Wednesday, September 26, 2012

4th Week (September 17, 2012)

The adventure this week started on Monday with a drive to Winona Minnesota to visit with Stephen Winter at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.  Mr. Winter is a biologist with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and an expert on prairies.  The reason for Monday's visit was to learn more about Patch-burn grazing as a technique for managing and improving native prairies.  Mr. Winter did research in Oklahoma on prairie management using patch-burn grazing as part of his doctoral work.  The basic concept of patch-burn grazing is that you burn a portion (patch) of the prairie each year and then allow grazing of the entire prairie.  Grazing is typically by cattle and sometimes bison.  The animals are attracted to the new vegetation that pops following the burn and they spend a majority of their time in the burn area.  For example if the prairie being managed is divided into three areas with one area being burned each year of a 3-yr rotation, the animals will spend 70% of their time on the newly burned area, 20% of time on last years burn, and the remaining 10% of time on the burn from 2-yrs ago.  The benefit, in addition to the burn is animal impact and fertilizer on the new burn area without cross fencing.  The studies have shown benefit to both cattle production and prairie habitat improvement.  The habitat improvements resulting from this method as opposed to burning the entire prairie are that you end up with a more diverse prairie of varying maturities (heights) of vegetation, also referred to as patchiness.  This patchiness (variety) of habitat is very important to prairie wildlife.
Apparently cattle are not that afraid of fire (source: Stephen Winter
presentation to 2012 Tri-StateConservation Grazing Workshop)
In our Principals of Sustainability Class we are reading "Comeback Farms" by Greg Judy.  The book is a basic "how to manual" for the practice of Holistic High Density Grazing.  Mr. Judy explains all aspects of how he incorporates High Density grazing into his holistic farm management plan, from building and laying out temporary fences (and the best components), multi-species grazing, developing parasite resistant sheep to selecting and training a livestock guardian dog .  In the end it is all about building good soil biology to the point Mr. Judy now concentrates on being a good microbe farmer instead of a grass farmer.  Thursday morning class was spent discussing the first 21 chapters of the book.  The book is an easy read as Mr. Judy is very down to earth and practical in his writing and explanation of high density grazing.  It can be purchased at or directly from Greg Judy at his farms website (his website also has additional information). If you ever get an opportunity to see Mr. Judy speak on the subject I would highly recommend you do so as he is also a very entertaining and informative speaker.

The rest of Thursday was spent at Fruitful Seasons Dairy, owned and operated by the Hoffman Family).  Fruitful Seasons Dairy is a family operated small dairy located near Alexandria, Minnesota. their primary product is raw milk cheese that is crafted on the farm in a licensed facility using quality milk from 100%  grass-fed Jersey cows.  The family gave us a tour of their entire farm and dairy and answered a lot of questions from the group, from how often they moved cattle, problems they have had as well as successes.  They have been in the business about three years now.  One of the reasons they started the business was that they were looking for an activity that the entire family (six kids plus Mom and Dad) could be involved with.    Visit their website for more information on their operation.

Happy Cows make for good cheese at Fruitful Seasons Dairy

The Punk  Rock Cow!  (Note the spikes coming out of the cows nose.
These are temporary to break to cow from sucking on other cows.

This contraption is called a dairy bar
and is used to bottle feed calves after they
weaned from their mothers. 

 The picture on the left is of the dairy's four stanchion milking parlor.  Below is a picture of the dairy room where the milk is filtered and stored in the small bulk tank.  From the bulk tank it is transferred (pumped) to the cheese making room.

In addition to dairy the farm raises some pastured hogs.
The hogs diet consists of whey (a by-product
of cheese making), grass and whatever else they root up in the pasture.
They also have laying hens and sell eggs. 
Friday morning we were back to Bluebird Gardens CSA and started the day discussing the planning effort that goes into determining what will be in each weekly box.  They start out the year with a rough plan on what they will have each week of the season.  They use this plan to initially determine what they plant when, what will follow (succession planting) and then they make adjustments as the season goes on and the weather happens.  In addition to filling boxes the coordination of box transportation and delivery is another significant planning and logistics effort.

A single share box being filled while planning next weeks delivery.

Mark the owner/instructor use to be a 3rd grade teacher.  They use a chalkboard
for sketching out what they have for each weeks box.  The table on the right side of the
chalkboard identifies the routes (Pink, Purple, East and Total) and the number
of single and family share boxes in each route.

The rest of the day at Bluebird Gardens was spent on shooting footage for our video reports.  Instead of writing a research paper we are each producing a you-tube video on a subject related to what we are learning at the Bluebird Gardens CSA.  Mark believes the videos are both educational and excellent marketing materials.  Refer to the website to view some of their videos.  The topic I have chosen is irrigation.  I know it doesn't sound that exciting but you have to remember I am an engineer and not exciting is what I do best.  Below is a sample of raw footage that I shot for the project.

