June 2011 Archives

Whence and to Where -- the Water?

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1938 Aitkin Food Hanlon Farm.jpg
Source: Minnesota Historical Society. Hanlon Farm, Aikin Flood, 1938

And the rain doesn't stop. The soil and fields are saturated; the sloughs and wetlands overtop; the roads are squishy and getting blown out; the farmers are resigned and depressed; and, still it rains. Historically, rainfall in western is 22 inches per year-- a full 1/3 less than the Twin Cities' 34 inches per year. This year we are well above historic rainfall averages. Doesn't mean a drought might be in the makings for the next couple of months.

Mind you, we live at the very very top of the watershed. That means that all water flows downhill from here. Minnesota is unique in being the headwaters to this continent's major waterways; the Mississippi River, the Red River of the North that outlets at the Hudson's Bay. Our farm is at the head of the Minnesota River watershed. This area's glacial topography is unique and here at the top of the watershed world, we are in the Prairie Pothole Region and have a dozen or so closed basin-- meaning crater-like areas without natural outlets for the water to flow out of. Our farm is not in one of the closed outlets, so we are better off than some. Even "better off" doesn't look that good today.

The name of the USGS Map section that covers our farm is called "The Dismal Swamp." That's right. About 130 years ago the place on earth where I live was officially named by the United State Geological Service as The Dismal Swamp.

I don't have much of a historical perspective, as our first field season on the farm was 2008. But this land looks different than I've ever seen it. It is soaking wet lushness of grasses and tress. Different flowers growing in the roadsides than I've seen.

Overheard at a watershed meeting in Big Stone County this week. The ditches are running full (engineered estimated flows supposed to be 10 inches, currently running for the past month at 44 inches), backing up onto farmland. Crops unplanted-- those planted underwater. When the guest farmer sitting at the table was asked what he's doing about it, he put his hand over his heart, head downcast, and says 'it makes a man go numb.' It's just too much to take in. Too overwhelming to rally a response.

He spoke for many farmers and others. For those who's very being is linked to the land and the water. For those who know what mercy- being at mercy really means.

A Mostly Planted View From Here

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IMG_0746.JPG
Our farm afternoon of June 17, 2011 before the the evening's tempest. All the cropland shown is planted.

Goodish news from our farm. Nearly all the crops are in and the garden is kinda planted. My fruit trees are looking good and about 80% are alive. I went ahead and bought a couple more Honey Crisp apple trees (hope springs eternal). We (meaning Mike and the Soil and Water Conservation District) planted 400 trees last week -- choke cherry, choke berry, prairie plum, hazelnut, black walnut, spruce... There is dandelion wine bubbling on the counter, preserved nettles, asparagus to eat most days, and strawberries coming.

Mike and the boys butchered two "spent" hens this morning and they are slow cooking in a crock pot. I made fresh dough for buns and a cold watermelon waits in the fridge. Maybe it's part of the learning curve, but Mike said that the tired old hen he butchered had 20 eggs inside, in various stages of development. It was literally a "hands on" biology lesson for the boys.

We have only 20 acres of cropland left to plant to a warm season grass/grain like millet for a hay crop to feed the cattle over winter. By the way, we decided to roll the dice and went with 95 day corn that was planted around June 9th. We could take some friendly wagers as to whether we'll see a harvestable corn grain crop from that.

We're grateful to our friend and farmer Todd on whom the 'burden' of getting in the crops falls. He just got seed into the bottom land yesterday.

Sorry to say that today it is under water. Again.

Last night thunderstorms, tornado warnings, and a torrential downpour put another 50-60 acres under water. All those acres had been planted to soybeans. The storms knocked out the power for 2+hours and caused water to leak through my ceiling. Though that was entirely my fault. I left the attic windows open and the horizontal driving rain pooled on the attic floor and then leaked through my bedroom ceiling. I looked at the gallon of dead black flies floating in water in the middle of a pink bean bag chair (stored in the attic) and think "who's gonna clean up that yucky mess?"

Does anyone else find it exceeding hard to believe that we are the adults in charge? Feels like I should just be the footloose, responsibility-free kid who can curl up during a storm with a Nancy Drew novel and a bag of black jelly beans. Sometimes is just strikes me as humorous that I'm the mom/homeowner/responsible party.

I digress (regress).

By the way... I generally rise to the occasion of being a grown up. But the other day I picked the kids up from the rural intersection where the swimming lesson bus drops them off. That corner is the staging area for Big Stone County road repair and has an irresistible mountain/fortress of sandy gravel. I told the kids we should play on it. So we ran to the top and I had the great idea that you could jump off the side (30 feet high) and have the sandy gravel break my fall as I slid to the bottom. So I jumped out over the edge and crashed into, essentially, cementized rock. Bloodied and scratched, I take the kids home saying "Look at my owie!!" When Mike sprayed the bacitracin on my wounds I screamed like the kids do "OUCH-- it stings! It HURTs! Stop it." I was surprised to see him smile.

Well... up to the attic to mop up mounds of soggy dead flies.

Hubris, Food, and Farming

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IMG_0722.JPG
One of our sad looking apple trees clinging to life

hu·bris
noun /ˈ(h)yo͞obris/ 

1. Excessive pride or self-confidence

2. (in Greek tragedy) Excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis


Hope. Hubris. Naiveté. What's the difference? I'm especially hoping that a farmer or two will chime in here.

The very first spring we lived here, just a few short months after buying this farm, I wrote a blog entry called "20 Year of Food in Two Days." Now, that is probably the attitude that set me up, like a Greek tragedy, for destined hardship.

We didn't move out to Big Stone County thinking that farming and food production would be easy. Quite the contrary, I remember a St. Paul conversation with Mike asking him if he was prepared for a drastic reduction in leisure time. Even in St. Paul I correctly envisioned that there would be no end of farm work.

Neither did we think farming would be a breeze. Mike had been a farmer (who had known tragedy) and I have some serious book learning on agriculture under my belt, so we more or less knew what we were getting into.

What I didn't take into account (and if Mike did, he didn't let on) was being faced with what feels like failure upon failure. About 6 weeks ago I toured my fruit tree orchard. It appeared that about 90% of my 30 trees had died over the winter. Many had been girdled by voles/moles under the 100 inches of snow. Others were simply eaten by deer right down to the tree protectors. Three years of fruit tree planting... all for naught. Mike said we should get more trees, I just said "forget it!" If we can't keep what we have alive, why buy more? Same with my poor bees that froze to death in -100 wind chills.

This western Minnesota climate can be harsh and it feels unforgiving. Wind, snow, wind, floods, droughts, arctic cold, suffocating muggy heat, wind. So here we are on June 3rd. 320 unplanted acres. Garden is still ankle deep mud. Old farm buildings blowing and rattling in the wind. 500 trees waiting to get planted (hazelnuts, prairie plum, choke cherry, etc...) and up against the limits of their viability.

To cut us some slack, maybe just putting ourselves "out there" opens us up to failure. Experiment, test, try, fail. We've got some experimental plots to test growing organic edible beans, a 30 acre wetland being restored, a wind turbine in the making, local foods efforts, grass fed beef (they at least look and act happy!), and more.

And to stay on the hopeful beam, it is only early June. Maybe there will be some good planting days ahead. Maybe there will be a late fall and gentle rains throughout the summer. Maybe the harvest will be something sweet and unexpected. And maybe there are some lessons to be learned here as well. Like those 30 fruit trees. As it turns out, only 20% of them are dead. The rest of them are soldiering on against the wind and cold. Like us I guess.

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