April 14th – April 21st

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We are weaning Purple Rain, so she’s longing to get out of the calf pen. 

With a stretch of warm rainy weather here to end the week, the worms have come out and are exploring the driveway, paths and games field. There are several explanations for why worms surface after a heavy rain, but one of my favorites (and one of the most likely) is that the wet conditions give them a chance to move safely over the top of the soil, so they take the opportunity to migrate more quickly and easily than they could in their usual underground world. Regardless of why they do it, the first warm wet day of the year, with worms under foot, is a sign that the the season has truly turned. As folks thinking about the health and function of our soil, we are happy to see a vigorous population of earth worms here at The Farm School, and we do our best to stay out of their way when they’re moving across the farm. We had some dry weather and some rainy weather this week, so there was a bit of a dance, as is usual this time of year, as Brad, Tyson, Carlen and Kristen did what they could to cultivate and prep veggie fields for spring planting. Peas went into the ground this week, and so did some hearty onion and greens starts, though the soil is still pretty cool and wet. Bed prep and compost application continued full speed in the new Flat Field acreage this week as well, with the BCS two wheel cultivator moving steadily over those fields forming the raised beds that will make up the back-bone of that growing system. We had heavy rain forecasted for the end of the week and over the weekend, so midweek Thursday and Friday were a real race to get as much acreage cultivated before tractor work had to stop again while the soil is too wet. When I hear the distant murmur of the tractor at dawn as I’m milking the cows, or again at dusk as the work day ends, I know that the veggie managers have seen rain the on the horizon and are squeezing every minute they can out the dry weather, trying to set the stage for rainy weather planting work while they still can.

We have only one more bred ewe undelivered in the sheep flock, and with twenty-five big healthy lambs on the ground already, and very few complications, this has been a great lambing season. I am a little shy of writing anything to qualify the season before it is truly over, but our last ewe is a seasoned veteran, so I am relatively confident that

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A look inside the egg-mobile, after cleaning but before chickens move in. 

she’ll pull delivery off well. Our typical six or even eight week lambing season is one ewe away from completion at twenty-one days, and even with that quick pace, we were never overwhelmed by an over-fast sequence of births. We’ve seen quite a few pairs of twins, everyone has had the appropriate conformation and assembly, and the mothering has been diligent and nutritious. I had real trepidation going into the season, having employed our two new rams for the first time this past breeding season, but it seems from the results, and the timing of the event, that those two boys did a great job. Though there is not a direct and quantifiable (at least for us simple farmers) measurement to be made between the day of service and the day of delivery, it is always interesting to me to try to read the sequence of the past breeding season in the tea leaves of lambing or calving season. With the lambs coming quickly and at the very start of the potential lambing window, I can imagine the rams getting right after their work from the moment they were put in with the ewes, and keeping after it diligently until everyone was bred. A three week lambing season probably means that breeding was successful for everyone in the first heat cycle that the rams and ewes spent together, which is remarkable to me knowing that it was accomplished by inexperienced rams.

Work began this week on the pig’s summer infrastructure, and we’ve built the walled deck that will hold their feeder, milk trough and water system. This year’s deck is ridiculously high on a few sides since we could not find much level ground to put it on in the corner of the farm we’ve chosen for the pigs. I think that we did a  good job bracing up the posts that it sits on, and now we’ll have to do thorough work blocking the pig’s off from getting under there to root those posts and bracing up. I picked up the pigs on Saturday morning, and they have been moved into the piglet yard at Sentinel Elm Farm.

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Gus resting, after a long week playing with the visiting students. 

Unfortunately they are another batch of those pink pigs with docked tails, I believe coming out of a conventional confinement pig operation. We have raised this type of pig in years past, and have found that while they grow quite well, they seem to have lost some of the intelligence and natural pigginess of the more traditional pig strains that we prefer. A confinement pig operation is interested in pigs that grow well, and not much else, while we would like pigs that can thrive in our forest and fields based system. Our approach gives the pigs the chance to dig and root, and to find natural food for themselves, and relies on their agency a bit in the process. Locating and securing piglets in the spring is a real challenge for me every year, and this year I found a source that could supply all thirty piglets at once, for a good price. I guess getting less than ideal pigs is the price we pay for that convenience, but I am hopeful that our good feed, fresh milk, and the forest lifestyle will result in big healthy pigs come fall regardless.

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April 7th – April 14th

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Some green grass, and some fencing materials. 

