A Whisper of Winter

We are coming to the end of another busy week here at The Farm School, and with colder weather drawing near, the pace of preparation for winter has increased. We had two nights down below thirty degrees this week, freezing water systems, and reminding everyone that winter is drifting our way.

A frosty sunrise with Tom and King

Our lambs went to the slaughterhouse on Wednesday, cutting the sheep flock just about in half, and making much more room at the hay feeder. The second round of pigs went off too, leaving us just nine more to go. The four beautiful Berkshire pigs that Dave was raising at Sentinel Elm Farm (home of the Program for Visiting Schools) were included in this week’s load, and they were some of the best pigs we have ever raised here. The heritage breed pigs develop larger shoulders and hams than the modern Yorkshire varieties, they stay shorter and rounder all over, and seem to be a bit more motivated to root and forage. More modern pigs have been tailored to fit our prevailing production systems, with whiter, leaner meat, and a long, tall, thin frame that can hang more efficiently in the cold storage of the slaughterhouse and packing facility.

Dave built this great loading setup to load his pigs.

Harvests continued this week, featuring kale, carrots, cauliflower, leeks, garlic, cabbage, shallots and onions. Kale is the last leafy green going, but this is prime time for carrots sweetened by a little frost, and wonderful cabbages, onions and garlic that has been growing all season just for this time of year.

The student farmers had their ‘Dairy Transformation’ class on Thursday with local cheese-maker Emily Anderson. The class is an introduction to cheese making, and the students have the opportunity to try several different cheese types over the course of the day. This year’s efforts included fromage blanc, two types of mozzarella, ricotta, yogurt and kefir. Every year we hope that a few students are inspired enough by the cheese class to find a real passion for cheese making, and to start supplying us all with fresh homemade cheese.

Lamb loading day, and the preparation and planning that go into it, is always one of the first and most powerful moments of realization for our new student farmers about some of the harder truths of farming in general, and livestock farming in specific. We keep a flock of sheep for several purposes, including wool production and educational value, but primarily for the meat. The creation of that product necessitates the slaughter of lambs every fall, as well as the culling of older ewes or ewes that are not thriving on our farm. Many years, there are ewes to cull where there is no doubt that the animal should not stay on the farm, should not breed again, and should be shipped off. We have been culling pretty aggressively over the past few years, eliminating most of the poorer animals. This year we had no flagrant candidates, but to make room for younger ewes with fresh genetics, we had to be more aggressive in culling for potential problems, advancing age, and animals that appear fine now, but seem likely to have problems in the near future. Culling any animal is tough, and that struggle is made even more uncomfortable when the cause of culling is not clearly visible. However, the long term work of developing a superior population of animals on the farm, a group that has the desired traits, that fits our ecosystem and farm system, and that produces economically, is one of the most interesting and thought provoking aspects of livestock farming.

A truly wonderful farm dog

We’ve had quite a bit of rain to end the week, and when that inch and half is added to what we’ve gotten so far this fall, our recovery from the drought of the summer seems to be advancing pretty well. There is a little shallow pond tucked along the road between Sentinel Elm Farm and Maggie’s Farm where The Farm School community ice skates and plays hockey when conditions permit in the winter. The summer drought had just about dried it up completely, with just a few wet spots in the middle by the driest point, and we were all worried that we’d have to find a new spot to take a spin on the ice this winter. The fall rains have started to fill the pond back up, there is water stretching from side to side, and our local pond-hockey fanatics are optimistic for upcoming season again.


Full of Fall

The dairy cows are at the top of the farm.

Warm summer weather has held on for most of the week, but we are ending with a few cooler wet days here to finish the week. Despite the dry summer, our fall foliage has been really spectacular this season, and lots of trees are still holding most of their leaves. The Farm School Instagram (#thefarmschool or the_farm_school) has lots of great images of the changing season, with some incredible pictures of the bright fall colors up and down the ridge.

Spreading minerals on the Secret Pasture.

We had minerals spread on three pastures Thursday, hoping to adjust the chemistry in the soil a bit with a goal of encouraging the growth of a more cow-friendly community of forage plants. Any time that a pasture starts being overwhelmed by a single type of plant, it is a sure sign that there is some imbalance in the soil, creating the conditions that the dominant plant is taking advantage of. Two pastures that we treated were being over-run with poison-ivy, and the third was covered in bed-straw. Soil tests from the summer revealed a variety of soil mineral deficiencies, poor organic material content, and a low PH. Lancaster Agriculture Products, the company that we buy our chicken and pig feed from, worked with us to develop a custom blend of minerals to address our specific issues, and they were also able to come up and spread the blend on our pastures for us. We addressed almost twelve acres, putting down just over a ton per acre, and the whole process took just three or four hours.

Loading the minerals in the truck.

