Our Turn at this Earth

John Deere's The Furrow magazine. Copyright (c) 2018 Deere & Company. All worldwide rights reserved.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking a lot about regenerative farming techniques. “But could they work where I’m from?” I kept wondering.

In order to find out, I spoke with Michael Thompson, a sixth-generation farmer from Norton County, Kansas, who grew up thinking, like I did, that wheat ground had to be fallowed every other year and kept bare to accumulate moisture for the next crop.

Public Domain

When it came time to plant a new windbreak on my family’s farm back in the 1980s, my father wanted just junipers or elms, while I wanted both of those, plus lilacs, Russian olives and plums, not in rows, but all mixed together randomly, like in a real forest.

We fought over those trees the way close family members will do as if our separate wishes were a threat to our mutual identity. He must have felt as if I were rejecting his very way of life and being, while I yearned for him to accept and share my taste for wildness.

Julene Bair

Last month, my partner and I, having become mutually deluded, decided to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Al had done this many times as a younger man. Now 67, he likes to remind me that he is two whole years my junior. I had only backpacked a few times in that long life of mine, but with visions of diving into blue mountain lakes, I thought that a three-mile jaunt into the Sierras should be no problem.

Julene Bair

This May, when I paid a visit to the North Dakota farm of the well-known Soil Health advocate, Gabe Brown, I felt particularly blessed to take part in a conversation with the insightful soil scientist, John Norman. Although he retired some time ago from university teaching and research, John had agreed to oversee a study of the soils on Gabe’s farm.

He was motivated in this research by his understanding of prairies and the soils beneath them as living systems.

Julene Bair

“This farming has gotten so industrialized and out of hand,” Gabe Brown said.

We were sitting in the shade on his North Dakota regenerative farm, watching several hundred chickens scratching in a field of mixed cover crops. They provided ready contrast to the ills Gabe was describing. Most chickens these days live in cages so small they can’t even spread their wings.

Abe Collins, a soil advocate colleague of Gabe’s, felt he understood the root of the problem.

Our Turn At This Earth: The Missing Loop

Aug 16, 2018
Julene Bair

By lucky coincidence, my visit this May to the North Dakota farm of the remarkable soil health advocate Gabe Brown corresponded with a study being led by two other remarkable men. One of them was Abe Collins, who has spent most of his life raising cattle and sheep.

Collins is now mapping the soils on regenerative farms such as Gabe’s, hoping to create what he calls a “translation utility.”

Our Turn At This Earth: Nature Won Them Over

Aug 9, 2018
USDA NRCS South Dakota

Often in our culture, when thinking about land, we think only about how much money we can make farming its soils, grazing its grasses, mining its minerals, or harvesting its trees. We think this way, understandably, because we need to make a living and secure our futures, but in that pursuit, we sometimes fail to notice what the land already gives us in its natural state.

Courtesy

That’s the question I first asked myself some months ago when I began learning about the Soil Health movement. I’d seen a video of Ray Archuleta, the agronomist who spearheaded the movement, demonstrating how non-tilled versus conventionally farmed soils absorb water. When he placed a clump of soil from a field that had been tilled year after year into a jar of water, it immediately fell apart and turned the water brown, while a clump from a field farmed without tillage held together for over 24 hours.

Our Turn At This Earth: A Soil Health Tour

Jul 26, 2018
Julene Bair

Gabe threw a drain spade into the bed of his pickup and invited me to hop in the passenger seat. I’d arrived at his North Dakota farm earlier that morning and was getting a crash course in the art and science of regenerative agriculture from one of its foremost practitioners. 

brownsranch.us

I love the wide-open, top-of-the-world feeling I get whenever I’m on the Great Plains. Last month, I was able to relish that feeling once again. After flying into Bismarck, North Dakota, I drove out to Gabe Brown’s 5,000-acre ranch and farm.

Gabe showed me to a chair on the porch of a one-room cabin he’d built for meetings with visitors. A prominent leader in the Soil Health movement, he told me that a group or an individual comes by almost every day to learn about his regenerative farming and grazing techniques.

“So tell me what you’re interested in,” he said.

I told him that until my family sold our western Kansas irrigated farm in 2006, we had done our part in depleting the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest source of groundwater in this country. That farm and others like it were continuing to drain the aquifer, which seemed wrong to me. For a long time, I’d been looking for some positive news to share about how the aquifer could be saved.