Our pastures turned from brown to green this week, marking a major turn toward spring and the coming growing season. This has been a remarkably slow and gradual change of seasons, but the greening of the fields, the peepers hollering in the swamp below the farm, and the lingering light at the end of the day have begun the inevitable march of warmer weather. There are farmers who put their grazing animals out onto pasture at the first sign of green grass, taking the sensible position that free green food is better for everyone than the expensive hay in the hayloft. We’ve found here at The Farm School that our pastures perform better, and for longer through the season, if we let them grow up nice and tall before grazing starts. Of course this approach can be taken too far, and we have sometimes found ourselves unable to keep up with the burgeoning grass putting up seed in ungrazed pastures. Our aim is to strike just the right balance in our timing and grazing rate to give the pasture plants time to grow big and strong, with energy stored for regrowth in their roots, but not to get so mature that they’ve gone to seed. We have a well established and moderately successful grazing pattern established for the beef herd, sheep and dairy cows, though weather, growth and demand keep us flexible and on our toes. The dairy herd will have an entirely new grazing system in place this year however, so I expect we’ll climb a pretty steep learning curve as the season progresses. We transitioned about an acre of our most level well drained pasture into veggie beds in the fall, and that change has, in my mind, tipped the balance on our grazing acreage so I do not think we’ll be making any of our own hay on dairy pastures this year. That means that fields that had been hay fields can now be fenced for grazing, and we need to establish a good system for weaving those added areas into our grazing pattern. Added to that consideration is the erosion and degradation that some of our cow roads went through last year with the heavy and constant rain washing them out. To address both of these areas of change, we have decided to flip our grazing pattern around, run the cow road in an east-west direction along the bottom of the fields, and run long paddocks north-south off that road. Every paddock will connect to the road that stretches along the lowest part of the pastures, and that will feed back to the barn. These paddocks will be pretty long, and will rise as they go away from the road, making me worry that the cows will be reluctant to graze the highest farthest areas. I am hoping that by moving a short section of fence up each paddock every few hours, we can entice the cows to graze the heights with that fresh grass. We’ll also make some changes in the old sheep pasture where the new veggie acre has been carved out, leaving the appropriate buffer between grazing and veggies for organic certification, and adapting the grazing pattern to fit a new entry point. The new veggie beds abut the old cow road, so we will now plan to send the cows into that field through a lower bar-way, accessed down a road headed east out of the back of the barn rather than the old westerly road, and the field will probably have just two big paddocks rather than the old eight. That old sheep pasture has always had a wonderful flat top area that grew our best grass, and a much less appealing sloping hillside below that. With the flat section now in veggies, the cows will have to settle for the hillside, and I hope that a little added grazing and manure deposition out there might get the grass on the hillside to thicken up a bit. Here in New England, with limited open space, and even more limited flat open space with good growing soil, it seems to be supremely logical to put the veggies in the flat places and the animals on the hillsides, if you’re farming both.

Lambs are coming fast and furious in the sheep herd, and our count by Sunday morning is close to twenty, with just over half the ewes already accounted for. We usually end up with between twenty and thirty lambs, and this year, with more twins so far that usual, I think we’re a bit ahead of what I expected. The season has been quite easy so far, with mostly daylight births and no significant complications. We’ve pulled a couple of lambs, helping the ewe deliver a baby that might have otherwise been really tough to get out, but nothing major. On Saturday we had a ewe, still pregnant, who got herself convinced that a pair of newborn lambs were hers, and it was all we could do to get her off them and out of the way. She spent the next few hours tragically calling and looking for them, though she eventually seemed to give up the hunt. It is not uncommon for ewes close to lambing to get a little confused about which baby belongs to which ewe, and to think that a newborn is their own, even if they haven’t had their baby yet. I have never seen a ewe as adamant as yesterday’s, and it was really sad to see her distress when we got her separated from what she thought was her own babies. The true mother needed some peace and quiet with her babies in the jug to solidify that vital connection that will keep those tiny lambs well fed and alive for the next six months, so we had to shut the door on the would be adoptive mother. Once she delivers her own lamb(s), I am hopeful that her strong mothering instinct will be brought to bear on her own offspring, and that will help erase the confusion and anguish she experienced over the weekend.
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More cow barn art. 

Cultivation and bed prep continued in veggie world this week, though with a few rain events through the week, we were not able to get the machines out in the fields as much as we would have liked. April is one of the only months in the year when farmers here are hoping for no precipitation, eager for veggie acreage and pastures to dry enough for the planting and grazing seasons to really get started in May. Veggie growers are looking for soil to dry enough to hold cultivation and machine pressure, and livestock managers, with pastures already wet enough for the grass to grow, want those nice sunny days to supercharge pasture growth. Once the grass is tall and veggie acreage is tilled and formed into beds, we’d all like a bit over an inch of rain per week, and we’d like it to fall at night in a strong but gentle mist.

The Maggie’s Farm layers went out into their egg-mobile on Thursday night, and they are now happily digging, scratching and pecking through the huge composted manure piles at the Waslakse barn where the beef herd spends the winter. They seem happy to be out of their winter quarters, and now we’ll have to keep moving them, usually once or twice per week, through the growing season until frost comes again in November.

