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

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.

Bringing in the Last

Yesterday afternoon, I dumped all the potted annual herbs into the wheelbarrow and brought in all the tender houseplants from the back deck.

Thunder was grumbling, and days of rain and potentially even a little snow are in the forecast. I didn’t want to haul in frigid, heavy, sopping wet pots at the last moment. So, amid rumbling and flashing and the first spatter of drops, the season of patio plants ended abruptly.

A little later, a bolt of lightning splintered a tree by the kitchen, nearly causing me to spill boiling tea-water on my foot. Then wind forced open the mudroom door, hail flew in with a clatter, and THEN the weather radio sounded a warning.

There is no “fall garden” this year other than what’s out in the older beds already, mature, planted in spring. Some of the newly-built raised beds are filled with a combination of “black dirt” (which is farm field soil, stripped off so that excavators can get to the gravel underneath) and barn cleanings–a mix of straw bedding and goat manure. I combine the two because black dirt from an industrially-farmed field, while gorgeous-looking to those who garden in less-than-ideal soil, is nevertheless a dead medium. There aren’t any worms, no organic matter. When it’s dry, it blows like the Dirty Thirties; when it’s wet, it pools and runs to gullies.

DSC05815I see whole big fields of it in places–fall cultivated bare to allow for earlier spring planting, and I wonder how much soil that farmer will lose before they wise up to what their grandparents learned the hard way.

A couple of the newly-filled raised beds are serving as winter nurseries to perennials I dug from the yard in Clinton–I don’t want to lose what I worked on if the house should sell after the ground freezes, and I don’t want to ask for stipulations about digging plants in the spring. A couple beds have asparagus crowns dug last weekend from a plot now outside the new garden boundaries. Some of the new beds still stand empty, and I guess they might stay that way till spring.

I had the idea I’d get all the beds filled and the newly-defined garden fenced this fall, but the list of what can be accomplished before freeze up is shortening along with the days. I also remember thinking I’d get a plot tilled and the small high tunnel erected down on the south lawn. The frame and plastic for that is still in the shop in town.

DSC06017Yesterday evening, casting around for dinner ideas, I decided to make lasagna–not because I was particularly in the mood for it (it was excellent!), but because I could combine the making of it with processing the rest of the ripe tomatoes in the house. I also had some soft goat cheese in the fridge from a local farm tour last week, and that’s not something you let go to waste.

Now, with the weather tending toward chill and damp, and the fact that some animal (probably a squirrel) is competing with me for the last of my lovely heirloom tomatoes, I am planning to cut them down and bring a wheelbarrow-full to the chickens. If critters are going to eat the last few, I ought to get something in return (theoretically speaking, since my hens have not yet begun to lay eggs).

DSC05983I don’t think I’ve ever pulled healthy tomato plants before a frost, but their production is waning, and I’d like to bare those beds and get compost worked in sooner rather than later. Another first: two days ago I pulled all the sweet pepper plants but two–again, waning production and a desire to beef up the soil organic matter before winter closes in.

Yes, and to make room for the garlic that still needs planting, though I have it on good authority that with a power drill and ice auger, it’s possible to plant it in December, even.

It’s a bit of a relief to be bringing in the last–to know that the constant inflow of baskets and boxes and buckets of produce is coming to an end, and what we’ve got is it until the first greens of spring. Sure, there’ll be a few more trips to the farmers market for winter squash and onions, to the orchard for apples. We’ve got currants and elderberries in the freezer that are destined for jam, jelly, and syrup, the canning of which will warm the house in the chilly damp weeks ahead.

But it seems clear from the forecast, and from the geese gathering by hundreds in the sloughs, that the Time of Too Much Eggplant is coming to a close, and the stored-up Feast of Fall is about to begin.


New Farm. New Projects.

As many of my readers will know, my fiance John and I purchased a farmstead in Prior Township, Big Stone County back in March, and started the process of gutting and remodeling the place in early April. While we’re still working on it, the bulk of this enormous project was accomplished in two short months.

