Warm days and a fierce headwind

Last week we had a few days in the 40s and 50s. We took advantage of this and finished the short cob wall on the south side of the greenhouse.


The snow-free days also allowed us to inspect the state of our cover crop trials and prep several rows with straw mulch. In checking on the state of things, we discovered that quack grass in the back field is already on a roll. Rats. And early onions planted last fall have survived and are going strong (there’s a photo, below). Jeremy got to try his hand at cutting glass for the coop window. It’s an old pane from the Smith’s house. The glass itself might not be from the original construction of the house (late 1800’s) – but it’s still pretty brittle and took a fair amount of tender, delicate, James Bond-style breaking and entering finesse to cut without shattering to bits. The birds are enjoying the extra light in their coop. They are also enjoying spent grain (photo below..) from Crow Peak Brewery down the street.

Despite all this attention: the additional light, their certified organic feed, malted barley, and our daily dotings, they are producing 4-5 eggs a week. It seems the birds have become a very expensive hobby – at least until the days lengthen and egg production picks up.

birds and onionOur seed orders were placed just a few weeks ago, and already we’ve been getting packages in the mail. Onions and leeks have sprouted. And trays of asparagus are germinating. Last year we experimented with planting green onion seeds in clusters of 7-8 seeds together. This method allowed for quick, easy transplanting into the field and harvesting, washing, bunching – chop chop. This year we’re going to try out this cluster seeding technique with bulbing onions as well, with 4-5 seeds together. We’ll see.


We’ve been keeping an eye on the hives during the unseasonably warm days these past few weeks. There has been limited activity outside the hives, a bee or two will fly out, sometimes one will scoot in. Lots of dead bees below the entrances to the hives. This is not terribly pleasant, but it suggests that the queen is still laying, and they are just keeping the hive clean.
beehives in february

We have not yet opened the hives. By looking around inside, we can get a better sense of the health of the hive:  is the queen laying well? how much honey reserves do they have left? do they need supplementary honey to hold them over before spring flowers set? So it might be smart to check out what’s happening inside.

However, by popping open the hive, we are breaking the laboriously installed propolis the bees have sealed their hive with. Bees do an incredible job maintaining temperature and humidity in the hive, to keep the queen and brood healthy. By opening the hive, we fuss with this. So we’re not going to fuss with this. (I’ll just bite my lip and hope they are keeping on ok). We did not harvest honey from the hives last year. Instead we opted to let them keep everything as reserves for winter – hopefully this will be enough to carry them through. If there’s anything left in the spring, we’ll collect some for ourselves.

And lastly a fierce headwind from Pierre. Here are some examples (links) of what happens when legislative action is made without involving long term or whole systems thinking.  South Dakota state legislature on net metering and on uranium mining.

So we will continue to make phone calls. And write letters. We might even keep on with our wishful thinking and faith in democracy. But more importantly, we’ll sharpen our shovels. Ride our bicycles. And grow food for our neighbors. If we can’t demand conservation or good stewardship, maybe we can inspire it?

Casita gallina and off-farm activities.

We took the chance to visit friends and family, and attend the Quivira Coalition annual conference in New Mexico this past week. A holiday away from the farm. This is a big deal. Before heading off, we had a tremendous amount of work do to, tucking things in. It was a sort of a messy, teary, prolonged goodbye – very Bogart Bergman. Here’s looking at you, farm.  Several late nights spent cobbing walls on the greenhouse and plastering the bales. And finally an unwilling submission to time – or the lack of time. We didn’t have time to get the plaster up before leaving for the conference, and we won’t be able to before winter weather. So we picked up a couple 14×48′ salvaged billboard signs to use as heavy tarps for covering up over the outside walls. Tucking in the greenhouse came first, the beds will have to wait for our return.

