“For each of us comes a time when we must be more than what we are” -Lloyd Alexander
I just arrived back from Salina, Kansas (Soil Health University; a great meeting to attend if Brian Lindley is at the helm), and saw many friends that I haven’t seen in a while. Some of these folks are on “the circuit”, consistently speaking to farmers interested in regenerative agriculture, and trying to usher in a change to our food production. My god, what scarred, motley crew we have become. As I looked around the room, these folks have given so much to a vision that this planet desperately needs. Some have lost marriages, family members, careers, even their farms. Maybe these sacrifices had to be, but I don’t think any of us knew the price when we went down this path. When regenerative agriculture is the norm, and our descendants reap the benefits to planet and people, I wonder if they will see everything that was given to get this movement started.
After three years (in March), we are still here and growing. Our mission and vision were well laid, even if the path to achieving these goals were difficult to see. So many achievements, yet so much left to do. I feel like many pieces of the puzzle are in place for making the farm a real success. We assembled these many facets amidst building a research facility and science program. Against all odds, Blue Dasher Farm is established, and we look now to the next phase of changing agriculture.
Last year was an exciting one for the livestock. We rebuilt our livestock shed after it burned to the ground in fall of 2017. The chickens overwintered in a shed that a friend donated to our cause. Chicken numbers were reduced by the rapid changes in temperature and living conditions, but survived the winter. We added laying hens (Gabby helped to pick a few breeds that would give us a nice diversity of egg colors) in the spring, and we even had a few adventitious nests around the farm that gave us some chicks. Some new ducks and two turkeys have rounded out our poultry flock with so many shapes and sizes. The more diversity, the merrier. Thanks to Roger and Alec and Juliette for helping to make the chicken coop anew. So far, nearly everyone has survived the painfully low temperatures of the 2018-9 winter, and the new chicks are on their way for late April. Eggs will continue to grow as part of the farm operation.
The sheep spent last winter in the corral, being fed hay that was generously donated by farmers near the Wilmot SD area. Our hay stores had burned in the barn fire. Spring lambing season was surprisingly hard. While we had 100% replacement on our ewes (one lamb for every ewe), there were more dead lambs than I had expected. I now have a deeper understanding of what people are talking about sheep being touchier than other livestock. Some of my favorite moments on the farm are spent sitting in the evening sun near the sheep paddock, being with the sheep as they relax for the night. And with every passing, I learn lessons that can hopefully increase our survival and the role that these ruminants have on the farm. The sheep did an awesome job on weed control in one of our fields, and I think we can completely replace herbicides with grazers in the next year or two, but I need more sheep in order to accomplish this. I decided in part deliberately (building numbers) and in part a result of circumstance (we didn’t have a good place to put the ram) to squeeze a winter lambing out of our ewes. I won’t do this again; ewes are meant to follow reproductive patterns that we see in nature, and deer, antelope, bison, etc all lamb in the spring for a reason. We lost two bred ewes to “twin lamb disease”; the lamb rob the blood glucose from a mother, who looks perfectly well fed and healthy, but is secretly starving. The rest of the animals have done fine since then, and are starting to drop lambs. But the cold temperatures have led us to move the expectant mothers indoors, and I hope that the lambs will be well trained to eat well on the prairie in the spring. “Bottle fed lambs just aren’t as bright” (this simple fact also applies to human society). We are excited to expand the sheep flock for this coming season, and we will give them a year off of lambing; next breeding will be in early December for a spring 2020 lamb crop.
We raised two pastured pigs this summer, and this was probably the most fun addition to the farm that we have experienced. They filled such an important niche, recycling eggs and home waste, totally changing the vegetation community in the shelter belt, and preparing the soil for a diverse cover crop mix. They would occasionally escape their net fence, and we would see these two 300 lb ladies slowly walking toward us at the lunch table, wondering what we were up to and whether they might join us. The pork is the best I have ever tasted; I cannot overstate how much better this meat is from anything you might buy at the grocery store. We will certainly be expanding the pig flock summer to between 5-10 animals.
