Reflection: Our First Year of Farming

The sun sets over a placid evening on Mud Lake. Now, with winter's grip firmly holding the land and the lake in a state of hibernation, we take the time to reflect on our first year farming.

The sun sets over a placid evening on Mud Lake. Now, with winter's grip firmly holding the land and the lake in a state of hibernation, we take the time to reflect on our first year farming.

A YEAR AGO, when the ice last covered Mud Lake and the snow was blowing across the barren fields, no one was living at Lily Springs Farm. The forest was quiet, and the goats were far away at another farm. We began planning for our first year of farming at LSF before the winter, taking advantage of the cold weather to stay indoors and lay out the designs and logistics needed to start our first major projects on the land. While we knew there would be many challenges, lessons, and new growth in our first year, we had very little idea of how our first year would go. Now as we reflect on the warm seasons behind us, we know that this year was full of transformation, that it was only the beginning of our long-term restoration work here. 

When the ice melts on Mud Lake, a world of disintegration emerges through the waters. The detritus on the lakebed break down, gradually returning to the primordial skin of the earth. 

When the ice melts on Mud Lake, a world of disintegration emerges through the waters. The detritus on the lakebed break down, gradually returning to the primordial skin of the earth. 

Before the lake was fully-thawed and before the first sprouts were emerging from the ground, I moved my life to the farm and began to document the budding stages of the farm's first year. In the fields, the tall stalks of mullein and goldenrod were emptied of their seeds by scavenging birds; in the forests, young white oaks still clung to their dried leaves and the trails of deer, fox, and bear had disappeared into the thawing earth.

The regeneration cycles of this fragile land depend on the rhythms of growth and decay, freeze and thaw, flow and stasis. In the warming months of 2015, we began to lay the ground for new infrastructure; we built a protective fence around the future hazelnut plantation and a road between the North and South Fields; we built this website; we reached out to collaborators and purchased cover-crops and trees. With this year's beginning, Lily Springs Farm burst into life like a dormant seed, reaching towards the springtime sunlight, after a long, cold winter.

Just after sunrise on a warm summer day: the lake is teeming with fish, a thin mist floats over the water's surface, a morning filled with the buzz of hungry birds and the fresh scents of life. 

Just after sunrise on a warm summer day: the lake is teeming with fish, a thin mist floats over the water's surface, a morning filled with the buzz of hungry birds and the fresh scents of life. 

Over the course of the late spring and early summer months, the red pine forest on the Eastern side of the lake was also alive with new activity. We purchased eight male goats (all castrated and de-horned, for their safety and ours) to work as natural land-managers. We also welcomed Aldo, an Anatolian Shepherd/Maremma guardian dog who lives with and protects the goats from potential predators. The Boy Band, as they've been called, are the rockstars of our restoration work, helping to control the invasive growth of Buckthorn (Rhamnus) and Poison Ivy (R. radicans). These invasive populations are the result of an overly-acidic soil due to the pine-only plantation that leaves very little organic matter on the forest floor. 

Aldo the goat-guardian poses for a rare photo in the early summer of 2015. Because he is a work dog and has not been bred for domestication, Aldo is not interested in human attention, preferring to stay back and observe.  

Aldo the goat-guardian poses for a rare photo in the early summer of 2015. Because he is a work dog and has not been bred for domestication, Aldo is not interested in human attention, preferring to stay back and observe.  

As the summer filled the land with an intense, vivacious splendor, our team was busy moving the goats through the forest, coordinating with wedding parties, and preparing for the third installment of the Wild Springs Festival alongside Eat 4 Equity, a Minneapolis-based non-profit who organize in-home dinners for the benefit of other progressive organizations. The late summer rains brought cycles of growth that kept the land green through the fall, long after the leaves had changed and the trumpeter swans returned with their kin. 

In October, when the cool mornings give way to crisp and clear windswept days, we made the final preparations for our first major planting: 1,600 hazelnut trees in the South field. We tilled and turned the soil for the first time in over 30 years of ownership; we spread many tons of manure from a local dairy, and we brought together a team of local labor, skilled and unskilled friends and family from throughout our community, to collaborate on a two-day planting extravaganza. With our team of workers we were able to accomplish the task efficiently and effectively, setting in place a system of crops that will provide sustenance for many decades to come. Needless to say, it was a culminating moment in our first year of farming. 

Our team included local neighbors, old friends, hired-help from the Twin Cities, permaculture designers, an out-of-town forester, and, of course, our puggle, Suzy. 

As I sit here, enjoying the opportunity to travel during the off-season (our dear friend Drew Slevin has taken on the bold task of the Winter Watchman, taking care of the goats in my absence), I am overcome with a deep pride and gratitude for what we have been able to accomplish in our first year of farming at Lily Springs Farm. It has been a year that, as I remember where we were just one year ago, is far beyond my wildest dreams of what could be accomplished. With the close collaboration, open communication, and deep connection of our wonderful team, LSF has emerged from years of dormancy, from the murkiness of under-used and overlooked spaces/opportunities, to begin an unfolding process of restoration, education, and celebration. And, this is only the beginning...