Sept. 25-30

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The beef herd trying to get in the shade

After a run off really hot summery weather, with afternoon temperatures well over ninety degrees most of the week, we have finally broken through into some real fall weather here at the end of the week. The thermometer dropped down into the lower forties last night, and our forecast is calling for the lower thirties by Saturday evening. Though the temperatures have dropped significantly, we have been super dry around here for the past few weeks, and things were starting to look dusty and droopy. As I write this Saturday morning however, rain is falling, the bright green has returned to the pastures and plants, and all our animals are all having a rainy Saturday morning snooze under cover (if they can find it).

The hawks are back after the chickens this fall, repeating our experience from the last two years when red-tail hawks showed up in the fall looking for easy meals. Our layers and pullets are still out on pasture, so I am having a tough time coming up with an effective way to keep the chickens safe without the security measures that we have in place at the winter coops. This year, unlike the past two, the hawks have even gotten brave enough to go after the layers at Sentinel Elm Farm, where our Program for Visiting

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Cover crop, trying to grow, and fall crops ready for harvest

Schools happens, which had been much safer because of all the kids and dogs running around everywhere. As I’ve mentioned before, I have no interest, nor is it legal, to do the hawks any harm, so we need to find ways to deter them, harass them a bit, and generally get them to decide to go hunting elsewhere.

Our fresh class of Learn to Farm student-farmers arrives on the farm next Thursday, and we have been busy all week getting the facilities and program into tip-top shape to welcome them into our community. We are really excited about some great refinements to our program, hashed out during some in-depth meetings over the past couple of weeks, and the buildings and grounds which are looking great too. We never feel fully ready for the new group, with an endless list of little tweaks we could make to just about everything, but we keep getting better and better, learning as we go. This will be another full class of fifteen students, and we have high hopes for their next year here with us, and for their ability to launch from here to make a difference in the world. Check out farmschool.org/learntofarm to get a good look at the program!

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Turkeys enjoying their new yard

The turkeys have been setup in a large day-yard, and released from their houses. The houses, with food and water, are in their area for shelter and roosting, but the birds are out enjoying the big open space, mixing in with everyone, and generally being silly. We loved the security that their houses provided them, but the exuberance that they show now that they’re out seems to be worth the risk. (They are too big for the hawks). We have not been herding the inside their houses at night, and so far they have been fine, with most choosing to sleep inside on the roosts, some on the feed trailer, and some just nesting down on the ground. Now we need to think of a way to collect them all the day before processing so that they can be caught and dealt with.

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Sept. 18-25

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Gus and the dairy cows on a steamy morning

We’ve been going through a bit of summer weather here at the middle and end of September, I guess making up for the unseasonably cool wet weather that dominated in our area in August. We have not seen any measurable rain for about two weeks here, and things are drying up pretty noticeably at this point. However, the pastures continue to grow, aided by heavy dew every morning, and the shorter days giving the pasture plants extended relief from the hot sun every night. Our goal is to graze through to the end of October, and while things look good now, if we don’t get a little rain in the next week or so, I think we will run out of grass pretty quickly.

Maggie’s Farm is a pretty quiet place these days, though the work of harvest, livestock chores, and cultivation has to carry as on as well as we’re able with most of our crew graduated and gone. This is always an interesting time of year at the farm, with the students graduated, and plenty of work to do to keep things moving along, we scrape and scratch to get enough hands on the work, and usually find fresh efficiencies that inform our approach moving forward. This is especially true with harvest, wash-up and livestock chores, where our limited crew forces us to find ways to streamline the work enough that we can get it all done. These adaptations often show us fresh ways to approach the work, and make our farm stronger moving forward as they are integrated into our approach.

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Beef cows enjoying some water

The attention of the Learn to Farm staff has now turned to tweaking and refining both the facilities and program as we prepare for the new class coming in a couple of weeks. We always have work to do between classes to refresh the rooms, kitchen, bathrooms and other facilities in the farmhouse, which have been used so hard over the past year. We’ve got a full house of students coming in, so we’re moving the grower’s office up to the library, and opening up another bed-room downstairs to make as much room as we can. We will also be focused on digesting the great feedback that we have received from the newly graduated class, mixing it in with our own reflections on the just ended program, and trying to find ways to integrate all of it into maturing the program. This is an invaluable process that gives us all the chance to rediscover the meaning and purpose behind the components of the program, and recommit to the principles that guide our teaching.

