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The winter that wasn’t (Bart)

March 19th, 2012
Old-timers around here have described last summer's drought as the worst since 1954. Even with irrigation our vegetable crops really struggled and yields were perhaps one-quarter of what we expected. The heat and drought are related to an equatorial Pacific Ocean phenomenon known as La Niña, characterized by unusually cold surface water temperatures and which affects weather patterns around the world. In our part of  North America it usually produces milder, dry winters. This year in particular the effect was greatly magnified by a much stronger North Atlantic low that kept pulling even more warm air across the eastern and central USA. As a result the Jet Stream stays north (in Canada) and preventing storms and cold air from moving south. La Niña seems to be weakening after two years and as a result we've had several decent rains -- but no significant snow -- through the winter.  Not only did we have no winter, but spring has arrived remarkably early. Our peaches have just about finished blooming and the apples are about to start. We've been eating quite a few fresh veggies from the garden all through the winter and there's a real chance we could have asparagus in March. Last week we seeded the first of our spring commercial crops:  spinach, beets, and turnips. Two of the greenhouses are full of tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers for early sale. Twenty-five hundred broccoli await transplanting in about ten days. The seasons, and the cycles, turn.  

Lingering juncos

March 30th, 2011
Normally by this time of year the juncos have all headed north, but I've noticed that the last few years they've remained around here a bit longer each time. Not the juncos which wintered here -- they left about two weeks ago just as the first wave of phoebes arrived -- but migrants from somewhat farther south. This phenomenon of later springs (and snowier winters) has been increasingly evident for some years now and is not limited to birds. Several years ago the alfalfa in our fields would have been 12 to 16 inches tall by now, yet this year it has barely greened up, continuing the trend of later growth. Similarly, the bloom dates for our fruit trees have retarded by at least two weeks. This has been a consistent trend since 2004, with R-squared >70% for you statistics junkies. I strongly suspect we have returned to a generation-long cooling trend as driven by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. In my life as a farmer and gardener I've now experienced both the cool cycle of my youth -- remember all the talk about the "coming ice age" back in the 1970s? -- and the warm cycle of my younger adulthood. May I live long enough to see another warm cycle. Of course we might not get one. We're due for another multi-generation cold spell the last of which came in the late 17th century and was linked with a near absence of sunspots known as the Maunder Minimum. These things come along every three centuries or so and are not particularly fun, effectively shifting local climates to something like 500 to 1000 miles farther north. One such cycle in the 14th century led not only to the plague and widespread famine -- one result of which was the rise of militant Islam -- but a cycle earlier to feudalism in Europe as peasants attempted to survive, and in the 4th and 5th centuries to the fall of both the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty in China. Serious stuff, and given that the current sunspot cycle is much later and weaker than expected ... not particularly comforting. A few juncos and one spring do not make for a cycle, but they do seem to be somewhat like one dot in pointillist painting, and perhaps a harbinger of colder seasons to come.

She’s back!! Welcome to your new home….

December 12th, 2010
As Bart was finishing up turnip harvest I was  driving back from the post office, across the west bottoms yesterday AM and saw the same incredibly large female Bald Eagle I'd seen round these parts late last winter (early 2010)  as a 3- 4 yr immature - checking out the local bachelor. This time she was in full feather (white head and white tail) feeding on some chunk of meat in the field ~ maybe 100 ft north of 79th St (west of the massive Oak). She is strikingly beautiful...much, much larger than the other female of the pair just north of our farm (who we've named 'Kiowa'(f) and 'Konza'(m), respectively). I stopped a few moments to observe her feeding, and looked for the male (not in sight). Great news is that they have most definitely started building a permanent nest (east of his original practice nest)! So it is likely he could've been working on the 'house' while she was feeding up ahead of their first breeding season. So very exciting!! It convinces me further, this newly formed pair were in their initial meeting/introduction phase when I observed some clear courtship behavior of these two in the field late last winter ...the male had his full white tail (mottled head), and was bobbing his head & tail up and down to show her his white tail feathers...while she was still mottled with initial white on her tail as well. They hung around in this valley together through March, with various sitings in trees and on the wing...flying together (pairing up). They must've had a great summer vacation in the Tetons!!! I sure hoped she would return as the mate for the young male we've observed these last few years. I look forward to seeing the male any day...in full feather. We'll keep you posted. Thinking we'll call these two 'Quivira' (female) and 'Comanche' (male). May be a great time to observe some nest building in the next week or two if any of you can make it out. They are hanging out a couple miles east of our farm (east of Sunflower Rd and north of 79th street). Happy Winter birding!

