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Sometimes Life Exceeds Expectations

Sometimes life exceeds your expectations.

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, and we continue to ride the wave of events on the road to solidifying the Blue Dasher Farm Initiative here in Deuel County. I am looking forward to reaching a time and place when I can step back and put my feet up to appreciate everything that has gone so right over these first few months. But until that time, we will continue to work as never before toward the goal.

The first milestone to occur since our last blog is that we hosted our first event at Blue Dasher. A few weeks ago, “Keep the Hives Alive”, asked whether they could make Blue Dasher the first stop on their national tour. This is a tour organized in part by beekeepers and advocacy groups in Washington DC to raise awareness about the bee losses, with a particular emphasis on pesticides. James Cook, a Minnesota beekeeper, would drive a truckload of dead bees across the country as a way to highlight this important issue. While we were supportive of the cause, I really didn’t feel like Blue Dasher was ready for a big event- we have only been in operation for a few months. Regardless, we decided we would try it out, and Friends of the Earth (Tiffany Finck-Haynes) was really supportive of this.

We sent announcements about the field day (it was on June 13th), to some press outlets, and to our surprise, it was covered in at least half a dozen papers from around the region and beyond. The RSVPs started to roll in, and plans had to solidify in a hurry. We had Posh Prairie Boutique (from Clear Lake) cater the event, and decided to give a tour of our operation, followed by a few short talks by local producers, and then a discussion with the audience about how to use agriculture as the solution to the bee problem. In addition to Mr. Cook, his wife (Sam) and their parrot Cat, we also hosted the documentary filmmaker (Trent), and three visitors from DC (thanks to Tiffany and Larissa for helping to coordinate the tour). Bret Adee, Jesse Hall (a local farmer), Jessica Kruse (a local rancher), Frank and Kim James (leaders of Dakota Rural Action), the graduate students (Mike, Jacob, Claire) as well as a few impromptu visitors (Steve Ellis, Richard Adee) all helped to guide the night and discussion. Between 100-120 people showed up for this remarkable evening that still makes me shake my head with amazement. I have to say, the next day I felt a little like I had been hit by a truck, but it really inspired me to meet these wonderful people and find that folks were actually interested in our vision for Blue Dasher. Thanks to my wonderful wife on this one- we could not have done it without her; and our friends and lab crew who really came through to lend a hand in preparations.

Life would not allow us time to bask around in the success of our field day. A day or two following, I was told to put together a wish list for orchard trees and shrubs. We have had a long and positive relationship with Colin Evers (and Roger Brown) at Norm’s Greenhouse in Aurora SD, and they have always been really supportive of us. In hearing about what we were trying to do, Colin had numerous suggestions for ways to use nursery stock to feed the bees and add revenue to a diversified farm. By the end of the week, we had more than 400 trees and shrubs that needed immediate attention (with the blessing of Norm and Barbara). Many were bare root, which meant that they needed to get in the ground immediately. Getting the trees out to the farm began with Jenna and I being forced to seek refuge in Norm’s home, as straight line winds and 5 inches of rain poured down on Brookings County. We arrived home with the second truckload of nursery stock to find that Blue Dasher received no more than a drop or two of rain (which would become problematic later). Another two truck/trailer loads of trees followed on Saturday, which initiated a cascade of activities that would dictate the next five days of our lives from sun up to sun down. We frantically divided our time between digging holes, planting trees, watering, and mulching our new orchard amidst 95 degree heat. Every day we had help from friends and colleagues (often unbeknownst to them until they arrived for a visit!). On Thursday, the last of the trees were in the ground in a staging area. These aren’t dinky little bare root trees: many are 6-10 feet tall and are going to be majestic. The job couldn’t have been done without Bret Adee helping us with his skid steer and a 12” auger we rented from Rental Depot in Brookings. My father helped to give a final watering and mulched many of the trees, and Cable and the Hardin Clan were instrumental in getting these all planted. Can’t thank all of our helpers enough. The Blue Dasher orchard is established with peaches, plums, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, serviceberries, apples, pears, and probably a dozen others that escape my mind as I write.

On Wednesday, I made the trip out to Ree Heights SD (west of Miller), where Dean and Candice had invited me out to look at a swather that we needed for the farm. The specialty crops that we are raising require cutting, windrowing, and drying for a short while before combine. So one of our last pieces of equipment is something to swath and windrow the crop. Dean and Candice had approached me at the field day, saying they had one that they would be willing to set us up with, so I drove out to visit with them a bit and see the machine. They are operating a beautiful and diverse rangeland system with grassfed beef, and I got to see some of their pastures. The swather worked great; now I just have to truck it home somehow (the header is 18 feet wide).

