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DSCN0019A few years ago, when we were still living in Illinois, the planting season started as soon as the snow cover was gone, or so it seemed, anyway. The land was flat, it warmed up quickly and dried fast. The planting date seemed to get earlier and earlier each year. There was a race to be the first farmer in the fields again. Driving through the countryside you'd twist your head, turning fast and craning your neck to see who was working their ground so early in the season. I call it seasonal whiplash.

Keith slowed our truck to a crawl, then stopped just in front of the sheriff's car. It was blocking the road and the glowing red flares marked the site where a pickup truck had skidded into the ditch. The hood of the truck was peering up from the side of the embankment as the tow truck backed into place. “That looks like Buck White's truck in the ditch.” Keith strained as he looked for Buck.

It is Buck's truck. I hope he's okay,” I couldn't see anyone inside the truck. “It doesn't look damaged, I don't think it rolled.” I sat back and shut off the radio as the sheriff's deputy walked over to us. Keith rolled down the window.

Afternoon. It'll just be a few minutes until we open the road again.”

I leaned over the center console to see the deputy's face.“Was anyone hurt?”

With his hands on the door frame he leaned into the truck, “No, the drivers fine, he was looking over his shoulder when his right front tire caught the soft gravel and it pulled him into the ditch. The truck can't get enough traction in the soft ground, he just needs a tow out.” He waved to the car pulling up behind us and walked off. The audible rumbling of an engine was getting louder in the field across from us. “There's Buck's trouble,” I pointed to the farm field where a tractor was coming into view. It was moving slowly, pulling a corn planter. The doubled up rear tires were flinging mud as it dug into the soft ground. “Buck caught a case of seasonal whiplash. He jerked his head around to see who was planting this early.”

Keith laughed, “You're probably right. It seems much too early and too wet to work a field, let alone plant it. Some guys would just as well mud in their crop as wait for drier weather to plant it.” He reached for the door handle, “I'll see if Buck needs a hand.”

Buck and the deputy were standing on the shoulder of the road watching his truck roll back to the pavement. When it came to rest they all circled it checking its road worthiness. Keith patted Buck's back as they shook hands. He threw back his head, laughing. When he got back into the truck he turned to face me, “You called it. It's a clear case of seasonal whiplash”. Apparently, as Buck was coming around the corner, he saw that tractor in the field. He couldn't believe it, turning to get a second look, he swerved and caught the tire on the gravel's edge. Next thing he knew, his truck was in the ditch.

Who's planting that field?” I asked. The ground belonged to Rusty Little's family.

The Little's rented it to a guy from Boone County. That's a pretty good distance to have to move equipment. He's incredibly anxious if he's planting now. The ground's too cold.” Keith turned onto the road, heading for home.

"A farm is a hunk of land on which, if you get up early enough mornings and work late enough nights, you'll make a fortune - if you strike oil on it." -Fibber McGee

The warm spring weather has every machine shed door wide open. There is equipment parked in every farm-yard, each piece being examined. Grease guns lubricate fittings, loose bolts tightened, hydraulic hoses connected with fluids added as necessary. Anxious farmers can't wait to get into the fields again. Planting time causes every eye to turn toward the weather report. The old timers talked of the Three Iron Men and Ember days. The younger generation watches radar and consults their smart phone.  Now and again a piece of equipment moves down the road under the scrutiny of every farm it passes by. If a planter or grain drill moves along the road, while the fields are still sodden, tongues wag. No one wants to be the first in the field. The scrutiny would be too great. They also don't want to risk crop failure. However, being the last to work your fields invites criticism of your work ethic. Good weather is as critical as the planting date. Planting a few days late makes a difference. Each day, past the ideal planting date, the yield is depleted. For us, planting weather doesn't make or break our crop, we're grass farmers. Although, wet weather will certainly affect the hay crop.

So, with planting season in full swing, let's be careful. Turn your head slowly to get a better glimpse of the farmers hard at work planting their fields. You don't want to suffer from seasonal whiplash.

 

DSCN1082
Goats eating Comfrey

Goats are wonderful about eating brush, shrubs and weeds, but you have to control where they graze. I've tried to grow blueberries without success for the past several years. One year my friend mowed them down with his bush hog, he thought they were scrub trees. I replaced them.  When they started to flower the goats escaped and ate them down to the ground. Again, I replaced them. Despite fencing them in, surrounding them with electric wire, and doing my best to protect them, the goats have ruined them several times. Once the goat problem was solved rabbits took over. But, I haven't given up, someday I'll grow blueberries.

Staking goats in areas with scrub brush and weeds eradicates the problem within a few days. We've remedied a giant rag weed crop and controlled burdock by grazing goats and sheep.