Our Turn At This Earth: Soil Health Movement

Jul 5, 2018
USDA National Resource Conservation Services

I had read something about a Montana farmer who was using sweet clover as a cover crop in his wheat. The details are long lost to me. He may have been inter-seeding the clover with the wheat, or establishing it over a season or two, then turning it under before he planted his cash crop. Whatever his method, the clover, being a legume, fixed nitrogen in the soil.

Our Turn At This Earth: Dream Women

Jun 28, 2018
Public Domain

In the dream, a little girl stands beside a row of women. The women are dressed demurely in dark dresses such as the ones my mother’s mother wore—navy blue with tiny polka dots or dark green bordering on black. They sit erect in straight-backed chairs, their hands folded in their laps. The girl moves from one woman to the next, asking, “Do you have any magic?” Each, in turn, smiles indulgently at the girl. “Oh my! Why no, dear.”

Our Turn At This Earth: Finding The Right Words

Jun 21, 2018
Creative Commons CC0

It’s happened many times. There I’ll be driving innocently down a western Kansas road, and a stretch of buffalo grass will reach out and grab me, almost pulling me into the ditch. Often, I’ve had to stop the car and get out, as I did one February afternoon a few years ago.

Our Turn At This Earth: Nature Fix

Jun 14, 2018

Back in my late 20s, after my marriage had ended, I just couldn’t stand being in the city. I fled to the Mojave Desert every chance I got, because in the wilderness, with no people for miles upon miles, I felt less alone. That sounded crazy whenever I said it out loud, so I seldom did.

Our Turn At This Earth: Taking Notice

Jun 11, 2018

Today, rather than share my observations of the High Plains, I devised an exercise to encourage you to explore yours. I hope you enjoy it and that it brings you some insight into your relationship with the land. You can do this in your head, but it will be more informative if you do it with your feet, nose, hands, eyes, ears, and, if you’re particularly adventurous, maybe even your tongue.

Drive to a place where intact (not over-grazed) pastureland borders bare farmed ground or a planted field. Stand at the fence facing into the pasture, or if you’re comfortable doing this, crawl through the fence, walk a ways and sit down. Whether it is hot or cold out, windy or calm, smell the air and experience the feel of it on your skin and in your lungs. Take deep breaths. What do you smell?

Our Turn At This Earth: The Exploratory Impulse

May 24, 2018
Pexels

At age 12, my older brother Bruce knew more about the native plants in our pasture and the birds in our windbreak than I would learn by the time I was 30. I brought his wrath down on my head once for placing stamps of cardinals and woodpeckers, muskrats and badgers—crookedly, poorly torn, and in the wrong spaces—in his Junior Audubon Society booklet. But for the most part, I didn’t share my brother’s drive to understand the natural world.

Our Turn At This Earth: Well-Developed And Settled

May 17, 2018
Courtesy
Nancy Morill nancym@iinet.com / rittenhouseneedlepoint.com

“We saw it go from raw prairie to a well-developed, settled condition.” That is how one settler’s descendant, writing in a family history volume, describes the transformation of Sherman County, Kansas. Of course, not everyone would agree with the cultural outlook embedded in that statement.

Our Turn At This Earth: Mother's Girl

May 10, 2018
Julene Bair

My father, a farmer, took pride in his work, and, little sponge that I was, I took pride in him—for staying on top of things the way he did, for seizing, as he often told us a man must, the first opportune moment to ready, plant, cultivate, and harvest his fields. The markets rewarded my father’s accomplishments. His income supplied us with the essentials and then some—new cars and family vacations every few years, Christmas presents, nice furniture, college educations. He was our breadwinner.

Our Turn At This Earth: High On Spring

May 3, 2018
Creative Commons CCO

Every year about this time there comes a Saturday when I begrudgingly forego plans with friends and commit myself instead to working in the yard. This year, that Saturday came last weekend. Respect for my neighbors demanded that I address the unsightly weeds and grass that had grown up in the wood chips around my shrubs.

Our Turn At This Earth: After Sand Creek

Apr 26, 2018
Alan Hutchins

“Your grandparents started out right over there,” Tobe Zweygardt said, pointing to a farmed hillside in the distance. It amazed me how much information Tobe, an elderly retired farmer, stored under that billed cap he wore. I knew my father had spent his early childhood in Cheyenne County, but until then hadn’t known where.

