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Waking a Scientist

June 20, 2021 Dr. Jonathan Lundgren

I appreciate those that try new things and fail more than experts that don’t. I have patience and hope for innovation. I weather the cost of it, and regret when that choice affects more than me. I see a majestic tree where others see a seed

The heat of spring, then summer, moved in around March this year, and I fear that the farming community in this area will pay for it for a long time. June was in the 90s most days, and we received less than an inch of rain. The lawns and mown paths are brown and bleak. The cornfields around us are curling and dry. But remarkably, most of Blue Dasher Farm is lush and green, and tells a story of survival. Of pockets of cool and damp evenings where water inexplicably persists. And as Christina and I steal away for an evening stroll, the lightning beetles share their story with us in these areas. The prairie raises its swaying arms and fingers to greet us, where fire woke it from a slumber.

Blue Dasher Farm has become a training ground for the scientific staff of Ecdysis Foundation. Each group of summer and permanent staff has been assigned an enterprise (the sheep team, chick brigade, pig squad, garden crew, bee battalion, etc.). And as the caravan of cars arrive each morning, the teams disperse to help on their chores before returning to the lab and the research that will save the planet. I think I learn more from the staff and the farm than anything that I bring to the table, these days.

What a crazy idea- making scientists farmers? To make mistakes and solve problems, just like those who use our research have to contend with.

The bees are starting dangerously slow. Within a week of arriving, a neighbor sprayed herbicides/fungicides, and the hives never really got off of the ground. Add to this the climate and reduced flowers, and we see faltering hives. At least for now- we have hope. Tia and Ryan dispersed some of the hives onto a series of rangelands that are allowing their cattle to graze a pasture continuously for a long period, and onto rangelands that move higher densities of animals frequently, allowing the pastures to rest. We couldn’t attract funding to study how synergisms between pollinators and cattle improve farm resilience and grassland health. But the work is important to show how stacked enterprises increase the stability of a regenerative farm, so we used our honey sales to support the project.

The sheep have been a chore, but after learning everything that I could about electric fencing, the sheep team have a plan in place to keep the sheep home and happily grazing our pastures and prairie. After struggling for 2 weeks, changing everything I could think of, I could not get the electric fence above 3,000 V. And every evening, the sheep would come to the yard to explain how they escaped, causing trouble to the neighbors, endangering the sheep, and slowly driving me mad. It was a comedy of errors, but finally I was ready to throw in the towel. At this point, we were running a plug-in style fencer off of a series of extension cords out to the day’s paddock. Walking in to the home “mall”, I thought “maybe it is the extension cords…” We hooked a new fencer up to a battery, and it instantly went to 12,000 V. I googled it, and several chat rooms said to never use extension cords with fence energizers. Sigh…well, one less mistake to make in the future. The fence has been well charged, and the sheep respectful of it…except when the battery runs down (a new problem we have figured out).

Predators have come to the poultry chicks this spring. The broiler chicks went out into our mobile chicken unit, a livestock trailer that has a wire floor to allow the dropping through as we drag it around the property. The wire openings are just wide enough to allow a weasel’s claws to pass through, and pull the chicks’ legs off. 17 were killed like this in a 24 h period, before we completely covered the floor with boards. Meanwhile, the layer chicks have been in the garage for too long, and I finally just pulled the trigger and deployed the new drag-around tractor I have been designing for these birds. It has to be light and mobile, but strong enough to withstand a lot of wear, tear and SD thunderstorms. It was out in the yard for about 12 hours, when at 3 AM I heard the chicks squealing. I darted outside to find a raccoon had torn through the screen and gotten two of the chicks. Back into the garage they went, thanks to C. And I went back to the drawing board. The chicken tractor is about to get bulkier again, I am afraid.

Pigs are always a shot in the arm of the personality for Blue Dasher Farm. The two piggies have been in the orchard for the past two weeks, and excitedly run towards us when we feed and visit them. We primarily have these pigs to help disturb the farm, follow the sheep, and help generate new niches for diversification of the plant community on the farm. Training them in on the electronet was an adventure- as they would run back to their barn stall through anything and anybody every time they were shocked. But the pig squad was persistent, and the pigs now understand that the only time they are shocked is when they touch the net. It isn’t personal. And we are all friends again.

We planted around 100 trees and shrubs around the farm this spring. They are little sticks for now, but we fenced nearly all of them, and the existing young trees, orchard, and new saplings have stood up against wave after wave of grazing animals. Despite our efforts, very little grows in one of our fields; the only thing that seems to grow there is invasive Siberian elm trees, the seeds of which pour out of the shelter belt every spring. “If trees want to grow there, then let’s make this an orchard”. Christina and Amy planned out a jelly and jam orchard, and the different shrubs and small trees are giving new leaves. The high temps and lack of rain mean that we have to water the trees at least twice per week. But the tender loving care afforded them is paying off. These trees are the legacy of Blue Dasher Farm. The scaffolding that we build a farm around.

I am frequently asked what a farmer should look for to know whether his/her regenerative practices are working. What test they can buy. Analysis they can conduct. What indicator species might tell them that they are heading in the right direction. After all, that is what scientists do, right? We develop technologies and empirically assess how they correlate with a desired outcome. But a farm isn’t a science experiment. It can’t be distilled into a number, a datapoint. It is a living organism. And when you dig through the symptoms to get to the root of the issue, you find more spiritual answers than scientific ones.

My answer to the question of what to look for on your farm to know whether it is working? Every day you should be able to walk onto your farm and see something that you have never seen before. And feel a sense of wonder. If you experience that, then you are on the right track with your farm.

In my age and folly, I find that root answers to most questions are simple ones. Ones we can’t always understand, but we can feel them.


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