One year in, and counting.
One year ago was one of the lowest points in our lives. My scientific career as I knew it was basically over, and my laboratory had been dismantled. The USDA continued to harass and threaten me and my remaining staff on a consistent basis. Most had been deployed to other programs, sometimes against their will, but for their own protection. After waiting 6 months for approval, my whistleblower case was threatening to derail the loans that we needed to purchase the farm and research facility. My family had sold our home, and put our belongings on a truck. Our fundraising had been successful, but not sufficient to cover start up and operations for long. We had pushed all of our chips onto the table, and almost lost it all. There were more questions than assurances that we would be here in February of 2017.
But we had made the correct decision and for the right reasons. Two hours before closing, the loan was approved with reservations and we moved onto Blue Dasher Farm. Since then, we seldom have had time to look back and reflect on what we have accomplished. But here is a go at it.
The farm. Blue Dasher is in a beautiful little pocket right off of the Brandt exit on I-29. Fifty-three acres in total. Half is native, unbroken prairie and wetlands. The other half is comprised of a homestead and had been in perennial CRP grasses for at least 12 years. We had no equipment, no cropland in production, and we had never farmed to support ourselves before. But we knew the principles of regenerative farming, and we can work our asses off when we need to.
The first step was to figure out equipment. We didn’t know what to buy, how much it would cost or where we would get it. Embarrassingly, I didn’t even know how to drive the equipment, and certainly didn’t know how to fix it when it was broken (which is frequently). Patient and knowledgeable farmers helped us immensely.
Farm equipment. First we bought a 10-year old, ¾ ton truck. Humphrey, as it was later christened by the kids. Within 24 hours of buying it, Gabby (our 15 year old) and I were driving across the state with a borrowed car trailer (sigh…I had never hooked up a car trailer either). A farmer friend in North Dakota saw an advertisement for a John Deere 750, 10 ft no-till planter (or drill) that looked like it was in good shape. Upon arrival, we discovered that the rancher near Rapid City, SD was a grassfed, mob-grazing operation. These are principles that we promote, and we had a lot in common. He gazed at the now miniscule-looking car trailer I intended to haul the 6,000 lb machine back on, and shook his head. Sizing it up, he exclaimed with resolve, “If it were me, I would get that drill home on that trailer.” Then he set about doing just that. He pulled the rear wheels off of the planter, and then dangling the planter high in the air on chains, I backed the trailer under it, and they lowered it down and chained it on tight. “This trailer can roll down a mountain side and fall in a river. But in the end that drill is still going to be attached to that trailer”, he said proudly of his chaining ability. We drove it home, and figured out how to get it off of the trailer with help from some friends. We could now plant our crop.
This was my first lesson in farming. You cannot predict all of the issues and problems you will face, because more often than not you have never seen these issues before. You assess the problem. You examine the tools you have (which usually are only partially the right ones). Then you GET IT DONE. You don’t hire it out. You figure it out yourself or with the help of your friends. This formula breeds mistakes- mistakes that you learn from. But you have to have the confidence to confront adversity head on.
Next we bought a tractor with the help of some family and a friend in Mankato MN. It is a 1975 Case IH 966. Jenna and I looked up at the tractor in the garage it was housed at, “It looks so big…” Jenna muttered. It is big- all of the equipment is enormous, heavy, and tough as nails. The tractor had a huge snow blower on the back, and an even bigger steel bucket on the front. It came with two new rear tires, each valued at $1,000 apiece. I asked some farmer friends if this was the right sized tractor for us, and they assured us that we would be okay with such a unit. Every farmer had their own opinion on equipment brands, and they quickly told me what they thought of International (Case). But all agreed that this would be an old workhorse, which was exactly what I wanted. The guy I was buying it from had been following our story in the news, and really believed in what we were trying to do, so he helped us out immensely. In a few weeks, the tractor was delivered down to Bruce SD. A farmer friend had to show me how to start it (it has a button to push in addition to turning the key…), and I drove it home at 12 mph.
The combine was next. Our specialty seeds require the right combine for the job, and something that runs only corn and beans was probably not going to work. So the combine would need to be able to harvest small seeds from windrows, with flexibility to harvest some larger-seeded species as well. And it would have to be a bargain, since our finances wouldn’t allow us much more. Given that we have a small farm, we likely would never be harvesting more than a few hundred acres, this would limit the size of combine we needed. All I knew about combines was that there was a lot of moving parts that all could break, and buying the wrong machine could be a nightmare. I truly didn’t even know where to begin, so began talking to every mechanically inclined farmer I knew. Talking with 10 farmers gave me 15 different answers to my questions, but eventually I narrowed things down to a few machines that seemed like they would fit my needs. In the middle of this process, I got a call from a farmer friend who identified a machine in Marion South Dakota he saw online, a 1991 Case 1640 rotary combine with around 3,000 hours on it. Flying home from Texas, I fortuitously sat next to a farmer friend from Iowa, who had been speaking at a different meeting in Texas about risks of genetically modified crops. He used to fix Case combines for a living, and he was generous enough to pop by and help me look over the combine. He spent a least an hour banging here and there. His assessment was “Looks like a good old machine. Keep an eye on those few mechanical issues. Offer him $5,000 less than he is asking.” I took good notes, and even though I only got the price reduced by $2,000, I still feel like I stole that machine.