March 31st – April 7th

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The new mechanical rock picker

Snow fell here at the farm Friday night, making this the second year in a row with snow in April, and deepening the cool slow character of this spring. Though the weather has been pretty cool, it has also been almost rain-free, so the soil has dried down quite nicely. We’ve done a tiny bit of cultivation out in the veggie acreage, and Tyson even ran the new rock extractor on Friday afternoon. The ground is thawed pretty deeply, though there is still a bit of ice down there, and some more hiding around the manure piles under the straw, so fencing has not started yet. This was a week for spring cleaning, and we made good progress buffing out the peaks and valleys left behind from mud season, seeding for fresh grass, and refreshing the driveway with gravel. This week also included the start of lambing season, with five delivered Monday and Tuesday, and all doing well so far. A baby goat was born

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The indomitable Patty

down in the sheep yard a couple of weeks ago, and she has been tormenting the sheep and looking for someone to play with. Her peer group is growing quickly now, and I’m sure she’ll be leading a little group of lambs into all kinds of trouble throughout the spring. We also got our first batch of chicks in the mail this week, moving one hundred and twenty broilers into the brooder on Thursday evening. Like last year, we’ll be raising a split group of Kosher Kings and Freedom Rangers, and looking at the comparison between their performance in our system. Everyone was alive coming out of the box, and I think we’ve got the brooder setup just right after learning some hard lessons in there over the years. We shrink their space down by half to start, trying to ensure that everyone can find the heat, food and water, and we’ll expand the space again as they grow and need the room to spread their wings. Those little birds will be in the brooder for a couple of weeks, and then they’ll move out to pasture for a few months. I think that we might have the opportunity to run them over fallow veggie acreage this year, getting them some great feed and adding their strong manure to the veggie effort. We have developed the Flat Field acreage into what we hope will be some really productive growing space, reduced the number of CSA shares sold, and it seems like we might finally be able to try some of the cool fallow acreage ideas we’ve been dreaming of to boost the fertility and health of the soil all over the farm.

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The greens are going strong in the hoop-house.

One of our Boer goat does delivered three babies on Friday, marking an important milestone for us as we work to develop our goat operation away from dairy and toward making a significant contribution to our meat production. Bunny had three bucks unfortunately, so the dream of building the goat herd up to five or six does will have to wait until another doe hopefully has a daughter or two, but all three little guys seem to be doing well. Bunny is having a little trouble with a retained placenta and a bit of what seems to be milk fever, but we’re trying to stay on top of treatment and hope that she’ll pull through. This was her first year kidding, so that inaugural experience can often be harrowing for the animal and the farmer as they break new ground on a challenging and remarkable process. Bunny’s third and final baby came out backwards, with just one leg poking out, so we brought a little assistance to bear on the situation to make sure that little one got his head out before trying to take his first breath.

Meat goats seem to be a really good fit for us here in New England, and especially at Sentinel Elm

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The soil is drying in the Flat Field, and the rocks are gone…

Farm. With visiting students making their presence felt all over the farm, the goats seem to have a nice balance of a reasonable and unintimidating size, and a hearty tolerance of over-enthusiastic handling. We found that the sheep, though a similar accessible size to the goats, could not hold up to the kid’s energy and attention, and ended up stressed and scared too often. The cows are profoundly tolerant, though a bit large for some kids, while the goats seem to strike a really nice balance. Also, as written in these pages before, baby goats have been scientifically proven to be the cutest most irresistible of all baby animals. We also have a lot of what goats like to eat here at the farm, and we don’t need to seed it, weed it, cultivate it, or do much to support it. It feels like we are always battling back the encroaching brush and hedgerows, and the goats are happy to eat that material for us, keep it under control, and producing food for the program at the end. They feel like a great fit for the New England farm, and really appropriate part of our unique farm.

March 24th – March 31st

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At ‘Options’ this week we had some barn artists brightening up our work-place. 

