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No Ordinary Month

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.

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