Next, we had to get the right parts for the combine to harvest our seeds. No one we knew had ever harvested borage or hubam sweet clover, so we were kind of guessing what parts we would need. After discussions with friends from around the continent, we decided that we needed small wire concaves and short fingered sieves. And a pick up header and spreader. Once again, our farmer network came through for us. A friend in Bismarck had a pick up header he sold us for cheap (later in the summer, we had to replace this). Another farmer friend down in Jewell Kansas had the concaves and a residue spreader that he donated to the farm (as well as some installation advice- he also used to fix Case combines). He also accurately pointed out the numerous parts of the combine that you could bang your head on while trying to fix these damn machines (we conclude that they were designed by short people). Bret Adee, a good friend and major character in our story, helped us get everything installed correctly on the combine.
The last piece of machinery that we would need is a way to windrow the crops. Luckily, we had some friends from Ree Heights had happened to come to one of our field days at the farm in June. They happened to have an old John Deere 800 swather. No cab on it, and the oil hadn’t been changed since 2004, but it was in a shed and ran well enough. They donated it to us for free, which was a huge relief. In retrospect, a lot of what I now know about mechanics on farm equipment has been learned from that old swather. Which is a valuable thing, however inconvenient it is in the middle of harvest.
In the end, nothing of our equipment is pretty or new. But it does the job for us well. The parts we had donated was less ideal than what we could have gotten. But by having the farmers donate their experience and parts, those farmers have an investment in Blue Dasher Farm. That is worth more than a new tractor to us. But maybe a newer tractor might be nice… One aspect of this process that made getting the equipment so challenging is that while trying to figure what we needed and why, we were also trying to build a laboratory, get bees started, and prepare our crops.
Cropland. The cropland started the year as a 12-year-old stand of perennial prairie grasses, and I think it may be a good way to start ground down this regenerative path. We weren’t starting with a degraded soil like many farmers. But it did present a few hurdles. When trying to figure out how to get the perennial grasses out of the field to plant it, the most common advice we received was “Till the soil, then plant soybean. That way, you can spray glyphosate in the field several times over the year to eradicate the resurgent prairie plants”. This flew in the face of just about all of the core principles driving our operation. So we took a different approach.
First, we used a spring fire to burn the prairie grasses out. Aside from the occasional casserole and some cardboard boxes, we had never burned anything larger than a candle in our lives. In our insecure plans leading up to the burn, I drove east a half mile to inform the gas pipeline that we were planning a controlled burn, since a sea of dry grasses connect our two properties. “Well, it is a controlled burn, right?” said the manager when I informed him of our plans. “Yes, that is the idea,” was my hesitant reply. We bought some propane tanks and flamers, read up on the procedures for how to conduct a burn with respect to hill slope and wind direction. Then, on a lovely spring Saturday morning, around 25 people from the community came out to help tend our burning fields. The event lasted all day, and into the following Sunday morning to burn the 12 acres we were going to crop. The flames jumped the fire break once, and I now have a much greater respect for how powerful fire is. Inhaling the smoke was debilitating, and elicited innate behaviors that I didn’t know I had. Two friends helped us the following morning, which was Mother’s Day. Following the completion of the burn, we sipped mimosas together, smelling of smoke and feeling more exhausted than I can ever remember feeling, but a huge weight was off of our sore backs.
What remained in the fields were charred grasses and sharp, fire-tempered stumps. The next step was to try to remove those stumps. Of course, the advice was again, “till them up”. Initially, we considered removing them by hand. I backed the tractor bucket over the bigger stumps, and Jenna and Gabby used shovels. This didn’t work, as evidenced by wind-blown tears. At this point, our neighbor to the east generously suggested their box scraper, a large flat blade used to push old hay and manure around the cow yard. I gave it a try, and found that if I hit each stump from two directions, the stumps were eventually overcome. In so doing, I popped two front tractor tires, and received my first experience with a farmer’s tool of choice: the farm jack. But once the field had been swept, I haven’t lost another tire. And we had preserved the integrity of the soil and most of its biology.
The next step was to spray herbicide. I didn’t want to eliminate the plant diversity within our crop fields, but I also couldn’t let those perennial plants outcompete our annual crops. We didn’t have livestock to graze these undesired plants down, so that meant herbicides were one of a few tools left. For this, I needed a spray rig for the tractor. Our friend that found us the tractor happened to have a buddy who ran a sprayer company in Mankato. He made a call, and we had a technician build us a 110 gallon spray rig and everything that went along with it in order to apply herbicides to the crop ground. Ian and I drove out there in Humphrey (our hero), and came home with the sprayer. I had to figure out how to connect it and calibrate it for our tractor. That done, we applied a low rate of glyphosate, and a grass only herbicide (Select) that we applied to push down the grasses. Not eradicate, just suppress. We planted our crops into 6 inch tall living prairie.