The sheep down in the yard are looking incredibly pregnant, and with their babies expected any day now, there are definitely a few that seem to be uncomfortable and ready for some relief. The same can be said for the goats over at Sentinel Elm Farm who share a similar breeding schedule and should be delivering babies soon too. Those new-borns will take up most of our livestock management focus once they arrive, though we are also scheduled to get broiler chicks in the mail next week as well. We worked to prepare the brooder this week, cleaning, re-bedding with pine shavings and turning on the heaters. I’ve found that running the heat for a few days before the chicks arrive gives us the chance to make sure that everything is working well, fine-tune the amount of heat that we want to maintain, and warm up the whole building before tiny little chicks need to move in and call it home. We are also looking at mid to late April for the arrival of thirty piglets at the farm, so we have scheduled a processing date for our two winter pigs on Wednesday, and then we can work on preparing the piglet yard for the new arrivals. That space will need a new load of wood-chips, and a good raking to even out the holes our current pigs have dug, a little repair work on the feeder, an electric fence for training, and an automatic waterer. Those piglets will have a few weeks to learn about electric fences and automatic waterers while we observe for health concerns, before moving out to the woods for the summer. We’ve ordered a new pig feeder to put to use this summer, and I am eagerly anticipating its arrival some time soon. The piglets in the training yard will eat from an open trough, but once they’re out in the woods they use a water-proof self-contained unit that holds 1,000lbs of feed at a time. We are buying piglets from another new supplier this spring, continuing my frustrating in-ability to find a consistent source of quality piglets for more than a year at a time. Luckily I think we’ll be getting all thirty piglets from the same place this year, and on the same day, which is certainly better than many years when I am sourcing from multiple suppliers over several weeks, and then mixing piglets of different origins and ages into one group. That can lead to health difficulties as they mix and share germs, as well as some rough living for the smaller pigs in the group. In theory, we’ll be running our new pasteurizer by some point this spring or summer, separating cream and making butter. I am really interested to see how the pigs grow getting that butter-milk and skim milk rather than the whole milk they have been getting over the past few years. We also have plans to use a new pig feed this season, so it looks like the whole pig system will be facing significant changes this year.

The pasteurizer, ordered I can’t even remember when, finally did arrive this week, and has been moved into the new processing room at the Sentinel Elm dairy. It is an incredibly intimidating piece of equipment, and is the nicest thing that I think I’ve ever seen. We have set parts of it up, and gotten it wired in for power, but we are hoping to get the

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Shitake spawn, drilled into Oak and Maple logs. The spawn will colonize the log, then hopefully fruit, when conditions are right. 

company that made it to come out to help us with final installation and some operational guidance. The manual that came along with the machine is enormous, and though I’m sure that with ample time we could decipher it all and get the thing working, this is not the season of ample time and I would feel great about having someone knowledgeable on the scene to guide us. The development of the new processing room and the systems that go into it had been on a bit of a pause while we waited for the pasteurizer to finally arrive on the farm, and now, after a couple months of delay, it is time to re-engage with that project. We’ll need to refresh our milking equipment, outfit the new mud-room with the proscribed cover-alls etc, get a work table and other processing equipment, develop our testing program, and figure out how it all fits together. This is going to be an exciting and momentous development here at the farm, and if we can get the whole dream to work out, we’ll have found a meaningful purpose for the dairy, a wonderful work space for students, and a delicious product for the community.

Though Bradley has frost-seeded some cover crop blends out onto veggie acreage that will be fallow this year, nothing much has started outdoors in veggie work yet. The greenhouse is slowly filling with trays of starts and germinating seeds, and the hoop-house is still cranking out delicious spinach, but the real action in veggie work is still a couple of weeks away. Our thermometers did get up into the sixties around here on Saturday, seemingly putting an end to the sugaring season, but we’ll need a bit more weather like that before the ground is ready for planting. This has been a cool slow spring so far, and

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The log plugging assembly line: drill, plug, wax, label, stack. 

sugaring at the end of March, often called the frog-run since there are often peepers singing by this time of year, is pretty rare for us. I believe that a cool and gradual spring transition is highly preferable to the quick hot rush that we sometimes have around here, and I am hopeful that this spring will set us up for a really nice moderate growing season ahead. Plants, trees and animals have had time to transition, and while I’m sure that the deer and other browsers out there would really appreciate some baby leaves to supplement their diets by this point, this more gradual pace gives all of these natural systems the appropriate time to get their business in order before summer hits. Soil moisture has been maintained, keeping shrubs and trees well watered, temperatures have been pretty consistent, and we’ve avoided heavy destructive rain so far. This spring, in a changing climate, has felt down right old timey.

March 17th – March 24th

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We call this hoop-house Baby.

I know that I have written it before, but the turn of the seasons from winter into spring is always, year after year, a truly remarkable event. To feel the earth shifting beneath the farm and to see the angle of sunlight drift across the landscape, to watch the days lengthening at both ends and tip from more dark to more light, and to see birds return to the hedgerows and trees around the farm, is to witness forces more massive and complex than I can grasp. These tectonic shifts are paired with a change in our farm work, similarly subtle and small at the start, and similarly to grow, build on themselves, and to eventually quicken into an all consuming torrent. The work of winter has primarily been upkeep and maintenance, keeping things going well through the dark and frozen time until the light and warmth of spring comes back around. The livestock has to be fed and watered, supplies restocked, and infrastructure repaired and replaced. Other than cord-wood production, there is not much new started in the winter, not much begun or initiated, and our energy is directed and bridging the culmination of the fall harvest and the start of spring growing. There are onion and shallot starts in the greenhouse, and although they are still fragile and tiny, they’ll go out into the fields eventually, and by harvest time they’ll hopefully be enormous beautiful onions. Between here and there is quite a bit of work and care on our part, and hopefully some good weather to partner with our labor in that deep rooted communion that has been feeding us for so long. We’ve pulled out most of the equipment used in summer livestock management to give everything a once over and repair so that we are in good shape to launch once the pastures are green and ready.

