May 31, 2016

Not an ordinary month

Stories are seldom told about people who had a good idea but didn’t follow through with it. Movies aren’t made about folks who toe the line. Our heroes are not the individuals who turn back in the face of adversity or insecurity. Be extraordinary.

We just completed the 3rd month of Blue Dasher Farm, and it is hard to keep track of all of the “firsts” that we have experienced. Things have gone from a series of ideas into hard but rewarding realities. A fear is that I will forget all of the amazing experiences that we have lived through in the past few weeks especially, and so these journal essays will I hope be an important record that we can return to in the future.

Honey bees. I have talked long and loudly about the bee problem, but this spring marks my first personal experience with it. Three queen breeders offered us queens earlier in the year, and all of them found themselves in dire straits when the orders from across the country to replace lost hives started to roll in. After painting the hives and branding them with the Blue Dasher symbol, we placed pallets of hives around the property, eagerly awaiting bees. We wanted to have active hives for an upcoming event: the Keep the Hives Alive tour. By mid-May it became clear that queens were going to be an issue. We turned to our friends at Adee Honey Farms, and they were able to help us out with around 7-10 splits. Splitting active hives is effective, but slow going. Each split requires around 15 days to become reproductive and really start growing. Simultaneously, Zia Queenbees in New Mexico were able to come up with 15 virgin queens, and were kind enough to send them to us last week. Between these two sources, we have established 20 hives that now have emergency queen cells (or a fresh queen), a frame of brood, and a frame of honey. Plus a feeder full of sugar. A central problem is that there is so little nectar in the environment these days that beekeepers are forced to feed their hives sugar water for them to build up in the spring. We are feeding to help get them off the ground, although the Dame’s rocket is a welcome flowering carpet in our tree lines. For Jenna and most of the research team, this is their first foray into managing hives. So far, stings have been rare and wonder abounds in these first experiences with the hives. There is no experience on Earth that quite measures up to opening a window into a society of 10,000 stinging insects and to find them largely at peace with it (although I will say that the sting on the tip of my nose was clearly meant to demean the victim). So, in sum: the honey operation is off the ground thanks to our noteworthy support network. Not only our friends with the American Honey Producers and American Beekeeping Federation, but individual beekeepers and suppliers who were willing to support Blue Dasher with more than just words. Mann Lake Honey donated hives and supplies sufficient for 75 complete hives, and Brushy Mountain and Kelley Beekeeping donated an additional pile of hives each. Zia Queenbees and Adee Honey Farms provided the critters themselves. We can’t thank these folks enough.

 

Crops. The burn was necessary but not sufficient to get our cropland into shape. We have around 20 arable acres on the farm, of which 12 were CRP grasses that we burned out early last month. The burn left the fields lumpy and filled with dagger-like stumps from prior shrub plantings. These stumps and bumps would hamper planting with our John Deere 750 no-till drill (10 ft), so we had to do something. We began with me dragging the tractor bucket over the ground in reverse; Jenna and Gabby walked behind with hoes and machetes to hack out remaining stumps. It wasn’t working and we stopped when a stump first impaled my tire. Luckily, a neighbor (Aaron) came by, and he happened to have a whole shed full of used tires that he rescued from destruction at a service station in a nearby town. He showed me the little device he created for getting tires onto the rim of the wheel, and suggested that I borrow his disc or box scraper for the job. I was committed to leaving the fields untilled- to me, even a single tillage pass would set me back biologically for years. After discussing the problem with an additional neighbor (Travis), for around an hour or so, it was agreed that a possible solution would be to drag the entire field in opposite directions using the box scraper. On Sunday May 22nd, I spent the day driving back and forth over one particularly stumpy field, now dubbed “Tirebane”. I also bought a couple of new tires, my first farm jack, and a multi-sized lug wrench. It was a long day, but at the end of it, my tires were no longer at risk, and the fields were ready for planting…almost. Within 1 week of the burn, the grasses were starting to come back with gusto. I dislike the use of pesticides or agrichemicals of any kind, but their use with respect for the damage they can cause is sometimes necessary. I needed a spray rig so that I could spray herbicide in preparation for planting. This practice is intended to get me to a place where I no longer require any pesticides, keeping pests in check using biology. So I contacted a friend of a friend in Mankato (Gary at Minnesota Truck and Tractors has been an indispensable resource), and a spray rig was put together for me in short order. Ian and I picked it up on Tuesday, having a raucous road trip as only Lundgren men can. Ulmer’s Café in New Ulm MN will never be the same. I got the sprayer home just in time for the rains to begin for three days. In the meantime, I taught myself how to connect the sprayer to the PTO on the tractor, and wire in the operation switch into the battery (a small fire resulted, but was quickly blown out). On May 28th, I sprayed the weeds out of the fields. Then I disconnected the sprayer, and connected the seed drill, and began to plant into the green CRP grasses. I am a firm advocate for keeping biology in the system during planting, and inherent in this is keeping vegetation on the ground at all times. As the CRP grasses die back, the cash crop will come in, but timing is everything here. We planted two crops: Borage and Hubam sweet clover, both of which would be harvested for high-value seed. These crops have the added benefit of being two of the top honey plants known, so we will take honey off of this land in addition to the seed crop. All crops had been completely planted by Sunday, May 29th. And with it, I breathed a sigh of relief. The crops were planted late, but they were in. The testament to no-till is that I planted into ground with no mud or tire tracks within 24 hours of a 2 inch rain event. A wide pass of the tractor through the tilled neighbor’s field to my north still is evidenced by deep wheel tracks. Roots matter. We had plenty of more rain over the next few days, but the soil remained cool. First evidence of the crop was seen on June 4; Hubam was coming in thick. Borage was first spied on June 5.

