Spring Winds

Spring Winds.

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Spring Winds

As the recent Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) annual meeting was winding down, I had a conversation with a long time friend and farmer who had ambled up. “Like to say those are nice pictures,” he said, nodding toward the row of canvases on the wall. They’re not, just for the record.

He was referencing my Art of Erosion show that had been featured as a backdrop during the all-day event for the clean water advocacy group at the Maynard Event Center. His comment was not uncommon nor unexpected, for many find themselves equally astounded and disturbed by the natural beauty created by the wind and black dirt on the clean white snow. Which is precisely the reason behind focusing my camera on what is commonly called “snirt” here in the prairie, all taken along roadsides in three western Minnesota counties. This was the third hanging, with the fourth coming up this weekend, and that “bipolar” response between the beauty of the artful patterns and the ugliness of the wind-blown dirt has caused many to simply stare at the images.

When my friend faced this situation on his farm a  generation ago, he sought to change his cropping practices ... eventually turning his nearly 600 acres into a commodity crop organic operation.

When my friend faced this situation on his farm a generation ago, he sought to change his cropping practices … eventually turning his nearly 600 acres into a commodity crop organic operation.

“My dad told me when I first started farming many years ago that the key to controlling thistles and pigweeds was to keep the soil black,” he told me. “That first winter my ditch banks looked just like your pictures. That spring, before planting, I took my tractor and front end loader out and scraped the dirt out of the ditches and back into the fields. It was a harsh lesson and my field edges haven’t looked like these pictures since.”

He and his family, including his son and son-in-law, farm just under 600 acres in the midst of the “black desert” in Chippewa County.  Because we were in a conversation rather than a formal interview, he will remain nameless. Back when I was an editor of the country weekly in Clara City, he was the subject of several stories. He seemed to come up with interesting ideas, including once leaving his corn crop unharvested through the fall and winter because of high moisture content and incredibly high propane costs. In the end he figured he came out ahead since the spring price of corn is typically higher than he would have fetched in the fall, and he didn’t believe he had lost as much ear and kernel drop as he anticipated.

In February, winds whipped up the snow and dirt in Chippewa County ... had there been snow on the ground, more snirt.

In February, winds whipped up the snow and dirt in Chippewa County … had there been more snow on the ground, more snirt. Note that this is a full color photography, not black and white.

This was before his son returned from a college basketball career with a wife and new born son in tow, and before his daughter’s husband joined the family business. Their collective decisions to join in created one of those “ah ha” moments with the realization they had to do something different if their farm was to survive. Land prices were escalating right along with both machinery and crop input costs. It was a time when neighbors were coming to grips with having to join the USDA rat race or hire an auctioneer. What they decided to do instead was go organic. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “But we learned. Right now we’re supporting three families, and we’ve put two kids through college with two more almost through, and none with a college loan. After this batch we have two more. We couldn’t have done it if we’d stayed conventional. We just couldn’t have afforded to keep going in that direction.”

In March, winds whipped up the unprotected soils north of Clara City ... you can see the

In March, winds whipped up the unprotected soils north of Clara City … you can see the “skyline” in the background.

When they first went into organic production, and obviously before certification, he was reluctant to share his story. “I get in enough trouble around my neighbors,” he told me at the time. Those first years were tough, especially with the weed infiltrations. Going organic meant that the family had to learn not only how to farm, but also how to market. Financial survival meant the end of “plant and dump” marketing. Saying “no” to Round Up farming meant developing cultural farming practices practiced by a very few organic commodity crop farmers, who like his family, raises corn, soybeans and sunflowers.

They did find sources of information and peers, and eventually settled into very productive crop rotations that have virtually eliminated weed issues while helping with natural fertility. “Our soils are totally different now. We can hold moisture like we couldn’t before. It is more pliable and alive. This past harvest we had the best soybean crop ever, averaging almost 60 bushels per acre. We beat our next door neighbor who farms conventionally by 25 bushels an acre. The key is learning the right rotation. Like that real estate slogan, it’s ‘rotation, rotation, rotation.’”

One of the scenes from my Art of Erosion series, showing the effect caused by wind blown dirt.

One of the scenes from my Art of Erosion series, showing the effect caused by wind blown dirt.

He told of attending a recent meeting over the buffer strip controversy going on in Minnesota and found many of the comments made by those attending bordering on asinine. My word, not his. “One guy asked why we needed buffers to keep nitrates out of the rivers when there is more nitrogen in the air than in the soil. ‘What are they going to do,?’ he asked. ‘Make us buffer the sky?’ This was met with a round of laughter and cheers. Finally one guys stands and suggests that as farmers we need to do something, that continuing to drain and let the runoff ruin the rivers just wasn’t neighborly or sustainable. The place was completely silent, so I clapped, then another two or three others clapped. You should have seen the hatred of those toward us.” He paused. “For us, we maintain 100 foot buffers on either side of our ditches. not the 50 feet the governor (Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton) is proposing.”

