Blue Dasher Farm embraces 'regenerative' research
ESTELLINE, S.D.—You can see it from the road: the year-old Blue Dasher Farm LLC research laboratory is right on the east side of I-29 at the Brandt, S.D., exit.
High-visibility is the perfect metaphor for what founder Jonathan Lundgren describes as "regenerative" farming practices. Lundgren, 41, is an entomologist who resigned from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a dispute about research openness.
There are various definitions for regenerative farming. To Lundgren, it means a focus on soil health, biodiversity conservation, "nutrient density of the food produced," and profitability.
Lundgren is director of the Ecdysis Foundation, a nonprofit research and education company. Ecdysis is the term for shedding skin, during metamorphosis in insects.
The 53-acre Blue Dasher Farm is envisioned as a "branch site," to be associated with a future national network of centers for excellence.
"We're trying to use science, education and demonstration" to promote "regenerative" agriculture, Lundgren says, a year into his venture. "By planting these into communities, by interacting directly with farmers and beekeepers and ranchers themselves, that's how we're going to rebuild what we've lost."
"A high-risk specialty"
Lundgren is a national and world story. He is a former senior research entomologist and lab supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service at Brookings, S.D. He made news when he quit the agency after a dispute in which he claimed the government was trying to suppress his discussion of research.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, based in Silver Spring, Md., is representing Lundgren in a whistleblower complaint that comes up in March before the Merits Systems Protection Board, and from there potentially to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
The group is working to restore payments for the periods Lundgren was suspended for publishing research about adverse effects on monarch butterflies from neonicotinoid insecticides. He also claims he was unfairly punished for a travel paperwork irregularity.
"Politics inside USDA have made entomology a high-risk specialty," said Laura Dumais, his PEER lawyer.
In a separate but related matter, PEER is suing the USDA in a case in which Lundgren is the basis for the group's standing to revise the Scientific Integrity Policy for USDA. The case was dismissed as "moot" after Lundgren's resignation, but PEER recently filed a notice of in intent to appeal on grounds that Lundgren is applying for USDA grants. That case is likely to play itself into spring or summer, says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.
Lundgren's willingness to speak out has been honored by several organizations.
In late 2015, he won the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage from the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest. The award recognizes people "who, with integrity and at some personal risk, take a public stand to advance truth and justice, and who challenge unsatisfactory conditions in pursuit of the common good."
Lundgren also recently received the Friend of the Farmer award, conferred by the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society at their winter conference in Aberdeen, S.D.
Lundgren's definition of regenerative farming includes four general concepts. The first is no-till farming, which means "never."
"Tillage disrupts the basis of your operation and tillage is very hard on that biology," he says.
The second concept is "Always leave a living root in the ground." The third is "More plant diversity is better than less." The fourth is "Integrate animals back into cropping operations."
"Those four principles you can do an awful lot with — by stacking enterprises and making a farm profitable again," Lundgren says.
In 2016, Blue Dasher Farm planted 12 acres of its 53 acres to borage and Hubam sweet clover to be sold for seed.
"This wasn't corn and soybean stuff. I'd rather make money by the pound than by the bushel," he says.
These are two crops for conservation mixes and for intercropping species.
"We can support other farmers who are interested in doing this while making a premium on our own ground," he says. "They also happen to be some of the best honey producing plants that we know of."
The 12 acres had been in the Conservation Reserve Program for the previous dozen years. Blue Dasher burned the grasses and used a partial rate of glyphosate and Select herbicide to hold back the grass resurgence. They planted the annual borage and Hubam sweetclover into the living grass.
Last year Lundgren had a goal of making $1,000 per acre in net profit. The acreage produced 230 to 300 pounds of seed per acre. Lundgren says input costs were less than $500, yielding a $500 per acre profit. "We didn't make it," he says. "We only made $500 an acre, but that's still a helluva lot better than growing corn and soybeans right now."
He hopes to get $2,500 an acre on the entire farm in 2017.
The farm started a perennial orchard system this year on five to 10 acres. They have apples, pears, apricots, peaches, cherries and plums. These came from Norm's Greenhouse and Nursery in Brookings, which has been helpful in identifying species hardy enough for the area. The farm added egg production from 25 hens and will expand to 100 hens in 2017. They'll introduce hair sheep for meat and weed grazing and will use those species as "tools to replace other input costs like herbicides."
The front edge
Lundgren's wife, Jenna, is the office manager and co-director of Ecdysis, with a bachelor's degree in biology. They have a daughter and son in their teens who work with poultry and other chores associated with the farm.
Farmers and beekeepers directly have offered financial support, and people around the world helped bankroll their research facility. Hundreds of people donated small amounts, Lundgren says, and the donations "are still rolling in." The farm offers a newsletter, blogs and memberships. Lundgren gives lab tours to students, featuring his Madagascar hissing roaches and curly-haired tarantulas.
Blue Dasher Farm offers a location for field study for graduate students and interns from South Dakota State University, technical colleges and other institutions throughout the country and world. They are working to get an intern from France this year. Lundgren acknowledges the research facility so far doesn't boast any equipment that students couldn't find on a campus, but they do offer a "focus."
When he started Blue Dasher Farm, Lundgren says he quickly realized he had a lot to learn.
"I've never been a commercial beekeeper, and I've never been a farmer," Lundgren says. "I've learned more this year than I think I have in my entire career as a scientist. Absolutely spectacular: all of the different skill sets you need in order to do what I've been talking about, for as long as I have."
He says science can offer data to farmers about new techniques, but he says data doesn't always drive the decision-making.
"If data was all that was important we'd all be wearing our seat belts. We'd all be eating six fruits and vegetables every day," he says.
Lundgren refers to university studies that indicate farmers in Illinois and elsewhere may produce corn and soybeans at a loss.
"I was talking to a local banker who said farmers are raising cattle at a $500 per cow loss right now. What's going on? We've got to do something different, because the farmers aren't the ones making money at this point."