Sap Run

With a little return of winter weather this week, Josh B and the adult students have made a final push on our epic pasture and stonewall recovery effort that has been going most of the winter. The ground froze back up a bit so we could drive on the pastures again, we had a couple of inches of snow so large burn-piles were safe to burn, and we charged ahead on the last leg of the 3 Trees Pasture. This pasture, part of the old Rowe family complex that The Farm School purchased a few years ago, sits right between the Sentinel Elm campus and the Maggie’s campus. The pasture is four and half acres, lightly sloping to the east, and it was named for the 3 large spruce trees that stand separately in it. Although the pasture was neglected for years before we took ownership of it, it has responded well to our rotational grazing, and it promises to play a significant part in our beef herd’s grazing rotation into the future. We also uncovered an old hand-dug stone lined well in the pasture this spring, and there is some hope for drawing water from it to supply the beef herd when they’re in the neighborhood. Once the brush at the edges of the pasture has been cleared, we can build high-tensile fences that stay up year round and provide a solid perimeter for the cows.

Bennet, Charlie and Bradley on the sled.

The Farm School is home to a team of Belgian draft horses named Tom and King, and last weekend Bradley took them to Stonewall Farm, in Keene, NH for a sap collecting competition. Teams of three farmers, one driver and two collectors, navigated a course through the woods pulling an old-style sap tank on wooden runners. The two collectors, carrying five gallon buckets, ran from tree to tree, emptied the contents into their five-gallon buckets, and ran that back to fill the tank on the sled. The teams were timed through the course, and their total gallons collected was measured.

Charlie filling the sled.

Fifteen teams, from all over New England competed, and there was also an obstacle course for the driver and horses too. The Farm School team ran the course in eleven and a half minutes, collected 154 gallons of sap, and took home first place!

I mentioned last week that we have renewed the poll barn at the Maggie’s Farm complex, and renovated the back end of it to build a cement floored garage area for working on farm trucks, tractors, and other implements that need service. This space has been wired for power and lights, so we can see what we’re doing down there, charge batteries, run power tools, and play loud music. There is a wood stove to heat the space for working, and

Student farmers servicing a field Cub.

to warm up vehicles and other projects that are nicer to work on when they’re not freezing cold. Students insulated the walls, and installed and insulated the ceiling you can see at the top of this picture. Work benches for tools and parts around the edges, jacks for lifting, oil filters and tools, and just about anything else we’ll need for vehicle maintenance fills the space. This garage is our second enclosed heated work space at the Maggie’s Farm complex, ensuring that no matter the weather, we can always keep the work of the farm moving ahead.

The rams have been separated from the ewes in anticipation of the start of lambing season any day now. Several ewes are walking around with super wide bellies, although the clearest way to see if a ewe is getting close to lambing is to check her udder. About seventy percent of lamb and udder development in sheep comes in the last month of a five month pregnancy, and we really see the udder fill up in the last ten days or two weeks before delivery. I go in with the ewes every day now to check udders, and to look for ewes getting close to lambing. I’ll write more next week about ewes in late pregnancy, and our approach to managing that challenging time.

Spring Progress

We’ve pulled the taps from the sugar maples, cleaned up the evaporator, and the sugaring season is over at The Farm School. Looking ahead at the weather forecast, it seems like we might see the return of winter, and sugaring weather, with Saturday night forecast to be 14 degrees, but things got so summery around here last week that we decided to end the season. It was a great season, considering the crazy weather, thanks mostly to the dedication of intrepid second year Maggie’s man-about-town Bennet, his fearless sidekick (and PVS Program Director Rafe), and their supervisor Stephanie. We made 25 gallons of beautiful syrup by the end, right around our yearly average.

The pastures are greening up a bit, about a month earlier than I’ve ever seen around here. Spring flowers are coming up, ticks are definitely back in action, and the song-birds are going crazy. I saw earthworms up lying on the surface of the ground in the rain at dawn on Tuesday, a sure sign that the soil temperatures are rising. The visiting students are back playing basketball behind the Bunkhouse, mastering the intricacies of The Farm School’s leaning hoop and gravel court, and leading huge games of ‘knock-out.’

