Gear

Working outside all day, in all types of weather, in all types of conditions, makes the gear choices that a farmer makes really important. This week, I am going to do a run-down of some of the clothing and equipment that I use every day, and while I totally understand that everyone has different priorities and tastes, this is a topic that I think and read a lot about. I tend to subscribe to the idea that it is better to spend more on a superior product that will last than get the cheaper option that will have to be replaced more often. For equipment that I am going to use every single day, depend on to function in tough conditions when I really need it to, I am willing to pay more for something that is going to satisfy my needs.

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The Alpha Burly boot by LaCrosse

The most important piece of equipment a farmer wears is their shoes. Rubber boots, work boots, sneakers, whatever you’re wearing on your feet has to be able to stand up to everything that you’re going to walk through in your day. Your feet need to be well cared for if you’re going to be on them all day, and they really need to stay dry. There are so many different things that your shoes will have to deal with in a typical farm day that it is challenging to find a single product that will work for everything. I have three primary pairs of farm shoes: tall rubber insulated rubber boots for winter, tall rubber un-insulated rubber boots for the rest of the year, and waterproof work boots. I step into rubber boots first thing in the morning, especially for milking cows, and often change into work boots after breakfast to wear for the rest of the day. My winter boots often stay on all day during the snowy months since they are the only insulated pair that I own.

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These are the best rubber boots I’ve ever worn.

I am still hunting for the right pair of insulated rubber boots. For the past five years, I have been wearing the LaCrosse Burly AirGrip 18inch. LaCrosse makes the tallest rubber boot that I’ve found (excluding waders), and that height is really important to me. These boots have a great tightening strap at the top for walking through deep snow, the insulated lower section is perfectly warm, and they are reasonably priced. However, the rubber wears out at the front of the ankle where the lower section meets the upper, the tread wears out almost instantly, and they provide very little support.

For the rest of the year, I wear LeChemeau Country All Tracks as my rubber boots, and they are the most important article of clothing that I use. These are really well made boots, showing almost no wear and tear after more than a year of hard use. They are comfortable to wear all day, simply designed, tall enough to keep most of the morning dew from the pastures off my pants, and pretty well priced.

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Lowas are expensive, but hopefully worth it.

When I don’t need to be in rubber boots, I wear Lowa Renegade Pro GTX Mid, a water proof mid-height hiking boot. I have gone around and around on this item, working in sneakers, full leather work boots, hiking boots, and trail runners. Nothing has been perfect, but these Lowas have been pretty solid for the past year. When the weather is dry, working all day in a super comfortable breathable sneaker is fantastic, but I get bummed out when my feet are wet all day because my sneakers have been over-topped by a deep puddle. My feet are safe and dry in a tall pair of leather work boots, but by the end of a long day they are feeling too squeezed and tight. So I’ve been looking for the middle ground for a long time, and the Lowas keep my feet dry even in deep water, and don’t squeeze the life out of them too. They are really really expensive boots, but they seem to hold up well to abuse and I am hoping to wear them for a few years.

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Powder blue, and easy to find in tall grass.

The next most important thing that I use every day is my knife. Many farmers carry multi-tools, some carry swiss-army type knives, some carry razor knives, and I’m sure some carry things that I’ve never even heard of. I carry a Benchmade Mini-Griptillian, a simple, well made plain-edge knife with a pocket clip to keep it easily accessible. Mine is light blue, which sounds silly, but helps to distinguish it from all the black knives out there, and make it easier to find when I drop it. Benchmade knives are made in America and are really thoughtfully and carefully constructed. There are a lot of great knives out there, and while this is by no means the only good one you can carry, I like it because it is not too big to carry comfortably, but big enough to exert pressure on.

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The cuffs are getting ragged, but LL Bean stands by it

The final item that gets significant wear in my farm costume is my L.L. Bean winter jacket. I had been looking around for the right winter jacket for years before finally finding the L.L. Bean Waxed Cotton Down Jacket. This jacket collects the strengths of many other designs into an unbeatable package that is warm, waterproof, and tough (sort of). The down filling is warm enough for working outside for a full winter day, the waxed cotton keeps me dry, and it’s tough enough for walking thru briars or lying under a piece of machinery. After two years of constant winter wearing, mine is ready to go back to the shop for some patching and sewing, but it is holding up pretty well for the abuse that it takes. I’d like to have a chest pocket on the outside for pencils, injections/medications, etc, and I wish the cloth was a bit thicker and tougher, but this is the best winter work jacket that I have found.