Thursday also saw a second round of wrapped bale delivery, with forty-four coming in for the beef herd. We’ve had to buy winter hay from a variety of sources this year because many local producers were unable to make a second or third cut in the drought conditions that dominated the summer weather. There are some wonderful hay producers in the area, including southern Vermont, and it was really reassuring to be able to fill the barns with such great feed, even in such a challenging year.

Bradley has been out in the woods with the student farmers this week, introducing some foundational forest management principles, marking trees for this winter’s cutting, and finding large straight pines to harvest for this year’s timber frame project.

From logs to timber frame.

A local sawmill owner moved the log Bradley cut to our sawmill, and students will start milling out the timbers needed for the frame over the next few weeks. Once the greenhouse is emptied for the season, Josh will setup a makeshift heated timber-frame shop in there for a winter of joinery work under the lights.

The student farmers did a full day tractor operation and safety class last week, and this week started the half-day tractor maintenance classes, as well as tractor operation one-on-one training. The tractor is by far the most dangerous part of any farm, and we do a lot training throughout the year in the hopes that we can start every student with a strong foundation of understanding, comfort and caution for that machine.

New Students

We are approaching the end of the first week with our new class of student farmers, and it has been an incredible start to the eleven-month program. The week has included livestock chore and veggie harvest training, a walk in the woods with a local natural historian, a full day of tractor operation and safety training, and will culminate on Friday with the first class in our farm carpentry series.

The beef herd on fresh pasture.

That first week encompasses so much of what a farmer does through the year, and it is exciting to anticipate working alongside all of these wonderful new students as we delve deeper and deeper into all of these skills over the coming months. The charge of energy that has gone through this place with the arrival of eager new farmers is incredible, and their willingness to engage in this work is an invigorating reminder of our mission here at The Farm School.

We have had at least one strong frost so far this fall, and with Friday night’s temperature forecasted to be down to twenty-eight, it seems like the grazing season may be drawing to a close a bit ahead of our November 1st goal. The grass will tolerate freezing temperatures well, but the cold weather sends a message to the plants to stop growing, and the grass that we have now may be it for the year. We have a couple of beautiful pastures left to graze, and the cows will be enjoying some of the best grass of the year over the next few days.

Some of that beautiful fall pasture.

The winter’s supply of large round wrapped bales of hay began arriving today, and we will get them setup in our usual grid layout for winter-feeding. Both the dairy herd and the beef herd are primarily fed outside through the winter, and we preset large grids of round bales that we can use temporary fencing to expose as needed for feeding. This system spreads manure pretty evenly over the whole winter-feeding area, and can be operated successfully by a single farmer after the bales have been setup.

The harvest season continues its incremental creep toward the end, with our focus turning more and more to the cold-hardy vegetables, storage crops already harvested and curing, and cleaning up from the growing season. Leaks, hard melons, garlic, onions, beans and kale are prominent on the list, and those deep green kale plants seem to carry on vigorous and sturdy no matter what.

The plastic went up over the winter hoop-house this week, preparing that space for plantings of cold-hardy vegetables that we can harvest through the winter.

The hoop house filling for winter harvest.

Hopefully the warmth that the plastic creates will encourage the three beds of late-seeded spinach to grow up big and strong, although that’s a bit of a gamble because spinach likes cooler temps for germinating. Our goal is spinach ready to harvest and eat by Christmas. We have have also planted 2 beds of carrots, which are looking great, and will be big, beautiful and sweet all winter long. Putting the plastic on means having to irrigate occasionally, which happened for the first time Thursday with an overhead sprinkler, and will likely have to happen a couple more times until the spinach is established.

Cover crop continues to green over dormant veggie beds, and I get a sense of hunkering down and bundling up as I look out over our beautiful farm.

Cool and Crisp

We are approaching the end of another beautiful week here at The Farm School, and the cool crisp autumn weather has got us all feeling lucky to work outside all day. Frenzied preparation has continued up until the moment our new class of student farmers arrives Thursday afternoon, and the Maggie’s complex is looking better than ever. We have made some dramatic upgrades in the farm house, trying to make more space, more seating and better Feng shui for the larger class coming in.

Ready for new students!

Work has started on the pig loading setup, and with processing dates at the slaughterhouse every Wednesday for the next four weeks, we need to be ready soon. Loading pigs is always challenging work, and my limited experience has shown me that a thoughtful setup can go a long way in avoiding a crisis at the critical moment. There are not many things worse than trying to fight three hundred and fifty pound pig about where it’s going or not going, and our goal in loading is to have the whole process be easy for everyone involved. We try to keep the pigs from feeling like there are any choices in the process, like everyone is moving in the same direction, and that there is something good to eat inside the trailer at the end.

