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Four-Wheeling and Talking Grass with Charlie Hoffman

Last updated on 2014.12.03

If you see a pasture with just one kind of grass, that pasture's dead.
—Rep. Charlie Hoffman, 2014.08.19

My friend Charlie Hoffman (yes, that Charlie Hoffman) wasn't talking one-party rule in Pierre. (We'll get to that issue in another post.) He was talking about the prairie, several acres of which he currently occupies east and north of Eureka, west of Long Lake.

Charlie invited me up to his McPherson County farm last week to get the four-wheelers out and learn what the prairie is really about. I was all excited to hear a Republican legislator go all Aldo Leopold, but four-wheelers? I hadn't ridden four-wheeler since I was kid and rode three-wheeler. I figured I'd break my neck trying to keep up with hell-for-leather Charlie before I could get back to the motel to write up his prairie oasis.

Fortunately, Charlie showed less enthusiasm for the throttle than for the native grasses, the virgin soil, and the economy, geography, and archaeology of his land.
Hoffman4wheelerfarmCharlie Hoffman shows the cropland he's restoring to grass. He said his dad once told him there's no money in crops; the route to coming out ahead in farming is grass and cattle.
Rocks2Just try plowing this field. The glaciers dumped rocks all over the uplands here. Some ambitious croppers tried to clear the rocks, but winter and water just bring more rocks to the surface. Rocks grow better than corn here.

Prairie wetlands, Hoffman farm, 2014.08.19
(click to enlarge)

Charlie's land ranges in elevation from around 1,900 to 2,000 feet, amid the swells of (if I'm reading the map right) the West Missouri Coteau. Water doesn't drain here; it collects, stands, and soaks into this hummocky ground in all but, in Charlie's memory, one really wet year when the heavy snow and spring rain rose high enough to run west to Lake Oahe.

Charlie worried we might find a dead calf in one of the transient wetlands. He saw a calf struggling last week and wasn't sure the little guy would make it. Maybe the calf's mother finally prodded him to recovery. Maybe the coyotes moved in and made him disappear. Maybe we just didn't look hard enough in the sea of grass.

View east from Indian Hill, Hoffman farm, 2014.08.19
(click to enlarge)

Charlie's grandpa told him that if East River ever experiences a massive flood, the best place to be will be the north ridge of the Hoffman farm, topping 2,000 feet.

Smoke pit at top of Indian Hill, Hoffman farm, 2014.08.19
(click to enlarge)

Charlie took me to the crest of that ridge, which he calls Indian Hill. The name comes from the ring of rocks Charlie showed me in the grass at the top. He says that ring was a smoke pit, part of the telecommunications network used by ancient occupants of this land. The Indians probably got better reception with their smoke signals than Charlie gets from AT&T down at the house.

High ground vistas don't come easy in East River. We stood talking on Indian Hill for a long time, air still, watch unwatched, sun baking and sliding west, no sound but the eager stories told by Charlie and the songbirds.

Then our reverie was interrupted by a sudden swarm of small black insects. "Where'd these guys come from?" I asked.

"They're piss ants!" Charlie shouted. "Let's get out of here!"

Charlie in the distance, four-wheeling across the prairie, Hoffman farm, 2014.08.19
We are all small on the prairie. (click to enlarge)

We hopped on the four-wheelers and growled down the hill. We were greeted by an updraft, not the wind of our movement, but a solar gust pushing up the slope on its own, brushing the bugs back.

"Did we just have to sweat a while for those bugs to smell us?" I asked.

"I had some scotch last night," said Charlie. "Maybe that's what they like."
IndianRockPile Charlie says he finds circles and piles of rocks all over his land. Many are hard to pick out in a wet, green year like this. Charlie says he thinks this pile may be an ancient grave.

Speaking of mysteries of what lies beneath, Charlie says he's heard that the U.S. Geological Survey came through this northern tier of the state once upon a time and took samples that revealed oil shale. The feds have kept that quiet, he says, perhaps to keep a future enhancement to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Charlie doesn't mention how he'd feel about oil derricks springing up amidst his recovering prairie grass.

Crater Lake, Hoffman farm, 2014.08.19
And you think I wave my arms a lot when I talk? (click to enlarge)

Charlie proudly showed me Crater Lake and the geological hypothesis he offers to explain the unusually round lake. He envisions no meteor but a big chunk of glacier calving off, tilting upward, and gouging down into the ground as it melted.

Prairie grass, Hoffman farm, 2014.08.19
(click to enlarge)

Take out that line of trees in the distance, and you see the sea our ancestors saw as they traveled into this land for the first time. Charlie paused in a few places where the grass takes on a violet tinge. He pointed to the turkeyfoot blossoms atop those stalks. "Bluestem!" he exalted. "Ice cream for cattle!" He says that grass used to prevail on this prairie but got overgrazed and didn't get a chance to naturally recover. Bringing back the bluestem is key, says Charlie, to healthy pasture and tasty beef.

We bounded up and down the gentle slopes, scooted around the edges of those tiny lakes, and bounced about the ubiquitous rocks, praising bluestem, cussing piss-ants, and hoping the best for that errant calf, hoping it made it back to its mother to enjoy some more ice cream on the rich living prairie.

And then we rode back to the house to talk politics... but that's another post.

CAH four-wheeling on Charlie Hoffman's farm, 2014.08.19
First time I've ridden a four-wheeler to get a story.

Whew—ass not over teakettle, all four wheels firmly on the prairie.