November 1st, 2010

November Salad (Bart)

The calender turns, yet the land produces. Finally after months of horribly difficult weather we have had a good October and the crops have responded. Tonight our supper was a huge bowl of spinach salad, most of it picked less than an hour before we ate it. Last Saturday there was a killing frost, but ahead of that I picked the last of the cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. Add to that a thinly sliced leek, some hard-cooked eggs, a bit of turkey bacon  ... and I guarantee you, royalty does not eat better. We could have included any one of six different tender lettuces, radishes, or arugula, along with all manner of kale, broccoli or other plants. Still, there is little that beats totally fresh spinach, picked, washed and eaten, all within an hour. As difficult as this year has been, there are still profoundly quiet joys such as this evening's salads.  In the end, it's really what it's all about, and we cherish the chance to share that with the people who choose to purchase what we have grown. Thank you.

September 3rd, 2010

Rabbit becomes owl (Bart)

We are fortunate here on these bottoms to have as neighbors six species of owl: Great-Horned, Barred, Screech, and (uncommonly) Barn all raise their families around here. In winter we also have the Long-Eared and Saw-Whet. Of particular delight this year has been the young Screech Owl who's taken a fancy to the ancient ash tree beside our house. Early this morning, after the moon had risen, we heard the unmistakable yowls of a youngish rabbit who had become breakfast. It was gratifying on several levels, because as vegetable growers we detest rabbits. The best aspect, however, was to know for sure that this young owl is well on its way alone. May it live long and eat many, many rabbits.

August 10th, 2010
Rotten Potatoes (Bart) Drought or not, I could delay no longer and had to plant our potatoes today. Fortunately there is still some decent moisture about 4 inches down -- these very fine sandy loams create something of a dust mulch that breaks capillarity and prevents too much from evaporating upwards -- and the potatoes will have to make do with what there is. I know from experience that 10 August is the latest we can plant potatoes and still expect a crop of any significance. We haven't had more than a couple of tenths of inches of rain in about a month, and we've now lost our early pepper crop. The plants have sacrificed their peppers in order to stay alive themselves. When it cools off and begins to rain they'll eventually crank it out, but for now they're sacrificing their future to stay alive. We understand that all as part of God's remarkable design of the world. Even if you call it "evolution" (which I do not disrespect) it is nevertheless rather remarkable. Because we are a certified organic farm we're required to purchase organic seed stock when available. When unavailable we can substitute untreated conventional seed stock. For something like a cabbage I think it a bit silly, but those are the rules, so we follow them. Every one of our potato varieties, save one, was organic. They were harvested last September and we bought them in March. All were in pretty decent shape. Nearly five months later, however, the conventional potatoes have collapsed into puddles of stinking ooze.  Amongst the organic potatoes, although several individuals were in some serious trouble, the vast majority was in pretty good shape. Here's the deal. Conventional production uses lots of nitrogen because it gooses apparent yields. Much of that harvested weight, however, is W-A-T-E-R. That doesn't last in storage. Organic produce will yield somewhat  less at harvest, but in terms of usable yield after six or more months of storage there's no comparison. Organic wins every time. The non-organic potatoes today were a cogent example of that phenomenon -- one for which it took me two showers to remove the aroma.

August 5th, 2010

Drought   (Bart)

In Kansas we're never more than three weeks away from a flood or a drought. From mid-April through mid-July it was much closer to the former. Now the latter, with no relief in sight before mid-month at the earliest. Not only is there no rain, but temperatures are consistently in the low- to mid-90s, meaning these sandy soils require something close to 2 inches of rain per week, just to hold even. We almost never get that much, but usually there's an inch or so per week to slow down the drought effect long enough to get by until somewhat cooler weather. Not this year. And in the midst of it all we've been attempting to transplant our autumn crops of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale. Trying to save those little seedlings, I've been out in the field every other day, carrying water by hand to each little one. Many have not made it. We're now at the point of having to make significant shifts in our seeding and transplanting schedules. In this weather, seeds near the surface will be killed by 150 degree soil temperatures. Seedlings fare little better. Yet, should we delay too much, the decreasing day length of autumn will preclude maturity for the crop.  So here we sit, caught between drought and shortening days. I wish people who ate food would understand how hard it can be sometimes.

