St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Gopher’s Tail by the Rambler
“It’s time to go grocery shopping,” I said to myself as I looked hungrily at the large ziplocked packet of pocket gopher tails in my otherwise empty freezer. With Margo spending much of this summer away helping care for her ailing parents leaving me a bachelor, I have learned it is time to go grocery shopping when I find myself wondering how the tails would taste fried in butter. Why do I have hundreds of gopher tails in my freezer waiting to take to the township clerk for the $3.00 bounty?
Well, when Margo and I retired two years ago on a fixed income, we wanted to keep our Sterling farmland, but worried about the high property taxes. Visiting with some of my rural neighbors, I found that actively farmed land was taxed at only 10% of what the same land not farmed due to a special law to help farmers. Over the years we bought 200 acres of farmland from Grandpa and my parents as they stopped farming. The land was taxed high as non-farmland because it hadn’t been pastured or cropped for several years. We set a goal to return it to farm classification, with the first step getting the fields back into production. We have succeeded with some of it and have plans for the rest.
As soon as maple syrup season was over back in 2005, I started farming on the River Road sand fields on Grandpa’s old farm. The first step was disking it to try to level years of gopher mounds, weeds and brush. Pocket gophers dig tunnels under ground and throw large mounds of dirt above ground. A single gopher may put up dozens of mounds each season as they build new tunnels connected to their old ones in search for more roots to eat. The sand fields were terribly rough from the gophers, and disking didn't do much to level it out. After a few days there were dozens of fresh mounds all over as the gophers continued their spring excavating frenzy. The gophers would have to go!
I bought a dozen new Death Klutch gopher traps, for $4.00 dollars each thinking that at $3.00 per tail bounty from Sterling Township I would soon have them paid for and the rest would be profit! Then I could get on with my farming. If I turned it into farmland, the tax rate would drop as low as $3.00 per acre. That meant that one gopher caught per acre per year would pay my taxes at the farmland rate
I put out all 12 of the traps on the first day. One gopher was along the edge of the field, in a brushy area with blackberry vines, poison ivy and small trees that had invaded the field.
Setting a gopher trap is easy. You poke a steel rod into the ground around the mound until you feel the empty hole below the ground; dig down with a round point shovel to expose the hole; poke a set trap down each of the holes you expose. Usually you expose the hole going each way or an intersection of holes—a “runway.” You dig out the loose dirt with your hands and slide the trap well down the hole and stake it to the ground with a wire or chain holding each trap firmly in place. With Death Klutch, you don’t have to cover the hole.
I set the 12 traps and a few hours later was at home vigorously scrubbing my hands to get rid of any poison ivy oil I might have gotten exposed to. I had a Dove bar of soap and used it on my hands followed by dish detergent. Then worrying about my long sleeve shirt, stripped to the waist and vigorously scrubbed my arms, neck and chest and face and changed into clean clothes. Poison Ivy is not something to take lightly. It thrives on the West Sterling sand barrens. As kids, we lathered ourselves with strong Fels Naptha washing soap bars to get the ivy oil off the skin.
The next day I checked on the traps and two were gone! The wires and stakes were still there, but the trap was gone. The new traps had loops in the handles that were not quite closed--room enough to slide the wire off of them. Animals like foxes, cats, badgers, coyotes and raccoons will steal your gopher, trap and all, if it is not tightly staked and wired. Something had taken two of my brand new $4 traps first night out!
I took each of the remaining traps and bent the loops closed. I did get 4 gophers, the first day (and with the two lost traps would have had 6). My lost traps were about $8.00 dollars and my 4 gophers were $12.00 for a profit of $4.00, not counting two hours of work and a gallon of gas driving around the field. I set the traps again, but with a little less enthusiasm and went home and again cleaned up.
The next morning I awoke scratching my wrist and arm. My arms were rashy, as was my chest and neck and my hands itched. Must be poison ivy from the gopher holes.
Three gophers the second day. No traps missing! But many of them buried. The traps weren't going off right. I tested them and found I had to bend the wire trigger a little to make them snap with a hair trigger. I set them again staying away from the edge of the fields and the poison ivy.
By the time I got home, some of the rash on my wrist was weeping. It definitely was poison ivy! By the next day I itched all over my neck, chest, arms and hands as my skin puffed up and wept. In my medicine cabinet was some Calamine Lotion, the preferred treatment. I scratched the ivy patches one last time, good and thoroughly and then slathered on the lotion. It did stop the itching.
