Winter, for Real.

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Furnace wood ready to burn.

I’ve definitely written about it before, but I am always struck by the profound impact that the condition of the physical world around us has on the work of farming. Our work is so rooted in the material world, in the surfaces and objects of the farm, in the temperature of the air, the strength of the sunlight, the falling snow and the melting snow, and the condition of the matter at hand. Last week’s snow storms really took us back to winter, after a January that felt a lot more like October, and this week has certainly witnessed a typical week of work on a New England farm in winter. We’ve been shoveling snow all over the place, making paths between buildings, opening up room to roam for various groups of livestock, and digging out equipment that we need to use. Bradley has spent countless hours tinkering with the plow truck, trying to keep it going on their seemingly endless rounds of plowing. Every project now requires an accounting for the snow, every step must be considered on the ice, and every engine needs time and tending to run well in the cold. Depending on the temperature of the day, and the strength of the sun, we may be dealing with a world hard and frozen, or a soft, wet, muddy mess. For the most part, the nice blanket of snow gives our livestock a cleaner environment, and most of them are comfortable lying out in the snow most of the time.

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A view from inside the firewood shed.

Cord wood production has continued this week, with some extra work required to clear the work sights of snow before work could continue. Students are making regular trips from the landing back to the wood furnace with large wagon loads of split firewood to dump, and the stacks are growing daily as we work to build up our supply. Those stacks will stay in place through the spring and summer, and will get re-stacked inside the firewood shed before furnace season gets going again in the early winter. That move will make room for the next batch of split wood to move in over next winters firewood production seasno, and the continuous rotation will move forward, ensuring that we have dry firewood stacked and ready next to the furnace every winter.

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A look at the foundation and flooring at the new brooder house.

We installed floor joists in the new brooder house last week, and started laying the floor down on top of those this week. We opened with one-by-six rough-cut pine, laid diagonally across the floor joists and screwed down. This pattern built in a lot of little triangles throughout the flooring system, as each piece of flooring crosses several joists at a forty-five degree angle, making the whole thing extremely rigid and strong. We then applied a layer of thirty-weight tar-paper over the sub-floor, and began topping all of that with more one-by-six pine laid perpendicular to the joists. This three-part floor will ensure that there is no airflow up from below the house, keeping our tiny little guests snug and warm.

This has been another great week of programming at the Learn to Farm Program. We had

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Each tree takes a lot of planning.

another in the business planning series, an introduction to fiber arts followed by a full day intensive hands on fiber arts workshop, and another crop planning session on Friday. We’ve been able to maintain a nice classroom and firewood work balance, just like the past few weeks, keeping everyone learning and moving every day.

We’ll be shearing the sheep next week, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, marking one of our first concrete steps toward spring. I will be off the farm for the week, but I will try to get at least some pictures up to show the process.

This has also been a great week of farming at the Program for Visiting Schools, with two visiting groups of seventh and eighth graders from The Mission Hill School in Boston. Mission Hill has been coming out to The Farm School just about from the founding of this program, and uniquely, their students come out to see us in every grade. This gives us the opportunity to watch their students grow up from kindergarten through eighth grade, to develop long and meaningful relationships with them and their incredible teachers, and to share the farm with them in a truly familial way. Their recurring visits have also pushed us to adapt our program in significant ways, aiming to make each successive farm visit build on the last, and to give them a fresh experience every time. Several years ago we began trying to think about The Farm School as a second home, or home-away-from-home for the students from Mission Hill, and that structure has made these kids feel even more like family. Their visits are exceptional and wonderful, and are highlights of our year. We try to get the seventh graders to build something for the farm that will outlast their time on the farm, and we’ve included picnic tables, benches, and several infrastructure projects over the past few years. This year they are building a whole array of garden ‘furniture’, like tomato cages and large sections of trellis. The eighth graders have spent their days in the kitchen, doing all the cooking, including huge community meals for their second night at the farm, the Big Deal Meal. This year they are working on a dumpling extravaganza!

Snow

img_4164The snow has been coming down hard all day at the farm, and with more than a foot on the ground as I write this at 2:30 on Thursday, I’m not sure where we’ll finally top out. Our snow pack has come and gone pretty consistently this winter, but with some cold weather forecast for the next few days, and more significant snow predicted within the next week, I’m optimistic that we might finally see an extended period with snow cover. Most of our winter livestock systems depend on the ground being frozen, but a nice clean blanket of snow goes a long way in keeping the animals clean. Other than the pigs and chickens, all of our animals are happy to lie down on a thick blanket of snow, right out in the pasture, and we can be pretty confident that their in a clean spot. Despite the cold wind and heavy snowfall, the dairy cows, with a body temperature right around 101, and a huge barrel of fermenting hay for a stomach, have been out eating their newest round bale all day. They’ll come into the barn this afternoon for some grooming with the visiting students, and they’ll have a chance to dry off a bit out of the snow. They have a nice bedded free-stall area in the back of the barn to get out of the weather, but we give them the choice whether or not to use it.

This has been another great week of programming at Maggie’s Farm, with another session

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PVS layers, snacking on some leftovers.

welding with Ron Mott, more business planning with Ray Belanger, and a livestock budgeting class with me. We focused out livestock budgeting on a close look at the money spent in 2016, a comparison to the budget from 2015, and a deep dive into how the costs and value of the product relate. We’ve kept with the morning class and afternoon cord-wood schedule this week, trying to keep that nice balance of physical work and intellectual pursuit. The student farmers have really mastered the skills and process that goes into firewood production, and by this point in the winter they are producing several cords per day. We have a goal of making thirty or forty cords this winter, so we’re hoping to be done in a couple of weeks.

