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.


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The skies above Listening Stones Farm have been filled with murmurations of blackbirds and cries of waterfowl on the wing. The cacophony in the slough just east of us is louder than a Friday night frat party, though it starts before dawn instead of finishing just then. Every so often amidst the hundreds of geese honking their hearts out comes the cartoonish quacking of one indignant duck.

Winter “as we know it” did in fact end on March 6th, as Paul Huttner bravely predicted. What has come between then and now wavers between something approaching summer (75 degrees a week ago) and an unwelcome flashback (high of 34 today, with s-n-o-w predicted for late afternoon). I put peas in the ground March 16th, but I doubt they’ll poke their tender tendrils into the open before the end of the month.

All this seasonal ping-pong has led to constant task-switching around the farm, as we attempt to match up what needs to get done with what the weather is doing, and is projected to do in the next few hours and days. Onions, leeks and celery are up and growing in the house, and peppers and eggplant are seeded in their germination flat, warm and cozy on top of a heat mat. I’ll check through the seed supply for something more to start today (not tomatoes…not yet).

We spent Friday morning, which dawned clear, calm, and slighty moist, pulling and burning brush on the south lawn as fast as we could, knowing the wind would come up in the early afternoon hours. We stopped adding branches at noon, but I still had to douse, and douse, and douse again to get the pile safely under control as the breezes started to build an hour later. It made the low 60’s early that afternoon, but the wind that came up soon swung around to the north, and before nightfall it was back down into the 30’s. Cue unhooking and draining of all the hose I’d used earlier, so it wouldn’t freeze in the night.

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Calm weather and close containment are key when you’re burning in an open area.

Last weekend, on a gorgeous 65-degree Saturday, John and I cleaned out the extremely deep litter of the chicken coop. I’d assembled a 5x5x5 bin the night before, using scavenged u-posts and woven wire from around the farm, and by the time the coop was empty, the bin was full to mounding and overflowing, and we were both exhausted. The next morning I moistened the whole thing, inserting a watering wand with the rose taken off into the center of the pile.

By Sunday night, it was steaming like crazy, and it was still steaming (though more subtly) this morning–almost a full week later. I added another wheelbarrow-full of rakings from the ground around the bin, and even with that, the level has sunk down below the top of the wire enclosure. I would love to stick my 18″ probe compost thermometer in there if I could find it, but I did find a bunch of other stuff I’d lost while looking for it!

Vega inspects the coop compost

Vega inspects the coop compost

Along with finding things I wasn’t looking for, the other thing weather ping-pong does is kick my farm-induced ADD into high gear. I don’t know if it’s a diagnosable illness, but it can work to advantage if you let it. There is just so much to be done that it’s hard to waste a day even if you only accomplish part of each of the fifteen tasks that you had on your list.

That was yesterday, when I hauled the tractor battery out of the basement where it has lived since the night of our first snowstorm last November. I opened the goat barn (a process in itself, as the doors are rickety), opened the tractor hood, and connected it. No luck. So, I pulled the battery, hauled it back to the mudroom, and hooked it up to the charger. Ten percent. OK, I’ve got time to run eggs to the co-op and take the dogs for a walk. Twenty-seven percent. Well, I can finish pruning the apple trees, and while I’m at it, that branch on the black walnut tree that snatches off my hat every time I walk under it. Forty-one percent. Huh, I can pick eggs and move that pile of rotten wood and branches by the chicken coop. Sixty percent. Hmm. I’ll re-walk the areas I intend to mow and look for potential obstacles.

Seventy-two percent! I’m going for it! I pulled the battery off the charger, hauled it back to the barn, wired it up, and backed right out–knocking over an enormous pile of bamboo stakes in the process. Ahh, well. I’ll pick those up later. Off we go, down the yard to mow that snarly old raspberry patch! And now to the sunflower and broom corn stalks in the lower…uh-oh, too wet! Almost stuck! Back up to high ground to tackle the tall grass by the crab apple trees!

I was making good progress when the Very Bad Sound came. The Very Bad Sound is known to anyone who owns an old farmstead with lots of tall grass and grove areas in which one hundred years of previous owners have tossed various things they had no use for. Or, maybe they just set the thing there fifty years ago and wandered off in a fit of farm-induced ADD, and they forgot about it, or they couldn’t find it (kind of like my compost thermometer). By the time I got the PTO switch flipped and the tractor shut down, I had a long section of heavy-gauge wire wrapped around two out of three of the mower blades. I should add it was the two out of three mower blades that were hardest to reach.

So! Guess I’ll let that sit until John gets home and tells me where the jack is hiding! Off to turn under the winter rye cover crop in the raised beds!

Joe Pye chews on a raspberry stalk while I turn the winter rye cover crop.

Joe Pye chews on a chunk of raspberry cane while I turn the winter rye cover crop.

I eventually got impatient with waiting for John, and propped up the mower deck with broken pieces of pavers in order to reach underneath. Another half an hour rolling around on the ground on alternating sides of the tractor and the wire was out (I made a special trip to stow it where it can do no more harm) and I was back mowing stalks in a small area where the grove meets the prairie, and which has a particularly nice stand of nettles. They’re already poking up, so now it’ll be easier to get back in there and harvest wild spring greens.

But today…well, spring greens harvesting is not in the cards Mother Nature is dealing. After a morning where the skies did not seem big enough to contain the geese in them–a morning of stowing tools, tarping equipment and re-securing the barn doors–we’ve ping-ponged back into winter with the swirl of airborne waterfowl replaced by swirling snowflakes.


Time to settle my farm-induced ADD inside for the afternoon. I might try looking again for that compost thermometer. Who knows what I’ll find instead!


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