Scratching poison ivy is one of those things you have always been told never to do. It feels wonderfully satisfying to scratch poison ivy rash. My strategy, developed as a kid, is to scratch everything until it opens the skin and bleeds, getting maximum scratching pleasure, then treat it and resist any further scratching. This gives direct access to the rash through the scratched off skin so the treatment can really work. In two weeks you are usually over it whatever treatment you use if you stop scratching.
The third day I checked the gopher traps half-heartedly and realized I was now down to 8 traps (loss of 4 for -$16). I had been trapping in the big fields along the road and putting in small stakes that wouldn't show from the road and get my traps stolen by passersby. Well, two of my stakes were either too small to find or had been tipped over by an animal so I couldn’t find them. Lost gopher traps in a field usually only show up when they puncture your expensive rear tractor tire later. By now I was up to 9 gophers ($27). There were fresh mounds all over and it appeared that I was not keeping up with the natural increase. I was not getting rich and still losing traps.
I studied the instructions that came with the trap to look for a hint. "If you want to weaken the trap, wrap the wire attached to the spring around the trap an additional half time to stretch it out, and then set it normally." As an experiment I did this with one trap. The gopher I caught with this trap the next day was securely held, but not quite dead. The Death Klutch had turned into more of a Death Hug. Out of curiosity I took the trap and wrapped it two and a half times around stretching and weakening the spring even more before setting it normally. Sure enough, the next gopher was caught securely, but still lively and vigorous. The trap gave only the inescapable hug that Aunt Jessie gave us as kids. The Death Clutch had been changed to the Aunty Klutch Trap.
If I caught all of the gophers on the field, I would soon be out of that income. A few might move in from the woods or neighbors, but my large existing herd, money in the sand banks, would be gone. However, if I used my weakened Aunty Klutch I could practice catch and release! I could catch the gopher, cut his tail off humanely, like Dog Lovers do with their pooches, and have a breeding herd. The gophers I caught would surely be smart enough to stay out of traps next time leaving only the new generation with tails to catch.
Often one great idea follows another! I re-read the regulations for what is agricultural land and found that if it is pastured by anything other than hobby horses, it is classified as farmland. Ah Hah! Gophers pasture the land they live in, grazing the grass from the bottom side rather than the top. To classify the land as agricultural, the assessor must be able to see clear evidence of grazing. The mounds would be clear proof of my herd of underground tailless gophers grazing my farmland!
Farming the land by planting it into corn requires about $400 per acre for inputs: land preparation, fertilizer, seed, spray and harvesting and most years the government ends up paying farmers because they lose money on their crops. Corn farming causes erosion and adds chemical sprays to the environment. Gopher farming is green and low cost! It requires a one time investment in traps and some of your time. Gophers are perennials as they live through the winter to produce seed year after year.
The animal rights people are happy; as I treat my gophers humanely—just cut two inches of their tiny rat tails off. My gophers are fully organic. No fertilizer, no antibiotics, no pesticides; in fact no real maintenance at all. They stay in excellent health at the maximum density of 20 gophers per acre according to a U of MN extension bulletin. My tail harvest has no health effect on them. Gopher tails have no functional purpose that I can determine. There are no flies underground to swat, their tiny tails are not valuable to curl up for warmth, nor do they communicate by wagging. I probably am doing them a favor as badgers dig them out by grabbing them by the tail.
There is a lot of work in running the “Hanson GoFur Farm” farm. I have taught Margo to do the trapping, tail cutting, skinning, etc while I concentrate on management and advertising. As Margo gets older and we expand by renting the neighbor’s land, we may have to replace her with cheap immigrant labor like our dairy farmer neighbors use.
One concern I have is whether the Town of Sterling and Polk County may decide that my projected 2008 earnings of $300,000 from gopher tail bounties might be thought as excessive and they would lower the bounty. I am hedging my bets by contributing generously to my congressional representatives with the goal of getting the Dept of Agriculture to treat gopher farming equally with corn, beans and dairy so that I too can be paid large annual sums not to raise gophers and put my land in GRP (gopher reserve program) where I would be paid not to farm the land at all. It is not really farming if the government doesn’t subsidize your activity and offer to pay you not to do it!