The Three Sisters of Industrial Agriculture

So, working at Whitewater has presented me with the opportunity to learn so much more about my local environment. And with this new knowledge, comes a greater respect and appreciation of the place I call ‘home’. The Driftless Blufflands (pictured in the banner of this blog) is a beautiful asset to local communities. The landscape was carved by water melting off the glaciers of the last ice age. The glaciers themselves didn’t reach this far south (hence “Driftless Region”) but the water cut out the bluffs as it moved toward the Mississippi and shaped the land into what we see today. This area boasts the highest concentration of biodiversity in Minnesota, and harbors 40% of Minnesota’s rare or endangered plant and animal species.

But as soon as you drive up out of the valley, the views change substantially. Recently, I’ve been noticing how stark of a contrast it really is. I guess when you grow up around something, it just becomes the norm, and you don’t ever second guess it. Here’s a cell-phone picture I took while driving home after my shift one day.

So within about 5 miles, you go from dense, hardwood forests with tons of different species, to this:

The three sisters of Industrial Agriculture: GM corn, GM soybeans, and Wild Parsnip.

As far as the eye can see, we have GM corn, GM soybeans, and Wild Parsnip (the yellow-flowered vegetation in the ditch which is a non-native, invasive, poisonous plant that gives people itchy rashes and pussy blisters upon contact).

There’s three different plants, so that’s a polyculture, right?


Peregrine Falcons at Whitewater State Park

The summer before graduation or right after graduation is a typical time for students to apply for internships in their field of study. My experience is no exception, and this spring I sent out around 15-20 applications for internships all over the United States. I was lucky enough to be hired right here in Minnesota by the Department of Natural Resources! I am absolutely thrilled to be working for Whitewater State Park as one of their 2 Naturalist Corps Interns.

Whitewater State Park

The Naturalist Corps is a government internship program that was created from funds generated by the Legacy Amendment that Minnesotans voted for in 2008. The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment (aka the Legacy Amendment) to the Minnesota Constitution was a tax increase that is used “to protect drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve arts and cultural heritage; to support parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater.” I feel compelled to personally thank anyone reading this who is from Minnesota, because you are providing me with this amazing opportunity!

So being a Naturalist is, hands down, the best work experience of my entire life. My normal activities at the office include things like feeding birds and snakes, taking data on the Whitewater River, typing up program schedules and releasing them to the local media, walking the grounds (of oak-savanna bluff land [which harbors the highest concentration of biodiversity in Minnesota[) to deliver and post program schedules and talk to campers, leading educational presentations for local school field trips, campers staying in the State Park, and locals, about topics including fossils, wildflowers, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, wild edibles, invasive species, and local history, creating my own original interpretive program for the park, and any other random, menial things the interns normally do.

The location where stream monitoring data is gathered once per week.

And then there’s days like this where our amazing Park Manager sends the interns on adventures. The morning task of the day? Join the crew of the Midwest Peregrine Society up to the nesting site of Whitewater’s pair of Peregrine Falcons to observe the banding of their 3 week old chicks. (!!!!!!!!!)

BTW, the falcons are nesting up in a limestone cliff face.

So, a little back story is in order here before I continue.

Natural History of the Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus, Latin for “wandering falcon”, is a bird found on every single continent, except in polar regions. Peregrines are the fastest species of animal on the planet, being clocked traveling at speeds over 200 mph during a dive!

Photo Credit: National Geographic

Sadly, this falcon became an endangered species in many areas around the 1950s and 60s. It was discovered that because of pesticides, specifically DDT, the shells of their eggs thinned, leading to an increase in mortality. A well-known book, “Silent Spring” by biologist Rachel Carson, was written about the topic. This book (along with other classics like Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” and Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden Pond”) catalyzed a grassroots environmentalist movement which significantly effected the public opinion of Americans. As a result, national public policy changed; it is credited for spurring the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a ban on DDT and other pesticides in the 1970s.

Rachel Carson, as seen in her U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee photo. Credit: Wikipedia.

Which is kind cool in and of itself on another level for me. I’ve got this tattoo on my forearm of a quill writing the word “resilient” across my wrist. The tip of the feather dissipates into birds. I got it to represent my education, so the quill symbolizes scholarship and a passion for knowledge. The birds remind me of Rachel Carson. Rachel Carson was such a badass; a felmale scientist in a male-dominated field, shakin’ up the system, ushering in a new status-quo, all with poetically articulated, evidence-based criticisms of the norm. The woman is an icon for putting environmentalism on the map, and as a female environmentalist, you might say I’d give her mad props. I mean, just check out some quotes:

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life.”
“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”
“As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life – a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. These extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no “high-minded orientation,” no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.”
“It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks…the public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road and it can only do so when in full possession of the facts…”
(Not to get political, but can you say “fracking? [Or if you’re  local to the Driftless Region like me {which, I might add, was also Aldo Leopold’s native environment}, “silica sand [read: frack sand] mining”?])
“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road / the one less traveled by / offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
But I digress.
At Whitewater State Park, these birds were once common, but had vanished for 47 years, until recently, as conservation efforts became fruitful. For the past three years, one pair of falcons has taken residence in a cliff side at the park. Each year, the organization of folks responsible for restoring the population of birds, The Midwest Peregrine Society, comes to place 2 bands on the feet of any chicks to track their movement and to take a blood sample of the birds for DNA analysis.