For a second year O'Hare International Airport, in Chicago will control brush by grazing goats and llamas grazing the 120 acres surrounding the airfield. The animals will eat brush, reducing and destroying the habitat of nesting birds and other wildlife which can cause serious danger to aircraft. The grazing will begin in August when the birds are finished nesting and beginning to migrate. When the birds return in the spring they'll find their nesting area destroyed. Without nesting space they'll relocate off the airport grounds.

In 1999 Carson City, Nevada experimented with grazing herds of sheep to reduce the risk of wildfires. They didn't continue the program until the  benefit of grazing became evident. In 2004 a  wildfire threatened the west end of Carson City, but slowed down when it got to the area where the sheep had grazed five years earlier. Carson City resumed the grazing program in 2006. Starting this April, 780 sheep and 900 lambs will begin feeding on Cheat Grass. They'll eat it down before it gets dries and adds dangerous fuel for wildfires.

 

keith on our walkOn our regular walk through the timber Keith and I noticed signs of the changing season. The color change of the leaves is obvious, but there are subtle signs, too. The wooly bear caterpillar's color range of reddish-brown to black is an indicator of the severity of the coming winter, if you believe the folklore. According to The Farmer's Almanac the legend is; the wider that middle brown section is (i.e., the more brown segments there are), the milder the coming winter will be. Conversely, a narrow brown band is said to predict a harsh winter.

 

maisy 10-24-13Maisy and Spike are staking out hollow trees looking for raccoon and opossum. Spike cornered a momma coon, at our urging he backed down, she wouldn't have.Spike 10-24-13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 10-24-13 deer rubThe canopy overhead is sparse now. The natural windbreak of the ravines shows signs where deer have bedded down for the night. Young trees have fresh rubs where bucks are marking their territory. We've seen large bucks in the timber and larger gatherings of doe. In another month the area will be overrun with men in orange blasting away at anything that moves. The cattle will move closer to the barn during hunting season, the dogs instinctively know to stay close. For us, this is the most stressful time of year.

 Last year a neighbor was surprised to see a group of hunters in his timber. He asked them to leave, but they insisted they had hunting rights granted by the landowner. They continued driving deer towards other's in their group waiting for the animals to get within firing range. Every year we're amazed at the techniques used to bring down deer. Hunters waiting on two different hillsides will shoot into the valley as another group runs the deer through the draw. Generally these aren't local folks. They come from different counties and states, all hoping to take home a trophy buck.   This season our neighbor has a preventative plan to avoid the situation. He's implementing something along the line of  the old adage, 'walk softly and carry a big stick.'  In this case it will be a very big and powerful stick.

 

The distance of local

About twenty years ago the University of Missouri Southwest Center experimented with a 'close planting' garden. On a 30' x 30' plot one ton of vegetables was grown using only 27.5 hours of labor. Today it takes 4 hours, per person, of a five day work week to pay for purchased food. An estimated 70% of processed foods on the grocery store shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients, and then there's the distance that most food travels before getting to your store. Whole Foods Market defines local as within 700 miles. For Kroger stores, it's a two state range. Giant Eagle defines local as from the same state the store is located. This graphic from 1919 compares 'Vegetables Grown For Home Use Only' and 'Vegetables Grown For Sale'. So, what is he distance of Local?

1919 graphic Farming MagazineYou can't get more local than your own backyard. This is the time of year to start planning for next year's garden. Cover crops of green manure ( buckwheat, annual rye grass, clover, etc.) should be planted now. They'll add nutrients, aerate the soil, fix nitrogen, and feed the microbial life of the soil. Adding chopped leaves, from deep rooted trees, will mineralize the soil. Bare ground is the enemy of garden productivity.

Thank you to the staff of Farming Magazine for allowing me to use this graphic. It appeared in the Fall, 2013 edition of their great publication.

garden

 

Praying Mantis Aren't welcome HereKeith came into the house wearing his work boots, as a general rule we don't wear work boots in the house. I thought he must have something very important needing immediate attention. He was carrying his phone and asked if I could guess what he found in the tall grass. Since I've lost a fence post pounder, and a collection of other tools, over the years, I figured he'd found one of them with the hay mower. Luckily, that wasn't it.

Keith likes for me to guess things like, “Who do you think I got a call from today?” Or, “Guess who I ran into?” Then there are the, “Guess what I found in the pasture?” questions. He also likes to stump me with trivia, too. He'll ask me,“Do you know how many kernels there are in a bag of seed corn?”

“Eighty thousand,” I'll answer casually. I'm smarter than I look.

“That's right, you're pretty good.”