Obviously going organic isn’t for everyone, yet he made some interesting points. One hundred foot buffers. Supporting three families, including two with college-aged children, on just under 600 acres of tillable land. Rotation, rotation, rotation. Pliable soils with good moisture holding capacity. Significantly reduced crop and machinery inputs. Learning how to both farm and market what is raised..

An example of an effective buffer strip in Chippewa County.

An example of an effective buffer strip in Chippewa County.

“This ‘snirt’ situation is getting worse each year around here,” he said, once again nodding toward the canvases. “I’ve taken pictures of it, too. Used to be you could count on having snow cover, which we haven’t had for the past couple of winters. We don’t fall till, so our soils are staying put. But as farmers we need to do something different, whether it’s leaving stalks in the field until spring or planting cover crops. Soils all around us have blown all winter, and with this dry spring the winds are picking up even more of it. Bottom line, we have to take better care of our soils.”

My goal with the Art of Erosion photographs was to spark conversations by showing the ugly beauty created by the snow and wind. Hopefully some of those conversations will lead to change. Our civilization is farming the last of the earth’s tillable soils, and once those soils are eroded by both wind or water, where will those farmers of future generations find resources to grow food? How will humans eat?

Euphony On the Flyway

Many years ago a dear friend and fellow nature photographer, Greg Ryan, and I were invited by a nature loving Cajun friend to visit the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge near Hackberry, LA, late one afternoon. As the sun settled over the coastal wilderness, the Sabine came alive with gorgeous sounds, of which our naturalist did all he could to identify what we were hearing.

“There,” he would say, “alligator!”

After awhile, he simply gave up. Herons, alligators, frogs and all the rest turned the Sabine into an audio jungle as darkness settled over the grassy wilderness, so much so that ever since I’ve used this as the high water experience for wilderness audio moments.

By clicking on an arrow at the extreme right corner, you can blow this up and better see the number of geese inside the clouds.

By clicking on an arrow at the extreme right corner, you can “blow up” this great image taken by Rebecca to better see the number of geese inside the clouds.

Since moving to our farm, stepping out onto the porch roof or into the yard at night this time of year is a near equal. No, we don’t have alligators nor herons, nor many of the hundreds of other nocturnal denizens that created such an euphonic chorus on that humid night in the Delta, but we have our geese. Thousands of them. Just over the hills to the east and north of us, thanks to a couple of wetland sloughs neighboring farmers have generously not drained. This time of year a third “ghost” of a wetland is also found just to the west of us.

In the late afternoon sun we can watch as we cook dinner as skeins of geese ease from the sky down to the temporary lake. This means we’re basically surrounded by various species of geese and ducks that follow the Flyway and make the many wetlands all around us, as well as the nearby National Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge and Big Stone Lake, stopping off places en route to permanent homes far north of us. Of course, some of the geese are now pairing up and claiming portions of the smaller wetlands for nesting sites, but the majority are just passing through.

The darkened "island" is actually made of congregated geese.

The darkened “island” is actually made of congregated geese.

Although we can hear and see the nearly constant population of geese during daylight hours, our trees are just as likely to serve as temporary hosts to the clouds of murmurating blackbirds. Having a murmuration suddenly descend onto the farmyard isn’t unlike hearing a huge soccer or football stadium suddenly fill of fans. When one landed the other day, I rushed inside to catch the attention of Dale Pederson, who has been here finishing his work on our Taj Magarage. We both stepped outside just to listen for a moment, both of us smiling in appreciation.

Yet, it’s at night when the sounds of the geese ratchet to decibels not unlike that night in the Sabine. Though not nearly as varied and exotic, this sound is nearly as rich in spirit and verve. Many nights we will stand outside just to listen to the stereophonic chorus that surrounds us. “We live here,” one of us will say. We say that a lot, especially this time of year. bottomland2 We both take pictures, and are still hoping for a really good one. Rebecca’s image into the sun and cloud banks the other night was incredible, for once lightened just a little, the skies were literally full of flying geese. This morning, like many mornings here on our farm, clouds of geese circled over the wetland in the rising sun just to the east of us. We both had our cameras out taking pictures, and I even sneaked one in of her looking out our bedroom window.

You can see the dots of flying geese in the sky past Rebecca as she looks through the window.

You can see the dots of flying geese in the sky past Rebecca as she looks through the window.

Yes, there were hundreds of arcs and vees above in the sky, but inside the wetland an entire darkened island contained of thousands of geese. So dense that only the occasional movement of a head gave witness that this was an island of life, of birds, rather than some dense  “jungle” of aquatic prairie plants. And, of course, there was the sound. Though not as loud as it can be after dark, the songs were still amazing. 3.27.15 wetland1 As we look around in the trees and shrubs around the farm we can identify many different song and prairie birds we know are simply passing through. We see them on the feeders, too, and secretly wish some would stick around for awhile. We just took several moments to watch a bald eagle that had landed in the tall cottonwood on the corner of our grove. Eagles, though still a treat to see, are actually fairly common in our area close to Big Stone Lake and the Minnesota River. We often take a drive through the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, and the other night as the sun was setting, Rebecca excitedly shouted for me to stop. Over one of the beautiful outcrops she noticed five bald eagles in a tree, silhouetted by a beautiful, red-tinted sky.