With the crops in the ground, and the bees starting to grow, it was time to turn my attention to other pressing matters. One such item is to get our combine into shape for harvesting specialty crops. For this, I need to buy a pick up header to gently feed the wind-rowed crops into the combine, some small wire concaves to separate the small seeds from the plants, a small fingered sieve to separate the small seeds from all the other material, and a spreader to make sure the residue is well spread over our no-till ground. Some friends down in Kansas, Griffeth Family Farms, said they could help me out with the concaves and the spreader. So Gabby and I embarked on a road trip down to Jewell KS to pick these up and have Robin explain how to install them. For those of you who don’t know them, the Griffeth’s are national leaders in intercropping, no-till, and cover cropping. Soil health is the mantra on their 4,000 acre farm, and what they have been able to do there is inspiring. Following our visit, I felt assured in getting the new iron into our combine, and we took advantage of our proximity to pop by Green Cover Seed and avail the Berns’ brothers’ hospitality. Many thanks to these fellows for all of their support in getting Blue Dasher Farms up and running. Not only did we get the crop in the ground, but we are now a few steps closer to being able to harvest it in a few months!

 

Research. Our research team is finally complete with the coming of Amy and Kassidy, two students from South Dakota State University. We have a fantastic team put together of enthusiastic young scientists, and nothing that we do could be accomplished without their involvement. After a lot of work, I finally completed the lab bench for the main laboratory. I am happy with how it turned out, and the next one will be even better. The team continues to process samples from previous years’ of research studies on biodiversity in agroecosystems, and it was fun to start teaching insect taxonomy to a new crop of kids. The grad students’ projects are all moving forward rapidly. Jacob has been sampling dung insect communities from local rangelands, and the specimens are rolling in. He also has collected copious piles of poop to study how quickly these insects degrade dung pats under field conditions. Claire has all of her field sights selected, and the light at the end of the tunnel of her insect diversity samples from last year is vaguely visible (she has identified thousands of specimens of at least 300 insect species from cornfields so far). Mike has his intercropping experiment all planted to corn, and Green Cover Seed was generous enough to donate legume seeds so that we can plant these in between the corn rows. This experiment is almost up and running. We received some fresh predator mites, and are going to be starting some assays with them to see how many Varroa mites these predators can tackle.

Structurally, the lab is coming along slowly but surely. In what ended up being a long but deliciously productive day, Jenna and I went to the South Dakota State University annual surplus auction and scored extremely big. We got all of the cabinetry, chairs, desks, and many other items that we desperately needed for the lab, often for less than $10 per item. I got a Craftsman cordless drill for $2.50!?! We were like kids in the candy store as we filled the 16 foot trailer with swag twice over. Perhaps even more importantly, the renovation started on the greeting room, bathroom, and third laboratory. All of the demolition work was completed (many thanks to Alex and my dad for helping on this), preparing the space for the contractors. Concrete was cut, plumbing installed, and now the milking pit will be filled in with concrete. We simply can’t wait to get into this new space. We are probably going to have to do our own wiring (the bids came in ridiculously high), and we shall see about framing and sheet-rocking the new rooms. But the point is that we are much closer to having completed space in the laboratory operation. Except the furnace just died…always somethin’.

 

Add to all of these activities a welcome stream of family and friends visiting the farm, and May was a very busy but rewarding month. My hands are calloused and stained with the work of these last 3 months, but I grow stronger both mentally and physically every day. Never have I had to learn so many new things so quickly as when I chose to look at my life through the eyes of a farmer and beekeeper.

May 15, 2016

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.

May 6, 2016

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.

April 26, 2016

Jacob and I started building the Berlese systems. Trained him in on the table saw, which made short work of the PVC tube cutting.

Received word from Mendes regarding the parasites in California. They are using my model to promote their Geocure snake oil. They even link my website.

Drove to Clear Lake and bought out CRP contract. Also said hello at the NRCS office. Amy Engels is an idiot. Had no interest in getting a plan put together for Blue Dasher, so we are low priority. Time to explore other options than NRCS. Too bad.

Cleaned half the garage, and much of the lab/barn building.

April 16, 2016

One year ago the Blue Dasher Farm Initiative was born from an idea and a sense of need. There were no names, no logos, no websites, no crowdfunding. There was no press, no internet trolls. Not even an address. Jenna and I had never owned or operated an independent business (at least not one that we would rely on for income), never managed our own farm. My laboratory team remained strong and intact, but it was clear to most that things were coming to a close. The previous year, my supervisors had decided that the science wasn’t worth the political price, and the end of things was inevitable. So on a 19 hour car trip from Pennsylvania, driving toward certain punishment for doing my job, I began to consider alternatives more seriously.

The idea was that too often science from large research institutions was following rather than leading the innovation in food production. Over the previous several years, I had met some of the most remarkable farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers.