Well, half the summer is gone and I haven’t blogged a bit (this time last year, I had six blogs written!). This is a problem, since so much has happened this summer already. All I can do is try to make up for lost time. Life abounds on the farm this year, and although we have accomplished so much, it does not feel hopelessly overwhelming as it did last year. This can be explained by the fact that we have achieved many of our establishment goals. But also we have changed profoundly since even last summer, and have adapted to a life style that sometimes defies explanation.
Team. We have an amazing team this year that extends beyond our nucleus lab team. Claire and Jacob graduated with their Master’s degrees in May. It was hard to see them move on, but that is often the way that apprenticeships go; they may be gone, but they are still an important part of Blue Dasher’s legacy and identity. We are particularly lucky to have Kassidy and Alex on for the summer; nice to have their continuity, and they have both grown in confidence so much since May 2016 when they started. McKenzie rounds out our undergraduate squad, and her experience and drive for both entomology and sustainable farming make her a great new member of the team. Mike and his PhD program continue to push the lab toward exciting new areas (I’ll give a research update soon), and Jenna remains an important force behind the administrative duties and farm logistics. Perhaps the biggest additions have been Nicole and Roger. Nicole is in charge of keeping the research side of Ecdysis Foundation running, managing many of the day-to-day activities. Roger is our odd-job expert, and has helped with many of the facilities and maintenance issues that we encounter trying to run farm, bee, and livestock operations, along with a research facility.
Another big difference for us this year is that we have young resident scientists that are living on site for the summer. Colleagues with USGS that are working on honey bees asked to house some of their summer technicians on Blue Dasher, and we thankfully agreed. Having Mia and Savannah living in a camper near our shelterbelt has been a really positive presence on the farm. Cedric arrived from France earlier this week, and he will also be living on site while he pursues an internship in ecological farming and agroecology research. In some ways, this is what we expected Blue Dasher Farm to be- a community of different races, ages, genders, and backgrounds unified by everyone’s devotion to a mission. But we had no real plan or strategy for how to make that happen aside from building the right environment and watching it evolve on its own.
Cropland. We followed last year’s successful strategy of minimizing inputs and growing weird specialty crops that support multiple revenue streams. This year we selected Canada wild rye, phacelia, hubam clover, and borage. The hubam clover was an amazing crop last year in so many ways. It was competitive against weeds, and left a legacy of spring weed suppression to boot. It was six feet tall at maturity, and covered in flowers. The seed with no input (aside from some early season herbicide) yielded 300 lbs per acre. And the honey off of this crop was delicious. We planted 4-5 acres of hubam this year, and the stand looks good as of now. Borage was a partial success last year- harvest is a problem for this. We used last year’s field of borage (2-3 acres) to play around with the agronomy of the crop. If we can get this one in the bin, it will be very profitable for farmers and bee keepers alike. Phacelia is one of the top honey producing plants known, and we have around 2-3 acres of it for seed this year. It jumped out of the ground, and it is looking like some of the first flower heads are apparent. It is not very competitive against weeds, so we will try to suppress some grasses and pigweed in the standing crop. More on that soon. We needed a grass in our rotation, so decided to try Canada wild rye. It is a high value, perennial seed that is well adapted to our region. So far, it hasn’t taken well.
The cropping season was a weird one. It started out fine in early May, then we had around 10 days of cold and wet (this killed a lot of young seeds). Then it got in the 90s for a few weeks and no rain in sight. Now into June we are getting decent temperatures and a shot of rain every few days, so things are looking good for those guys who made it this far.
Honey bees. The importance of hives’ ability to maintain temperatures is a facet of beekeeping that I have learned well so far this year. We had two hives survive the winter, but they were snuffed out in early and middle May; a blizzard on May 1st and freezing days when they were supposed to be packing on honey. These winter survivors weren’t particularly strong; I gave them too much space, and they couldn’t maintain hive temperature, is my guess. In early May, I received 70 strong hives, each two boxes deep that we used to make splits and increase our hive count to 110. The bees came from down south, a honey operation that unfortunately went under, and there were several hives that were extremely aggressive. They likely had Africanized genetics hybridized with European honey bees. Literally, they chased us through the shelterbelt and into the barns, pinging off of our bee veils. During one hive project, I had a hole in my veil and received 10 stings on my face, neck and head, my extremities swelled and face felt like what I can only presume a boxer must experience. After another Hive Hill project, the hives were so upset that for two days, we would be working in the yard on the garden, and everyone in the family started to get stung in the face by random bees. One beekeeper told me “You aren’t smoking them enough!” No, my body could be on fire, and these asshole bees would be stinging my burning corpse’s face. Not a lot of fun.