A new and improved bar-way

Firewood work has finished up successfully, and the adult students are now prepping for the planting and grazing season full time. We are installing quite a bit of high-tensile fence around the farm this spring, as well as remaking some road ways, stonewalls, and other infrastructure. Students are also cutting back brush around all of our veggie fields to allow more sun onto the fields as well as easing navigation around the farm. All of this work typically has to wait until April, or sometimes even May, or sometimes not at all, and it feels great to spend time getting after things that so often get deferred. We’ve even tried to spread a little manure already, though the pasture seem a bit wet still for that.

Our new hood, from NASA

Late in the winter, the Bunkhouse kitchen, the heart of the Program for Visiting Students, got a bit of an upgrade with the installation of a hood over the stove and the addition of a large griddle. Our master lunch-ladies, Cristina and Eliza, now have the freedom to unleash the full power of their

Super pancake on the griddle

endless creativity, and years of culinary school training, safe in the knowledge that any smoke is getting sucked right out of the building. The griddle has also opened the door to some radical cooking, from pancakes every day to fried rice perfection.

Another big improvement The Farm School is enjoying, although the finishing touches are still being worked out, is a real garage/auto-shop at the Maggie’s Farm complex. Josh B, and several generations of adult students, rescued the poll barn from being tipped over by plate-tectonics, rehabbed the back end, insulated, poured cement, installed heat and lights, and have made a great place to pull in a farm truck or tractor for service. I’ll go take pictures of that space and get a full report from Josh for next week’s episode.

Change of Season

We’ve slipped right past spring into early summer this week, with temperatures over 70 degrees on Wednesday.

Last day at the log landing

Frozen pastures and logging roads have fully melted into mud, and our firewood crews are racing to get their work finished up before doing serious damage to the ground. Luckily, without deep snow this winter, we were able to generate a lot of firewood really quickly, and we are just about finished with our yearly production goal at this point. We count on the frozen ground to protect our pastures and woods-roads from damage while we are doing firewood work, and once the ground thaws the dormant grass and forest floor is easy to damage before it gets growing again.

Chip working on a final tree

This also has become an issue in our winter cow feeding system. We set up round wrapped bales in large grid patterns out on a pasture that we want the cows to put manure on, and the frozen pasture stands up to the cow pressure really well. We usually try to get the cows off the pasture by the end of March, when it typically starts to thaw, but this year we got caught a few weeks early and the cows are tearing up the grass with their hoofs. We consolidate their area down to a smaller section that we know is going to get torn up, feed hay in there for a bit, and chain-harrow and seed the rest of the winter pasture to get it growing well for the grazing season. This approach has worked really well for us, and it gives us the chance to spread a lot of manure on a field, and establish a fresh pasture community made up of the varieties that we want to promote for good grazing.

The warm weather also probably means the end of the sugaring season for us as well. Sap collection depends on the sap running in the maples, and the sap run depends

That’s a 250 gallon sap tank…

on warm days and cold nights. Once evening temperatures stop going below freezing, the sap stops moving up and down the tree in a regular pattern. The warm weather also promotes insect action in and around the sap buckets, and turns the sap yellow. Sap in buckets also grows bacteria much more quickly when the temperatures are in the sixties and seventies, leading to marginal syrup. We got a strong last run on Monday and Tuesday, and should get close to twenty gallons of finished syrup by the end of the process.

The focus of the Learn to Farm Program is shifting from firewood production and classes to the greenhouse, and our first seedlings are sprouting. Alex and the students have been out checking in on all of our veggie fields, picking another year’s crop of rocks from those that will be planted first, and getting ready for the initial cultivation of the year. Issues like soil temperature and moisture, hours of daylight, wind speed and direction, and rain fall amounts become vital stats as we anticipate getting tractors out prepping beds for planting.