Friday afternoon was spent back on campus working on fence building skills and forage crops.  The Sustainable Food Production Program is sponsoring a workshop on Energized Fencing Strategies for Grazers from 12:00 to 3:00 pm at the Fergus Falls Community College on Saturday October 13, 2012.  The cost is only $15 and includes lunch made from locally supplied food.  To register contact Marci King at 218-736-1625 or  You can also find additional information at this link   

Digging a hole for a corner post.  The post
needs to be at least as far in the ground as
the height of the top wire is above ground.
Corner Post with a Deadman Brace.
Good for up to three High Tensile (HT) wires.

Friday all day was spent working on construction of a winter greenhouse.  We were working on the wood foundation and setting the posts for a post and frame construction greenhouse.  We will be working on this project for the next several weeks so you will get more in-depth updates in the future.

Setting up my Dad's old transit to shoot elevations.

The greenhouse will be attached to the pole building.
The pit will be filled with a rock mass for thermal storage of solar  energy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Third Week (Sept. 10, 2012)

This first picture is of a hydroponic gutter vegetable garden one of the people in class is experimenting with, and is using to grow vegetables o their back deck. The total material costs, including pump, was about $60.

Classes started Thursday with work on pressure canning of low acidic foods (vegetables and meats).  A pressure caner is used to heat the material being canned to a higher temperature than boiling water for the purpose of killing bacteria.  

After the pressure canning we learned about the science behind safely preserving foods and then proceeded to test the pH of the high acid (pH < 4.6) foods that we canned last week.  The pictures below are of a jar of pickles purchased at the Detroit Lakes  Farmers Markets.  Note the proper label and pH 3.4.

Friday started at Bluebird Gardens watching some you-tube videos from last years class.  Go to and select the video tab to view some of these videos as they are pretty cool.

From that we discussed importance of balancing the nutrients in the soil to have healthy energy dense produce.  Then we talked about using cover crops.  After that it was out into the fields to observe first hand how they were using cover crops in their operation growing vegetables.  For example they will plant a mixture of various plants (i.e. nitrogen mix consisting of 10 different nitrogen fixing plants) as a cover crop early in the spring and then plow it under as green manure, or till rows in the cover crop and plant a crop like melons or pumpkins as in the photo below.

Sudan Grass cover crop that followed harvest of a field of sweet corn.

Traveling gun sprinkler.  Irrigation is very important to a successful CSA vegetable farm.

We wrapped the morning up on weeding and some of the various equipment (cultivators) used for weeding.  The video below is of one of the weeders used at bluebird gardens.  The idea is that the person riding weeder moves the spinning cultivators in and out of the rows trying to take out the weeds without taking out the plants.  It is kind of like playing a video game.

Friday afternoon it was over to Paradox Farm for Farm Skills.  There we started tearing down existing fence and gates to prepare the site for a new greenhouse with underground thermal storage that we will be building as a class project.  Practical knot tying skills were worked into the day.  We finished Friday with a lesson on various forage plants and there value as forage for animals.

Building an electric fence for a new lane to route the dairy goats and cows around the  greenhouse construction area to the milking parlor.

 Saturday was a long day, it started at the busy Detroit Lakes Farmers Market.  Note how well the produce is displayed.  We observed that this booth had a significant amount of traffic.  All the vendors were willing to discuss their product, and some of the ins and outs and drama's of the farmers market.

Here I am haggling with the vendor over price.  Actually we are just posing for the picture.  Ryan the booth owner is one of the class instructors 2nd semester.  We finished the day at his CSA farm (unfortunately my camera batteries were dead by the time we got to Ryan's farm  so I did not get any pictures of his High Tower, 2ac of produce, windmill, chickens or sheep.
 In between the farmers market and Ryan's Lida CSA Farm we had the opportunity to visit an Amish Farm owned by Robert and Debbie.  Robert was in charge of communities co-op prior to his retirement last year.  They are converts to the Amish life, two of only 100 such in the nation, which gives them a unique perspective.  Robert did most of the talking, he is college educated and very well read. In addition to learning about their adventures in sustainable farming, farmers markets, and selling to produce wholesalers, we also learned a little bit about Amish life. There did not seem to be any question off limits.  The most interesting was an example of why they are a horse driven society.  It is that it helps keep the community close.  The community needs to live within a 10+/_ mile radius for horse transportation to be practical.  They don't use tractors and other machines to improve the efficiency of their harvest and work because then it would be like telling your neighbor that you didn't need them.  Where without the modern equipment neighbors need to help each other out for everyone to have a successful harvest.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Second Week (Sept. 3, 2012)

This week was very busy and we saw and learned a lot.  We started early and got home about 11:30 pm both nights.  Thursday started with learning hot water bath canning of acidic foods.  The purpose of learning about canning is two fold.  First you can can foods for your own consumption.  The second purpose is to learn how to add value to the produce you raise.  You can sell acid canned foods like tomatoes to make some income on top of what you could sell just the tomatoes for. (note the pH needs to be at least 4.6 or lower).  This was followed by a stop at Paradox Farms for demonstration on Bee keeping using High Bar bee hives by Andy ( a graduate of the program two years ago).  Next was some work with the new hair sheep they had just obtained.  Then we had the opportunity to help butcher a couple of those sheep that were purchased by some previous graduates of the program who live in the area and are working their way towards their farming goal.  See the pictures below.