We had some pretty nice sugaring weather this week with a few good runs and a really nice peak at over one-hundred gallons on Wednesday. Full half-gallon jars are beginning to line up on the sugar-shack shelves, a credible (and edible) measure of the season’s progress so far, and one dependent again on that intimacy between our labor and the weather. Boiling maple sap demands a staggering amount of work, from placing hundreds of taps and

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This year’s production so far. 

collecting their output every day, to splitting and stacking the thousands of small-split pieces of pine that power the evaporator fire. When the arch is going it demands nearly constant attention, and once its been started, we usually want to boil deep into the wee hours of morning. The sap runs well in the maples when night-time temperatures drop down into the twenties and following day is warm and sunny without much wind. The sap, running up and down the tree in response to these specific weather conditions, is forced out of our small tap-holes by the pressure difference between the inside and outside of the tree, and the system only works within these specific and fleeting conditions.

We stayed mostly free of rain this week, giving our nearly impassable driveways and roads a nice chance to dry and firm up a bit. The road between Maggie’s Farm and Sentinel Elm Farm is still an unpleasant adventure, and the driveways definitely have very specific and narrow pathways to skirt the bottomless mud, but conditions seem to be improving steadily. JB put down a nice load of stone in the Maggie’s driveway on Thursday, and that area is looking much better after about two weeks of really difficult navigation. Most of us drive trucks that can work their way through almost anything, but there have been some dicey moments for Chicken Coop parents and other visitors driving more pavement-centric vehicles. We parked and filled the beef cow water cube at the dairy barn for the worst stretch of driveway conditions for fear that it would founder in the mud sometime full and heavy. The road from Maggie’s Farm down to the

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Our winter pigs are just about ready. 

Waslaske barn, where the beef cows over-winter, was bad enough this week that the steel hitch on the water-cube snapped completely off in the middle of transport, and we’ve been forced to press the alternate cube into service while the original spends some time at the welding shop. That cube was getting a bit rough around the edges after several years of hard work, so we’ll take this chance to give it a refresh and rehab before summer grazing season begins.

March 10th – March 17th

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The sky blue, but everything else is pretty bland.

We experienced a remarkably rainy summer and fall last year, and the ground froze this winter with the soil just about fully saturated. Here in the middle of March, with mud season really getting ramped up, we are seeing the impact of all of that water in the soil as it melts and liquifies. Our driveways, livestock yards and pathways are absolutely nasty, and with bits of ice still mixed in around the edges, totally treacherous. Most of the snow is gone from the pastures, though the woods and edges of fields are still covered, and the color scheme of the world has really been reduced to a narrow cluster around brown and grey. The coming green will stand out against these drab tones, and, as it is every spring, it is really hard to imagine anything ever growing when the world looks like this. One exception is inside the greenhouse, where the carefully managed environment, and some diligent work by student farmers, has resulted in onions, scallions, and some other seedlings growing daily stronger in their little black trays lined up on the greenhouse tables. Comparing the vibrant hope of those tiny veggie starts, destined for planting into raised beds in the Flat Field, with the stark desolation of our cold muddy farm, really shows the power that the spring will bring to bear on the next six or seven weeks.

We’ve been developing our sheep infrastructure and facilities over the past few years, trying to improve the operations of that enterprise in terms of both farmer and animal experience. When we shifted from raising dairy goats to raising meat goats a couple of years ago, we added that additional complexity to the small ruminant area. The dairy goats had been an independent little operation aligned mostly with the dairy barn, but the meat goats are really a better fit for the existing sheep setup. This year we bought in a

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Baby Frances has found a good hide-away for napping.

new breeding buck, further complicating the breeder shuffle that we manage in trying to expose females to breeding only at the times we want. Since we needed to keep the new younger buck away from the large mature one, to avoid overly damaging fights, we had to find additional accommodations to keep everyone comfortable. All that being said, we had the young buck running with some young female goats last summer and into the fall, hoping that he’d be safe with them, and that everyone was too young to breed successfully. Regardless of our hopes, one of those young goats delivered a little baby this week, confirming that in fact we had left the group together for a bit too long. In doing the math backward from the day the baby was born, it seems like little Frank bred the doe in the last few days that they were together in the fall, so I think that we came close to having our timing right, though not close enough. The new baby, named Frances by the student farmers, is a somewhat ridiculous blend of the stocky Boer meat goat buck and the spindly earless LaMacha doe, but she is thriving and growing, and is already the cutest most rambunctious thing out there. There was another young doe in the summer pen with Frank and the new mother, and though she is not currently showing any signs of being pregnant, it is hard to imagine that she is not also bred and that we’re due for another baby goat here any day. Even if that doe is not bred, our Boer does, who we intentionally had bred by the mature buck in the fall, are due for kidding at the end of April or start of March, just like our sheep. Experience has taught us that baby goats are the clear winners in the cuteness contest and are hands down the most irresistible farm animal for visiting students. Lambing and kidding jugs were setup this week in preparation for the impending