I think that the equipment a farmer carries or wears out into the fields and forest can tell you a lot about the care and attention that they are going to give to their crops and livestock. Taking the time to find the right item for you, an item that will meet your needs, that you’re comfortable wearing or using, and that you can afford, shows me that you are paying attention. At the end of the day, farming really comes down to paying attention.

Rams and lambs

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An early lamb and her mother

The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same.

Stendhal

Gestation in sheep, the time between conception and the birth of lambs, can be from 142 to 152 days, with the average coming in at 147, or roughly five months. Farmers who want to control when lambs will be born, keep the ram away from the ewes until about five months before they want lambs. There may be a lag-time of a few days, since the ram may not successfully breed ewes starting from the first day they are together. Ewes come into heat about every seventeen days, and that schedule can be strongly influenced by the presence, scent, and romantic entreaties of the ram, so most ewes will be receptive to the his efforts pretty quickly. However, their best efforts do not always pay off immediately, and it may take a few heats for a ewe to be successfully bred. Younger ewes may not respond as positively to the ram as older more experienced ewes, and ewes in poor condition may be cycling irregularly, or not at all. We anticipate breeding season to last about a month, which corresponds to about a month of lambing season the following spring.

The braver the farmer, the earlier in the spring (or even into late winter) they are willing to deal with newborn lambs, and a farmer who wants good sized lambs by Easter plans on them arriving some time in January. Cold weather lambing can demand significantly more attention from the farmer who has to ensure that newborn lambs, wet, weak and hungry, get dried off and fed before they freeze. (On February 6th we had a high temperature of 18 degrees, and a low of -15. A lamb born in January would still weigh somewhere in the low teens, or maybe single digits by then.)The counter approach is to plan for lambing on pasture, once the sheep are out in the fields eating grass. The danger of killing cold has passed, but parasite, insect and predator pressure are much higher, and the the growing season has been shortened for the farmer who is looking to produce a good sized lamb for late fall processing. Between these two polls is the middle ground of spring lambing in winter quarters.

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#76, the first lamb of the season

Here at The Farm School, we put our two rams in with the ewes as close as we cab to November 1st, and we start looking for lambs the first week of April. The sheep are still in their winter pen, and expect to be out on pasture grazing full time by the first week of May. Our rams went in with the ewes on Halloween this year, and we thought that we’d be right on schedule, but our first lamb was born on March 7th, more than three weeks early. Our adult students in the Learn to Farm Program manage lambing, taking turns checking on the expectant ewes every two hours, day and night. Their call, letting me know that there seemed to be a lamb out there with the ewes, was a shock. After going back to the calendar, counting days to double check dates to make sure we weren’t crazy, we started exploring what could have gone wrong. Quickly we determined that one of our ram lambs must have been breeding ewes before leaving the farm.

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“3/9: 1R white #92, missed one testicle 9/15/14”

We maintain a sheep record book to document ewe health and lambing history, as well as ear-tag numbers for all of our animals. Under lamb #92 was a note that it looked like one of his testicles had been missed during castration. This remaining testicle, getting the hormones, blood and support meant for two, had grown to full size very quickly, and had enabled little #92 to start breeding ewes at a young age. Typical ram lambs can reach sexual maturity as early as four months old, still at only half their full size and weight, and start breeding ewes as soon as they can achieve the required physical altitude needed to get the work completed. It seemed that our rough ram-lamb fit that bill.

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Sunflower starts getting bigger and bigger

One of the most interesting aspects of livestock farming is the effort to improve the genetics of your animals through selective breeding. By eliminating under performing animals and keeping those that thrive, by buying in premium bulls, rams, or semen, and by keeping only those offspring that meet a high standard, a farmer can, over time, move a livestock group toward greater vigor and economy. We have been moving our sheep herd away from the Border Leicester breed, known for good wool production, toward the Dorset breed, known more for meat production. We purchased two beautiful Dorset rams last year, and we have been using them to breed our ewes, while keeping their ewe lambs and retiring older Border Leicester ewes. However, #92, a cross-bred ram lamb, selected by nothing other than a missed castration, has introduced himself into our careful genetic work, jumbling up our breeding program.

planning

“Don’t worry and fret about the crops. After you have done all

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Hello, from a yearling steer

you can for them, let them stand in the weather on their own.

If the crop of any one year was all, a man would have to cut his

throat every time it hailed. 