The recent cold nights have done a great deal to move firewood into a more central place in our plans and work, and making sure that the wood shed at every

Another crazy egg.

cabin is fully stocked has become a priority. I’ve seen smoke curling out of a few chimneys already, chainsaws have been buzzing around the farm, and the transition from growing to hunkering down for the winter is starting to build. The change in seasons has some unforeseen consequences on the farm, and the transitions in the weather often create or remove opportunities that we try to be ready for. In warm months, the ground is soft, digging is possible, but the world is covered in a thick layer of growing things. Come winter, the plants will be dead and gone, but the ground will be frozen hard. Between the two seasons may be a moment when the plants are gone, the ground is exposed, and we can still dig before the real freeze comes. This is our chance to move a building, dig holes for fence-posts, and do sight work as we work to improve the infrastructure of the farm. Then the snow will come (maybe), and anything left out will be gone until spring.


Cover crop is growing thick and green on veggie beds that we’re done with for the season, and every added day, every inch of extra growth, is a benefit for next year’s soil and crops. Farming has so many time scales, from the immediate to the longest term, and there are so many places where those time scales intersect and interact with each other. The growth of this fall’s cover crop and the conditions that determine that growth will have a profound effect on next season’s success, and the sequence of cover crops over a series of years will affect the health of farm for years to come. We make great effort at the end of every season so get our cover crops in with ample time for successful growth, with varying degrees of accomplishment, but this year the stars have aligned for a flush of growth.

We’ve run into another hawk problem up at the Egg Mobile, with three layers killed and partially eaten this week. I am not really sure of a good solution with the chickens out in the field, but I think we’ll start with a more significant move of the house, to see if we can just go somewhere the hawk is not comfortable working. I’ll try to keep you posted in the coming weeks as this latest chapter in our hawk vs. chicken saga unfolds.


September into October

Winds of Autumn

Even in a person
most times indifferent
to things around him
they waken feelings
the first winds of autumn 


On this cool and blustery day, the turn of the season is plain all around the farm. The sun is bright, and after a few days of misty rain, the trees and pastures are practically iridescent in the late September wind. The soil of veggie beds is the deepest, darkest, bottomless brown, and the hardy kale and chard is standing up at attention so tall it seems ready to launch like a model rocket. These are such sweet days on the farm, after the heat and humidity of the summer has passed, and we get a short return to vibrancy and vigor before it all closes down for the winter. The pastures love the weather, and it’s put on a little final flush of growth to end the season. The cows and sheep love the weather, and as the flies are blown away on the fall wind, they are truly comfortable again, resting in the pastures and chewing their cud. The fall crops love the weather, and with a little more rain over the past few days, they are ending the season in great shape.

The red pullets got new neighbors on Wednesday when the sheep went into a new paddock. The sheep in the picture are trying to find grain that the chickens might have spilled.

Work continues inside and around the Maggie’s farmhouse, getting it ready for the coming class of Learn to Farm students. The dry-wall work is done, and the painter is in there now making the whole place sparkle with a fresh coat of paint. The LTF staff is meeting regularly to prepare the schedule, field trips, classes and all the other myriad little parts of the daily swirl of activity that make up the Learn to Farm Program. We are anticipating a class of fifteen students this year, up from ten last year, so the schedule has to be reworked a bit to keep everyone moving through every part of the farm. Every year we make little changes and adaptations to the schedule, both in the short term as well as long term, trying to reflect the experience of the year just ended, the feedback of students and teachers, and the challenging realities of the production cycle. In general, we have been moving incrementally toward larger blocks of time over the long term to allow students to dig deeper into each area of the farm over the course of a couple of weeks, rather than moving daily or weekly. Our hope is that extended time in an area will generate deeper mastery, understanding and a richer feeling of responsibility for each component of the farm.


The beef cows, lined up to get the freshest grass they can find.

The work of the fall season is primarily wrapping up the schemes of the summer, and getting everything ready for the coming winter. Some components of the farm are purely seasonal, and are eliminated before the cold weather really sets in. Broiler chickens, turkeys and pigs are all gone by the end of fall. Other than garlic planted in the fall, and cover crops in the veggie beds, veggie fieldwork wraps up for the most part with the coming frost. Some endeavors span the year, and the fall is one of those seasons consumed with the transition between warm and cold weather arrangements. Animals need shelter, water systems need to simplified and even heated, feeding switches from pastures to stored feeds, and everything draws in a bit closer to the barns. These shoulder seasons, when our work is divided between the conclusion of one phase and the preparation of the next, encapsulate so much of the feel of the work of farming. Looking back over the production season from here gives us some our most valuable lessons for next year, and at the same time, we are all irrationally hopeful that we can set up the perfect winter systems that will make everything go effortlessly over the months to come. Like us, farmers all over the world are trying to learn from each season’s end, and are absurdly optimistic about next year. A lot of farming can be captured in the image of the farmer, working diligently to develop a system that might work, and then watching as the natural world has its way with that system.

Toward the end of their first laying cycle, chickens start to produce eggs of strange shape and size. This is a huge chicken egg!