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The snow has melted, and so has the ground, and water is everywhere. 

deliveries, and we are putting the finishing touches on arrangements to be ready for those new babies. This work included our annual lambing class in the LTF program, giving the student farmers a chance to hear and talk about the lambing process and the vital roll that they will play in the whole thing. Student farmers will be asked to supervise and manage lambing as much as they can, and this includes doing lambing checks every three hours through the night, once lambs start arriving. They’ll be working in pairs so that no one is out there facing the intimidating task of managing the birth of live animals alone, and I am always on call during this time of the program.

This week also included a little work tuning and cleaning all of the cordwood equipment that had been in such heavy use over the past few months, a start to our series of botany classes, and more greenhouse work. We hosted two groups from Cambridge Friends School at the Program for Visiting Schools, and the long term partnership that we have developed with this wonderful school yielded another in a long line of wonderful visits here on the farm. The grounds are muddy and gross, but the kids had a superb experience, bonding with the animals, exploring at free time, and eating some delicious food.

IMG_7388All pictures this week are from our greenhouses Sunday morning, March 10th. 
I think that this may have been the last week of our winter cord-wood production effort, and everyone seems to be really happy, as they are every year, to have completed the job. With stove-wood and boiler-wood stacked and drying in our usual staging locations, the splitters and chainsaws can get a final cleaning and tuning before being put away for the summer. Though there are certainly periodic moments when we need these cord-wood and forestry tools, the hard cold months of mid-winter are really their time of year to shine, when they are in use all day just about every day, when the grip of the saw is more familiar that the empty hand, and the roar of the splitters is the sound track of the season. Now we turn to to the work of spring, and the onion starts are reported to be just poking out of the soil in their trays in the warm greenhouse after our first seeding day of the season Monday. Now we turn to preparing for pasture, pulling out the pieces of equipment that will house and support our livestock in their summer lives out in the fields. The egg-mobiles and chicken tractors have begun to come out of their winter storage spots and back to Maggie’s Farm for a once over, clean and repair. Now we turn to babies, and setting up the lambing jugs in the sheep area so that ewes and their new lambs can have a quiet out of the way nook to get to know each other for a few days IMG_7391before mixing with the larger flock. We expect lambs to start making the scene in the last week of March or first week of April, which by my reckoning, is not too far away. We’ll also set up the brooder to house new chicks coming in the mail in the first week of April, cleaning deeply, re-bedding, and setting up heat, water and feed. Finally, now we turn, for a little while, to the sawmill, to dig it out of the mud that the winter rains slid down onto it, and then on to milling all of the nice saw logs that came out of the cord wood project into usable lumber for the warm weather building season that is about to begin. We plan to rebuild one of the staff housing cabins out in the woods south of Sentinel Elm’s bunkhouse, and we hope to generate and use as much of our own lumber as we possibly can in the project.

We had a little snow event here in New England Sunday night into Monday this week, and this week’s visiting school had to delay their arrival until Tuesday morning. City on a Hill School was a new school for the program, and their ninth graders made a wonderful first impression on the place, digging right into the work and life here on the farm. It is IMG_7389always amazing to see what a group of ninth grade students can do working together on common goals, and the strength and diligence that they can bring to our projects can be truly transformative. The work of Sentinel Elm farm this week included the usual livestock care and cleaning, a couple of nice sap runs and boils in the sugar shack, the opening maneuvers for spring seeding the greenhouse, spectacular cooking and eating the bunkhouse and kitchen, and a healthy dose of free time.
We did an electric fencing review class in the LTF program this week, giving everyone there a chance to look over and discuss the equipment and tools that we use to build and maintain the electric fences that run all over the landscape to keep our livestock where we want them to be. Students had the chance to dig into the wonderful Wellscroft Fencing catalogue, and to do a little imagining and planning for a fencing project of their own. I asked them to develop a fencing plan on a five acre field, with groups of students focused on different types of livestock so that we could make a rough comparison of startup costs between enterprises. Wellscroft, about an hour north of the farm, is a remarkable resource for electric and non-electric fencing supplies andIMG_7392 knowledge, and their catalogue is a source for both equipment and guidance. This week also included another in our monthly all staff meetings focused on racial equity and liberation. This month we heard about efforts to reach out to the native tribes that lived on the land that we currently farm, a field trip that some staff took to the North Dakota Study Group conference in Jackson, MS,  as well as efforts to find an approach to updating the Farm School’s conflict resolution model.