The main push was to finish the west end of the building, where we have separated an extra special area for the chicken coop. The coop has an earth floor prepped for deep litter, 2 pop doors, 6 nesting boxes accessible by us through a drop door from the outside, a deluxe roosting bar ladder, and a large picture window to the south shedding lots of light inside. Finishing up the coop to a point where we could confidently/comfortably leave the birds for a few days took working late into the 6 degree night the night before our trip. It’s not entirely finished, the straw bale walls need 6-8″ of cob, we need to source and install the glass for the window, and we still need a door between the coop and the main greenhouse area (right now it’s blocked by a precarious stack of straw bales). But in the mean time it’s cozy enough; the birds have a place to be out of the cold, out of the tractors. We are so grateful to Jeremy’s generous parents for taking care of the birds while we are gone.

As a side note, the billboard signs protecting the north wall are fabulous: one is an advertisement for Comfort Inn pool and casino – featuring a cheery photo of kiddos playing on a pool waterslide with rainbow inner-tubes and smiles, the other sign is for Wild Turkey Bourbon, it reads something like “Always an impressive finish” – especially inspiring as we certainly are not finished with our work on this greenhouse. Maybe someday, and it will be impressive. Despite how appropriate these signs’ messages are, we did ultimately decide to hang them graphic to the inside, such that they are not such a bold eye-sore to our dear neighbors.

The arched doorway to the chicken coop is something special. Here’s the back story. During the straw bale stacking a couple weeks ago, Thomas and Jeremy were spending long days wrestling with heavy, pokey, dusty bales. I was able to help for part of this, a small part – most of my time mid-day is spent working from a computer at our home office. On one particularly long day finishing up with the bales, after a series of long days – I took a stretch break away from the computer to check in on the greenhouse and the hard workers. I’m feeling fresh and punky, having spent the past few hours tapping at a keyboard, sipping tea and listening to NPR. I could see Thomas and Jeremy are both thoroughly exhausted, slightly frustrated maybe, but also pleased with their hard work. Ready to be done with it. I am full of awe and compliments, and facetiously throw out a “hey so, gosh things look so good, but wouldn’t it be nice if, here at the door, we arch the bales – you know, wouldn’t an arched doorway to the chicken coop be lovely?” Ha ha.

But then, Jeremy’s father David hears about this. My flippant, insincere request for the absurd. Not to be taken seriously. Ridiculous. Thomas and Jeremy may have rolled their eyes, but watch what you wish for – nothing is impossible to Dave, no request too absurd. He set to work in his wood shop and voila. Geometry and alchemy. An arched door frame and a gorgeous, arched, tongue and groove paneled door to match. It’s stunning. The world’s most lovely chicken coop, my heart is swollen. Lucky birds. Lucky me. Thank you thank you thank you.

There is still a fair amount of work to do on the greenhouse. Indeed, even when it’s all ‘done’, the walls’ plaster work will need maintenance every couple of years or so. We’ll continue to work on the inside during this winter, setting the stone wall on the south side and cobbing the north wall, but for now the outside work is on hold.

The Quivira conference was excellent. The Quivira Coalition is a group of ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, and associated enthusiasts who are excited about working together for local foods, land health, and restoration. We heard speakers from all over the country – all over the world, small-scale producers, land stewards, educators. We heard talks about building healthy soil, urban water harvesting and humanure, pasture cropping, organic no-till farming, planned grazing, food policy, establishing orchards. And more. We had a chance to reconnect with friends and mentors, and meet new people doing thoughtful, commendable things. This is an inspiring community and so we left all riled up, and thrilled about where we are headed. Bright-eyed and optimistic.

And then we see this blog/report and linked articles discussing South Dakota’s state representatives’ push to replace small local dairies with large, out-of-state-owned dairy operations..CAFOs (note: these articles avoid this term, it’s too objectionable. But it’s certainly implied). This decision is short sighted and profit-driven. Mr. Walt Bones, we couldn’t disagree with you more. The health of our communities and our land and water should be priority. We need to be building resilient local economies by supporting small-scale, local producers. Not chasing quick cash. South Dakota, please let your representatives know what you think.