It Begins

Paul Huttner, Minnesota Public Radio Meteorologist Extraordinaire, wrote on the Updraft Blog recently that, “winter as we know it will end Friday afternoon March 6.” That’s a pretty bold statement from a typically conservative forecaster, and one that might compel him to go into hiding if it’s wrong.

But winter this year in these parts has been mild. We’ve had little snow, and the ground has gone bare on multiple occasions due to the lack of precipitation and periodic melting of what we have gotten. I’d say we’ve been spoiled, but I was really looking forward to using my snowshoes more than once this season, so it feels more like being cheated.

But, what’s weather for, if not to complain about? It’s pretty much a universal sport.

With warmer days, and the possibility of temperatures in the fifties (Fifty! Fifty Degrees!) on Monday, my feelings remain conflicted. Regular readers know about the terrible soil erosion in our region caused by farmland being left bare over the winter months, and no doubt you’ve seen the snirt both in images on this blog and on the landscape anywhere you’ve traveled over the past few months.

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One of John’s many snirt images from this winter.

But aggressive snowmelt in the next week is when we’ll be flushing the shame of poor management practices down the drain. If we warm as quickly and aggressively as Huttner predicts, hundreds of tons of topsoil that have coated ditches and streambanks–that have been left exposed to the elements on hilltops and in open fields–will go running over the top of the still-frozen ground and into our rivers, streams, and ditches, settling into our lakes, and flowing down to the Gulf of Mexico.

With the Des Moines Waterworks suing three Iowa counties for nitrate runoff and Lake Pepin being nicknamed “Lake Willbegone” due to erosive ag drainage tiling filling the waterway with mud, it makes me wonder when the lawsuits will start hitting closer to home. How close does the reckoning have to get before individual farmers will change their ways? Maybe this close:

Gov. Mark Dayton stunned but delighted Minnesota’s leading conservationists Friday by announcing that he’ll push for a new law this legislative session that would require every lake and river in the state to be buffered by a wide strip of natural land, a significant step toward protecting both water and wildlife.

“I recognize this will not be well received by some private landowners,” Dayton said Friday to a packed room at the Department of Natural Resources’ annual meeting for conservationists. “The land may be yours, but the water belongs to all of us.”

Minnesota has required buffer strips on farmland for years, the only state in the country to do so, but the law is often not enforced. Demand for enforcement has risen in recent months, from hunters, anglers, beekeepers and environmentalists worried about precipitous declines in wildlife and rising agricultural pollution in the southern half of the state. [Marcotty, Josephine. “Dayton wants tougher water and wildlife protection law.” Star Tribune, updated 17 Jan. 2015]

And now, just today, there’s this disheartening story from MPR News about the state of waterways in one corner of the state: “Study: Pollution leaves no swimmable, fishable lakes in southwest MN.” If you read the related story, you’ll see that there is a new coalition of legislators who think the best way to deal with the MN Pollution Control Agency’s bad news is simply to change the standards. Sulfate from mines above the levels determined hospitable for wild rice? Well, that sounds expensive for our mining companies! Let’s let the legislators rather than scientists determine what the wild rice can take! Farming methods causing nitrate pollution and sediment? Change the definition of pollution! It’s really just “nutrients,” and we know those are good for us!

Of course, not all legislators think they make better scientists than…well, scientists, and not all farmers leave their land barren and vulnerable to erosion that causes pollution. I know many, many good stewardship farmers who implement conservation measures to keep the soil in place whether on their own or with help from government programs.

But there aren’t enough of them, and there hasn’t yet been a clear and pervasive message from all sectors of society (including and especially from fellow farmers and everyone else in the agricultural field) that if you don’t conserve your soil then, no matter how many bushels per acre you harvested last season, you are not a good farmer. You are not a skilled farmer. You are a wasteful and negligent farmer, and farmers like you are the reason that voluntary compliance is turning toward strict enforcement.