But the real products of any year’s work are the farmer’s mind

and the cropland itself”.

from “Prayers and Saying of the Mad Farmer” by Wendell Berry

Early spring for a farmer is the season of dreams and visions, the time for picturing grand plans laid out in neat rows and regular schedules, the hopeful season. Seeds ordered in the dimness of winter have arrived, and they’re stirring now in the warm dark soil of the greenhouse. Lambs are here, new ones every day, and undelivered ewes swell with faith and expectation. The cover of snow is rolling back a little every day to reconfirm that the land remains, ready to receive us again. The ground itself is softening, and patterns frozen in the barnyard all winter now change with every passing, recalling the touch of the plow in the turning summer soil.

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Sunflower seedlings, still wearing shells, coming up.

Experience tells us that these dreams, hatched in the dark of winter and sustained by the spring light of longer days, will mostly not come to pass. Circumstances will change, there will be too much rain, or too little. Blight will come. Sickness will come. But beyond those troubles, things will simply change, and unfold in ways that we cannot imagine from these hopeful heights of spring. In the spring, I’m reminded of baseball, and the notion that just about every team, regardless of any metric, dreams of making the World Series while they’re still safely at spring-training. In a similar way, this time of year, every farmer’s spring fantasies of the growing season to come can still sail gently above the challenging certainties we should know are coming.

The strength of a farmer, and of a farm, is it’s ability to adapt to the whims of the season, to take hurdles in stride, and to find opportunities for growth. We prepare as well as we can in the winter, with careful plans and calendars, with oaths, vows, and dreams, and then we sail our ship out onto the sea and keep as close as we can to course we’ve laid out. But, like a sailor at sea, we’re facing forces in the natural world far beyond us.

Juxtaposed to this, of course, are the gifts that nature gives to a farmer, and the partnership between the farmer and the natural world that allows everything to grow. Farmers must find the balance between planning and acceptance, between holding firm to their own vision, and recognizing the limits of their influence. There is no amount of knowledge or preparation that will make it rain.

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A bucket and tap, ready for a run.

The Farm School is deep in mud-season at this point in the spring thaw, and our driveways, paths and yards have become treacherous to navigate. The farm trucks are more brown than anything else, with only fleeting patches of their original color up  top. Firewood production is still going strong, seedlings have started to emerge from their little cells in flats in the greenhouse, and maple sugaring has joined the daily routine. The mystery of sugaring is in the sap flow, and we spend countless hours discussing the seemingly endless variables that contribute to a good run.

“What causes the sap of maple trees to flow in the spring? During warm periods when temperatures rise above freezing, pressure (also called positive pressure) develops in the tree. This pressure causes the sap to flow out of the tree through a wound or tap hole. During cooler periods when temperatures fall below freezing, suction (also called negative pressure) develops, drawing water into the tree through the roots. This replenishes the sap in the tree, allowing it to flow again during the next warm period.”

From Cornell University, on Sap Flow

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The evaporator in action.                                 

Sugaring, Shearing and Seeding

“It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

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Buckets hanging on sugar-maples at The Farm School

Sugaring, shearing and seeding usually come around together alongside the first glimmers of early spring here in New England. Runoff from the melting snow pack has started to drain off our hill-top farm, slipping down alongside the driveway to the pond and marshes below. Now our thoughts must truly turn to the approaching growing season.

The Farm School has a small sugar-house at Sentinel Elm Farm where we produce maple syrup. We hang about 120 buckets on sugar-maples around the neighborhood. We collect sap as often as possible, and try to get the visiting students in on the fun too. This year’s bottomless snowbanks are going to be a challenge, but we’ll find a way to keep things moving along. Forty gallons of sap boils down to a gallon of finished syrup, so we rely on a good supply of dry pine sugaring wood to keep the boiler going almost non-stop once the season gets going. The sap runs up and down the maples with nice warm days and good cold nights, so we’re watching the weather forecast intently this time of year hoping for a good run.

