Northern Exposure

It was a gorgeous day to be outside. After what seemed like a month of sub-zero temps, some of which was designated The Great Polar Vortex Event of 2014, it was ever-so-slightly above freezing this afternoon, and it felt like time to cast aside the long underwear and cavort wool socks-less across the prairie.

Yeah, right.

The trapdoor to the chicken coop was opened, and although the hens showed no inclination to actually set foot in that horrific white stuff outside, they did stand on the gangplank and eat it, and blink at that blinding warm-for-once thing in the sky. The feral cat-who-thinks-she’s-a-chicken stopped her shivering slinking-on-the-porch begging for food (which I had been giving her through the worst of the cold) and went off to forage on her own (probably at the feeder inside the chicken coop).

I clomped sloppily through the yard drifts in my snow boots for awhile–checking for girdling on fruit tree trunks (none), filling the bird feeders (empty), and generally taking in the warmth and sunshine. We had a couple of days of strong south winds at the tail end of the Vortex (the cold retreating north?) and it ripped two clappers off John’s wind chimes and tossed this pretty little nest on the ground.

photo 2 (2)I found one of the clappers, and I suppose the other will eventually be unearthed as the snow subsides. With the leaves off the trees, it’s probably a blessing that those clappers flew off–the first night it really blew, I could hardly get to sleep with all the clanging on the south lawn. We’ll know better to take them down next winter.

We haven’t gotten much snow this year, but what we have got has been re-arranged by the aforementioned wind into various striations of drifts and dips. Some of the wind-sculpture is really quite lovely.

photo 3(1)But, it’s tough slogging in regular boots–there’s no rhythm to the walking with a couple of steps easy and light, then floomph!–down into the deep stuff, then up on top of the still-hard crust that at next step whoa!–gives way underfoot. Much easier to strap on snowshoes for a proper survey of the prairie.

photo 1(1)Even though we haven’t got much snow this year, we still have a decent blanket on the whole of the prairie. While much of the vegetation that’s there is still pigweed and lamb’s quarter (the local SWCD planted the prairie last summer, when it finally warmed up), those stems and roots bind the soil, catch the snow, and secure the moisture. Snow depth ranged from about an inch way up on the top south-facing slope to six or seven inches where there were taller fringes of vegetation.

Not so on the cultivated fields that surround us–snow is melting fast there, and without substantial crop residue, there’s nothing to hold the moisture–or the soil. You can easily see the line between our prairie and the cultivated fields just driving by, and with another day or two of warm temperatures, the difference will be even more apparent, as more of the neighbors’ “black dirt” is exposed to the elements.

photo 3Meanwhile, we are the “beneficiaries” of our neighbors’ farming practices–in every nook and cranny of our snow-catching prairie, we’re also catching their exposed and eroding topsoil.

photo 1 (2)Now, I like topsoil a lot, but I’m not greedy–I’d much prefer my neighbors kept theirs–anchoring it with crop residue and even a cover crop so it doesn’t end up next door, or downstream. In case you think this is an isolated occurrence–only happening this year because we had so little snow–please feel free to read the blog of the former owner of this very farmstead from five (much snowier) years ago, appropriately titled, “Thanks for the topsoil.”

photo 1Sometimes I think back to that football halftime show where a woman’s nipple was exposed–how shocked and morally offended people were–and I wonder how much better off this country would be if we were half as up-in-arms about exposed soil as we were about an exposed nipple.

photo 5

Solstice Celebration & Christmas Preparation

In the early hours, a couple of Great Horned Owls were hooting across the grove as I headed down to the chicken coop to turn the lights on for the ladies. At -8 degrees, I won’t be opening the trapdoor for them today; they won’t walk out in the snow anyhow, so I might as well keep what heat they make inside and hopefully keep their eggs from freezing before I collect them.

A number of them have started laying now–little pullet eggs from the Silkies in a bed on the floor, and a deep brown “big girl” egg in a nesting box from who-knows-which hen. A couple of weeks ago I bought two dozen eggs from our food co-op, so we wouldn’t run out, but my girls keep filling up one side of that first carton so that we haven’t got to the second carton yet. Time for some holiday baking!

DSC06174It takes awhile for the coop light to warm up, and for it to be light enough in there for me to see (and not step on) the eggs–while it seems like the Silkies have decided on one particular corner to lay in, I’ve found eggs near the door and by the water fountain, too. I haven’t stepped on one yet, but I do have a horrible habit of sticking the eggs in my coat pockets and forgetting them by the time I’ve got inside the house. I haven’t broken one in my pocket yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Turns out I have two friends who’ve killed cell phones this way (and one with a long-forgotten rotten egg–blech!), and come to find out, their phones were killed by eggs from the same flock–the one friend having bequeathed his chickens to the other during a move. This makes me wonder if, during subsequent chicken adoptions, one should inquire into whether their eggs have killed [phones] before, and might be likely to kill again.