The prairie was burned out and pushed down; we were ready to plant. We had held seed over from the more or less failed borage crop in 2015, and we ordered up some Hubam annual sweet clover seed from down in Texas. The idea behind these species were that they were high value seed crops (we hoped to get >$8 and $4 per pound of seed for the borage and hubam seed, respectively). But these species are also some of the top honey producing plants known, so I was hoping to extract two revenue streams from each piece of ground. The livestock would be additional revenue streams planned for subsequent years.
The drill had to be prepared for planting. Luckily, Bret knew his way around machines infinitely better than I did (and perhaps ever will). While I was renovating the lab, Bret got the planter all greased up and dialed in. He planted sanfoin onto a plot of land near his house, then moved the planter down to his field near Bruce, where together he and I planted 35 acres of borage. It was at least a week before the drill was back at Blue Dasher Farm, and I was getting pretty stressed about getting the crops planted. None of our fields were seeded before the last week of May (maybe the first few days of June…), which is very late for us. Planting went well, and breathed a sigh of relief. Despite doing everything correctly, it is pretty nerve wracking to know whether planting was successful until you seen the green of those little seedlings popping out of the long, thin channels. Germination on the hubam was terrific; germination on the borage was adequate.
The crops grew well, despite the competition from the residual grasses and forbs in the fields. The hubam snuck along slowly for the first month or so; a heat wave and drought hit the farm most of June, which may have slowed growth down a bit. Gabby and I went off to Australia the first couple of weeks of July to speak with some farmers down there. When I arrived back, the hubam was around knee high and never looked back. By August it was 6 feet tall and loaded with little white flowers. And bees and other insects were everywhere. What a terrific crop.
The borage stand wasn’t overwhelming, but it did fine. The flowers started coming on in late July, and through August. The bees loved this species as well and borage honey started to flow into the hives. It is delicious, in case you haven’t tried it. Because borage is indeterminate, it is a challenge to know exactly when to harvest it. I wound up deciding to go with the rule of “a third, a third, and a third”. The bottom third of the seeds are spent, the middle third are mature, and the top third are still green. It was a little tough, because the seeds germinated a bit irregularly, making a range of different growth stages in the field.
Harvest required good weather and functional equipment, two factors that ended up hurting our production. The windrower was starting to give us trouble when harvesting a field of yellow sweet clover down near Bruce, and the electrical system hasn’t been quite right even now. On the day I decided to harvest borage (a narrow window is possible here, and we were starting to miss our chance), I drove the swather up on the hill, and it wouldn’t start again. In a panic, I called a neighbor (Roger Svec , another important character in our story) to the south, asking if I could borrow his swather. He agreed, and I drove it over to our place. It was the only swather in the county that was older than mine, and when I got it onto the hill next to mine, it refused to start. Two swathers were stuck next to my unharvested field. After a day or two, the neighbor got his swather started, and I was able to harvest what was left of the borage. After completion, I drove the swather 7 miles south to my neighbor’s house. A mile from the destination, it stopped dead in the middle of the road, blocking both directions of traffic. In a panic, I had Jenna drive down with the truck, and Svec advised that I pull it into the ditch on the side of the road. The grade was steep, and the swather had only three wheels, so there was a 47% chance that this would end very poorly. But at least a sliver of luck was on our side, and the swather was not destroyed in the process. I felt horrible that I had to leave the swather broken and in my friend’s lap, but I was off for a speaking gig the next day, so had to leave him alone with a mess.
I’d like to say that it was good that it broke down when it did so we could move forward with harvesting the crop uninterrupted, but in the end it really didn’t matter. Later in the season, Svec was harvesting his buckwheat crop and his old swather broke down (a wheel bearing) in the field. Thinking I would help, I brought my machine down and started in on swathing the remaining 40 acres of crop while he continued to fix his machine. I got around half way through when I hit a muddy patch in the field. The strain of the effort broke one of the chains on the front wheel, and there my swather sat in the middle of Roger’s unharvested buckwheat until he could show me how to fix it. He got the rest of the field harvested with his repaired swather. It was a bit of a daisy chain of broken swathers to get that field harvested. Driving the swather home, it popped another chain, and on the side of the road Roger again helped get it moving. I am quickly learning that I am more than capable of fixing many things on these implements; what I lack is the experience to know things like where to get parts and be assured of the problem, and the confidence to just open things up and fix it. But in working with these guys with lots of mechanical experience, a lot of times they don’t always know what a problem is or how to solve it immediately either; they have the self-confidence that they can dive in and eventually find and fix the culprit.
So in our first year of cropping, we did not use any fertilizers, and of course no insecticides. A little bit of herbicide was necessary until we get our livestock situation going. I think I bought around 15 gallons of diesel all summer. That means our proximate input costs were minimal to non-existent (around $500 for the whole cropping season). The borage crop was a loss (from a seed perspective), but the hubam was a success.