We received a batch of 50 mated queens from a donor, and 15 additional nucs from another beekeeper friend. After Kassidy, Alex, and I assessed the aggression on each of the hives, we identified the problem children, and the queens from all aggressive hives were killed without mercy. The requeening process has been onging, and Hive Hill is finally calming down. The new hives are now a blast to work with. But I had some sleepless nights worrying about the visitors that would walk onto Blue Dasher Farm expecting a special experience and instead get stung by angry bees with no provocation. Sixty of the hives have now been moved from Hive Hill into various places around the region for some research experiments. We thank Adee Honey Farms, Rufers Apiaries, and Birds and the Bees Honey for their generous support- we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for their generosity, knowledge, and advice.
Livestock. A major limit on Blue Dasher Farm’s profitability in 2016 was a lack of livestock in the system. Over winter, we cut our teeth on 25 laying hens (Silver-laced Wyandottes), who now produce several dozen eggs per week and have been a lot of fun. In May, we received a gift of 100 more laying hens from Murray McMurray hatcheries. These layers are every color of the rainbow, and it has been so much fun to watch them grow and get braver. All of our chickens have the run of the entire farm, and it is a wonderful surprise to find the older hens venturing out further and further from the coop. All of them overwinter in the Livestock Barn, so are protected at night. We also partnered up with some friends (Prairie Coteau Farm) to purchase some broiler chickens for meat production. The breed we selected was Freedom Rangers. They take a little longer to develop, but supposedly have fewer health issues and are a bit better suited to free range conditions. We have largely kept them separate from the other chickens, in large part because the broilers are too stupid to find the layer hens. This is not me being mean- these broilers are noticeably dumber than the other chickens on the farm. And they grow remarkably faster than any laying hen. During early June, the temperatures were very hot and the open, mobile chicken cage the broilers were in was sitting in the sun. A wonderful shady hedge was within 15 feet of the broilers’ cage, and it took them days/weeks before they figured out that it was a preferred site to the blazing sun. Nevertheless, they have been a lot of fun. It has now been a year, and we really haven’t lost much to predators given the free-range nature of the flocks. Two of last year’s roosters (destined for the abattoir anyway) were killed by a Great Horned Owl who liked to roost in the Livestock Barn at night, and two ducks (the remaining ducks now waddle into a small dog kennel every night for bed) were killed by a weasel or some such animal. There is a real hatred of predators in farming communities. In the few instances on our farm, the predation events were a result of us not protecting our livestock well enough.
A huge addition to the farm has been a flock of hair sheep. Around a month ago, Paul Ackley donated six ewes and their 13 offspring from his flock down in western Iowa. Jenna and I had no direct experience with managing livestock, but we are both competent folks that typically accept a worthy challenge. The plan is to replace much of our herbicide use through a planned high intensity grazing scheme with these sheep. The sheep had never been in a barn before, and are hardy and healthy. We may keep them in shelter for the South Dakota winter- we’ll have to see how they are doing. Essentially, we create an 80 x 80 foot paddock with an electric sheep net, and allow the sheep to graze it heavily for 2 days. Then we move the sheep to an adjacent paddock and slowly move them across the farm. The sheep may not return to a paddock for as long as a year, but certainly never before 80 days. Fall and spring intense grazing should help reduce a lot of the weed competition on our cropland.
In the first week, the sheep were pretty nervous and got through the fence once. But they always walked calmly back in when given the opportunity. This was not always to be the case, to our surprise. I decided to move the sheep from their first paddock to a second paddock across the yard that was pretty weedy. Not having had any trouble with them in the past, I had a few team members create a 150 foot corridor and thought we’d just encourage the sheep to walk through to the next grazing ground. I opened the fence, and started to chase them through. The first group went one way, and the second group went the other way. And neither of them went toward the next paddock. After 2-3 hours of coaxing, we managed to gently drive the sheep back into their original paddock.
