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.

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