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Fred DePaul (at left) explains the finer points of shearing

We try to shear our sheep about a month before we expect our first lamb to make sure our ewes are not too pregnant for the rigors of the shearing process. Fred DePaul has been teaching classes of adult students in the Learn to Farm program to shear for more than ten years, making the trip down from Vt. to share his great skills and patience, guiding every student successfully through the whole shearing process. Our big fluffy ewes, squeezing around their winter pen, shrink down to half-size when they lose their wooly coats, and we finally get a good look at their body condition and udders. More than half of lamb growth comes in the last month of pregnancy, so the nutritional demands on the ewe become extreme. Now, with no wool, we can see how each ewe is doing, and adjust her feed, or the whole flock’s, based on their condition and the needs of the growing lambs. We can also get a good look at their udders, and determine who we think is bred and who was missed. We hope that ewe lambs, kept from last year’s crop, can avoid breeding their first year, and have a chance to grow before getting pregnant. A ewe that grows full size before her first pregnancy will usually produce more lambs in her lifetime than a ewe that breeds her first year. Other than that, we want every ewe to breed every year, and we usually give a ewe just one more chance the following year if she does not breed.

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Seed flats thinking about growing in The Farm School greenhouse

Seeding started in the greenhouse last week. We began with onions, leeks, shallots and scallions since they can handle going out into the cooler spring fields first. We start about 60,000 plants in this first round, seeding into flats filled with compost purchased from Vt. Compost Company. We use a blend of two products they sell, half Fort V and half Fort Light, with added Root-shield to inhibit pathogen growth. These seedlings will stay in the greenhouse for about nine weeks before heading out to the fields around the first of May. The greenhouse has propane heat as needed, and we try to keep the temperature in the seventies during the day and fifties at night. However, during nice sunny days, the greenhouse can get too hot for tiny growing plants, so we also have a ridge vent, controlled by a thermostat, to let heat out of the top. We also have a smaller hardening off house, just beside the greenhouse, where seedlings can get a little time to get used to  natural temperatures before planting.

The greenhouse, full of fragile seedlings, becomes the focus of a great deal of hope and worry as the tables fill with the summer’s crops. The potential in the room is breathtaking, and the tightrope of temperature, humidity, planning and labor is nerve racking.

Cord Wood

IMG_1605“To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world.” Charles Dudley Warner

The Farm School processes between fifty and sixty cords of fire wood every year. We harvest from our over two-hundred forested acres, following guidelines laid out by our forestry plan. Both the adult Learn to Farm Program at Maggie’s Farm, and the Program for Visiting Schools at the Sentinel Elm Farm, use outdoor wood-fired boilers for primary heat and hot water, and these units consume incredible quantities of firewood. We process thirty-two inch pieces for the wood furnaces, and sixteen inch pieces for the many wood stovIMG_1597es around both farms. We use hydraulic splitters for most of our splitting, but the young visiting students also do some hand splitting with mallets and wedges (and nervous supervision).

Both programs include significant forestry components, with the adult students learning and practicing the whole process, including forest management theory, tree marking, felling, bucking, splitting and stacking, as well as wood types, BTU values, fire-wood aging and chainsaw maintenance. Every student from the visiting school groups spends one day working in forestry, mostly splitting and stacking, but also going out in the woods to fell small trees and burn slash. Time spent in the forest is also one of the most powerful experiences of the visiting schools program. The visiting students also process quite a bit of sugaring wood for use in our maple sugaring operation, mostly pine slab from the sawmill, cut, split and dried to be fed into the evaporator during sugaring season.

Our draft horses, King and Tom, pitch in as much as possible, twitching logs, pulling sleds of firewood, and generally making the whole process way more awesome. Adult students also spend time harnessing and driving the team as they work to master skills they picked up at their three-day draft-horse workshop earlier in the program.

Our farms lie along a ridge that runs north/south just south of the New Hampshire line, and our forests offer a nice blend of hard and soft wood. We want hard wood for our fireplaces, although we harvest pines for the sawmill as well. Soft wood does not pack quite the same punch in the wood stove that hard wood does, and it typically will leave a creosote mess in your chimney from the pitch (pine tar) in the wood. However, we like soft woods, like pine and hemlock, for the sugaring operation because they burn so quickly that we have more ability to raise and lower the heat as called for by the finishing syrup.  A hard wood fire would be much more difficult to control because of the big bed of hot coals they generate.

Processing firewood is repetitive work, hard on farm hands and backs, done in the coldest time of year. The reward is delayed until next winter, or the winter after that if you’re on top of your game. But we remind every student that those preceding them cut, split and stacked the warming wood for this winter, and we’ll pay our way forward just as they did.

Listed below are the general heating values of the most significant hard woods that thrive in our forests.

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                    Million BTU per cord    Pounds per cord (dry)

Shagbark Hickory     27.7                             4327

Black Birch                26.8                             3890

Red Maple                 18.1                             2900

White Pine                 14.3                             2236

Red Oak                     24                                3757

White Birch                20.2                             3192