Getting Going

The lambing board at the start of the week.

This year’s growing season is picking up steam, and as spring takes a firm hold of our farm, greening the pastures, warming the soil, opening buds and guiding our work, I can feel the head-long rush into the coming frenzy begin to swirl around my feet like undertow, pulling me on from each finished task to the next. We make our plans in the cold weather; we try to execute those plans when it’s warm, and the move from plan to execution is the mystery of each year. Every element of the farm is alive and real; none can be stopped or turned off while we finish the work or go back to redo the project. Once the warm half of the year begins, the urgency of the present defines our diversified New England farm, and the deepening green of the pastures outside my window attest that that time is here.

This has been a vacation week for the schools in our area, so Sentinel Elm Farm has been

A new door and ramp for the egg-mobile.

pretty quiet over the past few days. We did our best to keep the work going without any visiting students however, splitting and stacking tons of firewood, getting the laying hens out of their winter coop and onto the farm in their egg-mobile, prepping the calving pen for our first calf expected next week, and working hard to get the kitchen-garden going for the season. We also hosted a few great workshops in the bunkhouse, with composting on Tuesday, plant-based dying on Wednesday, and farm chemical safety on Thursday. Our compost workshop was our second in the last two years as we work to develop a farm-wide plan for generating, managing and using our own compost. Our various livestock operations produce quite a bit of manure and bedding material, and we have a rough composting yard for mixing and curing it all, but we are hoping to improve the system and maximize the impact we can have on the fertility of our land. Organic certification mandates strict processing guidelines for the production of the organic compost that our certified veggie acreage needs, and we are trying to determine the feasibility of trying to make that compost ourselves from on-farm products.

Some of our cultivated acreage dried down enough this week for Alex and the student farmers to get out there for the first round of tillage in preparation for spring planting. With the greenhouse filling with starts, our veggie team is eager to get beds plowed up and ready for the initial rounds of planting out in the fields.

Our new seeder.

We started setting up temporary electric fences for the grazing season this week. We’ve been working over the past several years to increase our high tensile fencing, which stays up permanently, and decrease the amount of temporary fences that we have to put up every spring and take down again in the fall. The high-tensile fences are more durable, work better for containing livestock, and withstand the pressure of weeds and other debris on them better than the temporary fences. One advantage of the temporary fences however is that they are quick to put up and take down, making them more flexible in meeting the changing demands of our pasture throughout the grazing season. We use high-tensile fences in places that we know we want fences to stay perpetually, like the perimeter of pastures, and use the temporary fences to make divisions within those perimeters to manage daily pasture moves. This time of year we are building some high-tensile fences and setting up some temporary fences in places that high-tensile fences are not an option.

I spread several acres of grass seed last week, hoping to grow some fresh grass over the

Some casual nursing.

areas where the cows overwintered this year. Grass seed is slow to germinate, and the little grass shoots easily dry out before they can get their roots down deep enough to draw from moisture down in the soil. It seems like we’ve had a little dry spell every year just after I’ve spread our annual grass seed, and we’ve had poor growth every time. This year however, we’ve had a nice soft soaking rain yesterday and today, and I am optimistic that this moisture will give our new grass the jump that it needs to make a good start and grow up into solid pasture. I’ll let you know how it all comes along next week.


Charlie and Chicken-Coopers plant the first starts of the year.

We’re coming to the end of another spectacular week here at The Farm School, and with a turn toward warmer and sunnier weather, the feel of spring has really taken hold. The pastures have taken on a shade of green for real now, and the red maples, one of our earliest budding trees, are blushing red as their buds swell before opening. The muddy yards have dried, the old snow piles are gone, and there are kids sitting out in front of the bunkhouse enjoying the warm sun.

This was the first week of the independent project component of the Learn to Farm Program, so the student farmers were on their own Tuesday afternoon to spend their time pursuing projects of their own design. This year’s class is focused on a really diverse set of projects including drilling and plugging mushroom logs, welding a water wagon out of an old pickup truck, making cheese, researching bio-dynamic practices, developing curriculum, working with bees, building a loom, experimenting with ‘no till farming’, exploring digital farm record keeping, biodiesel research and carpentry. They will have the next eight Tuesday afternoons to advance their projects, and the process will end with a presentation to the community to report back on their work.

This week also included quite a bit of time at the sawmill, with the student farmers

Into the greenhouse

working to mill out the lumber required to build our new mobile pullet house. They have been working with Josh to develop a blue-print for the building, turned that plan into a cut list, and are now turning a pile of pine logs into the material on the list. We hope to get the building started on top of our new set of running gear in the next couple of weeks, and need to have the building finished and ready to go by the end of June when the pullets will have sized out of the brooder.

