Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tanglefoot Ranch thrives through diversified agriculture

Tanglefoot Ranch thrives through diversified agriculture
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One day in spring of 2011, Grover Webb was out discussing a new project on his farm with Jeff Kindhart, a U of I research specialist based at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. As Kindhart’s gaze came to rest on a gently sloping pasture nearby he said, “Grover, that’s the best peach orchard site I’ve ever seen in southern Illinois.”

The following spring, Webb planted 300 peach trees there, using a mix of five varieties. Some of these ripen faster than others, so harvest and marketing stretch out longer than they would with a single variety. That’s good for consumers, because it allows them to buy local peaches over time, and good for the farmer, since picking can be done by a small crew of people on hand rather than a large crew brought in all at once.

Webb’s peach orchard is part of a larger operation, Tanglefoot Ranch, a highly diversified farm that he and his wife, Shirley, run in partnership with his brother, Richard, on 950 acres in Pope County. The orchard provides a good example of Webb’s willingness to try things other than corn, soybeans, and cattle, and the relationship he has cultivated with the applied agricultural research programs at Dixon Springs.

Tanglefoot Ranch is also one of the places I mentioned in a recent commentary about a field trip with U of I undergraduates; we go there to investigate what “sustainability” means in the real world. Webb tells them, “The first thing the farm has to sustain is the farmer.” So he chooses innovations carefully and he sticks with them only if they’re profitable.

Take, for example, prawns, which are also known as freshwater shrimp. Fifteen years ago Webb used help from the State of Illinois Alternative Agricultural Land Program to begin raising them at Tanglefoot. They now have an indoor prawn nursery and six “grow out” ponds.

In a normal year each pond produces between 450 and 600 pounds of harvestable prawns. Many of these are cooked and sold at the Golconda Shrimp Festival, an annual, weekend event that draws roughly 7,000 tourists to the Ohio River town for which it is named.. In addition, Tanglefoot’s nursery supplies juvenile prawns for spring stocking to six other local farms that have established grow out ponds of their own.

Our tour at Tanglefoot also included stops in the farm’s two “high tunnels,” which are greenhouse-like structures made of tubular steel covered with translucent plastic. The high tunnels are not heated, but they trap enough warmth from the sun to provide tomatoes grown there a two-month head start over their field-grown counterparts as well as a number of other benefits, especially natural checks on pests and diseases and the opportunity to closely control and monitor inputs. According to Webb, Jeff Kindhart calls them the best innovation in horticulture of the last 20 years.

This brings me to a sour note that affected our visit to Tanglefoot. The week before our arrival, the U OF I Department of Crop Sciences announced it would be ending support for many applied research programs at Dixon Springs and three other facilities around the state, including the programs and people with whom Webb has collaborated over the years. Obviously this is a story of its own, and for now I have nothing to report other than that efforts are underway to find alternative sources of funding.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Fall brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana

Fall brings sandhill crane spectacle to northwest Indiana [Originally posted 11/21/2013]

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The calls of sandhill cranes carry on the wind by some magic. Whether they are flying, and your view of them is obscured by a tree line, or they’re feeding in a harvested cornfield, where their rust-stained gray feathers make them difficult to pick out, you typically hear cranes before you see them.

And hearing sandhill cranes is a great pleasure. They talk quietly among themselves in family units, which include mother, father and one or two young of the year, which are called “colts.” (Colts stand as tall as their parents by Fall, but their plain gray “caps” are distinct from the bright red ones on adults.)

What’s more dramatic, though, is the way cranes call to one another as they collect in larger groups, either in flight or on the ground. To me these calls resonate in a mix that brings together something of pigeons cooing, something of geese honking and something less birdy, too—a stick rattled along serrated ridges on a wood block.

You may know by one means or another that sandhill cranes gather by the hundreds of thousands along the Platte River in western Nebraska during their migration north in the Spring. But did you know there’s scaled down version of that spectacle in western Indiana each Fall, one that’s much more accessible to us? It takes place at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, which is just 60 miles north of Lafayette.

Sandhill cranes that breed in the upper Midwest and central Canada begin gathering at Jasper-Pulaski near the end of September, and their numbers grow until mid- to late November, when they peak at about 20,000. Imagine that—20,000 of these majestic birds together in the same place less than
half a day’s drive from where you are now.

During their stopover in Indiana, the cranes keep a very regular schedule. At night, they roost in marshes at the reserve, where they’re
safe from predators such as coyotes. In the morning, for about a half hour either side of sunrise, they come together to socialize in Goose Pasture, a vast field that’s overlooked by an observation platform.

The cranes then head out into nearby agricultural fields where they spend the day feeding. There they take advantage of corn that was lost in the harvest, as well as a wide range of other foods—everything from plant materials to worms, insects, mice and snakes.