If you want less “government intrusion,” the answer is not to elect people who make up their own “facts” about the severity of the pollution; the answer is to operate in a way that minimizes pollution and saves the soil you depend on for a living. It may not be the most convenient or most profitable way to operate (that is, until enforcement and fines make it so), but it’s the right way to operate, and IT’S JUST NOT THAT DAMNED DIFFICULT. At the very least, leave the stalks in the field overwinter. Follow the law that’s already in place about buffer strips; grass (and maintain) the waterways. How hard is that, really? There’s plenty wrong about farm policy as it is, but it doesn’t help lighten the load of regulations when some farmers don’t even do the bare minimum to keep their soil, nutrient, and chemical in one place.

Stepping off my soap box and kicking it aside along with my pissed-off mood (sorry, but from where I sit, I can actually SEE a brown-tinged miasma of snirt-clouds rolling around the horizon), I’m still glad that winter as we know it is coming to an end. We’ve got runoff control and water-saving measures to implement here, too, and the warmer weather will help set those plans in motion. The cautionary statement overshadowed by Huttner’s pronouncement about winter’s end was that this could be the year our spring rains fail us, and that is a sobering thought amid the excitement over shedding layers and feeling the sun’s warmth return.

Is there good news? It seems like this post just keeps getting gloomier, but never fear: seed starting season is here! Last weekend, I cleaned out a tray in my vermicompost bin and re-assembled the light shelf, which are the first steps in a three-month-long orgy of planting, nurturing, and rejoicing (hopefully) over the emergence of green and growing things.

Peat moss goes in...

Peat moss goes in the vermicompost tray…

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Black gold comes out!

Seed starting medium was assembled during the first part of the week; in addition to the usual spaghnum peat moss, the aforementioned worm compost, and a little sand, I’m using a new component for my starter mix this year: PBH, or par-boiled rice hulls. They are a substitute for mined perlite (those little white styrofoam-like “pebbles” you see in many commercial mixes) and add loft, pore space, water-holding capacity, and drainage.

I continue to use peat moss (about 4 cu ft/year) as the base for my seed starting mix and as a base for my worm bedding because I have had good results with it. I’ve read a few articles suggesting that coir (coconut husk fiber) is a viable and more sustainable alternative to peat, but I’ve also read otherwise. I’ll take a small risk with trying out rice hulls (which are about 15% of the total mix), but changing out the entire base component doesn’t seem wise considering what I’ve read. The time may come when a substitution is either viable or necessary (or both), but the time has not yet come.

Last night, I went through my seeds and pulled out those items to start 10-12 weeks before the last frost. I was beginning to get panicky because it was already March 3rd, and I didn’t have anything started yet!

Actually, I started my first seeds on the exact same day last year.

Actually, I started my first seeds on exactly the same day last year.

Yeah, I probably was panicking last year, too. So, I seeded Blue Solaise leeks, Mars celeriac, Conquistador celery, and Talon F1 yellow storage onions, which are still the best storage onions I have grown, as evidenced by the fact that I still have about forty pounds of gorgeous, sound bulbs from last year’s crop down in our cold storage room.

I’m growing fewer storage onions this year, though, because I’m only growing them for us. Last year I put in about double what we needed, and lugged a 70lb crate of them to the farmers market each time I went. I sold maybe ten pounds total, in quantities of 1-2lbs.

Most people don’t grow onions from seed (if they grow them at all) because–I don’t know–because they think it’s hard? And also probably because onion sets are so readily available. Onion sets are crap, in my not-so-humble opinion, because when you plant a little tiny onion in the spring, it has to expend its energy making a root system and top growth before it can start making a bigger bulb, and often will form a seed stalk, which creates a hollow core that makes the bulb rot more easily. Onion plants are better, but they aren’t as available, the varieties are limited, and often they are dried up by the time they arrive in stores.

Growing onions from seed is not hard; it just takes time. I start them (and leeks) in the first week of March, so that by the time I need the space on my growing rack for other things, they can mostly hang out on the porch or outside hardening off, at least during the day. I give them regular “haircuts” in their flats, so they don’t get too spindly and fall over. I transplant them in blocks of four (that’s how I plant them) instead of rows, so they’re easier to hoe around. And I get to try different varieties, grow them with care from day one, cure them sufficiently, and produce the best damn onions money can’t buy (well, it could at the farmers market last summer).