It’s solstice-time–the longest nights of the year–which means it’s also officially winter, though we’ve been suffering from the season’s bitter cold temperatures for a couple of weeks now. Monday was a heady reprieve–up above freezing and water trickling from the eaves. This morning, we took the below-zero temps with a modicum of good cheer because of the lovely hoarfrost.

DSC06159Not so cheery is the feral cat-who-thinks-she’s-a-chicken: A longer-term resident of this farm than us, she was raised around a previous flock, and if she had her druthers, I’m sure she’d be “cooped” up with her current batch of feathered friends. I don’t mind her milling about with them in the summer and scavenging in the compost for whatever they leave behind, but I don’t want to chance her stealing eggs or pooping in the coop.

She has found a warm place to stay (when she’s not patrolling the barn or piles of buckthorn in the grove) between the basement windows we haven’t yet replaced–the outer one has a pane missing, and I’m sure we’re losing heat through there or she wouldn’t be hanging out. It’s driving the dog crazy to have a “foreign animal” so close to the house [practically IN it!--growls our vexed guardian], but Vega is smart enough not to stick her nose too close to a critter she knows is sharp.

John and I broke down on our no-feeding-feral-cats resolve, and I gave her a little dish of food this morning, which she gobbled like a champ once I moved a safe (by her reckoning) distance away. I am hoping so long as we put it out when she’s there and limit it to what she can eat in one gobbling, we’ll have less chance of attracting other, less desirable hangers-on about the place. Once the bitter cold has broken, she can find enough calories to keep warm through her own devices.

DSC06164Meanwhile, we’re wrapping presents, anticipating the arrival of our boys, and doing some cookie-baking and chili-making (OK, mostly John is). The long nights make us sleepy early, but we staved off the early-hour doldrums last night by attending the annual solstice fire at the farm of some friends, leaving the string of white lights on the porch railing plugged in to brighten our arrival home.

The coincidence of the long nights, fullness of the moon, clear skies, and snow cover have also brightened our mood and provided plenty of opportunities for “mooning” about with our cameras both morning and night. John sets up his little bird blind in the yard some days to shoot images of the abundant visitors to the feeders, as well as tromping off to the various patches of prairie to catch the subtle light gleaming ’round clumps of Bluestem and Indian grass.

Me, I mostly stick close to home, freezing my fingers off for a few amateur shots around the farm.

DSC06156Happy Solstice, dear readers! May your winter nights be warm and full of love, and your coming year gentle and kind.

Farmers [Should] Do That

Discussion over on Facebook this morning about a District 27A candidate who believes farmers ought to be able to drain wetlands because they pay taxes on them (read the full post on Bluestem Prairie) led to a critique of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s new billboard campaign: Farmers Do That.

The focus is basically the same as that cringe-worthy South Dakota Corn Growers Association “True Environmentalists” campaign, but this one’s a little more straightforward to pick apart based on the concrete statements the billboards make coupled with an observation of the landscape surrounding them.

For example, in eastern Chippewa County, an area referred to by many who live here as “the black desert” for its complete lack of ground cover except during the growing season, this billboard appears:

MN Corn Growers Crop Residue Billboard

Credit: MN Corn Growers

It’s a heartening message, but it’s also one that, for the most part, rings false in many areas of the corn-bean-beet belt. In spring, huge swathes of bare agricultural land in southwestern MN shed so much moisture so quickly that dense fogs develop on otherwise sunny days. That same bare land under a spring deluge sheds plenty of soil, too, choking rivers and ditch-ified creeks with nutrient-rich run-off, harming aquatic life and polluting groundwater with nitrates, so that more and more municipalities in our region are forced to install community-wide reverse-osmosis systems to render their water safe to drink.

A second billboard in the “Farmers Do That” series features an image of a wet spot in a bean field coupled with a message about restoring wetlands to improve water quality.

Credit: MN Corn Growers

Credit: MN Corn Growers

I don’t know about you, but this looks more like “damn, I’d better tile that next fall” than a restored wetland. Perhaps what’s pictured is a work in progress, but with no prairie buffer strip between the crop and the wetland to catch soil and filter nutrients, it’s essentially a runoff-rich dead zone. Maybe there’ll be a few hermaphroditic frogs living in there, but there sure as heck isn’t suitable bird nesting habitat or native pollinator food sources.

The purpose of pointing all this out isn’t necessarily to slam the MN Corn Growers (OK, maybe a little)–the messages DO, after all, suggest better ways to farm. The problem is that the messages claim the good conservation practices of some farmers as common practice amongst all farmers, and, well, that just ain’t the case.