Friday was yet another day of travel (my research team has been incredibly patient with me these past two weeks…). Gabe up in Bismarck said he had a pick up head for our combine he would set us up with, and I really need to get the combine optimized for harvesting small seeded stuff soon. Additionally, Gabe’s Border Collie had puppies, and we had been talking about me picking one up for helping on the farm. Sara is our current lab-Australian cattle dog mix, and she is getting pretty old. So as our livestock and farm duties expand, having a smart dog that can help us out seems like it would be a good addition to the farm. I took a borrowed trailer up to Bismarck (stopping in Jamestown to visit with a colleague about some research projects), and Gabe and Paul dropped the head onto the trailer (it is enormous), and welded the wheel back on that had popped off during removal. Then I picked a pup from their litter of seven, a male with a moderate personality and nice markings. Needless to say, you should have seen the look of delight when the kids saw that pick up head parked in the driveway the next morning. It was priceless. The puppy has yet to sleep through the night, but I have a feeling I chose right with him. His name is Leif.

Our bee hives are worrying me quite a bit. I have yet to see any reproduction out of them, and we have only 30 boxes with bees in them. The swarm we caught earlier in the month is by far our strongest hive. There is a rapidly increasing density of flowers in the environment, so I am letting the hives we have forage for nectar more than relying on sugar syrup. I will be patient, but at this point I fear we won’t have the pollination capacity for our crops. The “Bee Problem” has hit Blue Dasher.

We have not had any rain in several weeks on Blue Dasher, and this also is making us worry. The Hubam clover is looking well, but some weed pressure is moving in and it isn’t putting on the growth like it would if we could get a nice shot of rain. Similarly, the borage continues to germinate to fill in some pockets of rows devoid of plants, but it isn’t going to get moving until we see some water. The last 3 rain events in the area have completely missed us. The 90-100 degree heat and constant wind is really drying us out. But our un-tilled ground still seems to have some moisture for those crops (phew).

The laboratory renovation is coming along nicely, but I am anxious to have this complete so we can start to move into the new space, and the lab crew can have their own space for bathroom breaks and lunchtime. Framers came out and did a great job laying in the new walls, and putting in a couple of new windows into the third laboratory. We lucked out and found some decent double-paned windows in our pole shed, and the contractors said they looked like they would do fine. In 95 degree heat, the guys were working on the tin and getting things laid out in the new renovation. The plumbers came back out, and got the drains and water lines roughed in. Now I will get the wiring done on the new rooms, a little more framing to even out the walls for sheet rock, and get the spray foam insulation applied. Not too much left! Our lab team has been remarkably patient.

Many of you know Cliff Millsapps. He has been an important friend to me over the past several years. I met Cliff during the farmer’s market, where he sold Cliff’s Grass Grown Beef. He always enjoyed talking about insects, and my discussions with him prompted me toward working on the dung beetle projects that now occupy a good chunk of our laboratory’s efforts. At the time, I was writing the Insect Spotlight at the time, highlighting various aspects of cultural entomology for a wide range of newspapers, and to my surprise, Cliff made it known that ranchers and farmers were actually reading it! As time went on, Cliff’s commitment to ecologically intensive farming and livestock production was really influential to so many in our community, and I was so happy that he was supportive of our Blue Dasher Farm Initiative. Cliff died on June 14th on his ranch near Gary, South Dakota. My last memory of Cliff was a discussion we had the night of the Keep the Hives Alive tour. When I saw him there, he looked like he was really happy. He was surrounded by likeminded farmers and the community interested in making regenerative agriculture a reality, something he believed in passionately. And he was so proud of one of our speakers, Jessica Kruse, who he was helping get on her feet with her ranch. You left us too soon, Cliff. You will be missed.

After one particularly challenging day, I finished watering the new trees around 9 PM. I set the hose on the ground, and laid down exhausted in the drying grass. It hurt to move. But the sky was a beautiful blue, and as the high white clouds passed by overhead they carried my cares away. We are lucky people to have such wonderful people in our lives and to have such an amazing opportunity to make a difference. After a while- it might have been a minute or an hour- I forced myself back onto my feet and trudged on to the next challenge toward helping this planet.

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