2008 Year in Review
Many of our customers keep asking how things are going and what it takes to keep things running around here. For our continued customers, the following summary will fill you in on the past year. For our new customers, it will, hopefully, give you a feel for what life is like here on the preservation center.
As I sit here at the computer on this rainy, freezing rain and then snowy December day I keep telling myself what I say each year that I am going to work on this as the year progresses. Yet another year has passed and it is the same old thing. There is never enough time to get all the things done that I had hoped and planned for. Linda always accuses me of making my “to do list” too long to accomplish it all and my response is always, “If I make it too short and get everything done then I feel like I didn’t set my goal high enough”. That whole philosophy is sort of the subject for this year’s year in review. This year is significant for me as it was in December of 1988 that i moved to this farm with the promise that I would take this rundown, chemically abused sandhill of 40 acres and make it a little bit of a better spot on this planet. It has always been my philosophy that we should leave this planet a little better than we found it and, while we all can’t buy a section of rain forest or save a beached whale, we can each and every one do our part no matter how small it may seem.
When I first spotted this farm and walked around it in the early Fall of 1988 I knew it was perfect for what I wanted to do. 1988 was the driest year that this county has ever seen and what a perfect time to look at a piece of sandy ground. The farm had been no-tilled and chemically sprayed into soil sterility and it didn’t kill the sandburs and horse nettle and other obnoxious pests like the corn root worm beetles. For all of these gallons of spray that had been applied, the plant and animal pests abounded. But the living part of the soil the natural microbes and earthworms were missing. My first growing year provided many challenges. First and foremost, who would ever think sand would be nearly impossible to dig in because it was so hard? Well, it was. All of the years of chemical abuse had left the soil worm free and hard as concrete. I had what I called my worm line, the area near the farm buildings where worms flourished and then bam! you get to the edge of the growing area and nothing. I am pleased to report that 20 years later I have finally accomplished one goal. The soil is now loose and useable and you can go just about anywhere and find earthworms. Life has returned to the farm. I was initially encouraged by many to get rid of the remaining 2 acres of locust and mulberry woods on the top of the hill and turn it into pasture. I also fought pressure and turned 0.7 acres in the back field back to nature because it kept flooding every year. After three years in a row of losing whatever was planted there it just made sense to let nature have it back. As a scientist, it has been very interesting to see ecological succession take place and now there are trees and shrubs all brought in by the wind and animals. There are some native grasses and flowers and one day last summer I counted 3 species of song birds nesting there that had not seen for several years anywhere in this area.
This year was a sad one in one aspect of our natural flora and fauna. It marked the first year since I moved here that I did not see the endangered Ornate Box Turtles. I usually see several each summer and mark with a marker on their shells to track their progress around the farm. I hope there are still some survivors. We still have about 4 acres of undisturbed sand hill for them to live in.
Our biggest increase in species numbers has been both in the size and number of snakes. I used to be an ardent snake hater but have come to appreciate all that they do and am thankful for each and every one (as long as there are not rattlesnakes). We have seen and identified over 6 species of snakes with some Bull Snakes reaching over 8 feet long. I am so excited when I see the Bull Snakes in the sweet potato patch going down a gopher hole. I still jump when I see one, having grown up in rattlesnake country out west, but I no longer jump for the hoe or shovel to make snake kabobs. Their assets far outweigh their bad habits.
The farm was originally set up with several goals in mind. First and foremost it was to be a preservation facility for rare and endangered poultry, livestock and vegetable and fruit crops. Second it was to be an educational outreach to show what can be done with sustainable organic methods . Third, I wanted to provide a small sanctuary for some of the native plans and animals in the area. It is tough for snakes and sand turtles to make a go of it in mile after mile of crop ground. I can honestly report that we have made great progress in all areas. After many years of chemical abuse, the sandburs on this farm were at a high number. Through our cultivation and rotation and natural practice I think I found just 3 plants this past summer. In a 10 foot stretch of a corn row in 1988, when I toured the place, I had seen more than 3 plants. Our poultry preservation has far surpassed its goal. We are pleased that so much interest in rare poultry has taken some of the strain off of us to be the only ones maintaining certain breeds. Now, 20 years later, many breeds which were once near extinction are now found everywhere.
It is our hope that this year, as the world thinks more and more about going green, that each and every one of you will take a minute to think about what he or she can do for our planet. Maybe it is putting up a bird feeder or raising a plant that attracts butterflies or just some small start. Those who have the means can tackle something bigger like adopting a rare breed of livestock or taking on a seed saving project. If each of us does just one thing, it will make the whole world a better place for centuries to come.
Enough of the soap box, now to our year in review. We get e-mails and notes from many of you saying that this is the part of the catalog that you enjoy reading and look forward to it each year. One person described as being like getting a Christmas letter from family. We like to think that our operation is a bit different and we realize our style and way of doing business does not appeal to everyone. We specialize in old and rare material from days gone by from a simpler time before cellphones, computers, e-mail and all of the other instant access electronics. We tend to operate like the material we propagate - - - a little behind the times.
