am friends with farmers from around that are pretty handy with these old machines, and are helping us to keep them serviced and even improve them. Bottom line, I am hoping that time helps to fill this problem in for me. Borage is a tricky crop to harvest, and we got hurt this year. As the crop neared maturity, our swather broke a wheel bearing and popped a belt. So I borrowed a swather from a friend and neighbor to the south. I got the new swather to the property to find that the belt and reel weren’t working. All parts shops were closed for a holiday, and when the opportunity arrived it began to rain. It rained for days. The end result is we got substantially less seed than we hoped, but learned a lot about harvesting this plant for subsequent seasons. On the other hand, we have hubam clover. We have a tremendous amount of biomass in those annual sweet clover fields, and so far all is looking good for an early October harvest on this crop. Our orchard trees look fantastic (thanks again to Norm’s for helping us with these), and we should be in a great place to get these trees moved in the spring to their final place in the orchard. Hazelnuts are also growing well, with friends Beau and Nisha bringing us some good stock from Badgersett Farms, and plans to expand these first year plants into our annual cropping fields.

 

Honey bees.  Thanks to the many contributions of Adee Honey Farms, Zia Queenbees, Old Mill Honey Farms, and other beekeepers from around the country, we have a solid 20-25 hives going into winter. Despite numerous attempts to split and reproduce these hives, we simply could not break the 30 hive ceiling this first year. Queens didn’t want to mate, or they died before the hive could take off. I recently explained our efforts to a local beekeeper friend “we throw effort and resources into splitting hives, and despite seemingly doing everything right, these hives just limp along all summer”. “Jon,” Steve explained to me, “this is what we have been living through the past 10 years. We give them everything we can, and the hives remain weak.” This isn’t piss poor beekeeping. As I write this, the bees continue to work the hubam clover, bringing in nectar and pollen. In spite of losing the borage for seed, we should bring in plenty of revenue from that land thanks to our honey production. Indeed, this is the whole idea behind Blue Dasher: when you stack enterprises (e.g., honey and seed production) on the same land, this provides a better insurance policy than a check from the government. The honey extraction will start when we shed the bees in a couple of weeks.

 

Other animals. I think that my favorite addition to the farm has been Jenna and Gabby’s laying hens. We have 25 Wyandotte hens that wander free range around the property all day long. Despite seeing hawks (they next in the shelterbelt), badgers, skunks, raccoons, and a puppy all sharing this farm, we have not lost a single bird yet! It is just a delight to watch these goofy birds confidently strut around the farm, only to turn and run for the shelter with only the slightest provocation. We also are really looking forward to getting some eggs; Jenna estimates they will start laying in October some time. Leif the border collie puppy is doing well, but we are all learning how to live together. I feel like 6 months has been an influential age in regards to his learning capabilities. He is a really intelligent, and very independent, little critter. His mouth is his entire interface with the rest of the world. Licking, biting, chewing, and eating everything that he encounters. The entire family’s existence has quickly come to revolve around this puppy’s needs and whims. But in the past couple of weeks, we have started to experience some progress. We also saw a border collie training workshop at the Fiber Festival convention in Watertown, and seeing what these dogs are capable of gave me a wake up call. Arguably, border collies are not great pets, in the strictest sense of the word. They have much more intellect and instinct than many other dogs. As such, they warrant respect and attention and training. Given a job, I have a feeling that Leif is going to be an important part of our lives and operation.

 

Our first six months on Blue Dasher Farm have seen amazing strides forward. Occasionally, we reflect on how far we have come toward our vision already. But it sure as hell hasn’t been easy. We deliberately took on much more than we could handle in this first season on the farm with the intent that many of these chores would be investments (throwing a puppy into the mix, getting the orchard started, etc). With Blue Dasher, we are setting an amazing stage where we are going to be showcasing something the world hasn’t really seen before. And after a mere 6 months, I can’t imagine any other life that I would rather be living.

June 26, 2016

Sometimes life exceeds your expectations.

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, and we continue to ride the wave of events on the road to solidifying the Blue Dasher Farm Initiative here in Deuel County. I am looking forward to reaching a time and place when I can step back and put my feet up to appreciate everything that has gone so right over these first few months. But until that time, we will continue to work as never before toward the goal.