I truly believe that if we have $300,000-$500,000 per year for the next three years- and then get out of our way and let us do our job- that by the end we could probably offer a non-synthetic solution that would stop the hemorrhaging losses that beekeepers are experiencing on a national scale. But research funding seldom happens that way; incremental projects whose results are siloed from other issues, reporting deadlines that distract us from doing the science that needs to happen, and indirect costs that suck up most of the money and pour it into a bureaucracy that does little to solve real problems. Blue Dasher Farm needs enough money so that we can punt at a few educated but outside-the-box solutions and solve this problem. We have spent hundreds of millions on the bee issue, and the hives continue to die. The current model ISN’T WORKING!
After a refreshing year for honey production and hive survival, we prepared 60 hives for winter. The first freeze happened, and within 2 weeks all of the bees were dead. Thousands of dead bees on the floor of the hives, minimal Varroa populations, and hundreds of pounds of honey were left on each hive. We are not alone; beekeepers around the region are reporting similar symptoms. The bees have learning disabilities. They can’t find their nests again; they can’t remember how to expand their hives into empty boxes; they can’t remember that when it gets cold, they need to form a ball. Our research into mineral supplements and essential oils have given us some really important leads that I think we will be able to use as a springboard for nailing down some real solutions. 2019 will be a pivotal research year for our lab.
We took a crop of Canada wild rye for seed this year (planted in 2017); and worked on using sheep for managing our weeds this year. Another critical hurdle that we have slowly been able to overcome is seed cleaning. Despite some incremental progress in getting our specialty seeds cleaned, this winter has been spend getting a fanning mill, gravity table, and scarifier operational to start tackling a growing stockpile of seed crops that we grew in past seasons. A donated grain grinder (thanks to the Felt Family!) has helped us start turning grain into feed for our chickens (and eventually for the pigs). Reducing feed costs is crucial as we move forward with the farm, and I can foresee us devoting one of our annual crop fields to a mixture of crops that we can pick up with the combine, and send the grain through the grinder and turn that field into eggs, chickens, and pork.
The orchard and fruit crops have been established and really started to take hold in 2018. All of the nursery stock donated as long ago as 2016 has now been planted. We have cherries and grapes along the fencelines in the front and side yards, and an orchard or various tree fruits planted into a second year prairie mix. We also got some pussy willows and other native flowering trees into the shelterbelt that can help to provide some additional bee forage. Despite seeming like we were only slowly chipping away at this project (there were SO MANY things to get done in the first years of getting Blue Dasher off of the ground), it was a tremendous load off of my mind to get these final potted trees put into the ground.
Research and Staff
What an amazing team we put together this year. We had projects all the way down in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky. As well as around eastern South Dakota, and a bee project that brought us to North Dakota and Minnesota. And of course, the regenerative almond project in California. The whole science year went by so quickly it seems like a blur. We accomplished a lot. And this was only possible because of an amazing group of people. Dr. Ryan Schmid helped to organize the biggest project of the year, documenting the effects of holistic grazing on insect communities in the southeastern U S. Mike is almost finished with his doctorate, and his research on interseeding in corn and its effects on pest management will give farmers another reason for adopting diversity into their cropland (indeed, he even built our interseeder!). Kassidy and Juliette led other projects, and all were supported by Nicole, Sierra, Alec, Liz, Gabby, and whoever else we could coerce into giving us a hand (sorry if you were left out- not intentionally for sure). And of course, Roger kept the place humming along. Many staffing changes have already started to take place for 2019, but one thing is for certain: Blue Dasher attracts some of the brightest and most motivated people to help us with changing the world.
Many changes. My hands are not the same hands as when I started Blue Dasher Farm. 2018 brought scars to my life. On my body, on my heart. Deep, painful scars that I didn’t know if I could survive and pick myself up from. Scars are a blatant memory; they don’t go away. They stare back at you, and they become a part of who you are. You are changed forever. I am not the same person that I was one year ago. I have realized my own humanity, and I am better for it. And I feel so much hope and excitement for the opportunities that 2019 will provide.