Weather was a huge factor in our 2008 year. December 1 of 2007 rolled around with an ice storm and we had one about every 10 days. It became such a challenge to do chores carrying all of those buckets of water in the dark each morning. I start chores at 5:00 AM and in the winter it takes around 80 five-gallon buckets of water to do all of the pens. Thank goodness the cows, sheep and pigs have a sort of automatic waterer. I am not a lover of winter. One of the things I enjoyed about Iowa when I moved here was that we would get snow and a week later it had all blown away and we had bare ground. Well, last winter we had a continuous snow cover from December 1 until the end of March, with just a tiny break here and there. I never got so tired of snow and shoveling in all my life. We had over 30 inches in February and that is more than our yearly average. At first it was pretty but then it got pretty down right ugly. I have most of our poultry buildings facing south with some that face east or west. All of the snow slid off the sloped roof buildings that faced south and piled up against the north side of the building. At first I thought, Wow!, that is good insulation and will keep the birds warmer. Well , as it got to be 4 to 5 feet deep it became a glacier and became tightly packed down from the periodic rains we got in between snows. Then, as it started to thaw, I had flooded pens as it seeped through the building walls. Each day I would rush home from work and bail water out of pens to try to give the birds a dry place to live. That gets really old when you have to do it day after day. We also lost many pen doors as the ice would freeze and thaw and move down the hill like a glacier and freeze around a door. I had to rebuild 20 to 30 pen doors and, while we had the problem, predators took their toll by getting in to the pens where the doors wouldn’t close properly.
We had no March hatches. It was still below zero many days and we had loads of snow and ice. April hatches were dismal and, as feed prices kept rising, I told Linda we are in for big trouble. May started to look better and June was great for all but the waterfowl. We ended up finishing the year with more boxes of babies sent out than any other year in the past.
I was so proud of myself for getting the 600+ tomato varieties started in the greenhouse in 2 week intervals of about 200 varieties per interval. I had it planned to hit the garden with the first 200 transplants on Memorial Day weekend. Well, we had a cold and damp Spring and the one week to get the ground worked up was the week prior to Memorial Day. It was crazy at school and we had a big hatch, so no ground got worked up that week. Little did I know that it would be 3 weeks before I could get into the garden again to work up the ground. It rained every day. Finally, I got started planting on June 19 in mucky wet dirt. I had begun to joke that our catalog would be able to be printed on a postcard if it took much longer before we got started planting. With Tyler and Kyle’s help, and a few new creative ideas on how to lay plastic, we finally finished planting the garden at noon on July 11. All sweet potatoes were planted on July 1 and 2. The back up plantings of sweet potatoes were done on July 14 and 15. I never in my wildest dreams thought we would get much of anything from any of the transplants this year. The first 200 tomato varieties that we set out on June 23 were a mess. They were ready to set out a month earlier and, after being set out in the garden, were stunted and never fully recovered. The last tomatoes we set out did the best. I kept waiting all summer for that week of horrible, hot, humid, icky, sticky weather that everyone here always complains about and it never came. August 1 rolled around and I was sure the sweetpotatoes and tomatoes would be a total loss. I weeded all of them and the hot weather never came. By August’s end I figured just what I had said earlier, that the catalog would be postcard size in 2009. September started with 3 hot promising days. I love to sweat in the garden and watch all the crops grow, but my non-airconditioned classroom at school is not my first choice of places to be in hot weather. Well, the 3 hot days were followed by cold and wet for another week and then BAM! we had about 20 days in a row of near 80 to 85 deg. F during the day and 60 to 65 deg. F at night. The sweet potatoes and tomatoes went wild! We started digging sweet potatoes on September 26 - - - not even 90 days after setting them out and had some great yields. While all summer long we had no varmints in them, outside of an occasional rabbit, one day about September 20 I looked and each patch had multiple gopher mounds. The dogs started digging and catching voles. We lost almost all of several varieties in a matter of days. I simply must inspire those bull snakes to do a better job of patrolling late in the season!
We were truly blessed this past season. When it looked like a dismal failure was imminent, things turned around and we had success. We are deeply appreciative to all those people who help and support us and to those who continually pray for us. Our work here is never done and we appreciate those good wishes and nice notes. We will far surpass the number of catalogs being sent out for 2009 that I ever said we would send out. But, with growth comes changes. We are trying to be cautious and careful as we don’t want to stray too far from our goal and mission. So many of the unique seed varieties we must grow ourselves and that is still a challenge. There is a huge amount of hand labor that you just cannot begin to fathom until you have spent a day here.
We are extremely grateful for our workers that help us out when the season dictates. I remember the days when I would personally pack each packet and filled each seed order. Then Linda started helping and now during the peak of the season, I just check each order for accuracy and substitutions. We are thankful that Teri, Sheryl and Natalie who have all figured out they can do what only I used to do. It is because of that, we hope we will have a much faster turn-around on seed orders this year. I must also thank Tyler and Kyle who help me move manure and birds on the weekends and help with the setting out and harvesting of all those seed crops. Saturdays in the Spring and Fall are not easy days. We also must thank Joel, our computer guru, and Bob, who can build or fix anything. Those two are never smart enough to not answer the phone when I call. We are also grateful for those who help us grow a few of the extra special things that we just can’t get all done here: Suzanne Ashworth, Darrel Jones, Pam and Edmond Brown, Tom Knoche, Tom Bruning, Kim Mullen, Marcia Duncan. Many of our growers also had their own challenges with the weather this year. That is why so many things may be unavailable for 2009. Hopefully, we will have good weather this year all across the country and everyone’s gardens will flourish! Have a great 2009!
Glenn and Linda Drowns