Above the  trees looking south from our deck.

Above the trees looking south from our deck.

Spring is a lovely time on our farm. Yes, we have varied and usually beautiful sunrises and sunsets throughout the seasons, and many nights we stare through our plate-glass window in the kitchen as we sip on a glass of wine and make our dinner as the sun wanes in the west. Soon the acrobatic swallows will arrive, along with the thrashers and other birds from the annual migrations. Come fall the geese will return, but the occasional reports of the sporting shotguns offer interruptions of silence unknown in the spring. Yes, this is the season when our neighboring wetlands come to life visually and audibly. It’s spring, and a lovely time here on our farm.

Yes, we live here.

Hope in the Water Wars

Rarely do I come home from an agricultural conference feeling as if much good has come of it since there seems to be so much negativity involved with the overwhelming crush of monoculture intent. Last winter it seemed it was all about pollinators and Bt-flavored GMOs. The year before there was a whole round of climate change fears starting with presentations by Will Steger and continuing on into last spring when a University of Minnesota forestry professor forewarned us about deciduous understory growth that is already supplanting what we know as the great North Woods. So it goes.

This year water has come to the topic table. The corporate buy up of water rights by Nestle in California, or fears that Los Angeles and southern California and even San Paulo in Brazil, two of the world’s largest human residencies, will be out of water by October. Here in Minnesota we fear for what the mining of fracking sand for the oil fields will do to our underground aquifers, and to be truthful, what horrific pollution is being caused when those same sands are pumped into the oil fields to contaminate underground water sources in many parts of the North American continent. Now there is talk of a huge, undeveloped tar sand oil field in northern Mexico … meaning we can expect even more contamination of water resources.

Though temporarily fill, drained wetlands like this one no longer allows for a recharging of the prairie aquifers.

Though temporarily fill, drained wetlands like this one no longer allows for a recharging of the prairie aquifers.

At the conference we were told of how those water friendly tensiometers that measure crop moisture stresses under center pivot systems in the High Plains began beeping like Vegas jackpot machines last summer … for all the wrong reasons. It seems the evapotranspiration rate was so high there that irrigating farmers actually shut off their pumping of water from the diminishing Ogallala Aquifer because the cost of “keeping up” was simply too expensive.

We have our own water issues right outside our windows here on the former prairie. Yes, our farmers continue to add more efficient, pattern-tiled drainage to better flush excess spring melt and early season rainfall from their fields and into the prairie rivers. But wait. Global climate change has also introduced a rather recent trend of choking droughts following the initial spring moisture feed, often around Independence Day. Meaning that in a given year a crop producer can experience both the drowning of a crop due to incredibly high moisture levels and a crop-starving drought in the same field in the same year.

Climatologist Mark Seeley said changing climatic conditions such as high spring moisture coupled with mid-summer through fall droughts will change farming cultural practices.

Climatologist Mark Seeley said changing climatic conditions such as high spring moisture coupled with mid-summer through fall droughts will change farming cultural practices.

So those drainers who can’t wait to flush excess rainwater downriver from their cropland are now tapping into groundwater and adding center pivot irrigation rigs on those same fields to sustain commodity crops like corn, soybeans and potatoes. Groundwater that’s not being recharged at anything close to its historic rate due to wetland removal and tile drainage systems. Remember, it’s a rare instance when any of the drained water is stored, and repeated efforts of attempting to have those who are installing patterned tile upgrades with water table management devices have gone unheeded. While this drainage/irrigation situation is perplexing, it is also becoming ever more common. Indeed, since the conference a friend told of receiving a letter asking permission for the wells on his rural home site to be monitored because an outside investor has purchased a farm within a two mile radius and has sunk an irrigation well onto the property for a center pivot.

“I don’t want my well monitored,” said my friend. “I just want my water.”

Are you wondering about that “feel good” yet? Yes, it has to do with water and farming.

Jerry Hatfield, director of the USDA/ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, discussed the changing seasonality and intensities of precipitation, and suggested the time might be right for new cropping mixtures.

Jerry Hatfield, director of the USDA/ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, discussed the changing seasonality and intensities of precipitation, and suggested the time might be right for new cropping mixtures.

It happened during the recent Farmers Lead the Way conference held at the Southwestern Minnesota Research Station to explore innovative ag practices designed to adapt to the changing climate and weather conditions. I had been invited to hang my Art of Erosion show during the conference, and was invited to participate as well. In the morning speakers like Mark Seeley talked about the effects of climate change on cropping patterns, then after lunch several breakout sessions were held around the large conference room. That is where I heard Grant Breitkreutz, a Redwood, MN, farmer, talk about, of all things, cover crops.

We have both been interested in cover crops for specific reasons, Rebecca with her work with the Land Stewardship Project, and us both with how cover crops might reduce “snirt” problems that are increasingly severe and heightened by a climatic change of reduced snow cover many farmers have failed to address with crop cultural practices. Breitkreutz has, and offered some rather unexpected benefits by doing so. Ironically and by coincidence, he began toying with cover crops about the same time new drainage tiles were installed on his farm … both about a decade ago. He uses a tractor-bourne seeder, or an aerial seeder if it’s too wet, to interseed a mixture of legumes, rye grass and vegetable root crops like radishes and turnips into his row crops of corn and soybeans.