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A curious turkey

Sentinel Elm Farm is cruising ahead into the fall with some spectacular groups of visiting students, prepping the farm for the coming winter, putting up a ton of firewood, and taking good care of our array of livestock. Our Thanksgiving turkeys are growing and thriving up on the hill behind the bunkhouse, and we’re contemplating building them a yard and letting them out of their pasture houses for some free-range adventures. They are super safe and secure in their houses, and their twice a day moves ensure that they have access to plenty of fresh ground, but we are always looking for ways to improve the animal experience, and to try new things, so we may be brave enough to give this a shot. We’ve also made some great progress on the new goat house, with the frame up and one wall just about sheathed in homemade siding. The surrounding hard fence is almost completed as well, and with a gate for getting in and out, we’ll be just about ready for animals. We are hoping to get the goats in their new house this fall, and then we’ll turn to repurposing the old goat area in the back of the dairy barn. That will be a project for another update!

Sept. 11-16

The Farm School’s Learn to Farm Program runs almost a full year, from the beginning of October through the middle of the following September. It has been an evolving program over its entire existence, and we’ve continued working to perfect the mix and balance of experiences that make up the year. Our goal of farmer training is ambitious, and we try to pack so much into every student’s experience that we feel an immense pressure to

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One more fall beef calf

sustain a resilient balance among the countless student undertakings. We alway strive to furnish each student with the broadest and deepest possible set of knowledge and experiences, and to temper all of it with as much authenticity as we can. We made a couple of changes to the end of our program this year that addressed these concepts, and really seemed to make the student experience even better than it had been.

We have recognized over the past few years that many students need to leave the Learn to Farm Program a couple of weeks early to either go back to school or to take a fall job on another farm. In response to that recognition, this year we offered the option of an earlier completion date for the program, and just under half of our students chose that option. Rather than students trickling out over the last few weeks, this year we had a fixed date for early departure, and we were able to tailor specific programing to address the final phase of the program for the students who stayed. With about half of the original group still on the farm for the last three weeks, we developed a simpler capstone style schedule with the aim of really emphasizing the management and direction of the work of the farm. The students chose to spend their last three weeks in either the vegetable or livestock tracks, and they were pushed into the roll of planning, scheduling and managing the work of the farm. We hoped to give them the chance to move beyond simply using the skills and

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The dairy herd enjoying fresh grass

knowledge that they had developed here over the past year, and to start placing those skills and knowledge into the larger tapestry of the working farm. We also wanted to give these students a block of time to feel a bit more of the weight of responsibility, still within our safe setting and supported by the staff, and to recognize some of the pressure of being answerable for the whole operation.

This was a really exciting and wonderful way to culminate our program year, and it felt like a perfect way to empower and celebrate the development of this year’s class. The work that was accomplished was truly amazing, and the maturation of each student as farmers was remarkable to see. The students in the vegetable track took control of our vegetable acreage, managed harvests and CSA pack-outs, cultivated beds, staffed the markets, and through it all, proved themselves fully capable of overseeing this scale organic vegetable operation. I think that every teacher here at The Farm School was thrilled to watch the new vegetable managers confidence grow through the three week capstone block, and to watch them rise to this

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Dave’s finished barn

challenge. The students in the livestock track took over full management of all of our diverse livestock enterprises, managing the grazing rotations for the beef, sheep and chickens, and maintaining all of the systems that keep the pigs fat and well fed. They split their time between managing the livestock and doing two great building projects, finishing Dave’s timber frame barn, and building our new sheep alfalfa feeder. The barn had been a bare frame with a finished roof, and after three weeks of hard work, it now has beautiful board-and-batten walls, windows and a gorgeous sliding door. The project has improved the visual beauty of our working farm to a remarkable degree, and it is going to give Dave the opportunity to really get on his land and get to work. The alfalfa feeder, imagined and designed by the students, will allow us to feed the sheep alfalfa pellets without having to go into their yard with full buckets of their favorite food, avoiding the hurly-burly struggle that we all dreaded every afternoon. Both of these projects have had

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The new alfalfa feeder

remarkable and positive impacts on this farm and community immediately, they were both finished on-time, and I think every student in the livestock track has mastery and confidence in their building skills.