Our Turn At This Earth: Indelible Infamy

Apr 5, 2018
Wikimedia Commons

It “…was the worst blow ever struck at any tribe in the whole plains region, and this blow fell upon friendly Indians.

WyoHistory.org

I’m not sure why this never dawned on me when I was a kid, but not until well into my adulthood did I put two and two together and realize that Cheyenne County, just north of our Kansas farm, was—duh!—named after the tribe that used to live there. Indeed, the 1851 Horse Creek treaty, signed at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, had granted the Cheyenne and their allies, the Arapaho, the land where I grew up, along with all the land west from there into the Rocky Mountains.

Wikimedia

My cousin Mark Jones ranches in eastern Colorado on what were once the headwaters of the Arickaree, a tributary to the Republican River. Mark calls it the Ricaree. “Was there water here in the Ricaree when you were a kid?” I asked him.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

“Is there ever water in it now?”

“Hardly ever.”

L. A. Huffman

When we were kids, my brother Bruce had a knack for finding arrowheads on the pasture hills surrounding our family’s farm. Once, he even found a point resting in the grass at the base of a neighbor’s light pole. I would drag sharp edges of against my palm and imagine braves racing bareback over our once unfenced pastures.

But despite the fact that these artifacts practically littered the ground beneath my feet, I grew up ignorant of Indian history. I didn’t know that many of the battles I’d seen on TV and at the movies, between cowboys, or cavalry, and Indians had taken place right in the Kansas-Colorado border region where we lived.

Our Turn At This Earth: In Search Of Live Water

Mar 8, 2018
Julene Bair

I once read a beautiful definition of a spring:  “a place where, without the agency of man, water flows from rock or soil.” That water can just appear in this way, often in a very dry place, has enchanted me ever since I was a young woman, traveling and camping in the Mojave Desert.

In those miraculous places where water trickled through cracks in granite or up from an otherwise dry creek bed, life sprang forth as magically as the water. Fish weaved through clear pools, casting shadows on sand or gravel bottoms. Birds darted among willow shrubs and cottonwoods. Bees buzzed. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower. Invariably, I found places in the lush grasses where deer or antelope had slept.

Our Turn At This Earth: Big Daddy

Mar 1, 2018
Courtesy/Julene Bair

When I farmed with my father in the mid-1980s, I often expressed my concern that the water we were withdrawing from the Ogallala Aquifer, to irrigate our crops, would one day run out. My father, who was one of those hardy old-timers—a grandson of pioneers—said, “Don’t worry. Big Daddy will put the plug in before it’s too late.” By “Big Daddy,” he meant the government.

Our Turn At This Earth: The Writing On The Wall

Feb 22, 2018
Susan O’Shea/susanoshea.files.wordpress.com

According to legends passed down from generation to generation among the Hopi Indians, humanity has occupied three previous worlds, each of which was destroyed because we failed to honor the instructions of our creator. I learned about this myth from a man named James, a Hopi farmer whose family I stayed with during a 1980s visit to Hotevilla, the most traditional Hopi village.

Our Turn At This Earth: As If No Tomorrow

Feb 15, 2018

When, as a young woman, I had the good fortune to stay for a few days in the home of a Hopi farming family, I saw many similarities between my host, James, and my own father. Both men had spent virtually every day of their lives outdoors, tilling soil and caring for crops. And they both did this in a dry place—in James’s case the northern Arizona desert, and in my father’s, the high, dry plains of western Kansas.

Calisphere/University of California

When I was a young woman, a friend who assisted the Hopi Indians with their causes invited me to join him on a visit to Hotevilla, the most traditional village on the Hopi Indian reservation. The Hopi descended from ancient Pueblo cultures that emerged in the desert Southwest around the 12th Century BC. They dwell in the region we now think of as northern Arizona. Their ability to stay in one place through the seasons, decades, and centuries rests on the domestication of corn on this continent seven thousand years ago.

Our Turn At This Earth: Full Speed Ahead

Feb 1, 2018
USGS

In the mid-1980s my father got a letter from the Kansas Water Office warning that, from then on, farmers who didn’t report their annual water use would be fined. This was long before our Groundwater Management District began requiring meters on irrigation wells, so we would have to extrapolate the amount of water we’d pumped that year from utility bills for the natural gas that powered our five well engines.

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