The Farm is a Family
May 9, 2020
Dr. Jonathan Lundgren
Spring pushes the claws of winter from the land, and slowly green replaces brown on the landscape. The winter wasn’t as hard as those in the recent past, but the oncoming of a lush, green spring feels so incredibly welcome. One of my favorite things in the spring is to watch the young trees around the farm, and especially the orchard trees as they start to flower and leaf out. It is such a feeling of hope and excitement. It feels like that a peaceful and shady for me and my family accompanies the progressive growth of these trees, and while I enjoy the present, I also long for future days.
Thus begins our fifth summer here on Blue Dasher Farm. It is a different world since we started and nearly everything has changed. Everything but our mission. I have never held much for mission statements, always rolling my eyes at them when I was in the federal system where they seemed bureaucratic and empty. But now I understand how important these mission statements are, and every decision that we make with Ecdysis Foundation and at Blue Dasher Farm is vetted against the mission statement of what we are trying to accomplish. That mission is as true today as it was when it was conceived on a turbulent, cross-country road trip in 2015.
Bees. Six out of 75 hives survive the winter successfully, and none of the overwintered nucs made. We are already taking steps to expand the surviving genetics into our operations. No artificial feeds, antibiotics, or pesticides are used in our hives. The only ones that survived received Vitamin C, 2 g per 0.5 liters of honey. The bees are dying because their immune function is impaired, and the Vitamin C experiment helps to solidify this. We received an additional 160 hives this year (Bird and the Bees Honey out of Wisconsin is an amazing operation, and they still have nucs available for those that need them). This is the largest bunch of hives that we have run, but we have a lot of really critical experiments that we need to perform this summer. Hence the large quantity of hives. We will run single deeps (we don’t have the hardware to run doubles this year), and Tia and Roger are helping to get the remaining hardware painted for the summer. We look forward to a really successful year on the bees. A lot of groundswell has been building for this summer’s projects.
Livestock. The chicks arrived this week. We received around 85 Freedom Ranger meat birds (another 50 on the way, since our customers seem to enjoy eating real chicken). Another 80 layers also arrived, of various breeds. Christina (C) spent quite a while selecting this year’s breeds to ensure that our customers have a rainbow of eggs in each carton. The sub-freezing temps didn’t make this easier, and at least one carton of chicks was dead on arrival. Despite our best efforts, we also lost a couple of ducklings and a pile of other young chicks. They are so fragile at this stage, but we will replace the ones that are lost and continue to grow our flock this summer. We may even try breeding some of our own chicks this year.
Paddington the ram can be a real dick. He likes to rough up anyone that comes into his stall. And we refuse to have winter lambs again. I said this two winters ago and then watched him repeatedly jump through the electric net fence to get to his flock. Whallah! Winter lambs again. So he is under lock and key this summer. People on Blue Dasher all know his personality constraints and have developed ways to overcome his grouchiness. I have seen our staff small and large behave like kung fu masters to stave off a Paddington advance. Meanwhile Gabby figured out that when we put a halter on him, he instantly becomes a house pet and will follow you through the gates of hell. But Leiana (age 6) didn’t know this and decided to collect the eggs in his stall by herself. He promptly pushed her around (she was in no real danger) and she has since understandably been scared of the sheep. The world is a big place when you are 6.
The highlight of my week came when she conquered her fear. The ewes and lambs have no respect for the electronet this time of year (I am working on that), and break fence pretty quickly to wander the farm, preferring the grass outside of their paddock to the grass inside of it. It isn’t long before they realize their mistake and they come to the yard or the orchard, with a look of “uhh…we broke out again and don’t know what to do”. We walk them back to the hard-fenced paddock to reside for the evening or night. The other day, Leiana decided to come with C and me to help move the sheep. She was obviously nervous at first, but then bravely walked behind me with arms raised high and clapping hands to make ourselves “look intimidating” to the sheep and slowly push them back to their nightly safe zone. It was a brave move, and I have a feeling will be an experience that she won’t forget throughout her life. There are a lot of scary sheep in this world.
More often than not, the portrayal of a farm involves a stoic male in a cap and coveralls, standing tall with large machinery in front of a monoculture of crops. And more often than not, this is the actuality of a farm. A farm becomes an operation instead of a breathing organism, and many steps in the evolution of farming have increased efficiency at the expense of its soul. Perhaps this is the central reason that farming is slowly failing around the country.
On Blue Dasher, I often distill most daily farm jobs into a series of tasks on a list. And for the most part I execute these tasks with as much efficiency as I am able. Don’t misunderstand me, I love each sliver of life on this farm. But in a pinch, and there are many pinches, I express that love primarily by devoting time to each element. Get the crop in the ground. Move the sheep. Feed the poultry. Get the nucleus hives into boxes. Tick, tick, tick. Each task a token on a complex game board.
Christina’s day involves paying attention to each animal, and giving each a certain level of worry. Each new chick has a meaning and deserves a name. She gives the livestock their food, and then she does this seemingly crazy thing: she watches them eat it. It is slow and inefficient to form such connections. But the farm has never been so successful as when those connections are made.
The children follow in suit in these roles. Ian explaining “Ok, but I am still on the clock” as I asked him to interrupt his work in the laboratory to help cut the heads off of some jerk roosters who were beating up the hens- always looking for efficiency. Gabby helping to name the creatures, and bring new ones home (often without warning).
For long-term success in our food system, a farm is inherently a family. It needs to be so. Decisions need to be made with more than efficiency in mind; a heartbeat has to be present in every decision as well. A farm is not just an exercise in automation; it needs emotional, spiritual and physical care. I probably recited all of this in the early days of Blue Dasher; but it took me four years to actually know what it means.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgren is director of the Ecdysis Foundation that uses science and education to fuel the regenerative agriculture movement. He also runs the regenerative Blue Dasher Farm in Estelline, SD. www.ecdysis.bio and www.bluedasher.farm