We have all we need for everyone to live well.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Monday, May 28, 2012


On Thursday we drove up to Elkader in Clayton County. "They named the new village Elkader after Abd el-Kader, a young Algerian hero who led his people in a resistance to French colonialism between 1830 and 1847." This is in the driftless or unglaciated region that extends across the common corners of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and which has a pre-Ice Age geology and topography. To visit these landscapes is to go back in time. At the Motor Mill Historic Site on the Turkey River we met up with about 75 others for a grand weekend of canoeing and carrying on. This was the 43rd annual M-Day gathering, the fourth that A&D have attended, and my first.

Friday we canoed a gorgeous stretch of the nearby trout-bearing Yellow River, a pool and drop series of Class I/II rapids. We made dozens of bald eagle sightings along the way, many as close as 50-100 feet when we paddled beneath branches where they were roosting. We saw a mid-flight mating ritual of aerobatic prowess.

Friday night and into Saturday morning there was a storm of nearly continuous lightning and thunder, with a big blow at the end that eventually collapsed my tent and others and damaged some of the tarps and shelters over the dining stations. But it was warm and everyone good natured and within a couple hours the camp was back to normal (a relative term for this group).

Fireflies and bonfires, and away from the fire very dark skies with myriad stars.

We canoed the Turkey on Saturday and Sunday, and made our way home today past rural and small town cemeteries decorated and well-visited on this Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Challenges for Brain and Brawn

This farming enterprise is nearly as much a philosophical and intellectual undertaking as a practical one.

To wit, is this cottontail rabbit a varmint? Yes, when it's in the garden, eating the little shoots and sprouts before the plants can establish, long before they produce any food for our household. This is not a hobby – we intend to support ourselves on this bit of land to the extent possible. Fences are expensive, .22 shells are not. So far we are trying to talk the rabbits out of eating from the gardens. Blood meal spread around the perimeter is sometimes effective, so perhaps we'll try that. (Ah, but where did the blood meal come from? It's a fractal pattern of consequences and responsibilities.)

The professional advice is unambiguous and unsentimental – the most effective control of rabbits is by hunting and trapping. Alan's research indicates that cottontails live only about a year before succumbing to the many diseases and predators that threaten them, so is being shot any different from an adult rabbit's perspective than being eaten by a coyote or owl? But there are lots of them. Say we determined the rabbits in the gardens had to be killed. If we talk ourselves into eating those varmints with food value, we might be eating rabbit every fortnight, maybe every week. Only one way to find out...

Update from BenSyl via Facebook: "Maybe the rabbits in your area are smarter, stronger or more persistent than those here, but we find that a simple, cheap fence of 12" chicken wire suffices to keep them out almost entirely. Of course, it does nothing to discourage the deer!"

Yes, the deer may be facing electricity.

Soil erosion has been a serious problem on this farm historically, and some major civil engineering works have been installed across the decades to control it, but there are still some significant problem areas. This photo shows the head of a gully that has advanced right up to the property line, and the overgrazed cattle pasture on the other side that is contributing to the problem. Water exerts an inexorable force and about the only way to deal with it in a situation like this is to spread it, infiltrate it, expend its energy, or install very expensive hardened structures. It's a difficult, long-term situation.

After many hours of shoveling over several days, we've moved those 16 tons of beach sand down the slope. The algae shown here is far less evident this morning after spraying yesterday.

The west vegetable garden consisted of garden rows between wide strips of turf, but the turf spreads, requires mowing, and consumes a lot of water. We have a large supply of moving boxes that I'm recycling as mulch to kill the grass. The cardboard is weighted with compost and this fall or next spring when it's all sufficiently disintegrated we'll till it under. The garden soil has been neglected in recent years, is heavy with clay, and needs a lot of help to improve its tilth.

An old concord grape vine frames cattle grazing in a neighbor's wooded pasture just across the north fence line.

Derith visited last evening and on our walk after dinner we surprised a coyote as it emerged from the woods onto the lane about a hundred feet ahead of us. It looked sleek and well-fed.

Flickers and woodpeckers! Fireflies! Strawberries! Bats!

