Bygone Ethics

Recent rains have given us a rare opportunity to revisit the long-gone prairie potholes that were part of the original, post-glacial landscape.

Recent rains have given us a rare opportunity to revisit the long-gone prairie potholes that were part of the original, post-glacial landscape.

Recently a friend who happens to be a farmer asked, “When did you become so anti-farmer?”

After my initial surprise and denial, and later, after subsequently rolling through the countryside, I began to realize how my comments and rants could be taken in that manner. My growing up as a child and teenager was in a different era, when having a thick thatch of grass growing where water could create rills of erosion in a field was not only expected, but common. Also common was leaving a swath of anchoring vegetation along riverine embankments. I can also remember my father’s concern when Earl Butz, as Secretary of Agriculture, began preaching his “fence row to fence row” philosophy.

“That will ruin farming,” my father said. He meant the land, although it has also altered farming into a Catch 22 cash chase.

A recently "refurbishes" grassland where the rocks were removed and the trees cut and piled.

A recently “refurbishes” grassland where the rocks were removed and the trees cut and piled.

Realize, please, that my father and I had many rifts and disagreements, politically and otherwise. Despite that, I grew to firmly respect his attention to real conservation farming practices as well as his trepidation on the Butz preamble.

My father lived long enough to watch as neighboring farms grew quite large over the hills of northeast Missouri where grass and grazing was a better ecological fit. He watched as abandoned farmsteads were leveled, burned and the ashes buried, and he watched as hedge rows were dozed along with tree lines and windbreaks. Fences were pulled, wires rolled, and posts, mainly hedge, burned. Forty acre fields became 80’s, and 80’s 160’s, causing him to sadly shake his head. Folks back in my home country now call this “Minnesota farming.”

Where's the grass? Tons of soils have washed off fields where rills and gullies were created by heavy rains and moisture.

Where’s the grass? Tons of soils have washed off fields where rills and gullies were created by heavy rains and moisture.

Yes, this is precisely the treatment of the land we see all around us. Industrial road grading equipment is used to extract glacial rocks from fields (which are then stored for sale in faraway cities to landscapers), and groves and farmsteads dozed and burned. Sod and prairie grasses, CRP land … all being plowed. Painstaking efforts are made with a blade to cut just enough of a two-foot deep furrow through fields to aid in the rapid flush of water. In many cases these furrows are too shallow to qualify as a legal ditch, meaning a mandate for buffer strips, and once cut, are carefully skirted by tillage equipment and planters. Cattails are allowed to grow … until hit by contact killing Roundup.

In fields already tiled, new and more efficient patterned tile systems are being installed. Although the technology is readily available that would allow farmers better water table management, the devices have been a tough sell despite years of positive presentations at many winter meetings. At least one watershed project had staffers basically begging farmers and landowners for a single demonstration installation … to no avail. Flush is seemingly the norm for managing water tables, not the holding back or storage of melt nor rain.

Shallow water "escape routes" are cut in fields that won't technically qualify as a drainage ditch, therefore not mandated for buffer strips.

Shallow water “escape routes” are cut in fields that won’t technically qualify as a drainage ditch, therefore not mandated for buffer strips.

Hilly lands that should never have been tilled stretch for miles with no regard for erosion. In wet springs and early summers, like we’re having again this year, runoff water carries tons upon tons of soil off the higher land. We passed a field with corn nearly two feet tall in the valleys with spindly, four-to-six inch stalks poking up on the rest of the acres. “That’s where all the good soil has washed off to,” said Rebecca. Typically, 20 percent of a field has the healthy stalks. The rest? Will it qualify for USDA emergency subsidies?

Indeed, an observer can easily see the change in soil color and tilth … light tans compared to a rich darkness … in field after field, mile after mile. A keen observer can also tell that many are ignoring either the advice or statutes that call for grassed buffer strips along artificial drainage ditches, and any thought of a grass “waterway” would be considered absurd! Most of us know by now that 99 percent of the wetlands are drained, with a like percentage of native prairie tilled. Where is the rage you see with the distant Brazilian rain forest?

The banks have held and the buffer strips on either side have kept both the field and the drainage ditch in good condition.

The banks have held and the buffer strips on either side have kept both the field and the drainage ditch in good condition.

Driving through the rural byways in the winter months can just be sickening with mile upon mile of “snirt” — that dirty combination of snow and dirt. Overwinter cover crops are rarely planted, and any thought of leaving stalks to hold soils in place is basically unheard of. Our food supply is threatened in that one day fields will be barren of healthy prairie dirt. Realtor’s will be challenged to barker farms with no soil left to sell.