But most people don’t worry about running out of onions, and I guess they don’t need to because there onions at most stores, and they’re relatively cheap. Onions don’t tend to have heavy pesticide loads, so even conventional ones aren’t terribly tainted. They’re always on the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 list of the least contaminated produce. But, you know, if you have cool storage space in your house and you’d bought storage quantities of onions from me last year, you’d still have some really nice, cleanly grown onions. At least you would if you hadn’t eaten them all!

While I’m on my onion soapbox (my onion crate?), I don’t understand why people want to grow or buy massively huge onions. Besides making a few onion rings once in awhile (and I grow enough big ones to more than satisfy this need in our household), big onions don’t store as well, and they’re hard to use up in one dish for a small number of people. So, then you have a stinky partial onion sitting in the fridge, which for some reason no one remembers to use even though you can smell it in there every time you open the door. (Oh, you have a plastic onion-keeper? Congratulations. I bet it stinks like onion.)

As you might’ve guessed by now, I much prefer a small to medium-sized onion for daily use. Just use the whole thing, and no leftover onion bits migrating to the back of the fridge. Next day, grab a new onion from the bowl you replenish periodically from cool storage (or from the grocery store), and use that one up, too.

Anyhow, I started (24) 4-packs of onions. Every cell in each 4-pack has five seeds in it (with the goal of a block of four onions), for a grand total of 384 onions. Barring utter disaster, let’s say I end up with somewhere between 300-350 storage onions. That’s around an onion a day, six days a week, for an entire year.

OK–maybe I will have a few to sell! We’ll see how it goes. I also have a row of perennial bunching (green) onions transplanted last fall (descendants of those I started from seed 10 years ago now), and I’ll start a few red Italian torpedo onions when the seed arrives. Those I don’t mind selling because they’re a fun specialty item, and they don’t really keep. Leeks went well at the market last year, so I’m starting about twice as many and will force myself to actually sell them rather than hoarding them jealously, as I tend to do with my blue-flagged beauties.

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I love leeks.

Otherwise, I’m planning the seed-starting schedule for the next couple of months, and I finally submitted my last seed order in the past couple of days (See! I am behind!). That one is mostly cover crops (oats, buckwheat, field peas, and tillage radish) and a few supplies, though, so it’s not really anything to panic about.

Except that there are potatoes in that order, too, and with winter being over on Friday, well, who knows? I see that last year I planted peas, spinach, and arugula out in the raised beds on March 30th, and the arugula was up just about a week later. The year before, on the first day of spring, I wrote that there was no thaw in sight–two weeks later we still had plenty of snow, but a cold rain was slowly eating it away.

When will digging-in-the-dirt commence this year? Paul Huttner won’t say, but just like every year, I’m sure I’ll know it when I feel it (and when my soil thermometer tells me). Until then, there’s plenty of (inside) planting, a little panicking, and a lot of planning to keep me occupied.

It begins!

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Winter Journal

Up early and at it hard. John’s down south all day in a Southwest Arts & Humanities Council meeting, and while that cat’s away, this mouse is playing catch-up. The sun is shining, and NOAA says we might hit 12 degrees above zero this afternoon with a less than 10mph wind, which seems like a certifiable heatwave given the past week’s brutal chill.

The chickens are finally outside after several days of being shut in. At one point earlier in the week I opened their coop door because the real temp was above zero, but not one of them took advantage, and then the wind came up, and down I went to shut them in again. The two Americanas are finally laying their pretty green eggs (both of them started on the same day!) after a six week hiatus–they are not dependable winter layers like the “Buffies” (Buff Orpingtons) and “The Coven” (Black Australorps), but I know my customers like to see those “Easter Eggs” in the cartons.

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Overall, laying is down even with supplemental light, but the few more minutes of day length we’ve gained since the solstice are giving us a couple more eggs than we got back in December. So far, everyone is doing fine in the unheated coop–last year’s hens proved themselves during the Polar Vortex (and Polar Vortex II), and this year’s batch are even heavier, hardier breeds.

John and I are planning our late winter travel. For me, it’s important to get out (if I’m going to get out) before seed-starting season commences in early March. I haven’t been to Seattle in five or six years now, and my dear friends out there should not have to wait any longer! That, and it’s always rejuvenating to visit the west coast in winter and to dream of what it might be like to live in a place where rosemary and lavender grow as luxurious full hedges rather than having to be potted up and brought inside or buried under bales for the winter.