Thursday, May 17, 2012


After several days of no sightings, this morning Otto the muskrat is again swimming back and forth across the pond, conveying small branches of green leaves to his den. Or maybe this is Otterlee – I suppose we have to assume there is at least a pair. A week ago or so Alan saw one jump ten feet into the pond from on shore when an ermine snuck up on it, so I was beginning to think the muskrat were goners.

Something met its end on the lane last night, nothing left but a mess of feathers. To hazard a guess, a young turkey or pheasant. Perhaps the responsible party is one of the coyotes that regularly leave their, um, calling cards in the center of the lane.

I saw a baby rabbit in the yard and wondered, "Am I going to eat you when you grow up?"

• • •

Looking up the terraces toward the west fenceline, with a red wing blackbird on the wire:

This morning we got 16 tons of sand to augment the beach. Some assembly required.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Tuesday Morning Walk

This first is the Year of Observation as we plan for good development and management of the farm by paying attention as best we can to the succession of seasons across the various landscapes and biomes, and learn what we can of the plants' and animals' habits of growth and behavior, the energy fluxes of sun, wind, and rain. We're guided in our thinking by the principles of permaculture, which include minimizing external inputs, exploiting self-managing biological systems, and designing for the waste of one process to be the input of another process. It's a fantastically creative opportunity, with no one set of right answers.

We're similarly guided by good humor, and it's been great fun to discover the acts of whimsy perpetrated by previous residents here, for instance the Eye Chair in the woods.

Also deep in the woods, this unexpected sight.

The raspberries have set lots of fruit, and the several patches around the place are much more lush than anything I've grown in gardens.

My walk eventually took me down to the ruined bridge near the culvert where Kincaid Creek leaves the property. The county road we're on is relatively new and this bridge and its predecessors used to be the only way to get from the west to the east side of the farm. The planks and perhaps the rails are salvageable and it will be a good project to eventually build a new bridge.

Monday, May 14, 2012

More Hands, Lighter Work

On Friday morning we finished the first picnic table and built the second from start to finish.

Frank & Debbie arrived later in the day, over from Chicagoland for the weekend, which in addition to the socializing provided extra hands and legs for some tasks and projects. The dock deck (as distinct from the grill deck and the Mystery Building deck) got an upgrade with several extra 55-gallon plastic barrels-worth of floatation. By standing everyone else against the far rail, along with eight 5-gallon buckets of water, Alan & I could lever up the near side enough to slip the barrels underneath. We installed a second anchor and built a gangplank and voila! a new favorite place to hang out. The barrels came from an electrician who'd done some work out here recently, who knows a guy at the Heinz plant in Muscatine; they originally contained liquid smoke and barbeque sauce.

Gary also visited, bringing from Center Junction a 3-point hitch mounted auger with two sizes of blade that we'll use for upcoming construction. Serious equipment: it required the big tractor and a logging chain to lift off the flatbed truck. "'I know a guy'," Gary said, referring to our barrel source, "is one of the most valuable assets a farmer can have." We're lucky we knew a guy with a 3-point hitch mounted auger.

Aerial photos of the farm from the 1930s show a cattle pasture with just a few large oaks, with no hint of the dense, richly-diverse woods here today. One legacy of that period, though, is a network of tractor trails that we've been rediscovering as we get to know the property. For recreation and basic access, we want to open up some of these old trails, and this is a job for the bush hog (a scary-powerful chopper mower) and chainsaw.

Caution – you may need ear protection to listen.

We took a bunch of buckets of pond water to a farm supply store in town where a fishery was distributing stock, and brought home a hundred each of 6-inch channel catfish and fingerling large mouth bass.

Kingfishers diving fully into the water. Swallows on the wing dipping sips of water between snacks of insects. Successive large plops into the pond from along the shore as prey escape the stalking ermine. Ruby throated hummingbirds at the coral bells. Orioles and goldfinches and bluebirds. A not yet seen but definitely heard and nearby pack of coyotes. Wind in the big cottonwood. The biophony and geophony of the soundscape.

I began prepping the hops bed for rhizomes that should be delivered this week from Oregon. We're using the corn crib for trellis.

We can stop buying lettuce for the time being. Lots of stuff in the vegetable garden has emerged now and is getting going. I mulched the melon, squash, and cucumber mounds, the blueberries, the little fruit trees.

Lots of balls to keep in the air.