One wonders where the crops will be grown, of how subsequent landowners and farmers will continue to “feed the world.” Have we become so selfish as farmers that we can only think of today, of mining the soil for the most cash possible with crops with little direct food value and staunch government policy support? If we’re blaming policy for the woes and goals of the tractor jockeys, then perhaps some teeth should be placed into the policy smile … a net zero erosion factor as a qualification for any USDA commodity benefits ­— mandated buffer strips on all riparian waters, including drainage ditches; grassed waterways; winter cover crops, especially following soybeans and sugar beets; an actual crop rotation that includes nitrogen fixing legumes; banning practices that threaten pollinators; and so forth.

Common to many ares around the prairie are "ghosts" of the old prairie potholes — wetlands — that perhaps should not have been drained.

Common to many ares around the prairie are “ghosts” of the old prairie potholes — wetlands — that perhaps should not have been drained.

Am I anti-farming? Or, am I simply someone concerned about a future that appears ever more ominous for a climate challenged earth that will be incredibly feeble environmentally for our children and grandchildren — indeed, for all future generations.

Am I anti-farming, or am I someone who simply wishes for the bygone ethics of conservation farming practices that promotes soil health and keep earth’s dirt in place?

Am I anti-farming, or someone who wishes to keep our people, our land and our rivers healthy, and in place for future generations. Surely this answers your question.

A beautiful buffer found in Chippewa County.

A beautiful buffer found in Chippewa County.



Seeking Self Forgiveness

We were to flip a coin. Heads we drive around the lake to a favored restaurant on the South Dakota side, or tails for the Italian place in Morris? When the quarter landed in my palm, I hid it from Rebecca.

“So, when it was in the air, how did you want it to land?”

She smiled. “Bello Cucina.”

As we piled into the car after changing clothes, I considered running back for my camera. Nope, we were just going for dinner and would likely be home before the good light descends on the countryside. Take a deep breath and leave with thoughts of “no regrets.”

A doe in dewy grass.

A doe in dewy grass.

After a great dinner of some excellent pasta dishes — mine a wild mushroom and shrimp affair — we took a stroll around the block before starting home. A stop was also made to fill the tank. All of which pushed us into several miles of squinting into the lowering sun. What a relief it was when we turned south toward the “Clinton Road” just before reaching Chokio. When we turned back toward the west, an intense and colorful light graced the prairie. This is a favored beautiful and interesting stretch of highway hosting several restored patches of prairie, WMAs, a two-section wide federal waterfowl management area, and perhaps even some remnants of native prairie. When we passed a grassy wetland with a perfectly calm, mirror-like surface, my groan was audible. “Wow!” came the grouse. “That would have made a great picture.”

“Cell phone?”

“It fell under the seat and I can’t reach it.”

Just a few more miles further down the highway it happened again. There in a “ghost of prairie” wetland in a flooded corn field, a doe and her fawn waded in knee deep water lit by a perfectly intense glow of soft reddish purple light. Not a single ripple disturbed the surface as the doe nuzzled her fawn, and my moan was no doubt sickening.

“Hey,” Rebecca said, instantly recognizing my angst and trying to soothe my obvious disappointment, “we got to see it. It was a beautiful moment  and we got to see it with our own eyes. We and no one else.”

A startled doe, and a twin fawn I hadn't seen.

A startled doe, and a twin fawn I hadn’t seen.

Yes, but as a photographer, and especially as a recent nature photographing junkie, it was a missed image that will haunt me for several months if not years. Photographers who have missed such moments can identify with Hall of Fame pitchers like Bert Blyleven and the late Warren Spahn, the latter who told me (minus his frequent f-bombs) during an after-game interview when he was managing a Triple A team in the 1970s, “You remember the losses. The homers the jerks hit off you. Straight curves. That’s what you remember.” Blyleven has admitted as much during broadcasts of Minnesota Twins’ baseball games.

I'm pleased with my image of two deer at dusk, although this isn't the picture in the wetland I missed.

I’m pleased with my image of two deer at dusk, although this isn’t the picture in the wetland I missed.

Ah, the losses … those missed opportunities. Wild turkey toms facing off right after dawn just down the road. The trio of white-tails who were in ballet-like sync rounding the edge of a hill in the late afternoon light … also just down the road. And, now, the doe and fawn. All while “driving naked.” Each time my camera was back at the house. In fact, I still remember cresting a hill somewhere northwest of Dubuque in 1968 just as a farmer driving his tractor was silhouetted in a huge, bright red “sun ball” that was perfect for a 300 mm lens. I was speeding to a grass fire and didn’t stop. The next day I told my managing editor, Jim Galedis, about the near miss. “And you didn’t stop? Always shoot the picture. Always. Fires either get better or they’re nothing but ash. Always shoot the picture.”

Key to his advice, of course, is to never leave home without your camera.

After all these years I should know better.

And, there is this: A photographer never forgets, nor is there self forgiveness. You live, and will most likely die, remembering the misses, all of those “perfect” latent images.



