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.

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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.

DSC05805