Yes, it’s possible it might be cold there when I go…if by cold you mean, like, 35 or 40 degrees (it’s 46 there right now!). Maybe I’m nuts, but it seems a little safer, if I only have a week or so to travel, to go to someplace that’s only marginally warmer so that the contrast of returning to the northern prairie doesn’t send me into a deep-freeze-induced depression. The shock of returning to the cold climate should not be a problem for John, as his travel plans include a foray up above the Arctic Circle to visit a former exchange student and hopefully capture some aurora borealis images.

Seed and tree ordering has commenced, with our St. Lawrence Nursery order going in first of all since Bill MacKentley is retiring and there seems to be no clear succession plan at present. The first iteration of that order was pared back quite a bit, but I still got in a few things I’d been keen to try, but had cut from orders in the past: some hardy shagbark hickories, sweet sap silver maples, and blight-resistant American chestnut, as well as a couple of apples, a pear, a plum, and a few grapes.

The only thing I am having second thoughts about is leaving off a Northrup Mulberry, but I guess if I really want a mulberry tree (or fifty, or five hundred), I could get Harry’s permission to head down to the old farmplace in Vermillion and dig along the fencelines and then see what makes it through the winter up here.

I’ve also begun my regular winter session of being a pain-in-the-ass to my local SWCD guy by e-mailing him every other day to ask if he can get this or that native tree or shrub that’s not on their (really, kind of disappointingly short to a native planting fanatic like myself) list. So far he’s located bundles of Homestead Hawthorn and Nannyberry Viburnum for me, and we’ll add to that a few more oaks, hackberries, cottonwoods, cherries, hazelnuts, and maybe a few evergreens. My poor husband will think I am trying to kill him (again). I swear I will help more with planting this year, even if it means taking a couple of days off.

Seed orders are also taking shape–Pinetree is already done and submitted–I like their smaller size packets of herbs and flowers, plus squash and other things I just don’t need a ton of seed for. Their Summer Dance cucumber is the best, most productive and perfect-looking bitter-free cuke I’ve grown. I’m almost afraid to say that publicly, since a couple of other great F1 varieties I’ve raved about over the years (like Lavender Touch eggplant and Papaya Pear summer squash) have reportedly been bought up by Seminis (a subsidiary of Monsanto), and now I won’t grow them anymore. I grow very few hybrid varieties–if I grow one it has to be better (in my estimation) than anything else I’ve seen. When Summer Dance gets bought up, well, I’ll start trialing open pollinated cukes like I did O.P. eggplant and yellow summer squash. Not the end of the world.

Territorial Seed Company will be a small one–a few things I can’t get elsewhere (LOVE the Talon onion and wild garden mustards!), and Johnny’s is the biggie–though most of the volume is several kinds of organic cover crops–buckwheat, oats, field peas, winter radish. I’ll pick up a few other things from Prairie Road, High Mowing, and Seed Savers Exchange too, but I have quite a bit of seed that’s still good from the last couple of years. Everything from 2012 I’ll try to use up this season, and there’s no seed older than that because of the house fire in 2011.

In my fever of catch-up and planning ahead today, there’s still plenty of time for strolling the prairie and running the dogs. Vega will always be my “saint” dog–the one who’s stuck with me through some incredibly trying times in my life–but I am getting immense pleasure from Joe Pye’s company these last few weeks. I’ve nicknamed him “my shadow” because as soon as I get up from my chair, he’s right on my heels (sometimes literally!)–and especially if I head toward the outside door. No matter how brutal the day, he’s game to keep me company during chores and check-ins, and although I’m still working on training him not to rush the chicken pen fence just to see the “girls” scatter and squawk, I thoroughly appreciate his playful (and occasionally peaceful) presence.

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John and I have been taking the two of them for “prairie galavanting” twice a day almost every day since Joe Pye came to live with us, and the exercise has made a huge difference in Vega’s (and our) energy levels. Still, sometimes the “old lady” (Vega, not me!) needs to retreat and spend the afternoon stretched out napping on her upstairs bed in the sunshine, away from the attentions of her too-eager little brother.