Onions coming up

The sheep were sheared last week, and we have been working this week to get the ram’s summer area ready for them. The rams are removed from the flock just before lambing to ensure that they are not interfering with ewes in labor, newborn lambs, or farmers in the pen assisting with births. Unfortunately the rams have to stay away from the ewes until next November so that we can control our lambing schedule. Although sheep cycle more seasonally than most livestock, we want to make sure lambs are born exactly when we want them. For us, April lambing means that the weather is not so cold that we need to worry too much about warming newborn lambs, the grass is not quite ready for grazing so the ewes are still accessible in their winter quarters, and we have a pretty long grazing season to get the sized up for late fall processing. The rams will be together in their own pen for the summer and fall, and by November they will be ready to be back with the flock.

Everyone is busy here buttoning up winter projects and shifting over to spring work and summer preparations. Most of us have been caught a bit off guard by this quick spring, but we’ll get things right on line as quickly as we can!


Sugaring Season

Sugaring season has begun at The Farm School, the maples are tapped, we’ve had a few good runs so far, and we have more than ten of gallons of finished syrup bottled and ready to go. Friday night was good and cold here, and Saturday warmed up into the forties, soIMG_8266.JPG we had a pretty good run. With no kids around to collect, we put together a staff crew, with a few children that live on the farm, hitched up Tom and King, and collected by wagon. We boiled in the sugar shack Friday afternoon and evening, started again Saturday morning and boiled pretty late Saturday night, trying to work our way through as much sap as possible. We had another pretty good run on Sunday and Monday, and another small run Tuesday, so we have been boiling and boiling all this week. Cristina and Eliza served the visiting students homemade syrup for pancakes on Wednesday morning, and it was well received, as usual. This was our first syrup of the season after a long dry spell, and it was exciting for staff and students to be a part of the process.


Student farmers are shearing sheep in the upper barn at Maggie’s this week with Fred DePaul. Fred has been shearing sheep, demonstrating shearing, and training shearers for many many years. He has been working with our students here at The Farm School since the beginning, and has always gotten every sheep well sheared, and every student successfully and gently through the process. He has a wealth of old farm and livestock tricks to share, lots of great stories of New England farming, and the unflappable calm that helps get the job done. He accommodates every level of strength, capability and bravery, and is always sure to point out that a successful shearer depends much more on technique than strength to shear a sheep.

Firewood production and greenhouse seeding are continuing this week. Some have claimed to have glimIMG_2579psed a glimmering of light at the end of the firewood tunnel, with five or six cords still to produce of the sixteen needed to supply the outdoor wood furnace at the Learn to Farm complex. With a forecast for sixty degrees and warmer for several days next week, we are trying to get firewood finished before what feels like an early spring, really gets going. Frozen ground is the best for cutting and dragging trees, and making firewood, and once we get deep into mud season that kind of work really has to stop. Trays of early season onions and scallions are seeded in the greenhouse, the heat is on, and we are all eagerly waiting for sprouts to pop up.

Last winter we came to realization that our dairy barn could no longer handle the deep bedded pack system for our winter cow loafing area. So after a bit of research, and a new cement retaining wall, we gutted the back of the barn and rebuilt. We added an inside winter area for the goats, and eight free-stalls for the dairy cows. The cows are not tied into these stalls like they are in the tie-stalls in the milking area, but use them as a place to lie down when they want to. The stalls are slightly slanted up, so the cows only lie in them head first, and they are narrow enough that they can’t turn around in them. They are bedded with straw and a bit of wood shavings at the back end. All of this is in an effort to keep the stalls clean, so the cows stay clean, and the milk stays clean. We feed round bales out on the pasture, so the cows always have access to that space, water and minerals, but they can always come in to get out of the weather. Our hope is that their only good choice for lying down is in our nice cleanly bedded, soft free-stalls, and their udders and teats will stay nice and tidy. So far the new system seems to be working well, but with this mild winter it is hard to say that the cows are really using the stalls much. The new indoor goat area allows us to bring the goats in for milking, and back out when they’re done, without going outside, and it has shortened the walk from the goat area to the milking area. That walk was proving to be really challenging with visiting students and young goats, and this system is working much better for all of us.