We shoveled the winter bedding out of the Maggie’s Farm winter layer house yesterday, removing several truck-loads of nice material to add to our compost yard. We use a deep bedding approach for the layer house, shoveling the old bedding under the roosts once per week and adding new shavings on top. This allows the older bedding to start breaking down in the house and keeps the space a bit warmer through those cold winter months. This approach means that when we decide the time has come to dig out the bedding, we’re looking at quite a project, not only in the volume of material to be moved, but also in the smell and vapors coming out of that deep bed of material. Yesterday was a cool windy day, and we all really appreciated the refreshing breezes as they revived the air around our work site.

Maggie’s Farm cultivation equipment

Alex has been rushing to put the finishing touches on the tractors and cultivation equipment this week, and checking on our drier fields in anticipation of getting out to do the first round of pre-planting plowing. Our fields run the full spectrum from dry to wet, so every spring demands a careful dance of monitoring and timing to get acreage plowed and prepared for seeding and planting, all with a constant eye on the weather. We had a few tenths of an inch of rain this week, but our cultivated acreage is coming along nicely toward planting.

Sentinel Elm Farm hosted The Acera School and Woodside Montessori for the first half of the week, and our very own Chicken Coop School from Wednesday to Friday. We work with the Chicken Coop students regularly throughout the school year, but it has been a long time since we had them do a full program at Sentinel Elm Farm. This visit was a wonderful opportunity for them and for us, and we had a truly spectacular time hosting them on the farm. We got some great

Our chicken tractors are ready.

work done, ate some delicious meals, and we were able to achieve that unique family feeling we all cherish that happens from time to time with groups of visiting students. We projected a movie on the wall of the hay loft Wednesday night, feasted on unbelievable cheese burgers on Thursday night, and finished the visit off with pancakes and Farm School syrup this morning.


April Showers…

Yarn spun from our wool

It’s been a wet week here at The Farm School, with heavy rain Tuesday and Thursday, and not much sun in between. The ground was already saturated by the snow-melt runoff from last weekend, so with nowhere for the water to go, this has been a muddy messy couple of days. The scene over at the beef herd has gotten pretty ugly, the sheep yard is a mess, and all the new lambs have been facing some challenging conditions for their first week of life. We’ve got some warm sunny weather in the forecast, and the sun is even trying to come out today, so I am hopeful that we’ve reached the wettest point, and that conditions will steadily improve over the coming days.


Despite the weather, we had some great programming at both farms this week. Sentinel Elm Farm hosted The Highlander Charter School from Providence RI for the first half of the week, and two schools, Metro West Christian Academy and Veritas Christian

Intrepid workers brave the mud.

Academy together for the second half. All three groups brought big smiles and a real willingness to go out there in the cold wet weather to get significant work done on the farm. We took advantage of the wet weather to burn off our burn pile, and to cut and burn more brush from around the edges of some of the dairy pastures. We also found lots of inside work to do, keeping the dairy barn clean, shelling and cracking the dry corn from last year’s harvest, cooking some incredible meals, and enjoying good times around the wood-stove.

The adult students down at Maggie’s Farm kept things rolling along through the wet weather this week as well, with the glorious completion of the new brooder house, seeding in the green-house, some great classes, a little outside work clearing the edges of the sheep pasture, and a wonderful trip to eastern New York State on Friday to visit a few bio-dynamic farms. With stops at Camphill Copake, Hawthorne Valley and Roxbury Farm, they will get to see three

Cute, and finished.

wonderful examples of farms guided by a strong system of practices and ideals, and the wonderful results that those approaches can bring.

We’ve had a few more lambs this week, bringing our total up to nine out of five ewes. Everyone is doing really well, even through this cold wet weather, and our little bottle lambs from last week are hanging in there. They have found a balance of getting some milk from their mother, though she is quite a reluctant care giver to two out of the three lambs, and getting some milk from the bottle. We are currently offering them a warm bottle of milk at AM chores around 6am, and another at PM chores around 6pm. Depending on how much they’ve been able to get from their mother, they have more or less interest in our offering, but we are committed to keeping a floor under them with those bottles to make sure they don’t end up malnourished. We

A new lamb, chilling.

will slowly ramp up the amounts we’re offering them as they grow, but I expect that they will start to find other ewes willing to let them sneak a nurse in from time to time, and will lose interest in the bottle completely at some point this spring. They have an incredible drive to find warm milk from someone, and usually, through relentless determination and perseverance, they find a way to get it.