Sogn Farm Project

A Keyline Drive

By Bob | May 12, 2014 |

With the help of some teen muscle, access to the woods and upper prairie is improving. A while back I posted about a natural access route along a contour line. We've been working to open up that pathway and here, for fun, are two video clips taken from Doris (the electric UTV) starting up in the woods and finishing where the path opens onto the largest field. Thanks to Lolo, Smack and their friend Nathan for making such great progress on Sunday and to Nathan for shooting the video.

Keylines at Work

By Bob | March 26, 2014 |

Spring melt and runoff is beginning and the first test of last autumn’s keyline work is visible. As the snow melts, the upper berm becomes clearly visible. Viewed from another angle water can be seen accumultating in the swales on the uphill side of the berm – just like we wanted. I’ll continue to monitor through the spring melt, of course. It won’t be long till we can plant that berm with mixed permaculture-flavored plantings . . .

Keyline looking west

Here is the upper berm peeking through the snow.

Keyline looking east

Another view. Note how the water is collecting on the uphill side – exactly according to plan.

Keyline Accomplishments

By Bob | November 3, 2013 |

Gorgeous! A terrific crew of volunteers enjoyed fascinating presentations by Dan Halsey bookending a day of practical implementation of Keyline Design. Our near west field has new berms and swales and a rock (those were big rocks!) outflow by the culvert to slow and spread the flow of water during major rain or runoff events.

Here is a view of the field with the swales highlighted and the rock installation circled. I wish I had an arial photo to show the actual shape and how the berm/swale combinations follow the contour. Now we have to wait for a big rain or the spring runoff to see how it all works!

Swales marked

And here is the ‘Defensive Berm’ near the pole shed. The berm is highlighed with red, it stands about 12-18″ taller than the field – the exaggerated countour of the berm is shown in green. The blue marks a new and appropriatedly sloped channel for any water that does make it over the berm or into the area. It sends the water away from the viewer and into our intermittent creek.

Last Berm Marked

And here’s a gallery of photos of the day.

A humongous “Thank You!” to everyone who participated. We are so lucky to have you all in our circle of friends!

A Solution to the Permaculture Puzzle

By Bob | October 23, 2013 |

A while ago I challenged folks to create solutions to the erosion and water management issues on the field just west of the barns. This Saturday we’ll begin to implement techniques we hope will address those challenges. Dan Halsey of Southwoods Forest Garden created this plan. With the help of some heavey equipment and a number of friends, we’ll be creating the rock-lined catch basin at the culvert outflow and building two swale/berm combinations and a final barrier berm.

farm plan

If you want to come and join us, Dan will be giving an explanatory talk at 9:00 (with coffee and donuts, of course) then we’ll head out into the field and use a laser level and other tools to flag the field for the machines, then finish off the berms/swales with seed. Lunch will be provided and a potluck dinner and bonfire will follow. Should be a fine day to get up close and personal with keyline design.

Hope you can make it.

Scary Photo

By Bob | August 22, 2013 |

The adage ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’ seems true on our farm: disturb the soil and in a few days something will grow – desirable or maybe not. The ‘weeds’ around the strawberries and garlic were pretty awesome this year. . .

IMG_0537But this image scares the bejbeebers out of me. This is a field on the farm just east of ours which, like many fields in SE MN this year, never got planted because of the wet spring. It’s now the second half of August and what’s growing here? Almost nothing. That’s downright creepy. The years of conventional (likely GM) corn and beans and the chemical cocktail that goes with that have killed the soil. Almost nothing is growing. And there are thousands of acres just like this across Minnesota. What do we think we’re doing?

A Permaculture Puzzle

By Bob | July 18, 2013 |

Want to help with the farm design? Here’s a challenge for you.

The field immediately west of the farmstead (the one that you see in the header photo) appears flat until you look closely. In fact, it’s a gentle valley channeling water north and then east – straight at the pole shed! That’s why I found four inches of ice in the pole shed last March – and why it filled with topsoil in last summer’s huge rain. As you can see from the contour map, the shape of the land sends water right at the pole shed!

Water flows on the Near West Field

Water flows on the Near West Field

field contour map

2ft contour map of the Near West Field

A helpful principle to keep in mind is that water naturally flows at right angles to the contour. The effect of this is to concentrate and channel water along the blue arrow in the second image. In addition, the road acts as a dam collecting water from the hillside to the south. During large rain or runoff events that water is funneled through a culvert indicate with the orange arrow. During ordinary rains and snow melts this culvert doesn’t get any flow, but a serious thunderstorm and – whammo! – big time water rushing onto the field with serious speed and power. (You can see some images from last year’s big rain here.)

So this is the design challenge: what is the best way to construct berms, swales, dams and/or rain gardens to control the water as it moves across this field in order both to minimize topsoil loss and to increase the dwell time, and thus absorption, of the water? At the moment I’m pondering a rain garden at the culvert opening, a swale/berm (to be planted in perennials, but that’s another blog post) somewhere towards the middle of the field and possibly another berm just west of the pole shed to divert any water that does make it that far. But those are general thoughts. If you’d like to have a go at a specific design, please do! I’m open to your ideas. The other factor to keep in mind is that the field will be in alfalfa for the next few years (and may well be used for grazing beyond that time), so access for machinery to cut and bale hay (or for critters in the future) must be included.

Thanks to any budding keyline designers who want to try their hand at this. I hope you enjoy the challenge!

The Golf Course

By Bob | June 26, 2013 |

In a few weeks some friends will be getting married at the farm so I’m trying to spiff up the place for the occasion. The old tractor that I use for mowing is being a bit temperamental so I’ve used it and the trail mower and a regular four-cycle lawn mower to get the ‘lawn’ under control.

