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.

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.