IMG_7315We sheared the sheep and pruned the apple trees this week, confirming suspicions around here that spring must be somewhere out there around the corner. This whole winter has seemed to be comprised mostly of swings between winter and spring weather, so none of us is putting much stock in what the thermometer says, but the days are growing noticeably longer, the sap has run in the maples a handful of times, and next year’s cordwood stack is almost complete. We sheared twenty-two sheep this year, with a couple of hold-overs from last years lamb group that weren’t big enough to process last fall in the mix. The rams have been shorn and moved back into the breeder’s pen with the bucks, Rubble and Frank, and all the girls are now in the larger sheep pen. Shearing at the very start of March gives us about a month until lambing, so the ewes aren’t super pregnant while we’re rolling them around for shearing, but we’re also ensuring that they will be clean and tidy before their lambs need to find those teats. We confirmed quite a few pregnancies, noting udders showing the first signs of swelling into action, so I am hopeful that we’ll have another great lambing season this year. If a ewe has no sign of udder development at a month before lambing it does not definitively mean that the sheep is not bred, but we would certainly expect her to lamb later in the season than a ewe showing solid udder growth at this point. Lambs in utero do most of their growing in the last month of pregnancy, so choosing to shear when we do gets everyone nicely setup for a good final month without too much handling, a time when we can clearly see body condition and adjust the ration to make sure that everyone is eating well and thriving. As those lambs grow inside the ewe, they take up more and more space that she had been using for digestion, and at the same time the nutrition demands on the ewe spike as her lambs grow. We need to carefully adjust the composition of the sheep ration to keep up with demand, recognizing that they need to get more nutrition in a restricted volume. We do not feed our sheep grain, so we use second cut hay and alfalfa pellets as more nutrient dense feeds as we make their diet richer and richer in this last month of pregnancy. A ewe can get herself in some real trouble if her nutrient intake does not keep up with the needs of her growing lambs and her body, so we do our best to prevent the issue before it comes along.

Cordwood work continued this week, though we are drawing close to the end of the project for the year. Every student has had the chance, with direct teacher support, to cut down a few trees during the process, and we buck, split, haul and stack those trees into next year’s firewood. We make shorter pieces for the wood stoves all around the community, and longer pieces for the outdoor wood-fired boilers. The long hard days in the wood yard are a classic way to spend our time here in the New England winter, and the whole IMG_7312operation relies on frozen ground and snow to keep us from tearing up the ground. Logs slide nicely on the snow, we can clean up the branches and debris in the snow easily, and farmers don’t get too hot in the work if the temperatures outside are in the twenties, rather than the eighties of summer.
We have spent the past few weeks cleaning up the greenhouse, putting on a new plastic cover, renewing the fabric floor, and transitioning the inside space from the winter timber frame shop to the spring plant nursery. Farmers will be in there for the first seeding of the season Monday morning, and they’ll start with onions as usual. This is a major milestone in the season’s transition, and marks the true start of the veggie growing season. The growing season will rush forward from here, and the weight of live plants, expanding into the thousands and thousands, that we are raising and responsible for will increase through the next several months. Ground cultivated and planted will grow and grow, the days will lengthen, harvests will come in bountiful and fresh, and some time in August or September the whole thing will reach its peak and start slowly contracting again toward winter.

February 5th – February 11th

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Little Indigo is growing up fast.

We experienced some truly remarkable weather here on the farm this week, testing all of our systems in new and challenging ways. We started the week with nighttime temperatures well below zero, but by Wednesday, with a big blob of warm wet air moving into New England, temperatures had climbed up into the sixties. This swing was extraordinary, taking us from a bit below typical temperatures for February in Massachusetts, to far above.  The cold ground, and every cold surface, first condensed and then iced over, and then just thawed and made thick mist and fog, trapping moisture in every building and animal shelter. The beef cow’s deep bedded pack barn, buttoned up pretty tight to keep out the cold winter wind, was a humid mess, and we had to slide the doors open to try to get the moist air to move through. It is important that those animals get fresh air to breath all the time, and that we avoid overly moist air lingering in their space, so getting things moving in there was really important. Our nice little snowpack melted away, the ground got super soft, and driveways started to resemble quicksand. Every step outside was soft and approaching bottomless, and care had to be taken in selecting

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The forestry crew has been working to get us setup for sugaring season, which seems to be coming soon. 

routes and pathways for every endeavor. Things turned around dramatically Friday with driving winds from the northwest pushing in cold winter air again, and now the chopped up ground has frozen hard into treacherous mud-formed mountain ranges ready to eviscerate any passing vehicle. As the new front pushed in Friday afternoon, the low sodden clouds and mists were vigorously pushed out to reveal blue sky and the nearly forgotten sun, and I think that we all shared a few hours reveling in our deliverance before the evening came.

