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.


Damning the Dandelion

Here’s a A/B sort question:

Does this image scare you?  Or does it make you happy?

It should scare you–but not for what’s there.  What’s scary is what’s not there.

This is a part of my back lawn and my neighbor’s–a sea of gold.  For some, dandelions are the sworn enemy.  They’ll spray, spread pre-emergent weed control, dig, and kick the heads off these harbingers of spring.  And curse neighbors like me whose decidedly un-golf-course-like lawns are the source of the wind-blown scourge.

But dandelions are one of the most important early forage foods for native pollinators–especially bees of all kinds.  When I was a kid, I’d have to be careful walking through this in sandals to avoid being stung–there’d be hundreds–if not thousands–of bees of all kinds feasting there–the bumblebees with their butts all fuzzy yellow from the pollen. You could hear the hum of them working–the zoom as they moved from flower to flower–gorging themselves after a long winter.

Well, my son won’t have to worry about being stung.  There aren’t any bees here.  He’ll have other worries–like where his sustenance is going to come from when 1/4 of our food and drink derives from insect-pollinated crops.

I’ve been walking back and forth–mowing, yes, but also just searching–looking for the bees.  And there aren’t any.

There isn’t one.

Do you chemically treat your lawn?  Do you spray, dig, and curse the dandelion?

I want you to stop.  Stop now.  Make a promise to keep your yard safe for the bees.  Embrace the dandelion, the clover, the violet–even the creeping Charlie in your lawn. When you become the cursed neighbor, curse back–or better–teach those who curse you about the loss of our bees and what we might do to help them come back.

One of the best places to start learning about our native pollinators and how to help them is The Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Resource Center.

But one of the best practices you can do right now is to stop damning the dandelion.

Busy Bees, Busy Me

I have been a bit overloaded lately: almost fifty essays to critique this week, the raised bed project-in-progress, veggie deliveries, and getting ready to deliver Harry to the airport this weekend.

We lost our internet last night, too–tried to re-set the security and it all came crashing down.  As you can imagine, I was more than a little panicky with all those essays waiting.  But after hopping up at 6:30am, I ended up taking a brief nap to relieve a little of the exhaustion.  I fervently wish I could throw my kayak in my truck and head to the river on this lovely, sunny afternoon, but that r&r will have to wait.

Bee on Allium

Bee on Allium

The bees have been busy too–storing up nectar for the winter months ahead.  The overabundance of ornamental allium in the north garden has been visited by an abundance of all kinds of bees for the past two weeks.  I can’t leave the house doors open or they come cruising inside, and I have to catch them (with a glass jar and a piece of cardboard) and put them back out.

I’ve wanted to move some of that allium to a different spot, but unless it’s raining, I fear I’ll be stung if I try to dig it out now.  I started with two small clumps a couple of years ago and forgot to deadhead one fall; now I have masses of the stuff.

So with all this work piling up, I’ll be posting a bit less in the next week.  I’ll get my CSA newsletter up this afternoon (once I write it), and probably take a hiatus for a couple days.

Bees Love Onions!

Bumblebee on Green Onion Flower

I took this image yesterday, when there were over a dozen of these fuzzy pollinators on the row of green onions coming into bloom. I have noticed that in my home gardens, where I have numerous clumps of ornamental white allium, that the hoverflies and tiny trachinid wasps seem to really love those, too.

I have not seen many honeybees out on the farm yet this year, though they were never that numerous.  The wild bees and wasps seem more common there.  But I was thinking about honeybees as I took this shot, and wondering if onion flower honey would taste like onions.  I’ll bet it would–since the flowers of chive and onion taste very much like the rest of the plant they’re attached to.