April 15, 2017

Easter is in the wind

If you were to ask me about Easter when I was growing up, I’d tell you about the lamb cake my mother made each year.  It was a white-frosted lamb sitting in the midst of a pasture of coconut that had been colored with green food coloring, accented with colored jelly-beans or other bright Easter candy that was left over from the Easter Bunny.

That cake required a double-sided mold, and to me the magic of Easter was how my mother knew how much cake batter to put inside the mold so that it would expand perfectly to fill all the cracks and crevices—up to the ears. 
Easter was usually a time of family gatherings when I grew up, and a busy time because my Dad’s occupation has involved doing taxes that were also always due around Easter.  One year, I think my Mom was distracted and she set the cake mold in the oven upside down and used too little batter because the poor lamb came out faceless.  In the natural world, this would have been a problem for the creature, but it was quickly remedied with various materials and a lot of frosting…and the next day, the lamb had his face, and all was well before we cut him into slices of rich chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.
My brother and I didn’t get a lot of candy during the rest of the year, and Easter was also a time of joy when we searched for our Easter basket that was loaded with jellybeans and chocolate.  We would go to church, but the main memory of Easter Sunday is of spending the afternoon with cousins at my Grandparents’ house. 
Easter was an odd holiday, timewise—first, the visit to Grandma’s house was always a lot shorter than the visit at Christmas, and we cousins had much less time to get out toys or perhaps get in a short game of football if the weather was nice.  It was always over too quickly before we had to get in the car to go home.
And, of course, Easter never arrived on the same date, so there was a mystery around Easter—it would be announced rather than anticipated like its cousin December holiday.  And, as an adult, I have forgotten to put Easter on my spring calendar more than once, which has bewildered my mother to no end. How could you forget Easter?
Easter means different things to different people, but to me it was always a reminder of spring. A promise of new life. The grandest metaphoric myth that provides hope while reminding us of our insignificance in the cycle of life that has happened for all time. Birth and death. Birth from death. Emptiness transformed to wholeness.
For the past 10 years, my job has been to train fledgling biologists to observe, capture, and start to record data on prairie-chickens in Nebraska. For me, this has marked Spring, and usually by the time I have them trained, it is time for Easter to happen.  So, perhaps I haven’t forgotten Easter—in some ways, I have been more in tune than ever in my life with the natural rhythms that are used to describe the timing of Easter—the first full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox, or the first day of Spring.  I’ve been out and watched the moon waning in the morning as the prairie-chickens gather to continue their eons-old cycle of mating in the midst of the prairie.
Except this year. For the first year since coming to Nebraska, I have no field projects to start in the spring. No students to train.  But, I did have a visiting student from Thailand who needed to see the sandhill cranes, and so we took her to the river to watch them dance in the fields and find shelter at night on the sandbars of the Platte.
If anything can substitute for the prairie-chicken, it is the sandhill crane.  Darkness came to the river as thousands of birds descended, and eventually we could tell they were there only because of their calls to each other.  Those birds must have many adventures during the day, because they sure have a lot to talk about when they land in the river and get acquainted with their neighbors again.
As we walked away to our vehicles in the dark, there was a promise behind us.  The sun would rise, the cranes would leave and as darkness descended again, they would return until the spring winds carry them away until next spring when we see them once more. Cycles of life, in our own back yard.
There is a Christian story that will be read in churches on Sunday about a group of ladies who found an empty tomb. But, I have an opinion that if a Christian were to live a life focused solely on the miracle of that empty tomb, without connecting to those around them, they have missed the message of Christ’s life.  Indeed, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew states that the second-most important commandment is to love others. In similar fashion, Buddhism also suggests that we create meaning by helping others. There are many paths with the same message.
The moon has been growing from a slim crescent the last few days, until becoming a full moon on April 11.  It is time for Easter.  How do we find ways to reach out beyond ourselves? I encourage you to start by exploring the sacred spaces around you. Find the connections between the message of Easter and your life by looking at your flowerbed or taking a short walk in a park or a timber.  Find new flowers and new buds on branches. Look up in the sky to watch the geese and other birds migrating north, and find a way to watch the sun rise and set on the same day.

