Summer on the Pasture

Back when my maternal grandparents were looking for a getaway property “up north,” a major selling point of this homestead was the expansive north field. Once an enormous potato patch then later hay crop for cattle and horses, the open expanse cut from the forest is longer than it is wide—just long enough for something in particular they had in mind.

Grandpa had been in the Air Force, and both he and Grandma had learned to fly airplanes. Later, their two oldest children would also learn to fly (one of which is my mom), and while what is now our farm is a bit of a jog to the Hayward airport, the field held some promise as a grassy landing strip. A hump and a swale would need leveling, and Mom remembers that there were two massive pines over where the land drops off into the swamp. If you went corner to corner and lined up with those two trees, you could land or take off in the Cessna 182 they used to carry her folks, the three kids, and the lab-collie mix “Lazy” that was their ever-trusty companion.

While the barn roof still sports a fluorescent orange windsock, the airplane days at the farm are long since past. One year, we rediscovered the half-buried anchoring loops that were used to tie down the plane. Another remnant of a different piece of the farm’s story.

As my mom and sister and I settled in to living at the homestead and transforming it back into a working farm but with a regeneration vision, the mostly-wildflowered hayfield was ready to receive a facelift. The grassy stubble was sparse and thin, with little forage opportunity, and the leveled hump and swale often stood as bare subsoil, with nothing growing on it at all. Time for some serious TLC!

First was the need to fence the perimeter of part of the field to keep out the predators of the forest. To tackle the barren areas, we’d summer groups of pigs in these spots, letting them root it up and fertilize the earth with their potent manure. Modeling from the rotational grazing concepts of Joel Salatin, we began moving our sheep through select areas of the field frequently, so they could mob graze down the vegetation without overgrazing. We would follow the sheep with poultry in movable pens called tractors to help break pest cycles and fertilize the soil.

In late winter, Kara would be out with bags of clover seed, scattering it across the last crusty remains of snow. Known as frost seeding, the sun hits the dark seeds and helps them tunnel down in. We’ve also used light discing to make cuts in the sod to seed new types of grasses and other biodiversity. Refusing to till the soil for more than 20 years means that beneficial bacteria, insects, worms, and more have been able to create their established permaculture. Soil is so much more than a medium to hold up plants, it’s a complex world all on its own that needs tending balanced with non-disturbance.

Early in the morning, Kara is out in the pasture moving the electric mesh interior fence to form new paddocks for the sheep to graze. Chicken tractors are moved onto fresh ground and hens released for a day of foraging in their circle of fence that is moved to new ground weekly. Once the dew is off the grass, the sheep are released for the day’s grazing, and typically they rush out to see their new spot. Sometimes it’s hard for them to discern that new grass is available, and they stand in the runway baahing in distaste. At these times, Kara has to walk out with them to show them how if they just walk a little farther, they’ll find the new grass. At the discovery, the sheep are more than happy to go and harvest their own food, scattering their manure on the pasture to encourage next year’s grass growth.

With all this tending, the grass has grown lush and dense where the rain and the chickens have lent their aid. Clovers of many types bob their purple, white, and yellow blooms, while their roots are home to nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Wildlife enjoys the pasture as much as the domestic animals, with sandhill cranes wading while nighthawks swirl overhead by the hundreds in migration. We seem to be a favored yearly wayside for the bug-eating nighthawks, as they know we have plenty of munch-ables on the wing in our habitat.

The pasture also offers a beautiful view of nightly sunsets and starry northern skies, as the openness is a rarity in these northern Big Woods aside from lakes and an occasional farm field. The north field has a sense of magic to it, especially as we’ve tended its regeneration from neglect to flourishing for plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and more. Summer on the pasture is a time of flourishing as the energy of sunlight and rain is transformed into food, fiber, oxygen, and carbon sequestration. It’s an entirely different world from a traditional cornfield, with rows and rows of the same species for acres, with the weeds sprayed into submission. Where is the home for the bumblebees, the redwing blackbirds? By contrast, a well-managed, rotationally grazed pasture makes homes for all while building soils and a future of sustainability. Here’s to greener pastures on your side of the fence! See you down on the farm sometime.