Why a website?
One goal here will be to collect ideas that address one of modern agriculture’s most pressing issues: how to balance natural resource conservation and innovative crop and livestock production. I’ll call on more than forty years experience in agricultural journalism to glean grassroots insights from all corners of the country. The website, moreover, will feature keen observers of the land, including Bill Flack, a central Nebraska birder and a lauded “superforecaster" and Phil Specht, a northeast Iowa dairy farmer, writer, photographer and naturalist.
Topics that find a home on our small farm include prairie plantings, pollinator habitat, shelterbelts, wildlife appreciation, agricultural policy and more. We’ll experiment some, using photography, poetry, social media posts and really whatever comes our way as we walk this land, Birdland Farm, and the earth wherever we may be.
What's with the birds…and poetry?
Our interest in birds and habitat conservation has evolved over the years, such that now we enjoy birding wherever we are, and birds have become a prism for how we view this farm. It's become obvious to us that bountiful bird populations--and the presence of other wildlife--are indicators of a healthy landscape.
Practices used on the farm, well managed by our operator, Kevin Schroeder, include conservation tillage, prairie hay production, grass filters, pollinator habitat, and shelterbelts. We'd like to improve our understanding of how these kinds of conservation practices can be balanced to provide income for the farmer while contributing to a landscape attractive to birds and other creatures.
And poetry? Sometimes words need to be stretched—to point the way for how nature and farming can work in harmony. I’ve written poetry for fifty years and my friend Phil Specht, a poet-contributor here, is one of the finest observers of the land I’ve ever read. Bill Flack’s keen observations and bird lists here track our progress with the trained eye of an exemplary citizen-scientist. As with the birds on Birdland Farm that show us the way, maybe the right words will follow, too.
A bit of history
Sandy and I recently acquired a portion of what was an average-size working family farm two generations ago. The Buffalo County, Nebraska, farm was a mixed grain and livestock operation owned by my grandparents, Otto and Alma Betke. Those folks were only two generations removed from the first European homesteaders in the county. My grandmother was born in a sod house a few miles south of here, on a hill near what was once a buffalo wallow the size of a big barnyard. The Betkes were nearly self-supporting, growing and putting up much of their food. They raised beef cattle, pigs, chickens, ducks, and geese, and milked a few cows. Alma tended a large garden and put up canned vegetables and fruit in a root cellar. They went to town about once a week.
The farm today has no farmers on site, and the farmstead is gone, thanks in part to a couple tornados that drove off our tenants and ultimately took the buildings.
Birdland is certainly not the same working farm it had been for some one hundred years. After the Betkes passed, parts were divided off and sold. What’s left, though, is the site of the original homestead and a quarter-section of row crops, prairie grass hay, pasture, pollinator habitat and tree plantings.
My life’s work was inspired by this place. I visited here during the summers of my childhood. As a young man, I was inspired by this land to pursue a career in agricultural journalism. For decades, this unassuming patch of earth was always in my mind as I tried to evolve my work in natural resource conservation and website and social media production.
And now in Act III of life the place has become a new kind of project for Sandy and me, a real place on planet Earth indeed, but also, as always, a place for memory, reverence and inspiration. The Betkes and the buildings are all gone now, yet I still see the old farmstead, a humble but well-tended place, and the people who farmed it and taught me more than I can ever say about the value of honest work, humility, and faith in nature.
Thanks for following along!