Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Breathing In A Chemical Haze

[editor's note: This post was started in July of 2017 after a particularly difficult day on the farm.  Sometimes, I feel it is better to get away from the situation to consider carefully what is to be said - if anything.  I started work on it again this Winter when I realized it may just be that something needs to be said often enough to encourage change.  As a testament to how hard the subject can be to talk about, I had to take it up again in March.  So, here goes something.]

It's the end of July and the air is heavy and warm.  The sun is part way towards the horizon in the West as it tries to burn through a chemical haze.  The breeze doesn't want to come out to play this evening and I wouldn't blame it if it were more interested in an ice-cold lemonade while it sits on the porch.  However, I am certain that it would not opt to sit outside tonight if it could choose.

This evening had the potential to be a beautiful Summer evening.  While the day was warm, it was not oppressively so.  The sun was bright, but not blinding.  Since it was Friday, there were no additional workers on the farm.  That meant we could more easily run a couple of errands during the hottest part of the day and use the cooler hours in the evening to work in the fields.  There is something relaxing about the knowledge that you have a fair amount of work to do, but week-long stresses of working AND managing the work of others can be eased away by taking a productive walk behind a wheel hoe.

Unfortunately, it is "Spray Season" in Iowa.  Eighty-five percent of the land in this state is farmed in some fashion (30.5 million of 35.7 million acres according to USDA 2016 numbers).  Of the acres that are farmed, 23.4 million were dedicated to corn and soybeans (76.7%).  Another 2 million acres were planted to hay and alfalfa and about 170,000 were in small grains.  It would be safe to make the observation that nearly all of the corn/soybean acreage is farmed using herbicide, fungicide and pesticide applications as their most common tool.  And, everyone is frantically trying to get the pesticide and fungicide applications done in Bremer and the surrounding counties during a ten-day period.  But, this Friday was the peak.  Everyone wanted to spray and they wanted to spray NOW.

The buzz of airplane engines started  just before 7 AM and were still going at 7 PM.  The whine of high-boy spray rigs rushing down the road at their top speeds gave an unwelcome counterpoint, though I have to admit there were certainly fewer of those since aerial spray seems to be the thing to do.  If there were birds singing - and I actually doubt that they were - you couldn't hear them.  In fact, I found myself hoping that the birds and other critters we like had found good places to hide.  Unfortunately, with the human tendency to tear out every brushy area or stand of trees because it is "not productive land" I doubt there were many places they could go to find sanctuary.  In just five years, as a response to high corn and soybean prices, 97,000 acres of woodland in Iowa were cleared (from 2009 to 2013).  Three quarters of these losses are due to agricultural operations and Iowa now has 100 million trees fewer than we did in 2010.

 Agri-chemicals are to commodity crops what pharmaceuticals are to the health industry.  We all want to a take a pill or spray a chemical and make the problem go away.  The case study of bifenthrin, which was registered for use in 1985, illustrates the expansion of use for many chemicals in agriculture.  You can find similar maps and view them to your heart's (dis)content at the United States Geological Survey site.

While it is true that not every chemical shows the same trend as bifenthrin, you should take note of the state that is most often completely covered to show heavy use for a wide range of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.  Why, yes, that is our state - Iowa.  To further make the point, I suggest that you go to the survey site linked above and check out Atrazine, Trifloxystrobin, Glyphosate (Round up) and whatever else you are curious about.  If you wish to see these maps better, click on them to see a larger image.

A new hatching of dragonflies were zipping around the East fields of our farm this morning and I took pleasure in watching them go from hovering in one spot to hovering in another after a quick movement in what seemed like an impossible direction.  Then, I found myself apologizing about all of the pesticides that were certain to be added to every surface of the county over the next few days.  I muttered something about 'bad timing' and 'I hope you all survive this.'  What a strange thing to say to a creature that has ancestors that were on this earth 300 million years ago.  A dragonfly is a fantastic predator (if a bit indiscriminate) to have on our farm since it will eat any number of pests that might cause problems with our vegetables.  The adults can live for several weeks to a couple of months if a bird or other larger predator doesn't take them.  This batch was seen on our farm for two days.  Fill in the blanks.  We may work to provide habitat and a safe haven on our farm that these critters favor, but they don't see borders the same way we do. 