The first milestone to occur since our last blog is that we hosted our first event at Blue Dasher. A few weeks ago, “Keep the Hives Alive”, asked whether they could make Blue Dasher the first stop on their national tour. This is a tour organized in part by beekeepers and advocacy groups in Washington DC to raise awareness about the bee losses, with a particular emphasis on pesticides. James Cook, a Minnesota beekeeper, would drive a truckload of dead bees across the country as a way to highlight this important issue. While we were supportive of the cause, I really didn’t feel like Blue Dasher was ready for a big event- we have only been in operation for a few months. Regardless, we decided we would try it out, and Friends of the Earth (Tiffany Finck-Haynes) was really supportive of this.

We sent announcements about the field day (it was on June 13th), to some press outlets, and to our surprise, it was covered in at least half a dozen papers from around the region and beyond. The RSVPs started to roll in, and plans had to solidify in a hurry. We had Posh Prairie Boutique (from Clear Lake) cater the event, and decided to give a tour of our operation, followed by a few short talks by local producers, and then a discussion with the audience about how to use agriculture as the solution to the bee problem. In addition to Mr. Cook, his wife (Sam) and their parrot Cat, we also hosted the documentary filmmaker (Trent), and three visitors from DC (thanks to Tiffany and Larissa for helping to coordinate the tour). Bret Adee, Jesse Hall (a local farmer), Jessica Kruse (a local rancher), Frank and Kim James (leaders of Dakota Rural Action), the graduate students (Mike, Jacob, Claire) as well as a few impromptu visitors (Steve Ellis, Richard Adee) all helped to guide the night and discussion. Between 100-120 people showed up for this remarkable evening that still makes me shake my head with amazement. I have to say, the next day I felt a little like I had been hit by a truck, but it really inspired me to meet these wonderful people and find that folks were actually interested in our vision for Blue Dasher. Thanks to my wonderful wife on this one- we could not have done it without her; and our friends and lab crew who really came through to lend a hand in preparations.

Life would not allow us time to bask around in the success of our field day. A day or two following, I was told to put together a wish list for orchard trees and shrubs. We have had a long and positive relationship with Colin Evers (and Roger Brown) at Norm’s Greenhouse in Aurora SD, and they have always been really supportive of us. In hearing about what we were trying to do, Colin had numerous suggestions for ways to use nursery stock to feed the bees and add revenue to a diversified farm. By the end of the week, we had more than 400 trees and shrubs that needed immediate attention (with the blessing of Norm and Barbara). Many were bare root, which meant that they needed to get in the ground immediately. Getting the trees out to the farm began with Jenna and I being forced to seek refuge in Norm’s home, as straight line winds and 5 inches of rain poured down on Brookings County. We arrived home with the second truckload of nursery stock to find that Blue Dasher received no more than a drop or two of rain (which would become problematic later). Another two truck/trailer loads of trees followed on Saturday, which initiated a cascade of activities that would dictate the next five days of our lives from sun up to sun down. We frantically divided our time between digging holes, planting trees, watering, and mulching our new orchard amidst 95 degree heat. Every day we had help from friends and colleagues (often unbeknownst to them until they arrived for a visit!). On Thursday, the last of the trees were in the ground in a staging area. These aren’t dinky little bare root trees: many are 6-10 feet tall and are going to be majestic. The job couldn’t have been done without Bret Adee helping us with his skid steer and a 12” auger we rented from Rental Depot in Brookings. My father helped to give a final watering and mulched many of the trees, and Cable and the Hardin Clan were instrumental in getting these all planted. Can’t thank all of our helpers enough. The Blue Dasher orchard is established with peaches, plums, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, serviceberries, apples, pears, and probably a dozen others that escape my mind as I write.

On Wednesday, I made the trip out to Ree Heights SD (west of Miller), where Dean and Candice had invited me out to look at a swather that we needed for the farm. The specialty crops that we are raising require cutting, windrowing, and drying for a short while before combine. So one of our last pieces of equipment is something to swath and windrow the crop. Dean and Candice had approached me at the field day, saying they had one that they would be willing to set us up with, so I drove out to visit with them a bit and see the machine. They are operating a beautiful and diverse rangeland system with grassfed beef, and I got to see some of their pastures. The swather worked great; now I just have to truck it home somehow (the header is 18 feet wide).

Friday was yet another day of travel (my research team has been incredibly patient with me these past two weeks…). Gabe up in Bismarck said he had a pick up head for our combine he would set us up with, and I really need to get the combine optimized for harvesting small seeded stuff soon. Additionally, Gabe’s Border Collie had puppies, and we had been talking about me picking one up for helping on the farm. Sara is our current lab-Australian cattle dog mix, and she is getting pretty old. So as our livestock and farm duties expand, having a smart dog that can help us out seems like it would be a good addition to the farm. I took a borrowed trailer up to Bismarck (stopping in Jamestown to visit with a colleague about some research projects), and Gabe and Paul dropped the head onto the trailer (it is enormous), and welded the wheel back on that had popped off during removal. Then I picked a pup from their litter of seven, a male with a moderate personality and nice markings. Needless to say, you should have seen the look of delight when the kids saw that pick up head parked in the driveway the next morning. It was priceless. The puppy has yet to sleep through the night, but I have a feeling I chose right with him. His name is Leif.

Our bee hives are worrying me quite a bit. I have yet to see any reproduction out of them, and we have only 30 boxes with bees in them. The swarm we caught earlier in the month is by far our strongest hive. There is a rapidly increasing density of flowers in the environment, so I am letting the hives we have forage for nectar more than relying on sugar syrup. I will be patient, but at this point I fear we won’t have the pollination capacity for our crops. The “Bee Problem” has hit Blue Dasher.

We have not had any rain in several weeks on Blue Dasher, and this also is making us worry. The Hubam clover is looking well, but some weed pressure is moving in and it isn’t putting on the growth like it would if we could get a nice shot of rain. Similarly, the borage continues to germinate to fill in some pockets of rows devoid of plants, but it isn’t going to get moving until we see some water. The last 3 rain events in the area have completely missed us. The 90-100 degree heat and constant wind is really drying us out. But our un-tilled ground still seems to have some moisture for those crops (phew).

The laboratory renovation is coming along nicely, but I am anxious to have this complete so we can start to move into the new space, and the lab crew can have their own space for bathroom breaks and lunchtime. Framers came out and did a great job laying in the new walls, and putting in a couple of new windows into the third laboratory. We lucked out and found some decent double-paned windows in our pole shed, and the contractors said they looked like they would do fine. In 95 degree heat, the guys were working on the tin and getting things laid out in the new renovation. The plumbers came back out, and got the drains and water lines roughed in. Now I will get the wiring done on the new rooms, a little more framing to even out the walls for sheet rock, and get the spray foam insulation applied. Not too much left! Our lab team has been remarkably patient.

Many of you know Cliff Millsapps. He has been an important friend to me over the past several years. I met Cliff during the farmer’s market, where he sold Cliff’s Grass Grown Beef. He always enjoyed talking about insects, and my discussions with him prompted me toward working on the dung beetle projects that now occupy a good chunk of our laboratory’s efforts. At the time, I was writing the Insect Spotlight at the time, highlighting various aspects of cultural entomology for a wide range of newspapers, and to my surprise, Cliff made it known that ranchers and farmers were actually reading it! As time went on, Cliff’s commitment to ecologically intensive farming and livestock production was really influential to so many in our community, and I was so happy that he was supportive of our Blue Dasher Farm Initiative. Cliff died on June 14th on his ranch near Gary, South Dakota. My last memory of Cliff was a discussion we had the night of the Keep the Hives Alive tour. When I saw him there, he looked like he was really happy. He was surrounded by likeminded farmers and the community interested in making regenerative agriculture a reality, something he believed in passionately. And he was so proud of one of our speakers, Jessica Kruse, who he was helping get on her feet with her ranch. You left us too soon, Cliff. You will be missed.

After one particularly challenging day, I finished watering the new trees around 9 PM. I set the hose on the ground, and laid down exhausted in the drying grass. It hurt to move. But the sky was a beautiful blue, and as the high white clouds passed by overhead they carried my cares away. We are lucky people to have such wonderful people in our lives and to have such an amazing opportunity to make a difference. After a while- it might have been a minute or an hour- I forced myself back onto my feet and trudged on to the next challenge toward helping this planet.

June 11, 2016

Unreasonably hot weather can really suck the life and joy out of things.