Combining the arts, including my Art of Erosion canvases, with science was an effective and interesting way of handling a touchy subject matter.

Combining the arts, including my Art of Erosion canvases, with science was an effective and interesting way of handling a touchy subject matter.

“Once we figured out what we were doing, our tiles have been dry. Meanwhile, we’re actually rebuilding our soil. Running a no-till planter through our fields is like planting into a garden,” he explained. His soils have come alive and have water holding capacity while reducing crop inputs. All without diminishing yields, and perhaps as importantly, without added machinery costs. Consequently, his soils are not blowing nor is he needing irrigation because of the increased carrying capacity of soil moisture due to the deep rooting action of his cover crop mix.

“My neighbors initially thought we were nuts. Now they’re driving into the yard asking us what we’re doing. I don’t have time to teach them all, which is why I do these meetings. Cover crops have been a total win-win for our farm,” he said.

It is always refreshing to hear a positive story, and especially one coming in the face of so many destructive resource management practices. Cover crops are likely not a panacea for every ill-conceived production practice, yet they certainly should give pause to those who have seen those telltale dirt dunes along the roadways … and perhaps even for those who are thinking of sinking hard earned cash into an irrigation rig and deep well. We can only hope.

Choking the Dance

Overnight our prairie changed. Apparently while we were snuggled warmly beneath a pile of quilts, a cold, blustery wind rolling like a freight train across land left a ridge of snow dunes and snirt along the fringe of our prairie from our neighbor’s bare-plowed field. Deep, two to three foot drifts were caught by the prairie grasses.

Our snirt dune, and the adjacent field that was so generous.

Our snirt dune, and the adjacent field that was so generous.

Wind is a significant part of living here, and accounts of wind seem to harass prairie writers as fog does in the novels of London. You don’t have to read too many accounts from the early settlers of the prairie to read of how they gained such a hatred of the wind. Some wrote accounts of losing their minds from the constant wail of the wind. While it is difficult to say how many of us “modern” prairie inhabitants are so afflicted, there will likely (or should) be some farmers concerned enough about the dirt being blown from their fields to do something about it. While we’ll happily take what they’re offering, for it’s free to us, the legacy they’re allowing to blow away puts their finances at peril on the short term, and humanity’s ability to survive at greater risk in the long term.

Yes, the wind is part of the prairie. With each windbreak cut, dozed and burned, and with every spare inch of sod turned into commodity cropland, we lose rather than commune with the wind. Little has changed in the natural forces over those years except for the treatment of the prairie soils we were so blessed with after the last glacier. We have ripped it open, ditched it to drain the water from the wetlands before we laid tile to empty soil moisture for earlier planting. Ninety-nine percent of it. Now a more recent generation of farmers, heaped under high production and equipment costs and land prices, are working to convert more land into crops, and to re-tile with more “efficient” pattern tiling. Yet, the wind still blows, and with it, the product of their decisions … the soil on which they farm.
2.15.15 wind7
We can almost guarantee these constants will not change: The wind is going to blow, winds that are often harsh and constant; and with it, soils that become roadside and ditch borne dirt.

Learning of the harshness of prairie winds has been a revelation. My first 20 some years of living in the Minnesota prairie was on the edge of a small prairie town. We joked that if we wanted to feel urban we could simply look through the front windows where a picturesque postcard scene of tranquility came from an overhanging canopy of mature trees and older, comfortable looking houses. Across the room, though, the view was of the federal version of Hawk Creek and the prairie beyond. It was, in our minds at the time, a perfect collision of town and country. We did notice a wind, especially just before a blizzard when it seemed to reside above the roof tops in a distant roar. You could hear it, and watch as the tops of the trees waved their naked branches, but you couldn’t feel it. With non-blizzard winds, there were just too many houses and, yes, urbanity, to feel the full force of a prairie wind.

Joe Pye found the snirt dune to his liking!

Joe Pye found the snirt dune to his liking!

Now, having since moved to our Listening Stones Farm, we can hear it, feel it, and if you watch the prairie grasses nearby, you can see it. William Least Heat Moon wrote of how the wind gives prairie grasses the freedom to dance while those same grasses give face to the wind. If you lived here, lived within an actual planting of prairie grasses, you would identify with his description.

In our first year here my goal was to walk to the end of the section and back, a two mile hike on a gravel road. On one of those first hikes the trip down to the corner was brisk and easy, and I was feeling pretty chipper for my age. When I turned to return, and once past the abandoned and protective grove at that end of the section, it was a struggle make progress against what was actually a staunch breeze. By the time I made it to the protection of our grove I was worn out and working to breathe. Against a full blowing northwest  wind you are simply pleased to make progress. After a year of this, a membership was purchased at a nearby gym with a couple of wind-free treadmills.

Using the wind in a blue stem prairie.

Using the wind in a photograph of a blue stem prairie.