I brought my camera on today’s morning walk to document some of what everyone in the region has been talking about since Thursday’s “big blow.” We took the least-used path that runs through the lower prairie along the west side of our property. It goes unused because it’s the most open to the prevailing winds, and snow drifts deep in those paths, making the way difficult for Vega with her small paws, long legs, and aging hips.

A plume of light brown road dust forms as a truck passes by.

A plume of light brown road dust forms as a truck passes by.

We live on a graveled county road, so we get a fair amount of dust rolling off from traffic. Our own vehicles are constantly coated in it, and this time of year it’s hard to get rid of because the car wash isn’t open and gas station squeegees are frozen solid from the intense cold. But road dust is an easily recognizable grayish-tan. What’s accumulating in our prairie is our neighbors’ good black dirt–topsoil, that is, pulverized, ridged, and bared by fall tillage, and eroding by the truck-full.

This ain't road dust, folks.

This ain’t road dust, folks.

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There does seem to be a little more stubble on the fields this winter–a few more roots left intact to hold the soil in place. I don’t know if that’s because farmers and landowners saw how bad the erosion was last winter and nixed fall tillage, or because the cold and snow came on too fast this year for the ground to get turned. I hope it’s the former.

A couple of fields down the road from us during a brief thaw a couple of weeks ago.

A couple of fields down the road from us during a brief thaw a couple of weeks ago. The corn stubble holds the soil and snow cover.

Absent a federal farm policy that actively and forcefully discourages practices that seriously damage the land, we are, all of us, counting on individual farmers and landowners to do the right things. By “right things,” I mean those practices that are proven to preserve and protect the soil & water–cover crops, no-till (or at the least, no fall tillage), grass waterways, buffer strips, and keeping marginal lands under perennial cover.

There are more, of course, and many of these practices are eligible for cost share and technical assistance. But they don’t work unless farmers and landowners use them, and it sometimes amazes me how hard Soil & Water Conservation District staff has to work to get farmers and landowners to sign up. I’ve heard conservationists say that farmers who are good stewards of the land will do the right thing regardless of programs and payments, but farmers who are only in it for the bushels (or dollars) per acre won’t do the right thing even if you offer to pay them (but they might if you fine them for not doing it).

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I don’t know if it’s that simple, but I sense there’s a grain of truth in it. Still, farmers, like everyone, need to make a living, and because we have a federal farm policy that encourages and even rewards practices that cause environmental degradation, we can’t only point our finger at farmers if what we get what we paid, and voted, for. We all have a stake in a better food and farming system, and unless we all push for policies and practices that encourage what we say we want (soil and water conservation, protecting pollinator and wildlife habitat, limiting the amount of toxic chemicals in the environment and in our food, and…you fill in the blank) and discourage what we say we don’t want, it’s just not going to get better.

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One more thought before I leave this depressing track: did you ever think there would come a day when we’d have to consider listing the Monarch butterfly as a threatened species? That day is sadly here.

Aside from documenting the collection of our neighbors’ topsoil, we’re doing a significant amount of farm planning for the coming year. With tree and seed orders going in, we’re also having to figure out where all this stuff will get planted, and how we’ll clear out more of the windrows of cut-and-dropped buckthorn in the grove to make room for things we’d prefer to have growing. If you’re feeling sorry for that invasive species we love to hate, don’t worry–we’ve also got a generation’s worth of buckthorn seeds just waiting to sprout that are causing us to consider (gasp!) getting a couple of goats. The final decision has yet to be made on that thorny subject.

We’re also hoping to remove a bunch of old fence from various parts of the grove–layers of fence in woven and barbed wire–fence that has become part of the living wood of the trees that have grown up through it. It will not be pretty (it’s not pretty now), and I’m guessing it will take many an afternoon with fencing pliers, wire cutters, colorful language, and probably a come-along to heave those old metal posts out of the ground.

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Doesn't this look like fun?

Doesn’t this look like fun?

And did I mention the chickens? An expansion of the laying flock and another round (maybe two?) of “Drummies” for the freezer are on the to-do list. A couple of rain gardens, maybe some rain barrels, too, and, oh, I think I want to take out the entire front lawn to build for a terraced rock garden for perennial herbs, flowers, and maybe a few vegetables, too.

I know that all this might not seem like enough to keep us busy, but I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few of the major projects on the list.

It’s going to be a busy year.