From the Ashes
From the Ashes.
Winter has set its cold white teeth into Blue Dasher Farm, and we are wrapping up final tasks that will secure us for the long dark of the Frigid North’s season that most defines us. The cold is bearable, but the wind finds every hairline crack in our preparations. The past 3 months have not been idle. We have travelled the world promoting regenerative agriculture, seen dear faces move forward and welcomed new ones. So many things have happened that present a fan of new opportunities in the paths that lie before us. We try to capture key snapshots on facebook and twitter, but sketches on social media leaves aside the heart of what we experience. I wish there was more time in a day to record everything that we are living through. Still, time gives perspective, and I’ll try to touch on a few things that I feel like will have particular meaning as we reflect on our history.
Community events are important to our identity at Blue Dasher Farm. Most days, it would be easiest to simply focus on confronting a bouquet of hurdles and trials as we attempt to build the farm, bees, livestock, and research laboratory at BDF. We have to remind ourselves sometimes that our identity is more than this, and the whole reason for our existence is that the community got behind us and has skin in the game. So we had to make time for a field event, and only after investing in this day were reminded just how important and rewarding it is to be a part of such a ground breaking initiative. The date was secured around 2-3 weeks before the event; in my mind, I said “Three whole weeks to prepare!”, but Jenna viewed this as “Only 3 weeks? How are we going to pull this off?”. I see now that there were supporters that would have loved a little more lead time, and so we have set the date for our 2018 event “Back to the Future of Farming” for August 11 (put it on your calendar!). Despite a little scrambling, we put together a great line up of speakers for an event we titled “Ecological Farming: Making money when margins are thin”. Mike Bredeson, resident PhD student at BDF, presented on interseeding in cropland, then Carter Johnson talked about the Ecosun Prairie Farm, Carmen Fernholz spoke about the benefits of organic business models and Kernza perennial wheat, and I gave an overview of Blue Dasher and how we came to be. This year, we even had sponsors! The DNB National Bank in Clear Lake and North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program both provided the funds to keep our event free to the public. We served Svec beef at the locally catered supper, and featured booths by several local farms and bee operations that are producing nutritious food while conserving soil and biodiversity on their farms.
Around 150 people showed up to the field day; more than last year’s Keep the Hives Alive event, and more than we ever had at the USDA’s field days. They came from around the region: SD, ND, MN, NE, KS. What was really heartening is that several neighbors came, and one even returned afterward to make a donation to our efforts. The talks probably took a bit more time than they should have- interesting stuff and the speakers did fantastic, just a little too much for a normal human to digest. Then we split the group into two for the tours. One group got to see the lab, hives, and chickens, while I brought the other group for a tour around the crops and sheep. Then we switched groups, so everyone got to see everything. For those that still hadn’t had enough, we went on a prairie walk following supper until dark. Many stayed for 6+ hours, seeing everything we had to offer. It was really a great day. The lab crew performed admirably in every sense. And of course, none of it would have been possible without the lovely Jenna coordinating the set up.