If the messaging works, and enough people believe that voluntary conservation practices are more widespread than they are (despite what’s clearly visible on the landscape and demonstrable through scientific data), then perhaps regulation to make the billboard-touted conservation practices mandatory (which the MN Corn Growers will, no doubt, lobby against) will be forestalled.

And that ain’t True Environmentalism.

Could Be Worse

It’s fifteen below this morning on our little patch of prairie. I’ve taken to making a morning weather report on my Facebook page which is followed up by, “it could be worse.”

And, it could be. The winds are unusually calm right now, which means there’s no measurable wind chill. On the prairie, lack of wind always seems a little bit eerie, and one tends to stop in one’s tracks to listen and inspect the treetops and grasses for movement and wonder what’s coming.

“It’s quiet! Too quiet.”

Our winter visitors, a cloud of slate-colored juncos, is unphased by the bitter cold–they are busily crowding the feeders before the later-rising bluejays and woodpeckers muscle in on the food supply. Juncos go even farther north in the summer, and it’s pleasing to imagine that this, for them, is a warm winter hideaway.

My pullets are not as pleased with the white stuff, and have decided that the farthest they need to roam is the snow-free ramp that leads out to their run. A couple of weeks ago they were up at the crack of dawn making runs at the fences, clambering up over the top of the coop and into the woods, and exploring the wide world outside their generously-proportioned pen. Now, I wait ’til mid-morning to open the little door, and from the back deck can see them peeking out, looking suspiciously at the white-encrusted world, and going back in.

Done are the days of merrily scratching through the compost pile–they’ve been getting little treats inside the coop lately–a pie plate of leftover brown rice, the shell of a spaghetti squash–things that don’t make too much of a mess in their winter quarters.

The coop is unheated, though I do have a warmer to keep their drinking fountain from freezing. So far, they seem fine with the arrangement–their insulated house faces south and is well-protected from winds. Last spring, I mortared every crack of daylight in the stone foundation to protect from drafts and predators, so it’s actually kind of nice to hang out in there with my girls on a bright, bitterly cold day–it’s not warm, but it’s not brutal, either, which is the Minnesota winter measure of what can be borne with a reasonable amount of cheer and what is just plain miserable and OK to complain about with noncommittal phrases like, “cold enough for ya?”

Well, you know, it could be worse.

On Horseradish

DSC06079My husband has a rather exaggerated opinion of my capacities.

I was out in the chilly, damp day digging out some horseradish roots, and he called over with concern, “don’t kill them all!”

Heh. Anyone who grows this hardy perennial knows that’s about as likely as harvesting every last sunchoke tuber and having a barren patch come spring. Ain’t happenin’.

I did once have difficulty getting a horseradish patch established. Admitting this to fellow gardeners caused looks of suspicion, head-shaking, and the occasional smirk. What kind of vegetable farmer can’t grow horseradish?

I was saved by my friend Amy, who quietly slipped me some roots and said something to the effect of: You’re being too nice to it. Take these roots and whack them up against a fence post. Swear at ‘em a few times, then stomp them into the dirt where you want your patch. Kick some dirt over the top, swear one more time, and walk away.

Voila! A healthy rampant horseradish patch that proceeded to invade everything within twenty feet.

The patch harvested today is one I inherited from the previous owner of this farm. It’s fairly small on account of being hemmed in by a double layer of landscape fabric, but it’s plenty prolific. I forked up three good-sized chunks of root to trim and store in the crisper for winter sauce-making.

DSC06080I am an absolute purist when it comes to “prepared horseradish.” The only acceptable ingredients are grated horseradish, vinegar, and a pinch of salt. It’s not that I object to adding this basic preparation to other sauces, dressings, dips, etc., but I am absolutely opposed to those commercial horseradish preparations that contain soybean oil, weird un-pronounce-able ingredients, and artificial flavor.

That last one irks me the most–why in the heck would you add artificial flavor to horseradish? Horseradish tastes like horseradish, and even if it’s not fresh and pungent, it still tastes like horseradish; it just doesn’t have the side benefit of clearing your sinuses. I’ve seen horseradish that’s gotten so old it’s gone kind of brownish colored, and it STILL smelled like nothing other than horseradish.

Speaking of the heat factor, the fresher and finer-grated the root is, the hotter it is. My dear friend Matt from over at Cookrookery gave me a microplane (yay! a microplane!) for my 40th birthday, and so that’s what I used to grate this fresh-out-of-the-earth root.

DSC06081Tears of joy, I assure you. And pain.

Normal, reasonable people (I’ve heard) often grate their horseradish outside. Well, it’s cold out there, so I just turned on the range hood exhaust fan.

On the tongue, the flavor is outstanding. I used apple cider vinegar plus a little Real salt–tiny pinch. And there was just enough time to savor that clean horseradish flavor before the searing heat ran up through my sinuses and momentarily blinded and incapacitated me.

Yum.