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.