August added substantially to a line up visitors from many corners of the world. In addition to the common pop in from area bee keepers and farmers that check in on us, we had visiting scientists from other universities, and farmers from afar. In one week, No till on the Plains brought a group of Russian farmers on Wednesday, followed by Ray Archuleta with a group of South Africans on Thursday. We were accommodating as possible, with the whole BDF team giving tours of the farm and lab. The timing with the South Africans worked out so that we had them to a good ol’ fashioned BDF potluck and campfire. It quickly became clear that our farming operation was nothing like anything they had seen before. We planted our cash crops (weird cash crops at that!) directly into warm season grasses? We had weeds that we were feeding to sheep instead of spraying out? We could lose entire crops, and still make more money than area farmers per acre, because we stacked enterprises like honey production and grazing on top of a single piece of land? There was skepticism that these ideas could work. But farmers like Rick Bieber were there to help translate, and Ray helped explain what farmers were seeing in our soil that was not present on many other farms. These visitors also questioned whether what we were doing could scale and transfer to their own operations. All I can say is that it is weird, but it works. Earlier in the summer, Gail Fuller and Lynette Miller stopped by after visiting Gabe Brown’s place. “Gabe is pushing the rules. But Blue Dasher Farm throws the rule book out the window.” And we make a lot of mistakes because of it. Most of what we have accomplished is because I simply don’t know any better than to think that what we are doing can work. Friday of this same week brought good friends Allen Williams and David Bartok. They walked the prairie and were astounded by the diversity of life and sheer vegetative biomass of what used to be present on the Northern Plains. I just can’t wait to give the prairie its first burn in decades to see what forbs spring out of the ground. These last gentlemen, both world experts on soil health and holistic grazing, gave many pointers to me on managing our sheep herd. This was perhaps the best thing about all of these visitors. Every new face to the farm- be they students or farmers or beekeepers or academics- each brought some new perspective that helped us to learn about what we are doing here and to make our operations even better. Failure is pretty tough when you have a support network like ours.
Changes in the ranks.
Late August and September are two of the hardest parts of the year; this is when the student return to their normal lives after making our lives so much better. It happens every year, and never comes as a surprise. But invariably it leaves a sense of emptiness at the end of the summer that takes time to heal. No one felt this more acutely than Shell Baby. An 8-inch, ceramic statue of a smiling, diapered baby standing beside a large clam shell showed up in our lab one day. One of those statues that at once makes one question “Who thought making this thing would be a good idea?”, quickly followed by “Who legitimately bought this thing?” prior to donating it to Good Will. It wasn’t long before Shell Baby began showing up in unexpected places. Desk drawers. The bathroom. My bed. Always to the wonder and delight of the discoverer. But then Shell Baby, through miracle or demonic possession, found his way to California to surprise Liz as she migrated south for the winter like a ginger dragonfly. And to France, where Shell Baby greeted Cedric when he came home scarred and bruised from fiddle-farting around (a term we taught our French ami) the farm all summer. Clearly, that delightful little imp was left empty by the closing of summer. Who knows where this little wonder will appear next?
This year we had three young, wonderful scientists living with our family at Blue Dasher Farm, and they became an important part of our lives. Cedric, who lived in our basement, had a particularly big impact, as he was often at my side whenever we needed an extra hand with farm duties or research activities. Being around him reminded me what an infectious asset a positive attitude is- we all missed him terribly when he returned home. One of his gifts to us was his final report to the University (Purpan), in which he provided us a bird’s eye view of Blue Dasher Farm. It becomes so easy to focus on proximate tasks, and tempting to forget how it all fits together into a recipe for having a major impact, or how it is all unique. It is just our lives. Cedric was always active and sometimes quiet- at first he was self-conscious of his English, or just was wondering how he wound up with this insane group of people. It was so cool to see how well he “got” what we are about at Blue Dasher. We also had the USGS girls at the farm. They shared our downstairs bathroom, and could be found most evenings in the breakroom relaxing or in our basement having video game tournaments with the kids. We were honored to get to know these three girls Savannah, Mia, and Lauren, over the summer, and have them be part of our lives. Add to this the technicians Kassidy, Alex, MacKenzie, and Liz, and we had an amazing team this summer.
The exodus of old faces accompanied the introduction of some new staff too. We brought on two new graduate students to the Blue Dasher Team (or Ecdysis Foundation, formally). Sarah Bond is a new PhD student at SDSU who will be studying neonicotinoid seed treatments and how they affect native, threatened butterfly species. And Tommy Fenster is a Master’s student at California State University who will be documenting the efficacy of diversifying understories to the business model of almond orchards. This diversity is key to keeping bees alive during almond pollination. Add to this our long-term fixtures of Mike, Roger, and Nicole, and a growing presence of Jenna in marketing our growing farm products, and our winter team at Blue Dasher will continue to thrive and make important in roads into diversifying agriculture.