Then, reach out to someone. We can’t all make a lamb cake, but find a way to mark this special time of year.  Football games in the spring mud are good. Family gatherings or coffee with friends also work. Giving someone the surprise equivalent to a basket full of chocolate is a brilliant idea.  The message of Easter is that it doesn’t matter if your effort falls short.  A lamb cake’s face can be repaired, and next year will be here before we know it to try again.

Easter is always in the wind. Happy Easter, everyone!

February 18, 2017

Saving the world through a mid-life crisis

This week my School held a meant-to-be-comforting meeting for its junior faculty to discuss the future in uncertain times, and a few of us who are starting to get long in the tooth were invited to provide some perspective. It occurred to me that perhaps hoping for comfort from a set of people with their own mid-life ponderings highlighted by tinges or splotches of gray hair was not the best idea, but we vamped. We rose to the moment to talk about our early days, and we spoke from the heart about how we had turned mistakes into eventual success. And, there were cookies, so everyone went home happy.

As the cookie was digested, happiness turned to thoughts of insignificance for me, as the message most clear from the meeting was that there will always be young folks to take your place, and they might even be smarter than you. So, Mr. Senior Faculty Member, just remember that as you think about retirement and the need for the University to keep you around. I sulked.

Years of experience have contributed to my current grumpiness, as my initial plans for saving the world have gone south.  I blame my high school speech teacher for starting this with an off-handed comment that someone with an unusual name like mine is destined for greatness. So, I started my quest. The world slapped back more than once, but somehow I arrived where I wanted to go--a University campus with brick buildings filled with people using phrases like "high impact" and "science-supported decisions" and "learning objectives," and it felt like home. Some successes occurred. Struggles eventually resulted in advances. Brilliant opportunities happened. Even then, I realized that the singular demographic principle that I studied, rate of growth, had turned to bite me, as my long-term goals were still farther in the distance than I wanted. And, the years left in my career could now be counted using some of the digits on my four appendages.

I suppose this is how a mid-life crisis happens.

My internal ponderings have not led to purchases of candy-red sports cars or the like. But, one does start to compare yourself to those nearby as you claw for examples of relevance and meaning in your day-to-day existence. My father figures, in their own ways, made contributions to their communities--one kept a small town's vehicles running for almost half a century and the other solved micro-economic problems for farm families. Although they set the bar of relevance fairly high, I suppose there are lessons in their stories about finding your niche and doing a job well to help people.

But, how does their impact compare to pile of published manuscripts about ducks and prairie chickens and a rotating door of students through my classes? Further, the world still was an environmental mess. A real mess. Maybe worse than when I started?

The cookie from our faculty gathering was mostly a forgotten entity by the time my wife and I called our son on the same night this week to chat. He is at the University in his first year, and I suppose his new-found ability to fend for himself and mostly excel at life decisions is also cause for a realization that my wife and I have one less responsibility in this world. Still, he needs life-polishing from time to time, and I had noticed a $38 charge on his student account that had not been explained. I used my conversation time to ask him what kind of illicit material he had charged to us.

"I needed a new SD card for my camera for class," he replied, which was disappointing as I hoped it would be something outrageous like two large pizzas or a video game, so we could have a discussion about good choices.

"Well, you owe me $38," I muttered.

"How about I pay you back by saving the environment?" asked the idealistic kid with no job, who didn't know he'd just landed a glancing blow on a sensitive spot on my psyche.

"Good," I retorted as I recovered. "Because, I'm not going to get that done."  And, that was the honest truth. I had given up.

"Well, we'll know a lot more about prairie chickens," he replied.  And I was finished. Game, set, match. Points go to the man-boy, who made his parents roll with laughter fueled by pent-up anxiety. A message of comfort laced with truth. 

Do what you can, where you can. Save the world a little bit at a time. And, keep making those big goals, son.

February 11, 2017

Downturn in the ag economy: Trump and the 2018 Farm Bill

If you are a member of the ag community, your head must be spinning--and for good reason. The President you helped to elect is eliminating trade deals that benefit you, while the ag economy stumbles. Layer on top of these dynamics the divisive Congress in DC, and hopes for a timely 2018 Farm Bill appear slim.

In 2015, I published an essay on the impending bust in the ag economy, in which I suggested planners should begin to think about the 2018 Farm Bill as an opportunity for an innovative direction for conservation on farm lands. I wrote: "History shows that political will and innovation come together during times of economic crisis to shape the future of conservation."