Like most of the farm homes on the prairie, our house is surrounded by a dense grove. That first year the buckthorn was too thick to  get through. Those walks on the gravel road in the open prairie was enough to gain a deep appreciation of the trees. Even the buckthorn. Our biggest concern of clearing the buckthorn the following year was how the new “openness” would translate with a cold wind. Our sawyer, Kurt Arner, suggested we not worry, that the windrows of downed buckthorn would still provide enough protection. He was right. Our mailbox, set just past the protection of the grove, serves as a sobering reminder of the worth of the woodland.

Last year after a cleansing of the vast buckthorn along with many of the damaged and diseased trees, including some with the telltale burnt brown “zipper” stripe caused by lightning, we planted 70 bareroot trees and countless shrubs. Some were fruit trees in our new orchard, but the rest were planted inside the canopy of the standing grove where Kurt had left “holes.” Recently Rebecca has been stewing over our next order of trees. Kurt has also returned to take down some offensive elms, buckthorn and other weed trees on the south and east portions of the yard.

Cone flower pods accented by prairie grasses moved by the wind.

Cone flower pods accented by prairie grasses moved by the wind.

In a short time we’ve learned to commune with the wind. Fighting it is futile. We raise chimes to create wind music, and I’ve learned how to use the wind in my photography. Our prairie grasses on our eight acres of tillable land protects the soil. An east wind will cause our water lines to freeze upstairs, so yes, we’re conscious of it. We’re equally conscious of the effects of the wind on the fields of our neighbors. Those who have left stubble in their corn fields have clean ditches. Those who plowed, even minimally, do not.

Although we have eight acres of replanted prairie, the two of us … migrants from tree-blessed states of Vermont and Missouri … love our few acres of trees, and actually bless them on nights when you can hear the steady “lullaby” of the prairie wind. Last night, as that gusty lullaby of prairie music played and partied, a horrible hangover of particles of blown snow along with minute molecules of our neighbor’s dirt were left in drifts along the fringe of our prairie, choking the dance.

Just down the road apiece is a prime example of the horrendous issues with wind-blown dirt ... all of which will wash into Big Stone Lake in the melt and spring rains.

Just down the road apiece is a prime example of the horrendous issues with wind-blown dirt … all of which will wash into Big Stone Lake in the melt and spring rains.

Pepper Gumbo!

Seemingly we can hold our own in the kitchen, and we sometimes find ourselves gushing with such glee that we’re eager to share our excitement over a meal one of us has placed on the table. After one such dinner last year, which happened to be one of our “pepper gumbo” shrimp delights, an enthusiastic gush was posted a social media site.

Moments later a Cajun fly fishing friend offered an online rebuttal: “I don’t know what you’ve got there, my friend, but I can assure you that it is isn’t a gumbo.”

Rebecca tends to one of her pepper plants in her huge garden.

Rebecca tends to one of her pepper plants in her huge garden.

Say what? I was momentarily taken back, and since have rarely spoken of this tangy, peppery dish outside of our home. Of course, this didn’t bother us here on the farm and when the peppers started coming in out of the garden again this fall, we eagerly began preparing them again for the freezer. Recently, though, that conversation resurfaced with a suggestion that “gumbo” is merely a Cajun word for okra, and that gumbos may consist of any ingredients “including the kitchen sink!”  as long as it contains okra.

All of which is enough to cause a smile. Which is how I got involved in this gumbo mess to begin with. It all started several years ago with a transplanted Minnesota “returnee” who had a penchant for cowgirl boots, ankle-length flowing “hippie” skirts and gorgeous “chrome” hair that hung to her waist. Kim mixed a voice softer than a down pillow with the staunch will of steel plow blade. Her little white pickup often had a beer keg strapped securely in the back bed. She let it be known that it was her keg. How someone so small and skinny could love beer that much was both daunting and surprising. “I’m the beer drinker, not my husband,” she revealed on the day I chose to tease her about the keg.

Peppers! Peppers! And, more peppers!

Peppers! Peppers! And, more peppers!

One day she popped her plastic food container in the microwave we kept at the country weekly and a most delicious aroma soon filled the office. “Wow, what is that?” I had to ask.

“Pepper gumbo,” she answered, and moments after retrieving the nuked container, she offered a spoonful. It was peppery and flavorful, and full of shrimp, pieces of crab and other seafood, and carried that rich gravy ladened flavor and look about it.

She was kind enough to share a recipe that was quite detailed and involved a specific count of peppers. Being neither a chef nor scientist, specific recipes are of little use to me. Yet, I loved the idea, and that fall I made up my first batch that was reliably close to Kim’s directions. Since then I’ve strayed, as one might expect. After a set of life events that completely changed the course of my life, Rebecca and I began our relationship just about the time her immense bounty of garden produce was entering the kitchen … including bushels of various peppers.

“Can I play with those?” I asked as she walked in with a tub full one afternoon.

“Please!” Rebecca said before breaking into a bit of a smile. “Are you thinking of your pepper gumbo?”

Prepping the peppers to start the gumbo. Note the okra?