An adult Peregrine in flight over Whitewater State Park.

So to get to said chicks in said cliff face, there needed to be a rock climber. Most Peregrine bandings involve someone going someplace risky, because that is the preferred habitat of the birds, be it natural places like cliffs (as seen in Whitewater), or man-made places like tall buildings (as seen at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester), or high smoke stack towers (as seen at Xcel Energy along Hwy 52).

This is a specially made box that the chicks are put into after they are taken from their nest. It is made with soft edges, and breathable, insulated cloth to keep the chicks warm and comfortable as possible. We found 4 little baby chicks in the nest!
There was a crew of volunteers that came up to the nesting site, and many people had different assigned tasks for the banding. There were 2 rock climbers (to retrieve and replace the birds), 2 vets from the Minnesota Zoo (to take blood samples and document other important data and observations), the Vice President of Field Work from the Midwest Peregrine Society (to place the bands), 3 DNR employees (one was me!), a handful local bird enthusiasts, 2 small kids, a dog, and 3 local media outlets, including KTTC and The Rochester Post-Bulletin.
Above: KTTC interviewing Jackie from MPS during the banding.
During the ordeal, two bands are placed on the feet of the 3 week old chicks. The bands can give researchers information that lets us observe nesting patterns, migration routes, habitat range, among other useful data for conservation efforts.
Timing is crucial during this event. At 3 weeks of age, chicks are not very mobile. Under the event a chick is not in the box or being held by a human, their ability to run is limited and their instinct is to remain still, presumably paralyzed in fear. At 4 weeks of age, chicks are more likely to be “runners”. Just a week later in their development, the chicks are quite mobile, and their instinct becomes to run away from researchers (an understandable reaction). The problem is, the chicks can run, but not fly yet, so more often than not, older chicks that run away from researchers will run right off the cliff, or building, or tower, etc. Sad! 😦 Timing is also important because this experience is extremely stressful for these young animals. The goal is to obtain the data as quickly and efficiently as possible to minimize the stress experienced by the chicks. But it is true, the event is inherently invasive and stressful for both the adults and the babies. Especially this part:
A blood sample is taken from each of the chicks that allows researchers to study topics ranging from population structure and details of mating patterns, to gene flow, genetic diversity and integrity. Because of data collection from bandings like this one, around 90% of the Midwest Peregrine population has been sampled. To help the population grow, the U.S. government created The Peregrine Fund and spent around $3 million on conservation efforts. Beginning in the 1980s, Peregrines were bought from captive breeders and placed back into their habitat. The birds that have nested at Whitewater have come on their own; the nearest release location to Whitewater is near Weaver Bottoms (aka Weaver Dunes, about 10 miles away). The project had a rocky start, though. In the late 1970s, a few chicks were released in Nelson, Wisconsin, but half (2 of 4) were eaten by Great Horned Owls. After the initial failure, the birds were placed in habitats without natural predators. For 5 years, conservation efforts in the area stalled. But in 1982, Patrick Redig, The Raptor Center, and Harrison Tordoff, Bell Museum of Natural History and Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, went ahead with releases independently of The Peregrine Fund, using young provided by private peregrine breeders. Because of these efforts, this area went from completely eliminating the local population of falcons, to having around 200 nesting pairs! I really like this story, because I think it is a great tale of how with the help of science, organization, and a concern for the well-being of the biotic community, we can continue to enhance the integrity of our local landscapes.
Above: The 4 Peregrine Falcon chicks of Whitewater State Park, named Jackie, Jim, Jenny, and Karla. From right to left, the chicks are female, male, female, female.

More Sustainable Stuff from Minnesota

Alrighty, folks.

My last post gave a handful of people, organizations, and businesses that are making some headway into the sustainability arena. Here’s some more:

Cascade Meadows Wetland and Environmental Science Center

I just found out about this awesome project this week! Anyone living in Southeastern MN who is interested in science or the environment should definitely check this place out. The site, located in Rochester, MN (home of the famous Mayo Clinic and St. Mary’s Hospital) is 100 acres, 90 of which are being restored to native wetlands. The other 10 acres are a showcase of the best management and design practices in the business. For example, the Science Center building is one of the first in MN to receive the highest LEED rating, Platinum. Inside the building is interactive exhibits and places to hold meetings, classes, and workshops. The area surrounding the building demonstrates best management practices for storm water runoff (including swales, permeable pavers, a green roof, and treatment ponds) and landscaping with native plants. By this time next year, there should also be trails winding through the 90 acres of wetlands to showcase this local ecological asset. Here’s a little ditty from their website:

“The core programming at Cascade Meadow will initially be centered around two main issues: water and energy resources. Increasingly, citizens of Southeast Minnesota are being asked to make consumer and political decisions on the issues of water and energy resource management. In order to make informed decisions, SE Minnesotans require a certain level of water and energy “literacy.” All of Cascade Meadow’s initial exhibits, physical features, education programming and the building itself will be aimed at increasing the energy and water literacy of the greater Rochester community.