Meadowlark Igloos (Margit)

January 6th, 2010
A cold snowy winter has settled into the landscape here in Kansas... and across most of the northern states. Since Christmas Eve a foot of glistening white snow blankets the folds of the fields. While temperatures are dropping to zero through the week, everything else is tucked in beneath the blanket of snow. Usually I get out for a quick x-country ski by mid-afternoon, after tending to our pre-season office work. The sunshine and cold air are a refreshing break from the indoors. So yesterday afternoon, I set off across the fields to the east...time to cut another trail, and follow a familiar path for the dogs. Nico dog had run ahead and crossed the other side of the waterway...looking to rustle up some fun. In August and September the waterways were full of tall shimmering toffee and bronze-colored Indian grass, blooming with tiny bright yellow flowers. Now they have slumbered and succumbed to snow. Soon enough Nico bounded back across the waterway and flushed out a meadowlark which flitted south to the edge of the field. A little farther along, he flushed out another meadowlark that lighted on some grass ahead of me. This one had a small glint of yellow on it's breast as a faded memory of summer...and looked at me with a little consternation for having disturbed it's rest.Nonetheless, I was delighted and surprised to see these two hardy friends... Meadowlarks do normally winter in Kansas from the northern states and we always welcome their return as they feed in fields after harvest. But I'd figured the snows had chased our feathered friends farther south to find open grounds and winter-withered grasses in which to feed and hide. Then I turned and looked from where the bird had fled, and noticed a nicely protected warm, open pocket of grass, beneath an ice cap of snow. It certainly looked like a warm inviting harbor for a couple winter birds...a Meadowlark Igloo! I realized there must be a whole network of passage ways beneath the snow where they can happily feed on seeds of Indian grass, Little bluestem, sideoats and more. The tall stately native grasses not only provide catchment for run-off from the fields...they provide beauty through the season, and food and shelter to meadowlarks and other little birds nestled in beneath the snow. A good thing for some of the most special field birds that are facing greater and greater habitat loss to sterile developments,  and farm fields that push out tree lines and fence rows. Consider the meadowlark...it's bright yellow breast of summer sun, cheerful songs and look for a place in your landscape that may afford the benefit of a patch of tall, stately native grass. You too may be surprised to flush a meadowlark out across your path on a wintery walk  someday.

Slipping Away (Bart)

August 26th, 2009
Yesterday, on a strong north wind, our local barn swallows decided to leave. There are more around today, but they're obviously transients because they really don't know their way around the place. As much as we like swallows, they never have the common decency to say goodbye. Orioles, on the other hand, begin singing again as the day length shortens to what it was last spring when they were all trying to make babies. They hang around for a week or so, and then leave.

Spring Awakenings (Bart)

April 8th, 2009
The juncos and horned larks departed for points north yesterday afternoon on a strong south wind. At least this morning all I see is two or three stragglers in place of the hundreds who wintered here. In compensation the mockingbirds are back. Early spring lingers. In fact, more than lingers. It maintains a stranglehold on life that wishes to blossom, like bankers only willing to lend to those who absolutely have no need or desire for it. The peach trees have been stalled in their bloom for three weeks, and the forsythia, amazingly, are not yet finished. This is the third very cold spring in a row, and we seem to be settling back into a more typical, cooler, pattern after thirty years or so of cyclical warming that freaked out those with a restricted perception of natural cycles. In other news, I turned 60 today, though I wish I could say it now meant I am somehow ‘wise.’ What touches me, however, is to look across the orchard and see the beehives. For my fifth birthday my grandfather presented me with a beehive. We built it together, and the bees, ten thousand of them, arrived two days later. Every birthday for a decade, his gift to me was a new package of bees for the spring. Bees have pollinated our crops for millennia, part of a grand design too few of us appreciate. When they come to gather pollen at the greenhouses they seem not like interlopers, but as colleagues.

Prairie Chickens (Bart)

March 27th, 2009
Prairie Chickens. What a delight. After yesterday’s official opening day we drove to Cottonwood Falls and shared a wonderful dinner (and night) together at the Grand Central Hotel before leaving early the next morning to view the mating dance of the prairie chicken. Having lived most of my life in Ruffed Grouse country, I wanted to see this grass grouse who has such a good tailor. Even though it was 27 F and blowing 35 mph, the birds did not disappoint. The girls weren’t interested, but the guys did their thing. I guess it’s what you do when you can’t drive a red Camaro with a roaring muffler. They’ve come under a great deal of pressure in recent years from changes to the management of their few remaining refuges in the tallgrass prairie regions. Ranchers burn the prairie every year, then stock it with twice the normal number of cattle to graze on the flush of grass. Unfortunately it leaves the prairie chickens no place to hide from hawks, and since I was a young man their numbers have dropped from 10 million to under 250,000. Amazingly, Kansas DNR still allows them to be hunted. We risk losing the bird that inspired so many of the native American dances.