Prepping the peppers to start the gumbo. Note the okra?

With apologies to dear Kim, and to those hunkered down below the I-10 umbrella, here is what we do: Melt a tall yogurt container of frozen chicken stock in the crockpot, then add a couple of okra, some chopped celery and onion, and stuff all the peppers you can muster (minus the stems and seeds) beneath the lid. Jalapenos. Hot Thais. Hot Portugals. Fish (yes, there is a pepper called that). Martin’s Carrot. Napoleon. Three-sided Syrian. Aconcagua. Tolli’s Sweet. Hungarian Hot Wax. All of these and more. Simmer this on low for eight to ten hours. If you’re not overcome with the pepper fumes and tantalizing aroma, you allow the mushy concoction to cool before hitting it with an emulsifier to puree. A couple of tablespoons of squeezed lime are added before the thick, peppery puree is divided into four cup measurements into individual freezer bags for “saving summer.”

A ladle of a recently made pepper gumbo with shrimp and sausage.

A ladle of a recently made pepper gumbo with shrimp and sausage.

Come winter we pull a bag from the freezer and the actual gumbo comes together. It begins, as most do, by making a roux. Equal amounts of melted butter and flour are whisked around a cast iron skillet until it turns a deep amberish hue. Brown rice is started on another burner as the frozen pepper mix is added to the roux. Various vegetables are then added, including chopped onions and garlic.  As the rice nears readiness, raw peeled shrimp and slices of Andouille sausage are added. If that hint of lime is missing, add another squeeze. Remember, the original mix already had the Cajun trilogy included … celery, onion and pepper … as well as the okra.

You might be surprised in that the gumbo isn’t terribly hot in the spicy sense. Peppery, yes. Yet, not so hot, which might be a function of the added rice. To serve, you ladle the gumbo over a mound of rice in a bowl. Rebecca will sometimes add a little plain yogurt to her bowl, although we mostly take the gumbo straight.

In the bowl! Bon appetit!

In the bowl! Bon appetit!

Although there are rumors of perhaps having a drop or two of French blood in my soul, and that I’m a fan of both Cajun food and music, there is little about that heritage I can honestly claim. So, there you have it. A recipe from a sweet hippie chick. Peppers of various variety and Scoville heat indexing, grown by my lovely wife right on our farm. And a “gumbo” that cuts through the cold of a cruel winter’s night. Joie de Vivre!

Holistic Transformations

A few weeks ago in a fit of hopefulness, and in what many of the “river valley liberals” seemingly call “holistic” planning, a suggestion was made that we create a list of goals, dreams and forward thinking for our Listening Stones Farm. That suggestion was met with a bright and eager neon smile, one of the many rewards of being married to community organizer. Instantly materializing was a Magic Marker and her huge stand-alone flip chart with a tablet full of road map-sized blank sheets.

Looking out toward the south prairie over Rebecca's boots when we first moved here.

Looking out toward the south prairie over Rebecca’s boots when we first moved here.

So began our exercise of holistic thought. All we could possibly conceive became a Magic Marker reality. Chickens. Turkeys. Lambs. Lawn reduction. Wood chipper. Orchard expansion. A sauna. Rain garden. Two whole flip chart sheets of dreamy plans in startling black and white reality were soon taped to the office wall. Many of those points came to life in conversation, each one discussed, expanded, dashed with a hint of spicy realism, then stored for further thought and expansion as we made our twice daily jaunts through our prairie pathways.

Kurt hit the "island" of buckthorn in the south yard yesterday ... reference how it looked over Rebecca's boots.

Kurt hit the “island” of buckthorn in the south yard yesterday … reference how it looked over Rebecca’s boots.

Though we have not actually taken the time to settle in for a formal discussion, some of items on the list are already in the works. Take the orchard expansion, or if you wish, a continuation of the grove cleanup, or if you look at our holistic list, improving the tree and shrub mix here on the farm. Trees for a Vermonter, and perhaps for a transplanted Missourian as well, are key points of our collective lives even on our prairie land farm, which might seem odd since “prairie” is technically comprised of grassland and wide open skies.

A glimpse of the grove before we began the clearning.

A glimpse of the grove before we began the clearning.

In our second summer here we began the cleanup of the buckthorn jungle in the grove. It was a huge task and was “part two” of the stretch of laborious razing of two decrepit and dangerous outbuildings. Both were burned and buried in a hole that inexplicably came with the farm, over which we planted our orchard. Our sawyer, Kurt Arner, did the honors of slashing the jungle. On the lower end he windrowed piles of the ever present invasive buckthorn, while in the upper grove he slashed and dropped the 20 footers while creating a beautiful path complete with a listening bench in the center of the loop. Which brings me back to our holistic list … along with our ongoing conversations from our walks with the dogs over the farm. Kurt’s slash and drop left a huge pile of downed buckthorn and scraggly trees — besides the buckthorn, the grove was marred with downed and rotted trees, and many more misshapen and severely damaged ones — between that path and the orchard. What he left behind was minor mirror of the big BWCA blowdown a few years ago. It wasn’t meant to be walked through.