Your best bet for seeing cranes up close is to cruise the gravel roads south of Jasper-Pulaski (carefully, of course, with respect for the people who live there) and pull over quietly to watch them feed.

The real crane spectacle at Jasper-Pulaski takes place in the hour around sunset, as they congregate again at Goose Pasture before heading back to the marshes for the night. At that time flocks pour in from every direction, and the calls of birds already on the ground blend with the calls of birds in the air to create music like none you’ll hear elsewhere.

This gathering also affords great opportunities to see the cranes “dance”; they bow, they jump into the air, they flap their enormous wings and generally wind each other up, then settle down again, sometimes in a wave of activity that ripples across the field.

If you go to see the sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski you’ll definitely want to have binoculars, and if you have access to a spotting scope bring it along, too. And take extra warm clothes. You wouldn’t to be driven from the observation platform by cold before the twilight show is over.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Are we really in Illinois? U of I students get a different view of the Prairie State

Are we really in Illinois? U of I students get a different view of the Prairie State

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work at the U of I is teaching a one-credit-hour field course that runs during the first half of the fall semester. The course provides students who are new to the Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability major an introduction to the types of work done by faculty in the Departments of Geology, Atmospheric Sciences and Geography and Geographic Information Science. It culminates in a trip to far southern Illinois, which is where I was last weekend.

We arrive at the University’s Dixon Springs Agricultural Center too late on Friday evening to do anything but go to bed (at least for the trip leaders), but we start early on Saturday.

Our destination for the morning is the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area in the Shawnee National Forest. There, a quarter-mile long trail gives visitors access to sandstone cliffs and rock formations that can prompt first-timers to question whether or not they’re still in the Prairie State. We make stops to talk about how sandstone forms and how geologists sort through evidence to explain the genesis of some unusual landscape features, including isolated stone towers (hoodoos) and raised circular rings in stone faces (Liesegang banding).

But we also make time to observe the sky, especially since we’re accompanied by my colleague Jeff Frame from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences. (He’s a storm chaser through and through, so blue skies like we had this past weekend disappoint him.)  In addition, we take time to just “be,” and climb around a bit where the rock formations allow that.

[Photos by author.]

We picnic for lunch as a way of reducing costs and making the most of our time in the field, and then rest on a grassy slope to hear a talk about the roles played by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the construction of area park facilities and the lives of the men who took part in the program. The talk is given by historian Kay Rippelmeyer, a long-time southern Illinois resident whose research has involved extensive firsthand interviews with men who served in “the C’s,” and whose enthusiasm and expertise prompted one student to comment, “I could listen to her all day.”

On Saturday afternoon, we hike to see the cypress swamp at Heron Pond, a nature preserve in the Cache River State Natural Area. Seeing the towering baldcypress trees, with their wide, buttressed foundations and “knees” that rise up from their roots again prompts first-timers to wonder whether they’re still in Illinois.

The path to and from the swamp winds through the floodplain of the Cache River, which offers those inclined (including myself) opportunities to look for reptiles and amphibians. Tiny cricket frogs are hyper-abundant there, and their frenzied hopping can make the riverbank look alive as you walk among them. As you avoid stepping on frogs it’s also important to keep an eye out for snakes; this year we came across three water moccasins by the river. That’s a treat (for some of us), but they’re venomous, so this is definitely a “look but don’t touch” encounter.

Dinner is pasta we cook for ourselves at the Ag Center, and then we’re back outside for a campfire and stargazing. Thanks to cloudless skies and a new moon on Saturday we were able to see the spread of the Milky Way galaxy across the sky—also a first for many students.

Before heading back to Champaign on Sunday, we pack in a visit to Tanglefoot Ranch, where farmer Grover Webb and others produce food like no place else in the world. But that’ll have to be a story for another day.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

An invitation to enjoy Vermilion County's Forest Glen Preserve

An invitation to enjoy Vermilion County's Forest Glen Preserve [Originally posted 10/06/2011]

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I suppose with the weather we’ve had of late, few people need encouragement to get outdoors. But on the chance you’re casting about for what to do, here’s a suggestion. Explore Forest Glen Preserve in Vermilion County. Getting there from Champaign-Urbana takes about an hour. It’s longer than the drive to Kickapoo State Park, but the extra time invested in the journey pays off in the different experience to be had there.

I visited Forest Glen recently with my son’s Boy Scout troop. It was the first overnight backpacking trip for the scouts, a step toward the ultimate goal of a backcountry outing in the Great Smokey Mountains next summer. The 11-mile backpacking loop at Forest Glen, which includes options for camping, is ideal for such a purpose.