But, then again, airborne spray doesn't see borders like we do either.  And, let's be honest, the sheer volume of pesticides being dumped on acre after acre of land in Iowa results in coverage that is not limited to just the target crops.  We all know this, we just don't want to think about.  In fact, we are so adverse to thinking about the possibility that we are willingly poisoning our world that we aren't even doing much research to either prove or disprove this.  It's a good deal like avoiding seeing the dentist about the tooth that hurts because you are afraid that she'll say you have a cavity.  The sheer volume of spraying going on during the end of July helped to make the air heavy and difficult to breath.  A quick look to the skies reminded me of smog we had witnessed during visits to certain larger cities.  And, it didn't just look that way on our farm.  It looked and felt that way when were in Tripoli... and Sumner... and Waverly, as we ran errands during the heat of the day.

So, what does that mean for us as we consider the 200 foot rows of broccoli and onions that need a pass with the wheel hoe?  Are we supposed to go shut the windows of our 100+ year-old farmhouse and hide?  Does that mean we are supposed to stay inside for this ten to fourteen day period?  How are we supposed to do the work that we do if we shouldn't be outside?  What about all of the other people who work outdoors in the Summer months?  Is it okay that their bodies have contact with all of this stuff during spray season?  Are all of the outdoor enthusiasts supposed to stay in?  Should the bike paths, swimming pools and tire swings stay empty at this time?  And what about all of the creatures on this earth that have no 'inside' to go to?  Are we just supposed to deal with it since it is the cost of living in Iowa?

My answer depends on the moment.

On bad days, I DO want to run and hide.  It hurts too much to witness this.  It worries me every time we enter each Spray Season - and it isn't just the July season - we worry during the Spring herbicide spray season too.  I wonder if I should tell our young workers who are often high school and college age that they should go home and not work during Spray season.  We have pulled them from fields before, maybe they should just never go out during that time?  And, what about us?  What sorts of physical issues are we creating for ourselves because we chose to do the work that we do?

On better days, I get angry and I want to see change.  I want to see more meadowlarks and tiger swallowtails.  I want to see the skill and art of farming return with the use of a bigger toolbox than the one provided by application from a sprayer boom.  I want to see dragonflies darting around me as I walk behind a wheel hoe amid the broccoli and onion rows.

What do you want?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

An Appreciation for Cultivation

I have taken on a side project for my postal history hobby that allows me to write about the hobby without necessarily inflicting it on persons who are looking for farming related posts.  I hope to periodically put things out on my own postal history blog (with concentration in winter months - I wonder why?).   The intent is to give me a forum to collect my thoughts on what I know (or think I know) and work on arranging them in a way that I like.  The following was in response to an interesting idea another philatelist suggested.  I felt that it actually might give insight to some of the things I like when I work outside on our farm.  The base text was written in December of 2017 and it has since been edited.
The wind came howling through Iowa today and I decided it was not a good day to be working outside.  While I am glad that I am entering the 'off-season' on the farm, there are days when I actually miss walking behind the wheel hoe.

For those who do not know, a wheel hoe is a two-handled tool that has some sort of cultivating blade.  The back of the top cover shows five people using two-wheeled wheel hoes to cultivate on either side of a crop.  The front of the cover shows a farmer with a seeder that has a similar configuration to the wheel hoes.  The lower cover shows a 'walk-behind' tractor.  We actually use both types of cultivation tools on the farm.  The machine powered tool certainly has its uses, but it's a combustion engine, so it makes its share of noise.  And, before you start thinking the powered tool is easier to use, I can tell you that it will work a fair share of your muscles.  If you would like to view these items more closely, you can click on the picture below.

Some of my best days on the farm have been those where the weather was not too windy and the soil was JUST RIGHT for cultivation.  If you pick up the right amount of speed, the soil just rolls over the top of the cultivating blade, easily exposing the roots of the weeds I am targeting.  Wheel hoe work can be mildly strenuous, but not so much that it can't also be pleasant.   You can listen to nature - or listen to music - or just be alone with your thoughts.  All the while, you're getting real work done.

The soil and steel have a sound and a feel on days like this that is soothing.  That sound confirms that progress is being made without drowning out the goldfinches exclaiming over the gift of sunflower seeds ("For meeeee?!")  Sometimes you walk close enough to the crop that your leg brushes against its leaves.  If you're lucky, that crop is basil (ok, you're lucky if you LIKE the smell of basil).  Maybe a butterfly will land on the bill of your cap.  The iced tea in the thermos tastes especially good when you stop at the end of a row and a little bit of sweat tells you that you're earning your keep.

The wheel hoe is your companion as you take a tour of the world that is the Genuine Faux Farm fields.  The 'cucumber frog' jumps out just in time to startle you a little bit and you notice a new hatching of lady beetles.  You remind yourself to trust that they will find enough of the aphids to make a difference for your peas and lettuce.  It looks like one of the tomatoes was broken by the storm a few days ago and it is not going to make it.  Well, that happens.  The other three hundred plants in this field look pretty good.