Looking at some of the fruit trees we planted in the orchard last spring.

Looking at some of the fruit trees we planted in the orchard last spring.

Rebecca was hoping to expand the orchard while planting wildlife-friendly bushes alongside replacement trees that will eventually maintain the integrity of the wooded loop. The area she wanted to clean was perhaps 50 ft. by 200 ft., and one of our bullet points in the holistic planning was to clean that mess little by little … hopefully to have the area clean enough to plant when the bare root fruit and hawthorn trees, along with a row a nannyberry bush for the birds, arrived later this spring.

Just to the left of the orchard is where we'll plant this year.

Just to the left of the orchard is where we’ll plant this year.

Last week, in a mild surprise, Kurt returned to the farm to finish the saw work. We described our thoughts as we walked through the grove, and he said it wouldn’t be a big deal for him to prep the cleanup. Initially we considered pulling the slash out for stacking and burning, although what Rebecca really wanted was wood chips. Remember, a wood chipper was on our list! This past weekend we started pulling the larger chunks of trunks he had pruned from the branches to pile while stacking the branches and smaller limbs for the shredder. A neighbor, Rick Schneck, brought over both a chipper and a willingness to help. A long afternoon later two of the piles were reduced to feathery chips. We might have another long half day to fully clear that space for our spring planting. Thanks to Kurt and Rick, we are almost ready to mark one of the holistic dreams off the list.

Another view of the area we're clearing for the new fruit trees, hardwoods and bird-friendly shrubs.

Another view of the area we’re clearing for the new fruit trees, hardwoods and bird-friendly shrubs.

In our short time together, nothing about Rebecca surprises me when it comes to her will, drive and work ethic. Since Kurt first arrived with his battery of chainsaws, we’ve unleashed the “Vermonter” in her. My guess is that within the next decade our grove will have an entirely different feel and look about it. Indeed, our whole farmstead will hopefully have been ridded of “junk” trees and be surrounded by good hardwoods, fruit trees and bird-y bushes. In the grove we’ll likely have some healthy looking trees rising in the many holes that has been created, and hopefully, if the bushes produce the berries she anticipates, we’ll have a new menagerie of songbirds residing with us here on the farm. Her orchard will be bearing bountiful fruit as well, all of an incredible transformation of our old farm into perhaps a “permaculture” paradise. As I write, I gaze at the list and smile. Our goals stare at us in our office, and we wonder if and when we will get through all those many items of need, for each seems important. We’ve yet to prioritize our holistic list. There is so much, and some of things we didn’t bother to list might have an even higher priority. Finishing the “Taj Magarage” comes to mind, and that includes the painting of the exterior.

Some of Kurt's slash against a few of the trees we'll leave standing because of their unique shape.

Some of Kurt’s slash against a few of the trees we’ll leave standing because of their unique shape.

Many years ago my father said the beauty of a farm is that one never runs out of things to do, and we might add that transformations don’t happen overnight. While we must continue to remind ourselves of that, being able to draw a Magic Marker slash through the first of those many line items on our list will feel mighty fine.

No Words …

Sometimes, no words are necessary …. •snirt1 snirt2 snirt3 snirt4 snirt5 snirt6 snirt7 snirt9 snirt12 snirt13 snirt15 snirt16 snirt17 snirt18 snirt19 snirt20 snirt21 snirt22 snirt23 snirt24 snirt25 snirt26 snirt27 snirt28 snirt29 snirt30 snirt31 snirt32 snirt33 snirt35 snirt36 snirt37 snirt38 snirt39 snirt40 snirt41 snirt42 snirt43 snirt44 snirt46 snirt47 snirt48 snirt49 snirt50 snirt51 snirt52 snirt53

* Brought to you by a failed Federal Farm Policy and a lack of due diligence on area croplands. Images were made on the morning of January 11, 2015, in Big Stone, Chippewa and Lac qui Parle Counties.

Country-wide Tragedy

With the blizzard blasting the prairie, most of our afternoon was spent working inside, Rebecca on a mailing and me evaluating grants. Winds have been gale force, often leaving our house here on Listening Stones Farm as a blue island of warm comfort. Thankfully her meeting in Glenwood was canceled, or I’d been worried sick of her safety.

Like she was of mine earlier in the morning. I’ve taken on a new project … just to see how far I can take it. My goal is to make one “keeper” photograph every single day of the year, one that would hopefully be sort of a “diary” of each given day. To capture this day, when winds whipped our prairie grasses and the spindly stalks of the dormant forbs with wild and windy frenzy, I walked out into our eight acres of prairie in hopes of coming home with an image.

Winds whipped the prairie yesterday in gusts of up to 50 mph, but there was prairie grasses to protect the soils.

Winds whipped the prairie yesterday in gusts of up to 50 mph, but there was prairie grasses to protect the soils.

As with many prairie blows, the winds were not consistent. They gust and ebb, whirling here for a moment before sliding over a few hundred feet. Our weather sites told of gusts of up to 50 mph. This meant taking my time, and because of the nature of the wind and my age, my camera was placed on the tripod. Since I was dressed warmly and in layers, the cold was not an issue. With a ground blizzard though, the bigger danger was in  becoming lost. This can happen in an instant, so when Rebecca looked out the kitchen window and could barely make out the grove less than 50 feet away, she donned her winter clothing and came looking for me. It was enough to make a grown man smile.

