Prairie burn

It was a rainy and cold week on Blue Dasher Farm last week. Indeed, the frost on Friday morning reassured me that maybe it was a good thing that I hadn’t planted any crops yet. The weather notwithstanding, we accomplished a lot this week.

Last weekend, we successfully harnessed “Man’s red flower” (…to quote King Louie). Before we could plant our crops, we had to burn out the 10 years of prairie grasses from 12 acres of Blue Dasher. Neither Jenna nor I (nor any of our dozen or so friends who came to help) had ever done a controlled burn before, but we are all able bodied adults with plenty of common sense. I tried to entice the fire department into coming over, but the Brandt volunteer fire department was pretty busy this time of year with planting crops and whatnot. So we nervously did some reading up on the process, and decided to tackle this task without professional help. Gabby and I filled water buckets, and our 55 gallon rain barrels. Jenna bought a couple of backpack sprayers, and I got the LP torch to light things up. Although initially slated for Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon ended up being the best option, so we pulled the trigger. Thanks to a call for help to our support network, we had at least three families come out to give us a hand with controlling the blaze.

The westernmost field was the first to get lit. It was fairly sheltered from the wind in the corner, so things started without event. With consultation, I decided to light ahead of the fire line to speed things up. A swift wind took the flame into Jenna’s guard line, and it jumped the fire break heading straight for the freeway. Fast action, and plenty of help and water was able to contain things, but this crisis made us respect the magnitude of consequences should we monkey this up. Everyone kept their wits, and we were able to keep things controlled the rest of the night.

What an amazing and powerful thing these fires are. It completely cleared the grasses and debris from the field as the line of flames pushed their way through the field. All that was left was an occasional clump of living grass (when the fire jumped over or moved too quickly to scorch the grass), and the mounds of earth moved by rodents in the soil. Very little animal life fled the flames. Most animals seemed to move down into their burrows, likely a behavior resulting from thousands of years living with periodic burns on the ancestral prairies. Maintaining the fire break required constant attention and close quarters interaction with the flames and smoke. It was staggering (literally) how strongly the smoke affects you, triggering innate reactions to escape it rather than breathe the caustic fumes.

We managed to get through around 8 acres on Saturday night before sunset. All were pretty tired, but the Vanderzees agreed to come out in the morning at sunrise to finish the burn. Nothing says “mother’s day” like waking up at the ass crack of dawn, and consuming smoke and lugging a 30 lb back pack sprayer around for 4 hours. So with four of us (Gabby joined on the lawn mower later), we deftly managed to control the final burn of 4 acres. Following a nice Mother’s Day brunch (Mimosas!), we looked as though we were empty shells. I have been tired many times over the past 10 weeks, but this was a memorable kind of exhaustion. But we did it. We got the CRP burned out before the wind and rain of the rest of the week. This sets the stage for planting when the weather cooperates.

Classes finished up last week, so the students were able to spend the whole week out at the lab preparing for what will be a busy field season. Plots were marked off, site visits arranged with farmers, and final supplies were accumulated. On Tuesday, the whole team took advantage of a window of sunshine to sample some alfalfa for a colleague in Montana. She is looking for alfalfa weevil and its parasitoid wasps. In my 11 years in South Dakota, I seldom have seen an appreciable numbers of this pest, and our sampling confirmed this. Nevertheless, it was great to get outside and do some fieldwork as a team again.

Several trips to Menard’s and Lowe’s have helped to solidify the plans for the lab bench in the main laboratory. I trimmed the granite countertops with a wet diamond blade (this worked out really well), and fitted the counters onto the frame. Although far from finished, it was really nice to have that central work space where we could do some projects. The cabinetry is the next step; I want it to look nice, but oak is pricey. Getting creative, I have been working on finishing the oak cabinets for the 16 x 5 foot bench. It is a lot of work, and I have never built a cabinet before, so we are learning as we go. One take home message: that nail gun that came with our new air compressor is incredible. Ian and I made short work of getting the cabinets pinned into the frame, once the pieces were cut and shaped to fit.

We went to the REstore on Saturday to show off Blue Dasher and some bugs at their Earth Day extravaganza. It was a lot of fun to meet with folks from Dakota Rural Action and some other local community members and groups interested in sustainable food production and conservation issues. Mike, Claire, and Jacob all came down too, and we talked with the visitors about our plans and answered some questions. We couldn’t stay the entire time, because Jenna and I had to bolt to get down to Sioux Falls for some vehicle shopping for Blue Dasher. We are going to need a passenger vehicle to get team members and supplies to the field. Claire’s husband Ryan is a wiz when it comes to finding good car deals on Craigslist (he found us Humphrey the Truck), and so we drove down to investigate some hot leads. In the end, we decided that a 2005-6 minivan is what we are looking for. Reliable, easy to fix, clean, plenty of comfortable space, and dirt cheap. We shall see what the next week brings as far as completing our vehicle/equipment needs.