A few days later I woke to hear a bleating lamb. I went to check on the sheep, and only a single lamb remained. The fence had been broken down on both sides, and the flock was nowhere to be found. We were beside ourselves with worry. How do you find a missing flock of sheep, let alone get them home?!? As I searched Blue Dasher, a strange truck pulled into the driveway. Our neighbor from across the interstate asked if we were missing some sheep. Six of them had showed up at his place, leaving 12 yet to be found. Jenna and Ian took one vehicle, Leif and I took the truck, and our two new residents Mia and Savannah took their car, and we all began searching the region in different directions. After 2 hours, all neighbors had been alerted, the sheriff called, and I had asked several friends for advice on this conundrum. There was no sign of the missing sheep, but when they turned up, we hoped that someone would alert us. We returned to our neighbor’s place to fetch the few found members of the herd. Our wonderful neighbor informed us that he had just loaded them up and helpfully brought them back to the paddock to rejoin the lamb. He also explained “I may have misled you a bit. There were 6 ewes and all of their lambs. Not six sheep total.” Our flock had been returned. We still don’t know what happened that night to chase the sheep out of a 5,000 volt fence. Neighbors unanimously blamed coyotes, but I doubt that. There was not a scratch on any of them, and those lambs would have been easy prey. I think it was a deer fleeting through the shelter belt and getting tied up in the net. Certainly, that would have spooked those sheep into a stampede. But we may never know for sure. Since these early incidents, the sheep have learned their routine, and love being on Blue Dasher. I even have them trained to move paddocks to the ring of a Christmas bell. I would say we probably spend 7-8 hours per week working on them- and they have largely helped us with thistles, nettles, and rejuvenating our shelterbelt understory.
Nursery crops. It was a hard winter for the hundreds of trees and shrubs donated last season by Norms Greenhouse and Nursery. It was in the 60s in late November, and dropped to -30 (-50 with windchill) in December, with almost no hardening off period. Then in February, the temps got into the 60s, waking up trees (especially oaks and ironwoods), that then promptly froze solid in March. Needless to say, while the majority of plants we spent so much time on getting established last season survived, many of the trees are still struggling to wake up. I haven’t given up on them. We started to prepare the orchard and disperse bee-friendly trees and shrubs into the existing shelterbelt. For the orchard, I burned out (with herbicide) the lawn on approximately 1 acre east of the livestock barn. I let some of the lawn resurge, and then hit it again. I followed this by broadcasting around 250 lbs of native prairie seed that was donated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Forty-five species of native grasses and forbs that are just now starting to poke their heads through the residue of the lawn. Into this diverse mix, we will integrate our fruit and nut trees. So revenue streams coming off of our orchard will include honey, lamb meat, eggs, and fruit. We may also integrate vegetables into the understory.
A big project this summer has been turning another portion of our lawn into a no-till vegetable garden. Seemingly competing to outdo themselves, Norm’s came through for us again this summer. As we were beginning our garden, they donated 150 tomato plants, 85 pepper plants, a range of other veggies and herbs, as well as an equal number of companion annual flowers (marigold, zinnia, tobacco, salvia, etc.). The previous owners had a 200 x 20 ft strip along the western edge of the yard that was basically annual weeds and thistles. Last year, we established our raspberries in this area. So around mid-June, we mowed the weeds down, made a series of narrow furrows, and planted onions, tomatoes, peppers and the like. In between each plant, we planted a flower to diversify the garden and attract beneficial insects like predators and pollinators. The tomatoes and peppers will be supported with trellises as they grow. Meanwhile, the biology of the soil remains entirely intact to feed our veggies, unlike heavily tilled gardens which are the norm. The plan is to make and market Blue Dasher Farm salsa this fall as an additional product to support our research program.
In May, I travelled east to Minnesota. The Midwest Elderberry Cooperative agreed to donate a handful of cuttings and bare root elderberry plants (four different varieties) to help us demonstrate the utility of this fruit in a diversified farm. We established the cuttings and potted the bare roots. The plan is to integrate perennial fruit strips into our annual cropland. And elderberries are a great source of mid-season flowers for the bees as well. We will keep folks posted on this.