The sunlight's angle this time of day allows you to see the world in a different way, with the contrast of light and shadow.  The zinnia flowers can still dazzle, but the cool blue flowers on the borage love the way the light shows off their beauty this time of day.  A light evening breeze actually reminds you that the weather isn't always as hot as it was just a little while ago.

It looks like the green beans will have their first picking by next week - our favorite veggie.  Lightly steamed with some real butter.  The sun is telling me it must be about time for a break to have dinner.  Maybe we'll just pick a pot full of beans, even if they're a little small, and go cook them up now.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Break Week

It is March and Professor Tammy gets to be on the farm during Winter Break week!  While she still has to be Professor Tammy and do lots of grading and plenty of other school related things, she also has been able to put on her "Farmer Tammy" hat.  It's always amazing how much more work gets done on the farm when there are two farmers running around and finding ways to look busy.

Sunday, Sunny Sunday (and Saturday too!)
The week started with warmer than usual weather and lots of sunshine.  Our initial plan was for Tammy to try to get school work done early during break so it wouldn't be weighing on her during the rest of the time she had "off."  But, one look at the forecast and we were sold on revising that plan.  The only downside?  It was a bit windy.
Garfield by Jim Davis
We started the day out with the mundane task of putting fresh straw into the hen room after we let the birds out.  It's always easier to do that on a nice day and most of the birds aren't in the way.  However, there are always a few that just HAVE to see what you're doing.  We don't mind it too much - but we'd love it if they would WAIT until we leave the room before they start kicking the straw OUT of the laying boxes when we worked so hard to put that same straw IN to the laying boxes.
But we LOVE to kick straw around!
There were all sorts of 'treats' for us on Saturday.  It was warm enough to hang laundry outside - something we prefer to do rather than use the dryer.  And, we'd had a couple of long weeks and the laundry got backed up, so there was plenty of it to wash and hang.  We were able to work in Valhalla and begin prepping the ground in that building for early Spring planting.  While it was windy outside, the high tunnel provides us with some protection.  The only negative here is how ridiculously noisy it is in that building on a very windy day.  Sunday was even windier than Saturday (but still nice) so we did some tree pruning.
We're hoping to get MORE than one pear this season.
Weather took a turn on Monday, so we made it a 'paperwork' day.  Tammy put on her "Professor Tammy" hat and Rob was still wearing his "Farmer Rob" hat.  Speaking of which... when does Rob wear any other hat than the "Farmer Rob" hat?  Inquiring minds want to know!  Rather than regale you with all of the exciting paperwork we did, I will move on to Tuesday afternoon for this fine telling of farmer tales of daring do - hopefully without too many incidences of doodoo.

Perhaps some of you have read here or elsewhere that we are trying to fix the kitchen in our old farmhouse.  (Imagine that!  The farmers live in a farmhouse!  Who woulda thunk it?)  Anyone who has done this sort of work while living in the house knows what that means.  And, if you don't know, I'll tell you.  It means you have to find ways to move your kitchen around in stages so you can go about your normal daily business.  That was a good bit of Tuesday.  And now you know.

Wednesday we became the 'Traveling Farmers' as we ran errands all over northeast Iowa.  While some of the errands might make us sound normal (going to the bank, the pharmacy, recycling, dropping some neat things at Trinkets and Togs, etc) there were others that clearly identified us as 'different.'  A trip to Nolt's to pick up drip tape, plant starting soil and other supplies made sure to make the trip up with Chumley, our truck, worthwhile.  But, perhaps the most disturbing thing about Wednesday is that we left the farm after chores at about 6:20 am and we returned about 12 hours later.  Look, when errands take you to places near Waverly, Charles City, Protivin and Sumner, there's going to be some serious road time.
The farmers even paid attention to the Supervisory crew!
As far as Thursday has been concerned - do you remember that kitchen project?  Well, there are now fewer cabinets in the kitchen.  We got one set of them down and once another set is down, we can start fixing the walls and ceiling.  We're a bit out of practice for this sort of thing, but it is coming back to us quickly.  We even found time to do *more* school/farm paperwork, participate in an interview AND take a tom cat that has taken to hanging around in to the vet so that certain parts of him wouldn't continue hanging around - if you know what I mean.

Tomorrow's big task?  Lots and LOTS of seeding!  Hang on to your hats kids, this is going to be fun!

