It's already the end of August. Summer passed by too fast ~~ a few wafts of regret. I didn't make enough time for swimming and gardening and family. Today, however, was a beautiful day despite life threatening heat indexes and the increasingly severe drought conditions. It looks like this lovely day that will end with our family of five sleeping in the living and dining rooms--the only rooms with air conditioning. That's fine. We've lived here six years next month and this is the first time the heat has driven us out of the upstairs.
Mike noticed the cattle getting heat stressed in our western paddock. The grass is high and deep, but there is no shade out on the open prairie. One of our low-line Angus had gotten herself into the water tank and the other Angus cattle were panting (Note: Mike has observed that our Dexter cattle seem to handle the extreme weather better than the Angus).
So the two of us left Sunday dinner and herded the cattle back around the farm and into the paddock by the barn that has a watering pond surrounded by trees that Mike and his dad dug out years ago. Today I didn't have the camera with me and missed capturing the most strikingly beautiful scenes. As I closed the last gate behind Mike and the herd, I saw a view that I want imprinted in my mind for the rest of my days: Mike walking in his Australian sun hat, white t-shirt, blue jeans leading his herd of cattle across a bright green, neat and clean pasture. The sky was blue, a few white clouds. 30 brown and black cows followed trustingly despite the painful heat. When we got through the last paddock the cows took off at a run!! They raced through the green grass (it will be brown soon without rain- which is not in the long term forecast). They ran to the shady pond and every last one of them waded into the water--some went in over their backs-- their noses touching and drinking the water-their panting subsiding as they cooled off in the water. Happy cows.
We stood and watched them for a while; basking in their relief. We make plans to deepen that pond in the fall, just in case this drought continues. Then we returned to our Sunday dinner with Mike's mom, dad, uncles, and an aunt. An all around good day.
Let me tell you about this Sunday dinner, brought to us by the farms and farmers of Big Stone County. We had a grilled leg of lamb (thanks to Radamachers), cucumber salad (Shumachers), greens, spuds, and an Aronia (choke berry) pie.
There are a few different stories around that Chokeberry pie- stories about community, family, health, and soil conservation. The journey to getting this pie on the table started at the café where I stopped to get a cup of coffee on Friday morning. There were a group of beautiful, elegant, and kind local matriarchs enjoying a coffee gathering. As a result, I was invited to pick berries at Marge's farm. Izzy was at the café and also interested in some berries. So Saturday morning my kids, Izzy and I drove to Marge's- a nice multi-generational farm with a variety of animals and crops including the first mature, full fruit bearing Aronia bushes I have had the delight to encounter.
Aronia, also known as choke berry (not choke cherry, which people are more familiar with), is native to our region and produces seedless berries, larger than blueberries. Aronia is touted as the next "superfruit" because it is full of healthy nutrients and is attributed with all kinds of health benefits.
Whooo hoo!!! I was just giddy to have a chance at these berries. Izzy, Marge, the kids and I picked berries for about ½ hour and harvested about 8 gallons of berries. The berries are in clusters, about eye level, come off without stems attached. Easy, easy, easy!
At home we processed them into pie filling, jelly, syrup, and juice. A number of fun hours and a huge mess- as these projects usually are. When each batch was finished the kids descended upon the kitchen to lick the pans and spoons.
How did this great stand of Aronia berries come about? Well, they were planted with the advice and assistance of a United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service program called EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). This program provides cost share to plant wind breaks and implement on the ground conservation practices, like grassed waterways, pastures, cover crops and even organic farming. The NRCS and their close colleagues the Soil and Water Conservation Districts (in every Minnesota county) are really where the rubber hits the road in getting conservation practices onto the landscape. These are the guys with the equipment (like tree planters and native seed drill presses, the plant material (thousands of trees, grass mixes, etc...) and manpower to lay down the landscape fabric, plant the trees and the prairie grasses.
Now, here's the deal. You can buy any tree imaginable from the SWCD for the EQIP program- the point is to hold the soil in place. The "ah-ha!" is that we can select trees and bushes that also provide human and wildlife food. There are a whole lot of folks interested in growing and others interested buying locally grown food. And here's a chance to do double and triple duty on the land- soil conservation AND food and food ventures. On our farm, with the help of NRCS and the SWCD, we've planted our windbreaks with 400 fruit and nut trees including:
Prairie Red Plum
It's a cool idea to have an edible windbreak as a conservation practice, but there's still work to be done to catalog and promote these multipurpose tree plantings to include fruits and nuts. There are all kinds of reasons this is a good idea including increasing access to healthy foods in rural places, like Big Stone County, which is a USDA designated "Rural Food Desert." So it's win-win-win: keep your soil in place, grow some pie and jam berries, and if the harvest is good enough you can even sell those berries. What is needed is to get the information together on the how's and why's of growing these trees as part of the EQIP program and then get the word out that you can plant your windbreak with fruits and nuts.
By the way, the pie was an absolute hit across three generation. With a good cup of coffee, some more stories about barn building and how the electricity came to these parts in 1941, I'd say it is just about the most satisfying piece of pie I've ever enjoyed.
What stories did you take part of or hear lately? Do you have or remember ground cherries and gooseberries?