After Thoughts

Martin Anderson was all smiles on the boat ride up the Minnesota River.

Martin seemed to enjoy his boat ride up the Minnesota River.

After an evening of interesting hill hugging lightning to the west of Glacial Lakes State Park, and a downpour that broke while in the depths of sleep, we were packing out a day earlier than we expected. More rain was forecast, and all of our gear was soaked after leaving open the largest “window” of the tent for some cross ventilation. So, yes, we can sleep through a storm in the grand outdoors.

Across the site Wes Konzin talked in a low murmur to his grandkids as another downpour drenched the campsite, meaning our breakfast would wait a little longer. It was my turn to cook breakfast, a treat of thick pepper bacon from Pastures of Plenty and a dozen eggs from our Listening Stones Farm that I would break into the peppery bacon grease.

Once breakfast was served and the soaked gear packed, stepson Martin and I left for home. As we weaved our way through the curvy road of the state park, he looked up and smiled. “I had fun, but I think when I look back on it I’ll have had more fun than I actually had.”

Martin is an indoorsy boy, so our camping out was definitely outside of his comfort zone. His “zone” would be challenged again a few days later when another river rat, Willie Rosin, boated us upriver from Waterman’s on a catfishing outing. What’s a boy to do when he has a stepfather river rat who viewed being indoors at Martin’s ripe young age of 11 as comparable to being stranded in a prison cell? I disliked inside as much as Martin does the outdoors.

The late afternoon sun kisses the grasses of an oak savanna ... the only sun we saw on the camping trip.

The late afternoon sun kisses the grasses of an oak savanna … the only sun we saw on the camping trip.

To his credit, Martin is adjusting — although he was rather quick and vocal when asked if he would like to join me on another fishing trip this past weekend. Martin reminds me of a cousin on my father’s side back when I was growing up who preferred reading to anything outside … until the day he somehow discovered fly fishing. Joe’s mother, perhaps my mother’s best friend, knew of how I had become completely immersed in the sport at about Martin’s age, and asked if I would help him get started. By then I was of driving age, so heading to farm ponds all around the area with my cousin was welcomed.

Since I was self-taught through the pages of Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, Sports Afield along with the iconic Herter’s, Inc., catalogs, Joe didn’t exactly have legendary fly caster Joan Wulff as his tutor. Those lessons went fine until an errant, wind influenced fly, snagged my poor cousin in the ear. Fortunately that didn’t deter his passion, for as an adult he became a hydrologic engineer with the Corps of Engineers when he wasn’t casting the long rod.

Fly fishing has a way of attracting the intelligent kids like the Joe’s and Martin’s of the world for it’s cerebral nature. Interestingly, people will ask about “fly fishing lessons” with an eye toward the casting rather than the line control and various retrieves necessary for successful fishing. This isn’t unlike learning the mechanical features of a camera and thinking this alone will make you a good photographer. Both the casting and the mechanical camera lessons are essential for reaching positive end results, though neither will be mistaken for the art of either.

Martin’s few weeks with us have been an adventure. He has really tried, and for that he deserves credit. He was mystified when his mother eagerly agreed to come on a one hour, one way jaunt to a swampy woodland savanna to see white prairie lady slippers. “All this way just for wild flowers?” He had balked, though gave in, to going on a few earlier trips to the nearby Clinton Prairie as I took pictures of prairie smoke.

One of the Prairie White Lady Slippers we found on our foray.

One of the Prairie White Lady Slippers we found on our foray.

Yet, when I’m looking at my results at my computer after an outing Martin will often look over my shoulder to offer comments and compliments on the images. Yes, he had a good time on our camping trip and willingly took his seat along with Wes’ grandkids on their story telling stump. On one of our photography forays he asked if he could use my camera to make a picture. And, after the trip with Willie, Martin asked for a fillet knife to help clean the catfish we had caught. I hesitate to mention how proud he was for catching more fish than his stepfather.

His becoming a passionate outdoorsman may be way too much to expect, although we have taken a few baby steps into that odd universe we call a “comfort zone.” Like Kermit the Frog said, “It isn’t easy being green.” Martin was also right in his comment: “I had fun, but I think when I look back on it I’ll have had more fun than I actually had.”

What outdoorsman hasn’t said that at least a dozen times? Yes, the journey has begun.

A wetland, as we were leaving.

A wetland, as we were leaving.

Salad Days

June has sprung, and with it the gardens are growing like mad–right alongside the weeds.

Since the tomato garden is a newly cultivated spot that last year sprouted an impressive selection of summer weeds, the seedbank for pigweed and lamb’s quarter is well-stocked. After a weekend’s worth of rain, a second hoeing was in order to take out the germinating pigweed at the white thread stage.

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Pretty much the entire sixteen hundred square feet of the garden looked like this, and with the forecasted rain Friday night and Saturday, these weeds had to go before they could get another drink and start creating a more complex (and difficult to kill) root system.