Here I am working on removing the tomato skins and cores after blanching .  Not bad for a first time beginner

 This is the new flock of hair sheep at Paradox Farm.   They are in this pen to be trained to the electric fence (there is a 3-strand electric fence on the inside of the pen), get use to being handled and will also be taught to trailer.

 The rams at the right and below are being made into a whether's (sp?).  Since the one on the right was older they are using a tool that crimps/breaks the cord for each testicle.  The little ram below is being fixed with a tool that puts a rubber band around the testicles.  They then fall off in a few days.  The third option would be a surgery to remove the testicles.

Both of these guys were running around with the flock right after the procedure.

Dairy cow and dairy goat which are part of the flerd at Paradox Farm.  

Here some of my classmates are getting some experience in butchering sheep.  If you can process the animals you consume you can save a little money and you know exactly what you are getting.

Friday started with crops and forage at Bluebird Gardens (one of our instructors farms, refer to previous post).  We discussed the importance of Calcium in the soil.  This was part of our reading assignment from "The Biological Farmer by Gary Zimmer".  Then we were off to the fields planting spinach, lettuce and sampling some of the fresh produce.  After Bluebird Gardens we headed for the Reinke Ranch which raises grass fed beef, some hogs and chickens.  We also learned a little about a no-till drill seed planter, did a pasture walk to observe the native vegetation that is thriving in some of the pastures as well as observed how winter bale grazing was being used to improve pasture organic matter and fertility.  Next we went to Seven Pines Farm to finish our crop and forage class and our farm skills.  This farm is owned by our instructor Kent Solberg, so I will tell more about this farm in my future posts and just show some pictures.  I should mention that as you see pictures of this farm note the vegetation.  When they moved to this place it was just blow sand and pretty much only grew sand pickers as it had been farmed out and the s\oils had no organic matter left.  They currently have a small grass based dairy heard, pastured pigs, and pastured laying hens and probably some other stuff I am forgetting.

 At Bluebird Gardens 4-Row seed planter, pulled behind tractor
 At Bluebird Gardens, single row hand seeder

 At Bluebird Gardens transplanting lettuce after a 4-row water wheel planter prepared the beds for planting.  Note this is the 3rd or 4th  crop they will be growing from this portion of the field.  They never have bare soil sitting around very long.  It is either in crops or cover crops or being prepared for planting.

Reinke Ranch No till seed drill from local SWCD  office

 Reinke Ranch raising pastured broilers in portable pens the Joe Salatin way.  Chickens are moved twice a day.  Electric fence for predator control.
Reinke Ranch Angus graxing in native plants, Little Blue Steam,
Indian grass, Big Blue Steam, Switch grass etc.

Seven Pines Farm 3-day old calf.  She gets mothers milk bottle fed to her until  she is grazing .

High Tower used in the winter for the laying hens currently used in summer for storage and drying hay and wood.

Seven Pines Farm egg mobile

The egg mobile follows the cows or pigs in the pasture rotation.  The also graze and also eat bugs out of cow pies and grass.  It is moved each day.  We picked about 65 eggs from the nesting boxes on the side.  Bottom is wire mesh to allow manure to drop through.  Roost is in the trailer.

Yes that is me learning how to milk cows at Seven Pines Farm.

Saturday class was spent in the class room on Farm Ecology and  learning about permaculture  as well as reviewing everything we had done the last two week.s.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The First Week of Class

Here is a brief summary of my first week of classes, taken from my facebook posts:

Today I finished my first day of school since May of 1984.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Background about the Blog

Hello my name is Dan Fabian.  I assume most of the people reading this are friends and family, but for those that are not, here is some background.  I am a civil engineer with 28 years of experience.  I primarily work in water resources and watershed management in Minnesota.

Fabian back patio container gardens.  The green re-purposed containers
have water reservoir in bottom and wheel to move into sun.
Currently I am taking the opportunity to pursue a personal interest in agriculture by taking a sabbatical fro work starting the week of August 27th, 2012.  During this time I will be completing the Sustainable Food Production Program at Minnesota State College-Fergus Falls, as the cornerstone of my efforts to combine my experience in engineering, natural resources, watershed, and floodplain management with sustainable agricultural practices.  At the completion of the classroom portion of the program all students are to complete a minimum of 180 hours of internship working on a farm.  I expect to complete the program sometime in June of 2014.  If you happen to have a good idea on how I should spend my internship please send me a comment.  I am documenting my adventures in sustainable agriculture with this Blog.

Just for the record, I grew up in town and prior to starting this program my actual hands on experience in farming is limited to summer childhood experience of bailing hay for neighbors of my Uncle in southwestern WI, and picking rocks in central Minnesota.  Oh yes I also know how to clean barn (pitch sh....).