Since writing that piece, I've honestly been amazed at the trepidation of the ag community to admit that a bust in the ag economy was on the horizon. You can see this hesitation in the descriptions offered by many (except for farmers directly involved) in this recent piece by Harvest Public Media. However, this week, the Wall Street Journal (a non-ag publication) finally declared that the bust is here. Why the hesitation to talk about impending economic woes? Is it a function of the typical optimism of farmers?  Is it a function of the PR machine of agri-industry that has a vested interest to encourage large-scale production of low-price corn and beans?  Or, is it simply a human tendency to hide your eyes before a crisis occurs? 

Trepidation or not, the bust is occurring, and we have to talk about it. We have to plan for it.

I've updated the figure on land values from that journal article to post it here.  The trends for states in the Great Plains and Midwest illustrate changes in my metric for assessing booms and busts--comparing current land values to land values 10 years ago.  The use of this metric clearly shows past booms and busts, and 2013 was the peak for most states.  The question now is...when will the slide towards the bottom of the trough stop? 

Here, I'll restate my call to my fellow conservation planners with a focus on the 2018 Farm Bill.  It turns out that 2018 is perfectly positioned to be near the bottom of the trough, most likely--and the innovative farm conservation packages of the 1930's, 1950's, and 1980's came about right at the bottom of the trough. 

Stay tuned.  I'm sure President Trump will have a chaotic effect on events in the next few months, but I'll predict that political will to support the ag economy may surface, just in time for the mid-term elections!  When do those occur? 2018.

January 2, 2017

Landscape forensics

It's the end of the holiday break for the University, which means our family has just completed our round trips to southern Iowa for Christmas spent with family. These road trips are a good opportunity for some landscape analysis--to see what's been happening on farms across southeast Nebraska, southern Iowa, and far-northern Missouri.

Christmas Eve found us driving through some unique fog, and my son and I decided it would be nice to get some photos as the day waned and the fog thickened. We found an old homestead--pretty common in the Midwest as farm size has increased and number of farms has decreased since the 1930s, and we stopped for some photos. 


A unique farm building in southern Iowa.  Photo by Larkin Powell.
Only later did I realize we'd taken a photo of a building that was fairly unique--I didn't know what it's purpose had been. Too many windows to hold grain, and the second story seemed almost useless (no hay storage capacity with so many windows). So, the photo of this building became part of our Christmas dinner table conversations. All discussion ended with uncertainty. My father-in-law called some of his friends. No new ideas, but fun discussion. Later, my parents figured out that they might know someone who had grown up near this farm. I emailed this person, and got a most interesting response that I've posted here. I've removed names, as I didn't ask for permission to post the response--but I really enjoyed the reflections of this farmer from southern Iowa:

That building is just a mile from my folk’s farm and we went by it just about every time we left the farm. It was not particularly new when we moved to the farm in 1950. It is on what was then the [name removed] farm and I remember being told it was originally built as a chicken house.  I remember it being used as a hog house and in later years for small bale storage. It has obviously not been used for quite a while.  Its function can best be thought of as a predecessor to the modern chicken or hog factory buildings with the pens on the sides, the central driveway for delivery of bulk feeds and overhead storage for supplements.  Most of the farms allowed the chickens and hogs free range and the structure would have been a new concept. 

The windows were necessary because REA didn’t bring in electricity to our area until the middle of the 1940’s and the building would have preceded that time and chickens would have needed the light.  Directly across the road was the very large traditional farm barn with a modern (for the times – there was still and outhouse) home building to the west of the barn.  So the smelly chicken/hog building was to the NE, i.e., generally down wind.  Like some many of the Iowa family farms, when the children were gone (four daughters- two older and two younger than myself) and the parents retired/passed, the farm passed into other hands who did not live there and you saw what is left.
If you enjoy reading the history of landscapes, this is a great example of finding clues to dynamics that caused landscape change. This building represents a really important transition in farming--it would be similar (I'll not build this up too much, but you get the idea) of a biologist finding evidence of feathers on a dinosaur (which was announced last month). Here, the building represents a first step toward more production and specialization in commodities produced on a single farm.

Happy New Years all--history continues on our landscapes.