We then hunkered down in the warmth of our 1912 four square doing our respective business.

Snirt in the front yard of a Boyd-area farm site. (Photo by Julia Ness)

Snirt in the front yard of a Boyd-area farm site. (Photo by Julia Ness)

Hours later pictures began coming across a social media site of gray snow. We have a word for that: Snirt, a combination of snow and dirt. Snirt is a country tragedy. I don’t believe our “original conservationist” and “true environmentalist” neighbors comprehend the severity of the situation, nor do the executives of the multi-national agri-chemical and seed companies that drive our federal farm policy. Already this winter many of us have posted blogs and photographs of significant snirt issues. On many of the prairie highways alert drivers were witness to the unmistakable black swirls in the snow drifts. Our “true environmentalists” may have received a break when the uncharacteristic melt erased the first signs of wind blown evidence, but the images posted today brings the sorry truth right out there for all of us to see once again. And, it’s sickening.

Folks, they’re just not making any new soil. We’ve plowed it up from the Smokies to the Rockies and beyond. More topically, on a recent trip from Minneapolis I chose to return on Highway 7, turning off of I-494, and much to my surprise, the horse farms on the rolling hills just past Victoria — basically on the windward banks of Lake Minnetonka — had all been plowed and planted to corn this past year. In 2014, I drove on this highway from Victoria to Watertown, SD, and my guess is that you couldn’t find 10 fields in that expance of prairie that weren’t in row crops. This is a direct result of federal farm policy.

A snow-covered country lawn gray from wind-blown soils. (Photo by Julia Ness)

A snow-covered country lawn gray from wind-blown soils. (Photo by Julia Ness)

While it’s arguable that those fields are “feeding the world” as the “original conservationists” and their puppet masters like to proclaim, most of what we saw being grown was inedible until it was digested in the bellies of factory-farmed chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle (with a goodly share actually targeted for ethanol, where we’re also consuming an average of 40 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of ethanol). This on soils that took thousands of years of glaciation and natural forces to form. In a word, this soil is being mined of not just tilth and microbial activity, but is also being left vulnerable to blow away in winds from November through early June when the next crop is tall enough to protect the soil. And, if the soil isn’t being blown away, it is carried away in melt water. Reliable research estimates that a dump truck of dirt per second pours into the Gulf of Mexico. Seemingly, very few farmers act concerned.

Travels across the prairie this winter has shown little if any planted to cover crops, nor many stalk fields left standing to anchor the soils. Little but bare soils are left vulnerable to the winds of winter. I hesitate to guess how many millions of tons of soil were blown from tilled crop fields during this latest blizzard, much of which could have been prevented and wasn’t. Until federal farm policies are tweaked to address the true conservation of the soils, our future generations are being put at risk.

From a handful of snow pulled from dog paws. (Photo by Julia Ness)

From a handful of snow pulled from dog paws. (Photo by Julia Ness)

Here is as idea: That any and all landowners, and especially crop farmers, as well as the powers to be at major farm lobbying multi-nationals and farm organizations, be required to read David R. Montgomery’s book, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.” Then to qualify for any future government support programs, be required to pass a test on the importance of saving their soil for the good of the human race. If you want the “right to farm,” then farm right. Consider your soil as a precious gift, an investment, a commodity you should surely want to protect for as long as you live. Buffer the ditches. Invest in a cover crop. If you want a cheaper solution, hold off the plowing those corn stalks until next spring.

The parking lot in front of the Renville County SWCD office. (Photo by Tom Kalahar)

The parking lot in front of the Renville County SWCD office. (Photo by Tom Kalahar)

After reading Montgomery’s book, Rebecca said: “There are several things that stick with me from this excellent book, but one of the biggest is his point about the Middle East. We learned as school children that it held the ‘Cradle of Civilization,’ but what we see there now just doesn’t square with that land of milk and honey described in the schoolbooks. And a big part of the reason that picture doesn’t ‘fit’ is because they squandered their topsoil, just like almost every ‘great’ civilization that has fallen on almost every continent, and on many islands as well, on the planet. Almost all of them knew better. They saw the soils lighten, gully, and thin on the hillsides. They saw the dust blow. And almost all of them continued to pursue the quick profit, the biggest bragging rights, the most bushels per acre. They were ‘feeding the world’ as they knew it. And then, with their soils plundered and blown, their world collapsed, and those that didn’t starve led the next exodus to new, unspoiled lands to try again. Where will we go this time?”

Closeup of tracks made in the snirt. (Photo by Julia Ness)

Closeup of tracks made in the snirt. (Photo by Julia Ness)

For you can rest assured we can see those black wavy lines in the snow drifts, or like in this latest blizzard, when from Boyd to Olivia, pictures were made and posted of snow grayed by particles of your precious soil. What we’re really seeing, though, is nothing short of a country-wide tragedy!