The preserve is fairly large for east central Illinois at 1,800 hundred acres. What’s more, it encompasses an impressive variety of ecosystems, including a 40-acre tallgrass prairie restoration, a smaller savanna restoration, large tracts of mature forest and two seeps that are designated Illinois Nature Preserves. The eastern border of Forest Glen is marked by the Vermilion River, which is a point of interest itself.

If you go, you’ll definitely want to make time for a hike. As long-time Vermilion County naturalist Gary Wilford says, “If you’ve just driven through it, you really haven’t seen Forest Glen.” Among the things to look for on the trail are the magnificent beech trees, which are especially prominent on the uplands and steep slopes. You’ll know them by their smooth, silvery grey bark—they’re the trees people carve their initials into. Vermilion County marks the western edge of beech-maple forest at our latitude, so these are trees you won’t see in Busey Woods or at Allerton Park.

In the low-lying areas at Forest Glen we encountered large stands of scouring rush, a plant that grows up in two-foot tall stems from rhizomes that spread underground. The hollow, segmented stems of scouring rush resemble bamboo, but it’s really a more ancient plant, one whose relatives shared the stage with ferns and other spore-producing plants long before flowering plants evolved. Scouring rush incorporates silica into its fibers as it grows, which you can feel if you rub it between your fingers. American Indians and early settlers are said to have used it for scrubbing, hence its common name.

A unique point of interest at Forest Glen is a 72-foot observation tower, which is open to the public. If you’re able and willing to climb the stairs, you’re rewarded with a spectacular view of the Vermilion River valley from above the treetops. We were there a little early for fall color, but I can’t imagine a better spot for leaf-peeping in the weeks to come. [Photo by author. View from the tower just as leaves are beginning to change.]

As a bonus, at this time of year the tower is also an excellent vantage point for raptor watching. On a recent visit there, Bob Schifo of the Middlefork Audubon Society reported seeing two bald eagles, two red-tailed hawks, a red-shouldered hawk, a Cooper’s hawk and an osprey.

By the time Troop 107 descended the tower and finished lunch on the second day of our trip, we had neither the time nor the energy to complete the entire backpacking loop. Fortunately for us, there’s a whole network of trails at Forest Glen, and we took the short way back to our starting point.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

October a month of comings and goings

October a month of comings and goings

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Although the bright sunshine and warm days of this week make it tempting to think otherwise, the month of October promises dramatic changes for the natural world in central Illinois.

In urban areas, the acorns and walnuts that have already fallen add new challenges walking and cycling. Grey squirrels are in a constant frenzy, trying to figure out how to store the surplus of food available to them now. If you find walnuts stuck in your flower pots or wedged into odd places around your house or even on your car, blame the squirrels.

For now, chimney swifts still enliven the skies throughout the day, chipping to one another as they swoop and glide in pursuit of insects. But somewhere around the middle of the month they’ll head for South America, not to be seen again here until mid-April.

Over in Indiana migrating sandhill cranes have just begun to arrive at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. As of now there are only a handful of these magnificent birds at the site, but their numbers will increase over the next six weeks until they peak at nearly 20,000 in mid-November.

[Photos by author: In October, white-throated sparrows come, monarch butterflies go.]

The cranes will move on to spend the winter in Georgia and Florida, but the smaller, cold-hardy birds that come down from the north to stay in Illinois for the winter will also arrive in October. If you keep an eye out you’re likely to see the season’s first dark-eyed juncos at your feeder before the month is over, and some white-throated sparrows have already arrived.

Insect life, which is still so abundant now, will also be scarce in a few short weeks. Migratory species, including monarch butterflies and assorted dragonflies, will have moved on by the time November arrives. Adults of other insect species will die off with the coming of frost, to be survived by eggs or larvae capable of withstanding the winter.

Frogs and toads will continue to fatten up on insects while they can, but over the course of the month they’ll be moving toward the edges of lakes and ponds. After a cold snap or two, they’ll burrow into the mud for protection from freezing as they hibernate through the winter.

In places where prairie remains or has been restored, this year’s flower show is mostly over, save for goldenrods and asters. Now is the time for the seeds of most plants to ripen and disperse. Adapted as they are for long life, the perennial grasses and flowers of the prairie will send the energy they have produced through the growing season below ground. It’s a good time to recall that much of the life of the prairie exists beneath the surface, where a deep, dense tangle of roots rhizomes and other structures mirrors the growth aboveground in depth and complexity.

I guess it goes without saying, but October is also the month for appreciating forests in the Midwest. Why not give yourself and your family the gift of a walk in the woods at Allerton Park this month? Or hit the trails for some leaf-peeping and wildlife watching at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana.

Winter will provide us with all sorts of reasons to stay indoors before you know it. Until then, though, let’s make use of whatever time and good weather we’ve got.