Visiting students returned to Sentinel Elm Farm this week, with Carlton School here Monday to Wednesday, and Haggerty School here for the back half of the week. It is wonderful to have kids back on the farm, stirring things up, visiting the animals, getting some great work done, and enjoying some remarkable food in the bunkhouse. This snow storm has transformed the farm, made getting around much more difficult, and forced us to spend more time inside than we’d like to, but our visiting students are enjoying it all.

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Farm School potatoes, prepping for another great bunkhouse dinner.

Lunch at the bunkhouse today was home made ramen bowls, with hard boiled eggs from the farm, scallions, farm-made kimchi, thin sliced pork and bacon from the farm, dried sea weed and various sauces to put on top. The ramen noodles came from Vermont Fresh Pasta, and they were perfect for the meal! Cristina and Eliza fed thirty kids visiting the farm, fourteen student farmers, ten PVS farmer/teachers, and six or seven more folks that work and live at the farm. Each one of us walked away from the buffet table with an incredible bowl of delicious food, prepared with love, care, and lots of time and effort, and sourced right here on the farm from super high quality livestock, raised to highest standards by all of our students.

We made some great progress on the new Maggie’s Farm brooder house this week, lowering the building off its cribbing towers onto the cement foundation blocks for each corner. Getting the building down off those towers was such an incredible relief, and to have done it with all of us intact and whole is a wonderful thing. Once it came down onto the foundation, we quickly finished up leveling it, and started building the flooring img_4167system. We got two-by-eights from our sawmill, purchased ‘rough cut’ joist hangers from the local hardware store, and put in the structure that the floor will rest on. The next step is to put down the flooring, hopefully also sourced at our sawmill, and then we can start putting up framing for walls. Now that the building is down and leveled, the work should be able to push ahead much more quickly. I’ll keep you up to date as we move along!

Getting Ready

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Clipboards and cast-iron

The visiting students come back to The Farm School next week, so we’ve been busy at Sentinel Elm Farm, getting everything put back together before they arrive. We’ve been working and meeting, refreshing work spaces, making plans, and doing everything we can to make the farm as welcoming and ready as is possible for when things really get going. We did a lot of work on the Bunkhouse over the winter break, with kitchen painting, new shelves, lots of work in the bathrooms, and some refreshing in the visiting teacher’s rooms as well.

Now we’re bustling around to get all those work sights cleaned up and made straight again, ready for the visiting students to move in and call it home.

The PVS staff has also been working to make their winter and spring project lists in our three primary work areas of the farm, making sure that we have the supplies and tools we’ll need to do the work, and that the farm will be able to push ahead to meet our production goals. Although the experience of our visiting students is our primary product and focus, Sentinel Elm Farm is a production farm, supplying the kitchen that feeds

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Big new speakers!

thousands of visiting school kids and teachers every year, as well as the staff and their families that keep the farm going. We also heat just about all the staff housing and the bunkhouse with firewood, cut, split and stacked on the farm. Now is the time for mapping out the farm-work of the coming months, designing each project to make sure that students can do it, and fitting it all into the larger production plan.

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The timber frame has been moved out.

This has been another great week of winter programming at Maggie’s Farm, as the Learn to Farm Program charges ahead with more firewood production and a full slate of wonderful classes. This is the most classroom heavy stretch of the program year, reflecting the planning heavy nature of the work that most farmers in New England are doing this time of year. This week included a calf castration hands on workshop with our large animal veterinarian, the second in the Farm Business Planning series with Ray Belanger, Garden Planning, Starting you Farm with Ben Schute of Hearty Roots Community Farm, and finally the next in the Crop Planning series, mapping out this season’s veggie CSA planting schedule.

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The layers, and a shadow, at sunrise. .

We can’t spend all of our time inside however, so we’ve also been out making lots and lots of firewood. We supply firewood for our neighbor Maggie, who lived and farmed at the Maggie’s Farm sight with her family before we started there. We cut, split and stack five cords for her every year, before turning our focus to our own supply of furnace wood. The

furnace uses between fifteen and twenty cords of thirty inch length firewood every winter, and we dream every year of making enough so that at least some of it can dry for two years before use. These winter days, split between a morning inside thinking and learning, and an afternoon at the firewood yard, have a nice natural rhythm that keeps us all healthy and growing as farmers and workers.

This week also included another day with Ron Mott, a local welder who leads a yearly workshop with our students, introducing them to the basics arc welding and torch cutting. He takes a new small group of students each week for three or four weeks, and gives every student time with the tools in their hands and an opportunity to develop a bit of comfort and experience with these difficult skills. Although students only get one day with Ron, we always seem to have a couple of vital welding and metal projects on the farm every year for students to try out their new skills. Many students have also used the independent project time in the spring to work with metal, building on the work they did during the welding workshop.

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Gladys, the heifer, up close.

We started installing a second door on the Maggie’s Farm egg mobile this week, hoping to bring that unit into AWA compliance for the coming season. The layers will move into that house some time in the first week of May when the pastures are ready for them, and I am hoping to get that project crossed off my list now so that we’re wide open for fencing and grazing when the spring rush comes.