We spent a year and a half conditioning our livestock barn to meet our ever evolving needs, and prepared it for the winter, only to watch the hard work and investment of so many people burn to the ground. I had just finished speaking for the Dakota Rural Action’s annual meeting and arrived home. I put Leif (our Border Collie) in the fenced paddock to run constantly for several hours as only a dog of this breed can do, and nothing was amiss. I ate a small lunch, and was about to go to Watertown to purchase some gutters for the livestock and hive barns. In rooting through the hive barn, I smelled something funny, but thought nothing of it. Then, I looked up from the trailer’s tire I was filling to see the livestock barn aflame. There are few things so powerful or imperative as a blazing building. I ran to the other side to find the building completely consumed by fire and dialed 9-1-1. I sputtered my address and an explanation of the crisis, and they deployed the Clear Lake and Brandt Fire Departments. There was nothing to be done to save the livestock barn, so I turned my attention to the other buildings. The hive barn, with many supplies and all of our hive gear, was within 2 ft of the blazing livestock building. I hooked a functional hose (several were melted) to the house, and began to spray water on the corner of the hive barn closest to the livestock shed. The water hitting the hive shed caused smoke to rise from the heating steel siding. I continued to pour water on it, hoping not to lose any more than we had. Within 15 minutes, the livestock shed had largely burned to the ground, and the seeming eternity that it took the fire departments to reach me (it was in reality only 10-15 minutes, I’ll bet), brought immense relief.
We remind ourselves that it could have been so much worse. No one was hurt. We lost the rabbit and some chickens, but most of the chickens were out to pasture. We lost the insulated coop we built for the chickens, but no major equipment was stored there for the winter. We caught the fire before it burned anything else, and the fire occurred on the first windless day we have had in weeks. But it was still a tremendous kick in the gut. So much work burned. In 15 minutes, so many plans were gone.
As has happened so often since even before we began BDF, our community instantly sprang into action. Svec’s were over while the wreckage still smoked, and we began outfitting their livestock trailer to keep the chickens in that night. Kristi and Peter Mogen and their family recruited a livestock trailer outfitted for raising laying hens that sat unused at Abbey on the Hill near Milbank, and helped us to find hay and alfalfa for the sheep’s winter feed. We hope to clean up the blackened shell of our building next weekend, and will hopefully get a chance to lay the new footings for a replacement shed before the deep freeze of winter sets in.
As the flames turned to smoke and the firemen began to relax, one approached me. “Do you ever take volunteers out here? I heard about what you were trying to do with the bees, and I would like to help if I can.” I was still a little dazed over the whole experience, and explained that “Yes, we take volunteers for sure. But maybe ask me again on a different day regarding details.” The power of that simple request from a random stranger who had just busted his ass trying to suppress the destruction of our building had importance. At once, I was caught between despair at losing so much and hope and absolution that we would move on. Given everything that we have been through, from the whistleblower junk, to family trials, to burning buildings, to sprayed-out fruit trees, to…so many things. From this list of failures, it would be easy to conclude that Blue Dasher Farm is somehow cursed. But people that don’t try anything new don’t fail. And we are trying more than most ever do, and our list of successes far outpaces the list of shortcomings. And amidst even our harshest losses, there is gleaming hope that we are on the right path and that even strangers are there to support what is bigger than just a barn.
When we built Blue Dasher, the vision was that we would have farmers, students, and supporters from all over come and be part of something good and important. That a culture of sanctuary, creativity, and camaraderie and support would develop that could fuel our mission of changing agriculture. But we didn’t have a formal plan for how we would attract people to this place; we were more focused on the task of building it. Despite our lack of a plan, our vision is becoming a reality. We had resident scientists that relaxed playing games and watching movies and talking in the evenings. Internationals found us and included us in their national tours. And of critical importance, we have become a growing presence in our own community, helping to change the lands around us into something better for all. Although we continue to focus on building and improving what we have made (and even expanding it!), we still lack a clear plan for attracting the movement here. But we planted a flag to rally around; the time is right, and the mission is clear and right. My expectation is that this community will expand next year.