Today is the graduation for the Learn to Farm students of 2016/17, and it marks a bittersweet moment for all of us here at the farm. This is a wonderful group of young farmers that we have all grown to know well, and to love for their strength of character and determination to engage in the work of farming. We are truly and deeply sorry to see them leave the farm, but we are all so excited to see them go off onto their next adventures. We know they will bring joy and a can-do spirit anywhere lucky enough to have them! Thank you and congratulations to the class of 2016/17!

September 2nd-9th

It has been a couple of weeks since I’ve had the chance to sit down for an update on the work going on at The Farm School, and I feel like there is quite a bit to report. We have had some great late summer weather over the past few weeks, and with two inches of

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Sunrise over the dairy barn

rain this week, plants and pastures are looking flush up and down the ridge. All the moisture in the soil should mean a vigorous fall of growth, and I am optimistic that we can have a strong late grazing season. We try to graze to the end of October, taking into consideration the damage that can be done when grazing pasture that has gone dormant and will not recover before truly cold weather sets in. We usually do not quite reach the end of October, but I have some hope that this rainy weather may give us a chance this year. A longer fall grazing season will shorten the period of winter hay feeding, keep our cows and sheep happier, and save us some money.

We have taken the first batch of pigs off for processing, and have another scheduled to go on Monday. That run will take care of the rest of the eleven larger pigs that we

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The grapes are ripening, but not quite ready yet. 

scrambled to find a processing date for, and will leave an additional twenty-four that still need some more time to grow. We have those later pigs scheduled to go to processing in batches of ten through October. With about a month left to grow, I am hopeful that we will end up with some really nice pigs. There are a couple of pigs in the group who’s growth and size has not really kept up with everyone else’s, and I am considering keeping them through the winter to put on some more weight. We usually raise a few winter pigs that get a pretty milk rich diet, grow enormous, and go off for processing before mud season makes loading them impossible.

Our Thanksgiving turkeys are growing well in their mobile houses out on pasture, and their twice-daily IMG_5325moves have carried them, and their powerful manure, over a large section of our dairy pastures. We are happy to reap the dual benefits of happy healthy turkeys and super powered pastures that this approach gives us, and we get delicious turkeys at the end. This year, for the first time, we stocked one of our turkey houses with smallest couple birds from all the other houses, hoping that getting the little ones their own house, and feeder, might give them a bit more access to the food, and a better chance to grow.

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This year’s rental bull at work

We had one more surprise calf in the beef herd last week, bringing our total for the year up to eleven. This calf arrived quite a while after our last one, and came as a real surprise to me. We would like to keep the bull in with the cows for about three months, giving him enough time to breed the majority of the cows, but limiting the calving season to a time frame that we can keep an eye on. Last year’s bull lingered for quite a while, I think finally getting picked up right around January 1st, and leading to this bonus calf. This year’s bull went in with the cows right at the end of August, and he is with the herd now, doing his work. We usually try to get the breeding season started in the first week of August, but I got a little sidetracked with a new baby and the bull was delayed.

We have one more week until the end of the Learn to Farm year, and the arrangement of IMG_5337the program has shifted for this final few weeks to try to give the students the chance to manage the farm. They have spent the past eleven months learning skills and developing an understanding of the farm, and we try to give them space at the end of the year to step into the decision making position. This is an exciting time for the students, and a really rewarding time for the staff as we watch this group of wonderful young farmers step forward and take hold of our farm, carry it forward, and thrive.

I’ve missed lots of great work and growth from around the farm that’s happened over the past few weeks, but this update feels long enough. I’ll try to get everything else in next week!

Summer Break

IMG_5322I’ve been on paternity leave for the past few weeks, holding a brand-new baby girl, and watching the late summer moving past my window. We’ve had some good rain, some nice sunny days, and we’ve dodged most of the really hot humid weather that usually makes August so tough on the farm. The pasture grasses have been growing well all summer, and the consistent rains have set us up for what is looking like a pretty nice fall of grazing and fattening up for processing dates coming in October and November.

 

I will send out a full update at the end of this week, thanks for reading!