I spend a lot of time walking the land of our farm. It helps me think and often the land itself will give me the answers to the questions in my head or show me things that I need to know.
Today, I am walking with Beth, through the 8 inches of new snow that came last night. I am seesawing back and forth, as I have been for the past few weeks, over how to seed down our corn and soybean acres to oats, alfalfa, orchard grass, fescue and perennial rye. I am stuck, undecided between two options.
The first is to “frost seed,” literally casting the seed to the wind onto frozen ground, the seed gradually working its way into the soil through the freezing and thawing of the earth. It is a very old and inexpensive process, but leaves a lot to chance. Seed can be eaten by birds and mice. Some won’t ever touch the soil, landing on a corn stalk or soybean pod never to take root.
Still, Dad and neighbors have all said they have had good success with frost seeding, though no one has done it for years.
We wade through some small drifts of snow in the bright, cold sun to arrive at the hoop building where dad has the seeder wagon stored. The wagon is old and decrepit and the broadcast seeder is even older and more decrepit, probably built in the 1940’s.
It is, to say the least, concerning. But my dad seems to have great confidence in it.
Through all of this, some have counseled against frost seeding, saying alfalfa can’t be frost seeded and that it is a bad idea to frost seed oats. Kent, our seed salesman, went as far as to say that he wouldn’t do it, finishing with “...but you can do what you want, I’m just selling you the seed.” An Iowan’s way of saying ‘you can throw away your money if you want, I can’t stop you.’ A hard opinion to overlook as this is a guy who sells seed to farmers throughout our region, he knows a lot about seeds and seeding.
We turn north from the hoop building and head for the highest point on the farm, an open, snow filled cornfield. A hawk turns above us in a sky that is bright blue after the previous days of snow.
I look at our winter fields and see the orderly rows of stubble in the corn field. We had a below average crop this year due to a drought. What we did harvest was the result of precise mechanized planting. For better or worse, this method yielded something.
Which brings us to option two, using a grain drill to plant the seed. Using a grain drill can give better stands and ensure that the seed is in direct contact with the soil in a uniform distribution across the terrain. But, it can also plant the tiny seeds too deep where they might not have the strength to reach the sun. It can become plugged if the soil is too wet, leaving large swaths not planted at all. It also a machine that is expensive and can cost a lot to rent.
There is a stiff breeze as we travel which blows snow disturbed by our steps ahead of us. As we turn east heading toward the fruit orchard, Beth and I talk about many things, but my mind continues to be occupied with what to do.
It's a big call, $6,700 of our carefully hoarded dollars have already been spent on seed and I still have to purchase 50 bushel more of oat seed, so deciding whether to spend thousands more to drill it into the ground or to broadcast seed it at a much lower cost, feels trepidatious.
The sun is beginning the down slope to the west when we reach a field that my dad put into a government set aside program. It is a combination of non-native grasses, weeds and native prairie grass growing together.
Looking at the grasses, I am thinking of a friend and mentor, Mike, who said something that seemed profound to me. He said “Whenever I am not sure what to do, I look at what nature does and I do that.”
Ahead of us is a patch of big bluestem, seeded nearly 9 years ago and left to fend for itself. Each year, the big bluestem spreads a little further, slowly taking over the field. The seed head of the prairie grass bobs and sways in the winter wind, most of the seed already gone, some falling to the snow nearby, some taken by birds and mice.
As we watch, a few seeds fly free on the breeze, lodging in the fresh snow, taking their chances with firm determination.
As we turn toward the warmth of home, my mind clears, we walk mitten in glove. The land has spoken and I have listened. Thus shall it be.