(Thank you to American Nacre special correspondent Debbie Bartsch for photos and videos.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dam Maintenance

The principal spillway for the dam is a four-inch diameter pipe. The image is of today's early morning sky and a waning gibbous moon sailing among clouds of algae. Donna & I have now been out in the canoe with a sprayer, applying an algicide to what's become a serious bloom of the stuff, which starves other aquatic life of oxygen. We're assured it's not a poison but a dye that interferes with the algae's ability to photosynthesize. Saturday we pick up the bass and catfish to stock the pond, the next step in enhancing the ecological and recreational value of this asset.

The dam seems to have gotten little maintenance since construction. Typically one would control for woody vegetation, burrowing animals, erosion and similar threats to the integrity of the compacted fill. Erosion is not a threat here, but there are large trees on the downstream embankment, mostly black cherry and some willow, and lots of undergrowth, thickets of native dogwood and invasive honeysuckle, but also wild grape, gooseberry, and raspberry. I've been clearing it out, so far just the trees I could cut with the giant compound loppers. Here's the view to one side of my starting point:

And here to the other side:

Next: taking a chainsaw to those remaining trees up to about four inches diameter. The limit is somewhat arbitrary, but the larger the tree the more problematic its removal because rotting roots leave channels in the fill that weaken the structure and can convey seepage.

Here's a mystery I encountered. Along a line about five vertical feet above the toe of the dam, I found several of these strange things. The holes are about two inches in diameter, about ten inches apart. One seems to go "in" and the other "out". The out hole seems like an enormous worm casting, or as if a very liquid sand-mud mixture had belched from the ground. I intend to keep an eye on these things. Update: Donna's research indicates these structures are made by voles, and we've now seen them in various places, usually near water.

Last evening we drove up to Tipton to meet D&G for dinner at a quite nice family Mexican place, and got some good advice from them about noxious weeds and vegetable gardening.

Almost every day, it seems, we spot a new species of wildlife. Yesterday it was a mink. Last night I dreamt of the bobcat. This place is getting pretty deep inside me.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tempered Romance

Alan & Donna, from their experiences in the semi-rural suburbs of Minneapolis, know the destructive and disruptive potential of white tail deer and Canada geese. I come to the farm with rather less prejudice for these species, but I take their concerns seriously. Giant rats and flying pigs. The prior owners' attempt to enlarge the orchard just provided food for the deer to browse upon, and a row of larger ornamental maples along the lane show a lot of damage from "buck rubs" – the males rub their heads against the trunk so violently that the bark comes off and the tree can be girdled and killed. A part of the antlering process, I suppose.

A pair of geese (or several, but we only see two at a time) have persistently tried to make a home on the pond, but A&D are quick to discourage them, and serious enough to employ weapons. We've a powerful slingshot that uses large steel ball bearings. A near miss and the goose doesn't even startle, but a direct hit gets it moving. "So, then," I ask, "what happens when we break a goose's wing and it can't fly away?" "We get the .22." And then what? Do we eat the goose? Can we legally take a goose that way? None of us has ever dressed a game bird, but we're prepared to give it a go when the time comes. A range and weapons expert on one of Alan's work teams suggested a type of plastic pellet ballistically similar to the ball bearing but which will float and can be retrieved, and which won't break a goose's wing.

I was in the machine shed when a mouse appeared. I spoke to it and it approached and kind of hung out while I was preparing to use the tractor. "Have you met the friendly mouse in the machine shed?" I asked Alan. "Friendly mouse?" he replied. "Bunny frolics and now a friendly mouse – are we living in a frickin' Disney movie?"

Beatrix Potter's locution is rather interesting: Peter Rabbit's mother tells him his father had an accident in Mr. MacGregor's vegetable garden.

A weed is a plant out of place, and a varmint an animal out of place. Ok, so then what? I have no qualms about destroying every thistle I see, and even find myself thinking about where are the thistles I haven't found yet. There are no half-measures with thistles. But what about animals? The ones with faces?

At the time I began studying agricultural engineering, Iowa State's program required farm experience, so I spent the summer after high school working on the farm of family friends south of Ames. As I was learning the routine early on, one morning the farmer's son and I were slopping the hogs when a large rat scurried out from under the feeder. I was shocked at the sight, but my mentor didn't hesitate a moment before chasing down the thing and stomping it to death, further shocking me. There were no half-measures with rats on that farm.

