Thursday, November 24, 2011


When our kids were little we always had Thanksgiving at our house. Extended family members could join us; but that was our holiday not to travel. We pretended to be pilgrims. We cooked potatoes and cranberries and dried bread for stuffing over the wood stove. We didn’t watch TV or listen to the radio; we made our own music and our own entertainment. We used candles and lanterns when the sun went down instead of electric lights. Of course we used the electric stove for baking the pies and roasting the chicken, but we’d grown the apples and the pumpkins and chicken, so we felt that we were as close to pilgrims as we could get.
The fun thing about those Thanksgivings was not that we were playing pilgrim, but that we were working together to do something that we didn’t ordinarily do. When the kids got fussy, we smushed pumpkin for pie or put on warm jackets and boots to tromp through the snow to gather dried weeds for a table decoration. Everybody helped with the cooking; everybody helped entertain the kids. We were a family.
Our kids are grown with kids of their own, and we gathered this year in St Louis for Thanksgiving. No wood stove, no snow, no home grown chicken or pumpkin or potatoes. But everybody still helps with the cooking (even Kieran and Jasper), everybody still entertains the kids(even Kieran and Jasper), and if we use electricity for cooking and music and light, it’s okay. It’s the family together for which we give thanks.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Training a puppy

We began training Newton by reading the book Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson and enrolling ourselves in a puppy class that uses positive reinforcement for training.

Attitudes and techniques have changed so much since we trained Schwartz, our first dog, forty years ago. Schwartz learned well, but wore a choke chain all the time. Twenty years later, a choke chain wasn’t enough to catch the attention of Strider, our independent and enthusiastic Bouvier. We used a pinch collar on him. He wore it day and night for eleven years. I threw it away the day he died.

We are training Newton with a harness and a handful of cheese, using techniques originally developed by dolphin trainers. It is so much more fun, both for the dog and for us, to be rewarding positives with happy voices and food, rather than jerks and speaking forcefully to correct negatives. Newton has learned to “sit” and “lie down”, to “watch” us and “touch” our hand, to hand signals. We’re looking forward to “come” and “stay”. Some day in the future we hope to teach him “go out” and “come by,” the phrases necessary to herding the sheep.

But whether or not Newton becomes the sheep dog he was supposed to be, he has helped us learn more about positive reinforcement and training. “Yes! Good dog!” we say to Newton when he touches our outstretched hand with his nose. “Yes!” I say to Dave when he offers to stop at the grocery store on his way home from the lumber yard. “Yes! Good husband.” I think to myself.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Last spring we planted eleven acres to prairie. We hired the elevator to spray our fields to kill the thistles and dandelions and then paid a custom seeder to plant prairie grasses and forbs. Two weeks later, Dave said “you know, that field doesn’t look like its been sprayed.” He called the elevator and learned that it hadn’t. The spray truck driver had tried to cross our ditch at the wrong place, broken his equipment and given up – without telling us.

We crossed our fingers and asked them to spray immediately. We had over one thousand dollars worth of seed planted. If it had already germinated, the spray would kill it. But if we didn’t spray, the thistles and dandelions would choke out the new seedlings. The elevator agreed to reimburse us the cost of seed and seeding the field if the prairie plants didn’t survive.

By late July we were really discouraged. The only plant we could see in our newly planted prairie was pigeon grass – not one of the varieties we had planted and not one that we wanted. In fact, pigeon grass is a terrible weed whose seeds work their way into fleeces and need to be cut out.

Last month, when we took our new puppy out exploring, I suddenly lost track of him. When I heard a whimper, I turned back. He was completely immobilized by pigeon grass. His legs, chest, belly and head were wrapped in grass stems and held fast by seed heads. He literally couldn’t move. We broke the stems, carried him home, and spent the next hour and a half combing seeds out of his fur.

Last week we talked to Doug, a friend who specializes in prairies for the DNR. He told us that they often spray for weeds within ten days of planting prairie seed. “Go out and look,” he said. “You should see prairie grasses now.”

When we walked out into the prairie, at first all we saw was pigeon grass, but then I spied a small sunflower plant and then side oats gramma and switch grass and Canada wild rye. We do have a prairie!

Thursday, November 3, 2011


The soybeans have been harvested. All that is left on our fields is a scattering of green dandelion plants, a few drifts of cream colored soybeans where the combine missed the truck, and the shredded remains of the soybean plants. Almost nothing.

Experts recommend leaving 30% of the soil surface covered with vegetable matter over the winter. Our fields look much barer than that and they haven’t been tilled. The seed was drilled in last spring, disturbing the soil as little as possible. But soybeans as a crop leave so little behind that we may run into problems with wind erosion this winter until we get snow cover, and we may get water erosion in the spring from snow melt. Of course, we won’t get nearly as much erosion as if we’d actually broken the ground this fall.

The Land Stewardship Newsletter reports experiments showing erosion of no-till soybean fields on a slope in Iowa. Because of heavy rains, the farmer lost 11 tons of topsoil per acre in 2008. When he planted 10% of the field to strips of native prairie grass, his loss of topsoil dropped to hundreds of pounds per acre.

Our fields are all hills. This summer’s experiment with soybeans reminded me of why we try to keep them in pasture and alfalfa. We’ve planted two small fields to native prairie grasses, but in the future, we may look at planting strips of prairie in our other fields. And for the present, we’ll hope for early snow cover to slow wind erosion and a gradual melt in the spring to slow water erosion.