  1. Jenny 2014.08.24

    The prairie looks pretty green, must have had a rainy summer?

  2. Rorschach 2014.08.24

    No doubt that Charlie, being a good host, offered you some of that scotch ... if there was any left.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.08.24

    I don't think I betray any confidence to reveal that the only beverage consumed by Mr. Hoffman or me during my visit was H2O. Charlie kept his head clear because he was facing the sharpest blogger in the state... and because he still had baling to do that evening before a long drive the next day.

  4. 96 Tears 2014.08.24

    Thanks for sharing that, Cory. Beautiful landscapes. I'll bet the sunsets are glorious.

  5. Tim 2014.08.24

    I am not familiar with Mr Hoffman, I keep hearing rumors not all republicans are raving lunatics, that some of them are actually upstanding people with good ideas. I also hear these republicans are a disappearing breed.

  6. Charlie Hoffman 2014.08.24

    Excellent CAH !!!

  7. mike from iowa 2014.08.24

    Wish you would have got a closeup of big bluestem. Seems to have been an important element of prairies in America and yet I don't believe I've ever seen it.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.08.24

    Mike, I have a close-up like that coming up on a subsequent post—stay tuned!

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.08.24

    Charlie, you are an excellent host and guide. Thank you!

    And Tim, you stay tuned, too: I have a separate post on Rep. Hoffman's politics brewing....

  10. Steve Hickey 2014.08.24

    Charlie Hoffman is a spectacular guy and I'll miss him this next session in Pierre. Enjoyed reading this article and look forward to part two. Maybe I'll dust off my blog and do a stories on some great people on the Democrat side of the aisle. Good work.

  11. Mark Remily 2014.08.24

    Charlie is my kind of republican representation. He is from the old school that relies on history and common sense to make decisions for his constituents. If people like him were the majority in Pierre, we wouldn't have the secret society that spends tax payers dollars at will. I have had conversations with Charlie. We agree on most of the issues. The most important issue which we agree is a two party system. There needs to be a healthy minority (more democrats) to stop corruption which will always happen when one party rules.

  12. Bill Fleming 2014.08.24

    Good story, Cory. Charlie tells me he and I are fellow YC alumni, although he was about 8 years behind me. Sorry to have missed him. We could probably have turned him into a good left-wing radical. LOL

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.08.24

    Bill, let's keep working on him. We might have a shot!

  14. Bob Klein 2014.08.24

    Taking care of grassland is to be admired. We need more ranchers who know the difference between big bluestem and smooth bromegrass, both in looks and in forage value.

  15. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.08.24

    Ah, I do miss that land. It looks like the prairie I grew up on. We had native grass pastures that we rotated regularly. On wet years like this, that tall grass was a beautiful thing. We maintained the grass on the mile lines. There were two tracked ruts in the dirt that we used. Once a year we mowed and baled the grass, which we called Prairie Hay, to differentiate it from alfalfa. It's much more slippery than alfalfa and doesn't make a very tight bale, but it's good feed.

    I miss farmers like Charley. What he's doing was not unusual in my growing up days in Hand County. Everyone rotated crops, let fields lie fallow, rotated pastures, did not farm ditches or right of ways, etc. There was a respect and caring for the land. Farm people understood that it is a finite and extremely valuable resource.

    Charley, I'm very glad you are caring for your land in that way. It is truly beautiful.

    96 Tears, sunsets on the high plains are indeed spectacular. I missed them when I lived in RC, and I still miss them here in St. Paul.

  16. Heidi M-L 2014.08.24

    Interesting to hear your take on this, Cory! As well as Charlie Hoffman's.

    A side note: I told my husband (who has studied prairie plants and is now raising cattle) Hoffman's ideas on big bluestem and the problem being overgrazing. He said around here (James River Valley) that probably isn't the case--here native warm-season grasses are being overrun by cool-season grasses such as brome, and fairly aggressive grazing in the spring (when the cool-season grasses flourish) actually helps the native grasses, which don't really get going until later in the summer. But Eureka is far enough west that there are probably several different factors at play--rainfall, the grass mix that was there historically, land use over time, etc.

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.08.24

    Ah! cool-season vs. warm-season! I had a conversation with SDSU's Carter Johnson Thursday, and he agreed with that point! I'll have more on that in another post coming up!

  18. Charlie Hoffman 2014.08.25

    Heidi you are really describing what it takes to increase native grass. Early grazing or burning will do the same thing.
    Then resting in the Fall does allow winter grazing without any harm to the plants for their root system has developed.

  19. 90 Schilling 2014.08.25

    Good stuff Charlie Hoffman. Native that has never seen a tractor wheel will become if not already, the prized possession after fossil powered genetics blows it's Achilles.

  20. mike fro iowa 2014.08.25

    Plants suffer from stress like humans do. Plants,however,don't cuccumb to their worst instincts and go postal on innocents for the hell of it.

  21. lesliengland 2014.08.25

    survivor sucks !! :)

    R- a dem would know cory is a non-drinker. seriously, I am glad to know you are a dem. sorry

  22. Lynn 2014.08.26


    It looks like you are blessed to have a little piece of heaven here on Earth. When I lived out of state I couldn't wait to return and see the open prairie of South Dakota with it's diversity from border to border.

    The concrete jungle of a metro area is nice to visit and enjoy what it has to offer but coming back one can take a deep breath, not feel so confined and enjoy the openness.

    Utopia is a state of mind.

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