The tomatoes in their raked-up raised beds needed mulching, too–keeping the root systems a little more cool, suppressing the next flush of weeds, and preventing soil erosion from heavy rains. It took pretty much all day to finish the one garden, with chunks of time for breaks and other work. John pitched in at the end, helping rake the hoed soil back up onto the mounds while I laid straw.

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So, things are starting to look a little more put-together in the gardens, and the deer have been fairly moderate in their incursions (Plantskydd helps). The raised beds are sprouting a few new crops since I went willy-nilly out into the rain last weekend and thumbed-in summer squash, cucumbers, flint corn, and okra. I took the early spinach and arugula out from either side of the peas a few days ago, and yesterday I pulled the last of the bolting bok choy, radishes, and sad-looking broccoli raab and rolled up the row cover.

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In the early brassica bed, that left a big, open space next to the Hakurei turnips. Thought about planting some fall carrots in there, but those beds are the original ones we inherited with the farm, and they’ve been gardened pretty intensively over the last few years. There’s really not much for organic matter in there, and I happened to have a big bag of my favorite summer soil-building cover crop: buckwheat. So, instead of a crop to feed us, I planted a crop to feed the soil–and the pollinators, too, when it flowers.

Speaking of pollinators, I finally saw the first bumblebee of the season!

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Bumbles love onion flowers, and they always seem especially drawn to these perennial Evergreen Hardy White green onions. They aren’t as refined as some varieties, but they are a great, sturdy, never-say-die crop. These are the descendants of the ones I started from seed back in 2005–they always get divided and tucked in the corners of beds and other odd spots, and I always let them bloom because then I know whether the bumblebees are surviving or not–if there are bumblebees anywhere near, you’ll see them on the onions.

Back to the soil organic matter issue–I took a few images yesterday of what it looks like when you have plenty of it and what it looks like when your soil is depleted of it.

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The first image, which is the bed where I cultivated and sowed buckwheat yesterday, looks nice, doesn’t it? All smooth and dark-colored and pretty. It is depleted of organic matter, but looks better than the bed next to it because it had floating row cover on it, which helps absorb the impact of raindrops (and watering), plus it had had a nice leaf canopy from the spent greens I’d just removed. Still, the soil was compacted underneath, and the cool-loving greens that came up early and fast ended up going to seed faster than I’d anticipated–probably due to how warm this dark, bare soil gets when the sun hits it and their inability to sink their roots deeper and tap into moisture reserves.

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But if you look at this second image of the bed next door, where the row cover and spent greens were removed a week ago, you can see that the lovely dark soil is crusting and cracking. Not a good sign. It’s hard for new seedlings to break through the surface, and once this soil is cultivated, the fine particles can easily blow in the wind or wash with heavy rain–the same thing that happens on a massive scale in all our clean-cultivated farm fields and leads to soil and nutrients clogging our rivers and streams. This bed will get a fall cover crop–maybe winter wheat–that will be incorporated into the soil in spring. Right now there’s flint corn planted on either side of the peas, and when that’s up enough, I’ll throw down some straw mulch to cover the soil.

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The last image is of a bed that got a liberal dressing of composted goat manure and bedding last fall before I planted garlic. I’ve got a couple of summer squash seeded in the middle, and a few other herbs along the outside. Watering this bed is like watering a big sponge. There’s no puddling, no washing–it just all soaks right in and stays there. The plants in it have no trouble breaking through the surface, and are well fed from the decomposed organic matter. Turning a fork-full of this bed reveals lots of worms, whereas the “clean” looking beds devoid of organic matter are mostly absent of these great garden helpers–it’s too hot in there, and there isn’t anything to eat!

But it hasn’t been all soil-building and weed control around here lately. We’ve been dining on asparagus snapped from the many little patches spread around the farmyard and tender salad turnips from our patch and that of a friend with whom we shared the seed. The spent greens gave us some nice meals, and there is more spinach and lettuce ready for the plucking. John even made a rhubarb pie–his very first from scratch with local lard we rendered last winter for the crust.

The guys went fishing a couple of mornings ago and brought home some nice catfish filets. On the way back, they stopped at a pizza place for lunch, and John was telling me about their surprisingly good salad bar. Harrumph, says I, and headed out to the garden to create some supper salads to put that chain place to shame with fresh multi-colored lettuce and spinach, baby dill snippings, chive blossoms, and the last of the early radishes.

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Beat that, Pizza Ranch!

And, John spirited us away one evening last week to a secret spot in the river valley. While Martin wasn’t too excited for a car trip to see flowers? Really? Flowers of all things?–the lady slippers were in bloom–literally hundreds of them along a boggy woodland edge in a magical display. Lucky us!

A pair of slippers ready for their lady

A pair of slippers ready for their lady