Just keep your eyes open for clouds that look like a cow.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

March Newsletter

Mud Season
Every person I know that actively farms refers to "Mud Season."  For those people who do not farm, you can probably guess exactly what we are referring to, but I suspect you might have a difficult time fully appreciating the significance Mud Season has for those of us who farm.  There is no getting away from the mud and you can't just stop doing farm chores and wait for it to dry up.

Mud Season starts when it decides to start and ends when it is finished.  Sometimes, you can get a reprieve from Mud Season only to have a recurrence of Mud Season and you can get reminders of Mud Season at times that are not actually Mud Season.  Mud Season is a time to give up on keeping the entryway clean in the house, keeping the car or truck clean is a hopeless task and a trip outside without the muck boots is NOT advised.  A farmer might think that she has managed to go form point A to point B on the farm without getting muddy only to realize hours later that there are mud spatters on the back of her pants leg as she stands in front of students in the classroom (yay for Tammy!).

On our farm, Mud Season could begin any time there is a thaw after the frost has really set in the ground.  But, it normally starts in earnest in late February into early March.  There is still plenty of frost in the ground, but the top couple of inches have thawed out due to warmer temperatures and stronger sunshine.  The combination of snow melt (assuming there was snow) with a little bit of rain can get Mud Season going in earnest.

At present, we are at the stage of mud season where our farm is covered in puddles that have ice chunks floating in them.  You can take one step and sink into the mud about six inches and in the next step the ground is rock hard.  Much of our ground is a soft and slippery 2 inch layer of top soil over the still frozen dirt (at last report our frost line was 3+ feet deep).  The gravel roads around us work hard to pull vehicles into (or out of) the wheel tracks and we are unlikely to drive our tractor anywhere on the farm unless we REALLY need to for fear that the vehicle we need to pull things out will also get stuck.

So, welcome to Mud Season.  See you all on the other side - whenever that is.

Picture of the Month

Just a taste of Mud Season

Farm News Shorts and Announcements

  • Chicken shares are nearly completed for all participants for this round.  We will be taking reservations for the upcoming year's chicken shares as of now.  These will start when our first batch of broilers are processed around July 4th.
  • CSA Shares are now available.  We will be offering the same set of shares as 2017 with the same price structure.  Information is RIGHT HERE on this blog if you are interested.  Don't let the year date stop you if I don't catch all of the 2017's and change them to 2018!
  • Speaking season has come to a close for Rob with his completion of speaking engagements at Wartburg, UNI and Hawkeye Community College.  At this point, we typically change to farm tours with an occasional exception for other speaking opportunities.  Thank you to all who have given him an opportunity to share.
  • The annual Nota Conference is held by the "Gang of Five Farms" every January/February to give us a chance to enjoy each other's company and help each other plan and handle life's challenges on our farms.  It was a bit later than usual this year, but it was every bit as valuable as it has been other seasons.  We're not sure what we would do without our peers' support and kindness.
  • The season of "Service Trip Groups" is beginning at the farm as well.  A high percentage of Wartburg students participate in service trips and they are required to do something to help fund these trips.  Each Spring (and often Fall) we have from one to three groups come out to the farm and do things that many hands can accomplish sooner than just two or four hands.  One example of a group visiting can be seen in this blog post.
February Calendar

  • March 14 (Wed) -  Egg sales Waverly and Cedar Falls
  • March 27 (Tue) - Egg sales Waverly and Cedar Falls
Weather Wythards
Rob is writing this post AWAY from the weather station and the farm.  It is difficult to get the information from it when you can't see it (and it is not internet enabled).

But, if you want a summary.  It was cold for a spell and warm for a spell.  There was rain, snow and ice.  Some days were windy.  Others were calm.  We saw the moon and stars sometimes.  One day, the sun came out and we were happy.

You are welcome!

Song of the Month
King's X is a group that has been a long time favorite of mine.  In my opinion, they've never settled for easy - which gets my respect.  This month's song is Fly - a reminder to me that I don't need everyone to agree with everything I do and say. 

Time to Have Pun
It's been pretty cold the last several months.  Cold enough that we've been forced to use the furnace much later than usual (and much more than usual).  The extremes to which we have gone this Winter (and early Spring) to stay warm are best illustrated by a recent trip a couple of friends took kayaking down the Wapsipinicon River.  In case anyone cares, that river is only a little over a mile away from us. 

In any event, the river was open, but it was pretty cold.  And, of course, they hit a snag and flipped the kayak.  They righted themselves easy enough, but now they were very cold and had a ways to go to get out of the river.  So, they floated close to shore, grabbed some dry twigs and proceeded to start a fire on the kayak to warm up.

Of course, the kayak sank and they had to wade to the bank and hike to the road.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Remember - You can't have your kayak and heat it too.