I’ll write more about that later–suffice to say, many folks have commented that it typically takes a couple of decades to do all that we did (and I use “we” loosely–I was working my day job much of the time John, our contractor Steve, and the rest of the crew were banging away out here).

The long winter and chilly, rainy spring might’ve worn us down, but they were a blessing in disguise: Steve had a lot of other jobs he’d hired on to do but couldn’t tackle when the weather was crappy, and the rest of us weren’t much tempted to go putter outside during the blizzards, rainstorms, and drizzly, gloomy days.

It’s different now that we’ve been graced by the sun and warmer temperatures in the last few days (and by warmer, I mean 70s–it has been a bear of a spring for getting warm weather crops in the ground). John’s mowed the lawn three times now (and only got two flat tires!), and I’ve done some serious weed trimming and brush hauling. The tick pressure seems to be letting up–at first, we couldn’t even walk out the door and to our cars without doing a tick check; now, I can circumnavigate the entire yard without parasite protection.

I planted one of the big gardens and a couple of the raised beds at the Clinton house this spring, and by chance and connections found a good summer renter who’s just fine with that arrangement. It was hard to tell the extent of the work I needed to do in the farmstead gardens with a few feet of snow on the ground, but I had a (proven accurate when the snow finally melted) sense this season would be more about observation and reclamation out here, and I’d need to retain some of my old planting space.

After moving five times in less than three years, being able to use the same garden space more than one year in a row is a pretty big deal! Now, I’m dearly hoping that I’ll have use of the farmstead space for (at least) most of the rest of my life.

I want to note here that when I show images and talk about the work I’m doing on this place, that I am not in any way passing judgement on the previous owners and their work. Yes, there are a lot of things I would’ve done and some I wouldn’t have, but I don’t have three kids and a job that ties me up completely in the summer months (well, summer IS looking pretty full this year, but…).

I know the previous owners, and they are dear friends. My kid spent many hours out here playing with their kids, and I was always welcomed heartily and fed wholesomely here, and even once took a nap in the hammock before supper and after a particularly long and stressful day. All that (and much more) contributed mightily to my sense that, even though John and I were not farmstead-hunting in Big Stone County, this was a place that felt like home.

All that said, we have some exciting plans for the place, and it’s about time I started writing again, and writing about how it’s coming together.

The biggest plan is to turn the seven+ acres of what’s commonly referred to as “tillable” surrounding the farmstead back to native prairie. We are working with our local SWCD office and Pheasants Forever on that project, and after waiting out the cold and wet, we’ve seen some action on that in the past week.DSC05482 DSC05475It is incredibly humbling to witness this soil cultivated and bare for (we hope) that last time in our lifetimes. I’m not sure of the timeline, but I’m guessing it will be seeded sometime in the next couple of weeks with a high diversity mix of native prairie grasses and forbs.

As the prairie gets re-established, I look forward to it providing a good habitat not only for mammalian and avian wildlife, but also for native pollinators. It was an unsettled spring, but I noticed that even with some excellent pollination days when the chokecherries were in bloom, there are very few cherries setting on the clusters. There were just no bees out here to do the job.

While we are lucky to have a sizable portion of prairie, parks, Wildlife Management Areas and Waterfowl production areas in Big Stone County (which is why we’re considered by those who value such things as a bird-watcher’s, prairie enthusiast’s, and sportsman’s paradise), the vast acreages of row crops and dwindling islands of grove, prairie, wetland, and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands are taking a toll on the pollinator population.

Widespread use of broadleaf herbicides kills off the forbs (flora) that these pollinators depend on for their sustenance, and diminishes the productivity of our orchards and gardens as well. I know it’s a tough sell in this time of high commodity prices to persuade landowners to keep their acres in CRP and even expand the diversity and resiliency of their farms by looking at grazing systems and perennial pastures, but I also know there’s plenty of folks up here who hold values for the land besides what it can make growing corn and beans.