We took advantage of the warm weather and thaw of midweek to replace the plastic on the greenhouse, and to dismantle most of last year’s pig infrastructure, which had been frozen solid in their old pasture on top of the hill. Both projects were lingering in our collective minds, and it was a relief to get this little weather respite to tackle both under mild conditions. The plastic of the greenhouse is much easier to stretch and put in place with warm temperatures as it softens a bit as it warms, and we can work better without gloves. The metal frame of the greenhouse can be remarkably cold to the touch in winter conditions, so we are always pleased to find a warm stretch, when the building is not in active use, to do renovations and repairs. The pig palace, consisting of a deck and walls built of wood, was a project that we just did not have time to get to in the fall after the pigs moved out. I am eager to give those wooden structure, which we use year after year, ample time to rest and dry out between pig seasons, so I was really happy to find a few days to get most of it disassembled and stacked for some drying time before we set it up again in the spring.

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Purple Rain, named by visiting students, peaking out from behind the remains of the round bale. 

Veggie planning continued this week, as did a few other great classes in the Learn to Farm program, though with the warm temperatures, we weren’t all taking shelter indoors as much as usual. We met with a large animal veterinarian Monday morning for our annual calf castration workshop, working with last year’s group of beef calves to get them all vaccinated, wormed, castrated (bulls only) and re-tagged. This is always a high-test experience for the students, and calves, but everyone conducted themselves with grace and determination, and we got all the work done effectively and smoothly. We had only two bull calves in the group this time, but we did have the change to do the first castration surgically so that the students had the opportunity to see the intricate parts we were after. We finished the week with two days of race and equity workshopping, continuing to further the commitment that we’ve made to this work step by step.

January 28th – February 4th

 

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Kids are back at the farm next week!

We had a good stretch of staff work at Sentinel Elm Farm this week, getting the farm, bunkhouse, and our plans, setup and ready for the visiting kids who are coming Monday morning. The inside of the bunkhouse has been painted and it’s looking fantastic, projects and supplies are laid out and ready to spring into action, and we are super excited to welcome kids back to the farm. The quiet weeks of winter are a wonderful chance to meet, discuss, learn and plan, but the beating heart of The Farm School is the visiting kids rocking and rolling all around. Breakfast, lunch and dinner will be bustling and bumping in the bunkhouse dining room, the kitchen will swing back into action, the bunk-rooms will be full of a clamorous crowd of tired kids, and this wonderful program will be back in action.

We have lined out a few changes that we’d like to achieve in our livestock work this spring, updating our approach to our management approach based on lessons gleaned from the past year. We hope to make some changes to the road that the dairy cows use to get from the barn to their water trough, and on to the paddocks spread throughout the pastures of the upper farm, and to change the direction and size of their paddocks to make moving the chicken’s egg-mobile around those paddocks a bit easier. We’ve handed over the majority of a nice pasture we call the Old Sheep Pasture to the new Flat Field vegetable production initiative, so we are going to graze some pastures that we have made hay on in the past in an effort to maintain adequate grazing acreage for the dairy cows.  We’d also like to expand the goat’s yard, and enhance their house, as we prepare for them to have babies in there this spring. The buck went in with them at the start of November, so with a five month gestation, we expect babies in April. We had only two does in with the buck this year, so this should be a small, and hopefully uneventful first kidding season for our fledgling meat goat operation. Our hope is that we get some good doe kids this year, we can expand the breeding group in the next few years from our own group, and work to develop the goats into another profitable ingredient of our operation. I have dreams including some of these goats, any that we don’t need for breeding or processing, in the sheep setup down the road at Maggie’s Farm. The far end of the sheep pasture, some of the nooks and crannies around the edges, and some of the wetter areas grow brush and forage that the sheep don’t seem to be interested in grazing, and I hope that a handful of goats might be able to do some work in these areas, and succeed within the existing sheep systems without too many other changes. We also

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The dairy herd enjoying some sunshine. 

ironed out some of the details for our new pig feeding program, securing a feed supplier, and transportation and storage plan, and placing an order for a new feeder. We’ll be buying grain from Clover Hill Farm in Hardwick, MA, transporting and storing it in metal fifty-five gallon drums, and feeding it out in a new Fabcore eight-door pig feeder. I am really excited to try out all these new plans, but we still need to decide on a location to raise the pigs this summer, and of course we need to find some piglets.

This was a full week of work and classes in the Learn to Farm program focused again mostly on cordwood production outside, and the business side of farming when we were in the classroom. We had some really cold weather through most of the week, so working out in the cordwood yard was pretty challenging first thing in the morning, but I think that folks felt good once they got working and warmed up. Sitting inside, discussing, thinking and planning also felt really good when the thermometer was down around zero, and everyone appreciated the wood furnace and some inside time. Wednesday afternoon included a full staff meeting for a few hours after lunch, when we had a chance to continue working on our racial equity and liberation efforts, learning and discussion. Next week looks warm and wet, and I’ll let you know how it goes.