Well, the lab is growing piece by piece and with a lot of work. On many occasions this week, we have countered fear associated with new and risky experiences with education and support from our friends and family. We are so lucky to have such wonderful friends. It was another busy week.
I guess the biggest news for this week was that we bought a combine. Never done that before. But we really felt like we needed to control the harvest this year since much of what we are growing is specialty crops. A friend tipped me off to a good looking Case IH 1640 from 1992 with decent miles and clean tin. But there is a lot of moving parts on a used combine, and this is a first try for me so I didn’t really trust myself to make this decision alone. A combine is a large machine that takes in the crop plants, cuts them up, and through a series of sieves, screens, and black magic, shakes your particular seed from all the other junk in your field. Another friend, a farmer and rancher from north east Iowa, happened to be driving home after stirring the pot on GM crops in Rapid City on Sunday, and he offered to stop in at Marion SD to have a look. And did he ever look. We spent an hour going over every part of the machine. He was able to identify certain parts that looked good, and a few areas of concern. Overall, the combine looked good. But he didn’t know what pieces I would need for specialty seeds.
I started making calls to some other friends around North America that could tell me about red (Case brand) combines. Everyone had helpful information, and together a consensus began to form that I would need to 1) replace the concaves with small wire units, 2) replace the top sieve with a small finger sieve, 3) add a spreader to the back, 4) possibly get a chopper in the unit, and 5) get a pick up header for harvesting the windrows. Around $10,000 worth of work, but still within budget if I got the buying price down. Then a friend from KS said he would give me three concaves and sell me the spreader for cheap. Another friend in ND offered the pick up head for steal. That just leaves the sieve. I wanted to visit these fellows’ farms this summer anyway, because they are doing some amazing things with diversity on their farms. I went in on Thursday and made a low offer after going over the combine one more time. The dealer met me in the middle, we shook and that was that. He delivers it in around 10 days.
From Marion, I drove to Missouri, arriving to my sister’s house in KC late. It was great to see them; I hadn’t been there in too long. We didn’t get to chat much that evening, because we were all tired, but we had a nice breakfast together. From there I drove a bit to get to a colleague’s workplace. He said he had a lot of old lab supplies and would be willing to donate them. The final cargo was equal weight mouse crap and glassware, but the truck was absolutely full wall to wall and floor to ceiling. This contribution saved us thousands of dollars in expenses. A few miles before arriving, the alternator in Humphrey the Truck died, and I coasted into town on reserve battery power. My colleague directed me to a good local repair shop, and they changed out the alternator in 2 hours for $400. The extra cost stung, but my spirits were very high. Around Kansas City, I quickly ordered a brand new microbalance (it weighs little things: 0.01 mg). We needed it for an impending experiment. I would imagine that no one has ever stopped at that rest stop to order a microbalance by credit card.
Arriving back at Blue Dasher, my wife and the students helped to unload and inventory our booty. And then we started soaking everything that was covered in mouse pee, poop, and Hanta virus. It will all clean up nicely, but it was a lot of work. I returned to find that most of the Berlese system had been built by Jacob from scratch. This is a system designed to warm soil to extract soil insects. Most of the pieces were assembled, and he had started wiring the units for electrical. It worked beautifully, and it was fun to see his reaction when plugging the first unit in and the series of light bulbs all turned on as intended.
The architect brought out a whole pile of contractors to write up some bids on the renovation of the lab building. Turning a former dog kennel and milking operation into a world class research laboratory can present some challenges. The contractors asked a disturbing number of questions, and with each answer I knew that the price tag was going up. I dread to see the estimate, and hope that we will be able to make the research facility something to be proud of. Casey began to demolish the walls in what will be the greeting room, bathroom, and 3rd laboratory. It is not going to be an easy job, but probably will save us time and money to do this part ourselves. It is Casey’s last week before he heads east, and we will miss him very much.
I went through, and with the blessings of the lab crew, hired on three assistants for the summer. I really think that we are going to have a great team this summer. Mike, Claire, and Jacob are anxious to begin their research projects, and the Varroa mite predator work will likely consume a lot of time as things ramp up in earnest.
Bret Adee got our seed drill going. He planted 40 acres of sanfoin this year next to his house. There were a few hiccups with the machine, but all in all I think I got a good buy with that old JD 750 from out near Rapid City. Next will be to plant borage and hubam sweet clover on Bret’s 80 acres near Bruce. Lastly, I think we will get the drill back up here to Blue Dasher to do my 20 acres. Each crop needs to have the drill re-calibrated, since the crops all have different seed sizes. But we are learning as we go and I think it will be a great year for these crops. We are leaving less to fate, and taking more control of when thing happen with the crops this year.
I happened to stop by Menards on my way through Sioux Falls this week to find great success. One hurdle that I have struggled to overcome was what we were going to use as lab bench countertops. Bench tops need to be pretty rugged, and are often times made of soapstone or granite. They need to be chemical resistant, heat resistant, and durable (things like shovels knock into them). A standard Formica countertop simply won’t do. After calling around, I priced out our two lab benches to cost between $6000-12,000. Around $50 per square foot. Obviously, this wasn’t going to fly on our budget. I have spent a lot of time in the close out and clearance sections of most stores in the area, hoping to find a bargain on some critical need. Tucked away in the back of the store, unbeknownst to all but the most resourceful, Menard’s had a polished granite counter top (2 x 8 ft) for only $200 as a stocked item. They were also discontinued. They looked almost too good to be true. So I bought all six at the Watertown store, and 2 more from a Sioux Falls location. Both benches for $1,600; and they are beautiful. So I finished building the frame for the central lab bench to fit the new countertop dimensions. Now to put some finishing work on the benches, and the big lab is almost ready to go.
By Thursday, Jenna was becoming visibly nervous about our impending prairie burn. We have to burn the former CRP grasses- about 10 acres worth- before we can plant crops in these areas. The grasses are tall and the thatch is thick from 10 years of undisturbed grass production. It is beautiful, and it pains me to see it go. But we need the land for cropping, and we will replace and even grow the diversity of our farm with the sacrifice. But burning a prairie makes one nervous, given that neither of us have done such a thing before. So Jenna began reading up on it, and I told the fire department and gas pipeline to our north about our plans. The fire department was disturbingly challenging to get a hold of; I hopefully presume that a 911 call would be more efficient. Then Jenna took our new lawn mower, and mowed a fire break around the most westerly of the three fields to keep the tree line from lighting. She also bought some spray tanks for us to chase down any escaping flames. Saturday and Sunday are slated as the days of action.