Specifically, programming will focus on:

  1. The science of energy and water
  2. The ways in which societies use and interact with energy and water resources,
  3. How technology and behavior changes can help move us towards the sustainable use of our water and energy resources.”

Yeah, wow. Can we get a round of applause? Needless to say, I’ve already been in contact with them to volunteer working the front desk.

The Perennial Plate

This is the brain-child of local chef/activist Daniel Klein (hailing from the Twin Cities area). The Perennial Plate is a web series and blog that documents “socially responsible and sustainable eating”. Episodes are anywhere from 2 to 15 minutes long on topics ranging from backyard chickens to wild foraging to invasive species to gardening to hunting. The first season is all in Minnesota, and then (with the help of Kickstarter) the second season is a tour of the entire U.S. I’ve spent many hours watching his stuff. I highly recommend you do the same!

Sustainability in the Local News

Winona has this great website called Winona 360 that is a sort of news outlet, community organization, social network hybrid. Recently there was a great article about how different members of the Winona community have embraced sustainability. Here were some of my favorite tid-bits from the article:

1. I found out (one of) my chemistry professor’s home is completely powered by solar energy. (And she just went up 100,000 points on my radar.)

Xcel Energy claims to have over 100 customers contributing wind energy to their system, most of which lie in the farms of Southern Minnesota.” Woo-who! Go us!

“Our [older] generation has just made a big mess of everything. Now [younger generations] get to clean it up. Good luck.”

Haha…thanks, I think.

The Local Scene

I am pleased to report that there is quite the local sustainability scene in the Upper Midwest. I’m going to focus on activities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, since I live on the northern section of Mississippi River.

The Permaculture Research Institute – Cold Climates

This non-profit organization located in Minneapolis was established in 2003, and has since grown into a major local hub for sustainability education, demonstration, and implementation. This organization certifies individuals in Permaculture Design and Urban Farming, and also hosts many other educational workshops throughout the year. Topics include residential site analysis, the design process, understanding complex living systems, soil fertility and management plans, record keeping, seed starting, crop rotation and companion planting, mushroom cultivation, urban beekeeping, aquaponics, and many other related ecological topics. Members of the organization are also involved with Nature’s Edge Design, a firm that implements permaculture designs for private home owners an business owners. Along with these projects, PRI also works with Twin Cities’ Back Yard Harvest, a project that connects urban farmers with food shelves. As if they don’t do enough already, PRI also holds community design competitions, constantly networks with other similar organizations, businesses, and people, maintains their own blog, their own newsletter, and an independent ecological plant database. The founder and director, Paula Westmoreland, also owns her own business Ecological Gardens.

Southwoods Forest Gardens

Southwoods is a business in Prior Lake operated by Dan Halsey, a teacher at PRI. Dan works all around the US designing landscapes of various sizes, from a single garden to whole communities. Southwoods also provides many learning opportunities for students. Last November I took a course from Dan, and it was a very informative, hands on experience. You can read more about my time at Southwoods in a prior blog post here.

Stone’s Throw Urban Farm

“Stone’s Throw Urban Farm is a new urban farm that is redefining local, sustainable food in the Twin Cities . We convert vacant lots in St. Paul and Minneapolis into beautiful, productive micro-farms and grow food for a CSA, the Mill City Farmers Market, and various local wholesale accounts.” (According to their blog). This group of young people have recently become fully funded through their Kickstarter campaign, and have helped encourage new laws in Minneapolis legalizing urban farming and local produce sales. The Urban Agriculture Policy Plan was passed unanimously in Minneapolis, and the new laws will help encourage other farmers and gardeners in the city to put down some roots.

Crazy Rooster Farm

This local farm in Mondovi, Wisconsin gained quite the attention last year when their Permaculture Course was mentioned in the New York Times article “Permaculture Emerges from the Underground”. (The next project is also mentioned in the article). These nice midwestern folks are not your typical farmers! Check out their website here, or sign up for a class, internship, or some WWOOFing.


 Kinstone, mentioned in the New York Times and in a previous post of mine, is (to my knowledge) the closest permaculture project to Winona. Located on top of the beautiful limestone bluffs of the Mississippi, this place has just begun to take form, but it quite captivating. This location is not yet open to the public, but when it is completed it will be a place for education, spiritual growth, and possibly research. Check out these photos, courtesy of Kris Beck (owner) and Wayne Weiseman (designer). This summer, there will be green building workshops held here to build one of the structures on site.

So there’s 5 local projects for all of you! I know I did not exhaust each and every local sustainability effort, but at least this gives you a place to start. (I feel like I should at least link you to the USDA’s Minnesota Grown and non-profit organization The Land Stewardship Project, as well). If you live in Minnesota or Wisconsin, there is so much to tap into. And with just a little bit of Googling, I’m sure anyone can find something going on near them, no matter what part of the globe you inhabit.