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The Summer Winds Down

The summer winds down.

After several crazy weeks since our last blog post, fall will quickly be approaching up here in the frigid north. A 10 day trip to Australia to visit with farmers and some sight-seeing with Gabby, a busy field season, harvesting sweet clover and getting the equipment into shape, a longer-than welcome bout with bronchitis and a touch of pneumonia, finishing the laboratory facility, and a nearly constant stream of visitors curious to see our new operation and even help out on whatever task needs doing. I don’t think I will touch on July or the first half of August beyond this cursory sketch, instead favoring a bit more in depth discussion of recent events of the past few weeks.

Research. The undergraduate interns have all returned to classes, and we will miss them dearly. Many thanks to Amy, Kassidy, and Alex, and hope they will return to help us in the future as their schedules allow. Claire’s project has been busy with assessing insect communities in pollen-shedding cornfields, when most corn insects can be found. We have been doing whole plant counts on corn for approximately 7 or 8 years. It is remarkable how few insects we see in this habitat compared to when we first started. Biodiversity declines are tough to measure, but these combined studies may give us an indication of species losses from corn habitats. Regardless, Claire sampled her last cornfield for insects. Just need to collect yields and final soil metrics to complete her thesis research. And analyze a bunch of soil samples for various physical and chemical properties. Jacob’s project has also been busy. By restricting insects from dung pats, Jacob has been able to show how quickly insect communities reduce dung (a remarkable rate!). And he is also documenting how these communities change over time as the pat ages. The research should be useful to ranchers wanting to reduce their reliance on pesticides. On Blue Dasher, we have monarch adults, and plenty of milkweed. But almost no reproduction by the monarchs, which is really disturbing. We started a small study to try to see if monarch females can distinguish between neonicotinoid-contaminated milkweed plants or not. If they do, it could explain a lot. The Varroa mite predator project is also building momentum. We are doing our best to increase Varroa in some of our hives (thanks to Hackenberg Apiaries for the drone frames, and Old Mill Honey Farm graciously donated as many living Varroa mites as we can stomach) as prey for some of the predators we are evaluating. Our fingers are crossed we get the numbers we need to help the beekeepers on this.

The lab team was mostly in Orlando for the past week or so, presenting their research to the International Congress of Entomology. Around 6,000 entomologists from around the world all convened in sticky Florida for the chance to exchange viruses and latest information on entomology. It was good to see colleagues, and see the fruits of Ecdysis Foundation presented to the scientific community.

Laboratory renovation. We are so close to being finished with our laboratory facility. It is hard to put into words how much I am looking forward to having a desk again. It has been nearly a year that I have been working off of my kitchen table (between finishing up at the old position and starting this new initiative), and am looking forward to a little space of my own. This hopefully will lead to a little more structure in life. Thanks to an amazing group of friends, we were able to get the newly sheet-rocked renovation all painted up. Dr. Lorena Pumarino, one of my former students from Spain, came back to South Dakota for two whole weeks and helped us with all kinds of projects around the farm. Especially with getting the floor finished in the new lab, kitchen, bathroom, and break room. A little bit of trim work, and we are ready to go! We also recently brightened up the lab by adding a bunch of new lights in there, and bought several new fixtures (including a much needed work bench) at a facility auction in Clear Lake. We should be ready to go by the time the snow flies. A bit later than my predicted June 15th finish date, but better late than never.

Farm. Our cropping systems have been going well. A major deficiency in my knowledge that I need to find a way around is that I lack experience in mechanical repair. And old farm equipment needs A LOT of mechanical repair. Luckily, I am friends with farmers from around that are pretty handy with these old machines, and are helping us to keep them serviced and even improve them. Bottom line, I am hoping that time helps to fill this problem in for me. Borage is a tricky crop to harvest, and we got hurt this year. As the crop neared maturity, our swather broke a wheel bearing and popped a belt. So I borrowed a swather from a friend and neighbor to the south. I got the new swather to the property to find that the belt and reel weren’t working. All parts shops were closed for a holiday, and when the opportunity arrived it began to rain. It rained for days. The end result is we got substantially less seed than we hoped, but learned a lot about harvesting this plant for subsequent seasons. On the other hand, we have hubam clover. We have a tremendous amount of biomass in those annual sweet clover fields, and so far all is looking good for an early October harvest on this crop. Our orchard trees look fantastic (thanks again to Norm’s for helping us with these), and we should be in a great place to get these trees moved in the spring to their final place in the orchard. Hazelnuts are also growing well, with friends Beau and Nisha bringing us some good stock from Badgersett Farms, and plans to expand these first year plants into our annual cropping fields.

Honey bees. Thanks to the many contributions of Adee Honey Farms, Zia Queenbees, Old Mill Honey Farms, and other beekeepers from around the country, we have a solid 20-25 hives going into winter. Despite numerous attempts to split and reproduce these hives, we simply could not break the 30 hive ceiling this first year. Queens didn’t want to mate, or they died before the hive could take off. I recently explained our efforts to a local beekeeper friend “we throw effort and resources into splitting hives, and despite seemingly doing everything right, these hives just limp along all summer”. “Jon,” Steve explained to me, “this is what we have been living through the past 10 years. We give them everything we can, and the hives remain weak.” This isn’t piss poor beekeeping. As I write this, the bees continue to work the hubam clover, bringing in nectar and pollen. In spite of losing the borage for seed, we should bring in plenty of revenue from that land thanks to our honey production. Indeed, this is the whole idea behind Blue Dasher: when you stack enterprises (e.g., honey and seed production) on the same land, this provides a better insurance policy than a check from the government. The honey extraction will start when we shed the bees in a couple of weeks.

Other animals. I think that my favorite addition to the farm has been Jenna and Gabby’s laying hens. We have 25 Wyandotte hens that wander free range around the property all day long. Despite seeing hawks (they next in the shelterbelt), badgers, skunks, raccoons, and a puppy all sharing this farm, we have not lost a single bird yet! It is just a delight to watch these goofy birds confidently strut around the farm, only to turn and run for the shelter with only the slightest provocation. We also are really looking forward to getting some eggs; Jenna estimates they will start laying in October some time. Leif the border collie puppy is doing well, but we are all learning how to live together. I feel like 6 months has been an influential age in regards to his learning capabilities. He is a really intelligent, and very independent, little critter. His mouth is his entire interface with the rest of the world. Licking, biting, chewing, and eating everything that he encounters. The entire family’s existence has quickly come to revolve around this puppy’s needs and whims. But in the past couple of weeks, we have started to experience some progress. We also saw a border collie training workshop at the Fiber Festival convention in Watertown, and seeing what these dogs are capable of gave me a wake up call. Arguably, border collies are not great pets, in the strictest sense of the word. They have much more intellect and instinct than many other dogs. As such, they warrant respect and attention and training. Given a job, I have a feeling that Leif is going to be an important part of our lives and operation.

Our first six months on Blue Dasher Farm have seen amazing strides forward. Occasionally, we reflect on how far we have come toward our vision already. But it sure as hell hasn’t been easy. We deliberately took on much more than we could handle in this first season on the farm with the intent that many of these chores would be investments (throwing a puppy into the mix, getting the orchard started, etc). With Blue Dasher, we are setting an amazing stage where we are going to be showcasing something the world hasn’t really seen before. And after a mere 6 months, I can’t imagine any other life that I would rather be living.

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