 

For most of the week, temperatures were in the upper 90s; as miserable as it gets. Nevertheless, the team of students worked in the scorching sun all day, and nearly every day. Claire, Mike and Jacob’s projects are all moving ahead full steam now. In what is likely one of the more revolting experiments we have devised over the years, Jacob gathered fresh cow poop (and we mean VERY fresh), froze it, thawed it, divided it into 1 kg packets, and put it out in the field under different conditions. The phrase “Oops, I got poop on the ______” (fill in the blank; it is probably true in some areas of the lab) was heard pretty frequently. But through using exclosures with different sized holes, we will for the first time ever get a clear picture on how insects contribute to dung degradation in the field. It will be a really cool dataset. Mike got the rest of his intercrop into the plots, after having some struggles with the planter last week. The corn is still at around stage V3, so things are still good for his objectives. By the end of the week, he was thinking that the peas and legumes he planted late last week in one of the replicates were poking their heads through to greet the heat. Claire’s project occupied a lot of time this week, as setting things up for her season long examination of soil insects on corn production. The hot sun baked the team as they pounded PVC cylinders to exclude insects from areas of the field, took soil cores to characterize soil qualities as well as insect communities, and sucked up all insects on the soil surface in quadrats using little mouth aspirators. As each milestone was met during this intense week, we were consistently reminded that we have an amazing team this summer.

 

Honey bees. Despite our best efforts, and good will from our supporters, it doesn’t look like any of the new queens that we put in our nucs took. Indeed, many of the weak hives had consolidated into a few stronger hives. Some are making queen cells, so this may end up being the route that we have to take. But to be here in the first week of June with only 15 hives, only one or two of which are reproductive, is discouraging. I had hoped that they would have been building up much quicker. I don’t think that I am alone in this matter with slow hive establishment this summer. In an unexpected event, we had a visit from our neighbor Jim (we met only a few days before at the Dakota Rural Action meeting), and he wondered whether I wanted a new bee colony: he found a swarm near his pasture. Within an hour, Claire and I were suited up (suits were not necessary, but better safe than sorry), and were driving over to gather up a new colony. 10,000 workers had made a swarm around a queen bee, and were looking for a new home. This is an important way that hives reproduce, and when searching for a new hive location, the bees are extremely docile. The swarm unfortunately fell off of their branch and into the grass, and Claire and I scooped up thousands of bees with our gloved hands and put them into a Rubbermaid tote. We drove them back, and put our new colony into a hive box, which they instantly took over. It is by far the strongest hive that we have on Blue Dasher right now. Looking forward to watching it grow.

 

Cropland. Not a lot of news out of the crops this week. Both the borage and the hubam really liked the heat. Last week, I was a little worried about the borage fields: germination was sparse. But I recalled our experience last year with uneven germination with this crop, so all hope was not lost. By Friday of this week, the borage was looking like a nice stand, assuming that we get rain when we need it.

 

On Thursday, the front vent started to make a thumping sound in Humphrey the truck. To solve the problem, I figured a bit more umph would solve the problem, so cranked up the fan speed. Now the whole dashboard was vibrating, so I turned it back down and turned the radio up. Chalk it up on the “to be fixed” list. The next day, Jenna and Gabby cut through the 95 degree heat with Humphrey, and quickly texted that a foul smell was coming from the truck. A stop by the repair shop revealed that a mouse had been eviscerated in the passenger side van, and now was getting nicely warmed up. The repair shop managed to get the vehicle in at 4:30 PM, and I took the opportunity to get it fixed before the hot weekend hit. With a bill for $120 in hand, and little consultation, we decided we should get some cats to act as mousers. Three kittens showed up by Saturday. Despite my attempts to explain these are expendable farm cats, intended to do a job, the kids have become attached. Toys, collars, and numerous hours of constant attention have been showered on the kittens. I have a feeling that hard lessons will ensue. Oh, lay wondering aside: the duckling have largely been replaced.

 

One of the highlights of the week was that Jenna and I attended the Dakota Rural Action meeting in for the Deuel County Chapter. It was terrific to spend a great night meeting some likeminded folks that are our neighbors (both figuratively and spatially). Folks from different ages and walks of life that are committed to sustainable rural development. Looking forward to spending more time with these guys in the future.

 

The renovation to the laboratory facility made some real progress this week. We got the rooms all framed up for sheetrocking, and the guys did such a good job and for a reasonable price that we asked whether they could install the windows and doors to the buildings. I ran over to the Habitat for Humanity REStore, and bought some great pre-hung doors for $25 a piece! And we discovered two pretty heavy duty windows in the pole shed that seem like they are still in pretty good shape. We will see what the contractors say regarding their condition (from a professional point of view). The framing process revealed that the bathroom floor concrete was not laid down properly, and the plumbing drains missed the walls, so the previous progress with these two facets of the renovation remain to be completed. Now I just need to put up some 1 x 4 strappings along the ceiling to hold up the sheet rock, and try to get the electrical taken care of. Hoping to get it all done by the end of the month.