Of course it's not just us. A great blue heron circled the pond this morning and prepared to land but was harassed by a pair of blue jays, and once they were satisfied a pair of red wing blackbirds took up the  chase.

Ultimately it's a working out of biologist Lewis Thomas' dictum: life is a game of 'now I eat you'.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Diary Entry – 3-5 May 2012

Repaired rain leaks into the house by fabricating and installing flashing where the second story siding meets the first story brick, and with sealant around a vent.

Donna & I saw our first quail, a pair on the lane.

All three of us saw a bobcat this afternoon as it rounded the south corner of the pond and crossed the lane into the woods. Alan and I had never before seen one in the wild.

Deployed an inflatable barn owl simulacrum in the west garden to deter varmints.

Planted two varieties of sunflower, and melon, squash, and cucumber in the west garden.

Changed fluids and filters, greased the little tractor. There are three drain ports just for the front differential – lots to keep track of.

Re-floated the dock.

Lots of mowing.

Donna put out many bedding plants and flowers in colorful arrangements in pots and half-barrels.

Visited death upon the noxious thistle population. With a spade.

Enjoyed several quite energetic electrical storms.

Determined the land beaver probably lives under the barn, after clearing vegetation from around the foundation and discovering a large burrow.

Replanted vegetables in the west garden where seeds failed to emerge.

Collected buckets for the fish migration from hatchery to pond next weekend.

Saw a pair of green heron, and a great blue.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I keep a list of rainy day tasks, and sunny day tasks, and whatever day tasks. I keep a list of field tasks and I keep an unwritten list of miscellaneous tasks. I keep a notebook in my pocket where there are another few lists, and a grocery list near the coffee maker. There'd be way too much to remember without them.

My primary improvements list is prioritized with cost estimates, and currently numbers about 50 items. I started this particular list as soon as I knew we would buy the place, but that's the last time that there were single digit items. In retrospect, I might have saved all of the completed items somewhere (there must be scores of them by now), just to give me a feeling of accomplishment when the list seems insurmountable. I've passed that stage, though, and most of what's left aren't so much critical items as quality of life items. There's a few priority ones and twos, but they're currently taking a back seat to our agricultural pursuits.

On dry days, once the crops are in and the grass is cut, we'll still have plenty to do. And on rainy days, there's sure to be something waiting for action, although those days aren't bad for simply watching the weather.

Before I forget, someone needs to remind me to change the oil in the tractors.

Too Wet for (Much) Fieldwork

Alan's got the right idea, having a list of rainy day projects ready to go. The past few days have been too wet to get much fieldwork done, but the warming trend continues and everything is growing fast now. The concept of "rain" and "warm" had escaped me after 22 years in the PNW, but now I remember and it's very pleasant, so long as one isn't working so hard as to raise a sweat.

The current rainy day project is a pair of picnic tables. This is the prototype, and looking out the barn door:

Bunny parties are a common occurrence at twilight, when we sometimes see four or five at a time. But a few days ago an extraordinary sight – six or eight of the creatures together in some kind of ecstatic dance party. They raced around in pairs or all together, circles and figures of eight, in and out of the frame of the living room window, surprising one another, then all pausing for a breath before starting up again.

Otto the muskrat has been busy collecting little branches of new leaves and hauling them back to his/her den. We've not seen a mate, but it appears some important preparation is underway. Unfortunately, Otto lives in the dam embankment, and s/he is a suspect in the mystery of the lower water level, so we're considering eviction.

An ermine (or stout) has made a home on the shore of the pond across from the house, dark red with black at the end of its tail, though apparently they turn pure white in the winter. A couple days ago I saw it make a long traverse with a rat-like thing in its mouth. We're grateful it's not a larger member of the weasel family such as a fisher, as they can really devastate small wildlife.

It's too slick out to use the tractor, or to cultivate the vegetable garden, but I spent a little time yesterday beginning to develop a little spring in the NW field, seeing where the water is actually emerging and if it's sufficient to make a watering station better than the muddy puddle the deer have made. In the afternoon I spent a couple hours with a spade on thistle patrol, and destroyed several hundred. They seem to be almost exclusively in the mowed areas, creating incentive to reduce the scope of mowing, which is quite substantial at present.