Sogn Farm Project
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?!
While 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?
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.
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 . . .
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 . . .
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:
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:
Here is the same bit of trail with the slope of the hill indicated in red and the contour path in green:
Here’s hoping I can wrap my head around the best use of this discovery!
Here’s a link to a youtube video of a bit of plowing I did today. Enjoy!
After months of work by (mostly) Rina and Sam, the culmination of the Corn Patch Project took place on Saturday, October 13th. A pleasantly warm but overcast day greeted scores of huskers who arrived through the afternoon to husk and braid the corn, share a potluck supper and finally, enjoying the hard work of so many folks who helped fix the barn, dance! Thanks to Rina for spearheading, thanks to all the huskers, thanks to the local breweries (Indeed and Excelsior) for the fine beer we enjoyed, thanks to the musicians (who were those folks? I’d never met a number of them – some fine old-time tunes!). Thanks to the neighbors who stopped by and the kids who . . . had a good time!
In short, it was a rousing success start to finish. You’d have to go a long way to fine a more picturesque and enjoyable event.
Here’s the latest update on our as-yet-unnamed farm. We have three projects, one news report and two upcoming events.
The tillable acreage is home to three efforts this season. The largest portion is in alfalfa for the second year of organic transition. The alfalfa is being sold to Thousand Hills Cattle Company where, in time it turns into hamburgers and steaks. You can find Thousand Hills products at the Wedge, and many other places.
Next, Kelli Tennyson is growing vegetables on a couple of acres and selling them at the Linden Hills Farmers Market and to Harvest for the Hungry. She calls her effort “Broadfork Farm“. Kelli’s growing all sorts of things but so far the kale, beets and watermelon have been particularly wonderful.
Finally, Rina Rossi is leading a project to grow corn for chicken feed – for real! Rina and a number of her friends keep chickens in South Minneapolis so they’re growing about an acre of corn to feed to their birds this winter. This project will culminate in a shucking bee and barn dance! You can find Rina on Facebook at “The Corn Patch at Bob and Julie’s Farm”.
This summer’s crazy weather included a storm that dumped 10 inches of rain on the farm in just a few hours. It made a mess of many things and completely blew out our culvert – so we no longer have an easy way to cross the stream. You can see pictures at this earlier post. Our little farm office is nearly complete: we have electricity, hot and cold water with real floors and everything. Thanks to all the skilled friends who’ve helped.
We have two events planned for this fall:
Fall Farm Day September 8th
Come visit the farm, see our progress and, if you like, lend a hand building steps, setting up a hop trellis, fixing the barn floor, clearing the flooded creekbed, fixing washouts or beginning preparations for a controlled burn. Food, drink and good company provided. Overnight camping if you like.
Corn Husking and Square Dance October 13th
Help with the harvest then enjoy the hoedown! More information when I have it.
Last night Cannon Falls got 10 inches of rain. The farm took a bit of a beating as you can see from the photos. We lost our culvert completely: a 6-foot diameter corrugated steel pipe was washed 120 yards downstream around an S curve, and a 4-foot diameter 40-foot long culvert wound up at a 45 degree angle, 100 yards downstream. We lost a number a trees and have a cleanup job ahead of us.
Makes me think about resilience in the face of weather extremes. Climate change?
Next to a barn, a tractor is probably the most evocative symbol of “farm” in America. When I visited Issacson Implement in Nerstrand the other day (good folks, BTW), I saw this little number. The price, I think, was $280,000. Nearly as much as we paid for our whole farm!
Obviously, it makes no sense for us to buy a tractor like this – and clearly there are tractors more appropriate to our farm – but it does prompt me to think a bit about the nature and scale of different kinds of farms. Nowadays, it’s common for a farmer in Minnesota to ‘run’ 1000 or more acres – some owned, some rented. And many of these farmers – at least around Sogn – seem to be growing mostly corn and soybeans. The number of anhydrous ammonia trailers on the roads earlier this spring suggest that most of what is grown is conventional: i.e. using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. These have to be, then, high-dollar operations for which 400hp 4WD tractors are just tools of the trade. Makes quite a contrast to our little farm – and the farms of some of the folks I’m getting to know.
I’ve started to think of various kinds of farms on two axes of a grid: high dollar to low dollar (both investment and cash flow), and low to high diversity (for example, corn and soy rotation versus small farms that do poultry and eggs plus veggies and/or fruits for CSA and/or farmers markets).
Now, if you want to do a large conventional corn and bean (or dairy, or confinement beef, pork or poultry) operation, you can get lots of help from the University’s Farm Business Management program or the Center for Farm Financial Mangement (e.g. this report). These folks have worked with thousands of farmers over the years and can help design a business plan, or tell you if your costs are too high, production too low, interest expense too high and so on: they can tell you a lot about how to run certain kinds of farm businesses because, in part, they’ve seen lots of other farmers doing almost exactly the same thing.
But what about your small-scale diversified, sustainable or even organic farm? Where is the business model? How can someone running that sort of operation benchmark their operation or write a business plan? For these folks (and that includes our little farm) I can’t seem to locate any established benchmarks, and there seem to be few people who know the business side well enough to review the operation, business plan etc.
This has at least two important effects. First, small diversified farmers appear to lack some useful tools that could help them run their businesses. Second, these same farmers often lack the information they need to finance their operations – in part because lenders or investors don’t have tools to evaluate a small diversified farm’s business plan.
Now many of the small-scale early-stage farmers I’ve met recently are up to their necks in work already and record keeping and accounting – especially for their complex and diversified operations – are not top priorities. This leads to my query-du-jour: would gathering information about successful medium-sized, somewhat diversified farms (that is, in my suggested ‘sweet spot’, of which examples are rumored to exist in SE Minnesota and likely elsewhere) be a useful first step in establishing models and benchmarks to help farmers, lenders and, potentially, investors better understand and evaluate well-run sustainable farms?
What do you think? Would this be a worthwhile project? Or is this information available somewhere and I’ve overlooked it? Suggestions, comments or advice will be most welcome!
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This work-in-progress has benefited from conversations with many wise people. I don’t know if they’d like to see their names here so, for now, I’ll just acknowledge their organizations: The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, The Land Stewardship Project, Moonstone Farm, The First National Bank of Plainview, The Carrot Project, Renewing the Countryside, University of Vermont Extension, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and Featherstone Farm.