I’ve gone back and forth on whether we should also become domesticated beekeepers, but that’s a decision that can wait at least another year. I’ve got a couple of friends looking at getting into it, so maybe I’ll let them figure it out and then learn from their experience!

The farmstead’s grove also needs a great deal of work–buckthorn has almost entirely taken over the understory, and I’ve been in contact with a goat producer in the region to see about “borrowing” some to fence in there and work on taking it out.

The only problem is that most of the buckthorn in there is already too big for them to reach, so manual take-down is probably the first step, and then we can look at goats to deal with the re-sprout. It’ll also be a lot easier to run fence through that grove once we do some cutting! Right now it’s so dense and there’s so much dead and downed wood in there (yes, and trash from the old farmsteaders before there was garbage service) that we’ll have plenty on our plates for this summer without worrying about importing livestock.

Oh, except for chickens! I picked up a few layer chicks who are getting big fast–my project for the day (among other things–laundry and something to deal with our rhubarb abundance) is to clean the coop and get them out there.DSC05435 DSC05240And no, it’s not still snowy in western Minnesota. I took this coop image back in February.


Sharin’ of the Green

Last St. Patrick’s Day, I planted peas. This St. Patrick’s Day, we’re still locked solidly in winter, with a blizzard warning in effect.

But it wasn’t hard to chase the late winter blues away spending an afternoon in Elk’s Bluff Winter Greenhouse, surrounded by beds and hanging planters crammed with greens gorgeous enough for the devil on my shoulder to suggest that sinking down on my knees and grazing might be an option.

Luckily, there was a full salad bowl included with lunch at the Deep Winter Producer’s Association meeting just north of Montevideo, and no one looked askance when I filled my plate twice.

Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel led the discussion, along with hosts Tim and Shelly Elkington, for a group of about twenty would-be winter greenhouse producers from as far away as the Iron Range.

With their Garden Goddess Enterprises in Milan, Chuck and Carol are pioneers in the practice of passive solar greenhouse design and production here in Minnesota, and their presentations and book, The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual, have spawned many similar projects throughout the colder latitudes.

Elk’s Bluff isn’t far, distance-wise, from Garden Goddess, but the Elkingtons have engineered a larger greenhouse with some different design features from the original. The meeting covered a few of those differences, but also featured some discussion of what benefits an association might have for clusters of winter producers–including building parties, aggregated materials and supply sourcing, and ongoing consulting services.

John and I are considering designs for a new garage/shop/summer kitchen building on the farmstead we’re purchasing, so we were there to gather information for a potential addition to this building-of-all-trades. And, well, I figured there might be something good and green to eat, too!

Marketing the bounty of the greenhouses has not posed much of a challenge for the producers–just the mention of fresh food in winter has created customer lists far longer than the small-scale producers can supply. One producer remembered a call from a manager of one of the Twin Cities farmers markets, pleading with her to bring her greens into Minneapolis. The resounding cry from the assembled crowd: “let ’em beg–we feed our own first.”

No doubt a collection of intrepid producers will at some point tap into that lucrative market, but here on the western edge of Minnesota, it would seem a crime to produce such a lovely abundance with such low energy inputs, only to burn tanks-full of gas to cart it across the state.

And, in my humble opinion, the cities don’t need to get every good thing first. A network of winter producers supplying rural Minnesota with the best, freshest food available can just as well add another layer of goodness to our good life here.

I sat down with the greenhouse manual late yesterday afternoon, before our traditional Irish supper of bacon and cabbage, and finished the thing before breakfast this morning. It looks totally doable, and pretty easy to add on to our existing plan, and so I handed it off to John for further consideration.

Instead of sugar plums, my slumber in between was punctuated by visions of buttercrunch and arugula, dancing along with me in a warm, sunny, and moist place to laugh off the winter blues.