Actually, I'm not smart. I have a great memory. He's asked me the same trivia questions over, and over, again.

He started telling me about the swishing sound he heard in the tall grass. It wasn't loud, but it was distinct. When he parted the grass blades he noticed grasshoppers and crickets. Then he saw her; the Praying Mantis. She rested on his hand for a while. He took her picture then got rid of her. We haven't seen too many Praying Mantis over the years, which is a good thing. Praying Mantis aren't welcome here. Praying Mantis kill humming birds.   Keith's pictures were terrific, so, unlike the Praying Mantis, I will not be biting my mates head off, especially over something as insignificant as dirt tracked through the house.

Praying Mantis

Looking across the field to Norway Lutheran Church.
Looking across the field to Norway Lutheran Church

Everyday I feel lucky to live in such a beautiful place.  This picture was taken at sunset looking across our field to the Norway Lutheran Church, which is a truly beautiful place, too.

"I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own." -Andy Warhol

 

Our plans for this farm included rotational grazing, we started out following this practice but in 2009 Keith became interested in Management Intensive Grazing (MIG Grazing). It's the practice of heavily grazing  an area by increasing the number of livestock on a small parcel of land for a very short period of time and then moving them to the next paddock. This practice replenishes the soil by allowing grazing, trampling, and animal waste to increase organic cover and vital nutrients.   This restorative practice is essential to preventing desertification.  We've been following the practices of  Allan Savory and Greg Judy.

 

 

This is the 2010 areal view of the planned paddock layout:

 

MIG Grazing paddock layout
MIG Grazing paddock layout

These photos show the paddocks after grazing with new areas the cattle have moved to.

 

Cookie ran past me and shouted something about needing to find a marking flag. I had no idea what he was talking about but I followed along to help him look . We found an older, tattered one in the machine shed. When I asked what he was marking he ran ahead to show me. He was seeding the pasture behind the hoop building with oats, barley, clover and rape seed.  He noticed a Killdeer faking a broken wing, carefully he searched for the nest and found it in the gravel at the edge of the field. That's when he rushed past me looking for a flag. I'm proud that our boys have an appreciation for nature and respect their habitats. Over the years we've had unusual guests at our farm. When Garrett was younger he would find snakes in the spring and keep them until August, then he'd release them. Turtles, squirrels, bunnies, snakes, opossum, salamanders, and starlings have all made their way from our farm back into their natural habitat. Here's a small sampling:

2006 view
2006 view
2010
2010

On January 29, six years ago, we bought this farm. It wasn't a decision made in haste, we'd been preparing for the previous seventeen years. It wasn't a leap of faith, a bold adventure, or a risk. It was a confident step in the right direction. Farming started as a dream and three and a half acres. Later ten additional acres were added the farm grew steadily from there. Eventually expansion became impossible due to rising land values and housing developments taking over farmland in our area. The decision to move to Iowa wasn't difficult, it's been rewarding.
This farm was planted fence row to fence row with corn. The soil wasn't healthy, it was washing away with erosion. The land had been over used. The barnyard was overgrown with giant ragweed and the house, which we didn't see until we took possession, was horrible. Somehow we saw past these deficiencies and a bigger picture unfolded before us. Years of raising chickens, pigs, goats, turkeys and eventually cattle prepared us for growth. It was a culmination of dreams, plans, and knowledge. Six years later we've managed to halt the erosion, plant a couple hundred trees, replenish the soil, and plant a garden.The land is recovering, it's rewarding us with beautifully rich pastures. The wildlife is returning also; pheasants and wild turkey roam the fields. Hawks, hunting for snakes and field mice, fly above the baler while we make hay. Rabbits are abundant, aren't they always. They eat the trees, shrubs, and garden believing they were planted especially for them. Occasionally they're spotted nibbling the blueberry bushes. The dogs see them too, but, neither bunny or dog makes a move.  Unfortunately, the dogs aren't menacing enough to keep the vermin away. The bunnies know it. Our pet rabbits, George and Popeye were viewed as protected pets and now all rabbits fall into this category. It's the same with raccoons. The dogs remember playing with Sammy, who was included in all of their farm adventures, to them, all raccoons are acceptable. The chickens strongly disagree.

Walking through the apple, peach and cherry trees I noticed chew marks and stripped bark on the youngest trees. The rabbits, sitting on top of snow drifts, ate the trees lower branches above the mesh wrap that was supposed to protect them. On winter afternoons a walk through the farm reveals areas that still need attention. Year by year these areas are shrinking. Eventually improvements will be made by desire instead of necessity. That day doesn't seem as distant anymore. However, one more improvement needs to be added to the never ending "to do" list;  rabbit proof fencing.