For heaven’s sake! Not only do I have to invest a silly amount of time in cutting all this grass, but I’m using loads of fossil fuel. How resilient is that?!

Resilient Farm HomesteadWhile I’m mowing, I’m pondering Ben Falk’s book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead. Falk writes about 10 years of developing a permaculture-based, low carbon, resilient farm in the hills of Vermont. In contrast to his densely productive land – developed over many years, to be sure – so much of the space in our farmyard is, at present, just a maintenance issue. Sure there are a few apple trees and a fern or two that could provide fiddleheads, but mostly it’s just, well, there – soaking up my time and energy and wasting precious ‘ancient sunlight‘.

This is a permaculture problem, isn’t it? I want to make this part of our farm not just lovely to view and pleasant to visit, but both productive and (relatively) low-maintenance. I wonder, could I establish ‘guilds’ under the apple trees so they are happier and healthier and I don’t have to mow under their low hanging branches? Are there other areas of the farmyard that could be, say, planted to herbs, berries or nut bushes or made into a useful outdoor social space? What might thrive under the black walnut trees? besides growing things, what other activities or ecosystem services could or should take place in this area?

The more I think about this the more it seems both that I need a deeper knowledge of permaculture myself and to find some knowledgeable permaculture collaborator(s). Who’s interested?

Spring Surprises

By Bob | June 9, 2013 |

Fourteen inches of snow on Mayday! C’mon! Wet, heavy, miserable stuff that took out about 30 or 40 trees – I don’t have an exact count. Needless to say I’ve been snuggled up to a chainsaw clearing those that fell onto the fields.

field planted to alfalfa

The near west field planted to alfalfa, June 2013.

Then in mid-May a look at the fields indicated that something was wrong. The alfalfa wasn’t coming back. Like so many others in SE Minnesota,I found that the winter rains that froze into solid sheets of ice in the low grounds suffocated the alfalfa. With little time to make a plan, I talked to Todd Churchill from Thousand Hills Cattle Company who agreed to replant and manage the alfalfa for the next three years. Whew!

So now I have the tillable portion of the farm leased for three years with a provision for landshaping and limited permaculture preparations. It’s all been replanted now, and we’ll see how the season unfolds. So far, mostly soggy . . .

A Permaculture Partnership

By Bob | April 21, 2013 |

Exploring the contours and dynamics of the farm this winter, I’ve begun to glimpse how it may one day work as an integrated whole: wooded hillsides, stream and wetlands, open spaces and pastures. Though it’s only a small farm there are infinite possibilities for interconnected and complementary animals and plants. When asked, “How big is your farm?” I used to answer in the expected form: “55 acres, about 27 tillable” as if only half the farm is useful or productive. How crazy is that! Inspired, in part, by Mark Shepard’s new book Restoration Agriculture, I now imagine someday seeing all 55 acres integrated into a productive, interconnected and largely self-sustaining enterprise.

It’s a huge project and the clearer the vision becomes, the more I realize that what I hope to see is more than I’ll be able to realize on my own. The experienced farmers I know have such an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge – what a greenhorn I am! There is so much to learn needing lots of patient observation, trial, error and time.  And there is so much to do: planning, planting, pruning, harvesting, developing markets, managing the finances and all the myriad things that will develop this beautiful place into a beautiful and productive place.

To realize my vision, then, I need one or more partners in the project – folks who would like to help develop a Restoration Agriculture enterprise. In a sense this brings me full circle as one of my original rationales for buying this farm was to provide ‘access to land for sustainable farming.’

The details are still unknown but the broad strokes are clear: here is land to be husbanded for the long haul and the path will likely lead through permaculture. I want to provide  access to this land for someone to develop a sustainable, small-scale agricultural enterprise which, over time, would both provide a living and profits, the latter leading to investment in land – perhaps this very farm. For the right partner(s), this could be a thrilling opportunity to create and realize a sustainable farming vision.

There must be someone . . .

Discovering Keylines

By Bob | March 7, 2013 |

Water, water, water! Last summer we learned a lot about the power of water on our farm. Still reeling from last summer, I found that,  in his new book Restoration Agriculture, Mark Shepard argues that the first step in making long-term plans for a farm is understanding how water enters, moves through and leaves a farm using the principals of P.A. Yeomans’ ‘Keyline Design‘. With this in mind I ordered a 2-foot contour map from the friendly folks at Goodhue County GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

Here’s the part where I was walking today:

Upper Prairie Contour

Our ’tillable’ area, now in alfalfa, is at the bottom. You’ll notice a steep slope between those lower fields and the upper area – a degraded prairie. Right at the top of the steepest slope there appears to be a natural path, marked here in red:


I went looking for this path and sure enough, though the prickly ash and buckthorn had well established, with the leaves down in winter it was clear as could be! Yeomans suggests that contours such as this can be significant both in terms of water flow and the layout of the farm often being useful for roads, windbreaks or fences. With a bit of clearing work, this will provide a natural way to get Doris (the electric UTV) into these woods for hauling brush or other tasks. Down the line this could be a path for critters or people moving from one part of the farm to another.

I’m excited because it looks like a relatively small amount of effort can yield significant access to parts of the farm that have been sealed off by a Sleeping Beauty hedge of prickly ash!

Here’s what I saw today – first is a bit of the trail:

Hillside 2

Here is the same bit of trail with the slope of the hill indicated in red and the contour path in green:

Hillside 3

Here’s hoping I can wrap my head around the best use of this discovery!