December 10th – 18th

Last week was another busy one at The Farm School, and with some really cold weather, we made an early entrance into some deep winter work. The Learn to Farm Program included the final Monday morning session with Dr. Major of Green Mt. Bovine Clinic, with a focus on our dairy cows, and a trip to a large local dairy, a Wednesday afternoon butchering demonstration with Chef Barry from Future Chefs, a Thursday morning trip up to visit Adam’s Farm slaughter house, and a push to get our final students through the chainsaw/draft-horse/tractor refresher. This was our first week of quiet winter break time at the Program for Visiting Schools, and the work at Sentinel Elm Farm was mostly directed at some deep cleaning and renewal in the bunkhouse. The super fancy round bales for the dairy herd’s winter feed finally came in this week, so we had huge trailer loads arriving in the yard through the week, and we now have a mountain of enormous marshmallows stacked up and ready to keep the milkers happy and well fed.

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Pig butchering workshop

Dr. Major has been coming out to The Farm School for many years to teach a series of classes on livestock health, anatomy, diet and lifecycle. He typically does a sequence of three workshops over three weeks, with one dedicated to small ruminants, like sheep and goats, one dedicated to larger animals like horses and beef cows, and the finale focused on dairy cows. These in-depth examinations of each type of animal includes a discussion of how their bodies work, how they get up and down, their walking and running, and the subsequent issue of how they eat, process their food, and pass waste, and the functioning of their reproductive systems. These issues naturally lead into a discussion of how the farmer manages the environment and diet to suit these specific traits, some of the most common issues that arise, and their treatment. Dr. Major is able to draw from his deep store of experience gathered from years of traveling around the farms in our area, and to share his insights developed from seeing things that work and don’t work on the farms that he visits. His visits always raise important issues and lead to great discussions among our Learn to Farm students as they wrestle with the many and often conflicting factors that go into raising animals humanely and profitably. This week’s final session at a large commercial dairy, paired with the visit to the slaughterhouse later in the week, and the butchering workshop, really got people thinking about all that goes into raising livestock on a large scale, what it means to eat meat, and how their ideals fit into all of it.

I placed our orders for next year’s chicks this week, and we have changed hatcheries for both our layers and our meat birds. We have also pushed our arrival dates up a full month from this year, in the hopes that we can avoid the three week drought in eggs that we experienced this fall as our older layers just about stopped laying and our pullets had not started yet. Next year our meat birds will come to the farm first, with fifty five Kosher Kings (the same type we’ve raised the last few years) and fifty five Freedom Rangers coming from Freedom Ranger Hatchery the first week of April. They’ll be followed a month later by one hundred and fifteen New Hampshire Red laying chicks coming from Cackle Hatchery. I am really excited to raise the Kosher Kings and Freedom Rangers side by side here on our farm, and to see how they compare in performance in our system. I am also really excited to try chicks from a new hatchery, and I hope that we can avoid some of the challenges that we faced with chick mortality last season. I also made our processing dates at Adams for next year, and although this is the earliest that I have ever made those dates, their calendar is already filling up way out into next fall. It seems that more and more folks are raising a few animals out on their back forty, and the pressure to get the spots we want for processing is only increasing year after year. Our schedule for next year will be very similar to this year, with most animals going in for processing in October and November.

The Learn to Farm Program is shut down from December 15th through January 15th, though chores keep going through that time, and the outdoor furnace has to be kept stocked too. The staff will be meeting a bit through that time to iron out the details of the winter and spring schedule, map out the large components of the program, and make sure that we are ready for the growing season that is coming.

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December 3rd – 10th

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Snow down the lane

The first real snow of the winter is falling right now at The Farm School, again switching the pallet of the landscape to wintery white and brown, and shutting out all the noise. We’re only expecting a few inches of snow here in central Massachusetts from this storm, but with temperatures forecasted to go down into the single digits a few nights next week, I think we are safely in the grip of winter. We spent the week doing some overdue deep dives into nooks and crannies around Sentinel Elm Farm, emptying the hayloft, tackling the back office, and putting the Hero’s Wall up. Once the forecast crystalized, we also raced around to put the final touches on winter prep, with the understanding that things left out may not reappear until spring. Bradley spent a few days taking down some sad looking spruce trees in rough shape on the east side of the bunkhouse, and his work has transformed the look of the farm. Spruce wood is not good for much, so we burned most of the limbs and logs when we did our burn pile.

The Learn to Farm program charged ahead with tractor, chainsaw and draft horse

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The chickens stay on the path with new snow.

refresher training, as well as soil class, small fruit class, and a visit to Hettie Belle Farm just up the road in Warwick, MA. Olivier and Jennifer focus on meat and poultry production, and after spending years teaching at The Farm School, they always welcome our students for a close look at the logistics and business of running a family livestock operation. Olivier will come down to Maggie’s later in the winter for an in-depth look at his business model, and share his insights gathered from years of running a meat-CSA.

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Some new art in the PVS Bunkhouse

In the later summer and fall, we built an elaborate sheep alfalfa pellet feeder at Maggie’s farm, and I’ve written about that project. The new feeder has been working really well, and has achieved our goals of letting us feed the sheep without having to wade through them, keeping the sheep inside their fence, and keeping everyone safe. However, sheep got in the habit of climbing up into the feeder to get at the last little crumbs of alfalfa, and with them came mud and poop. In general, we aim to keep mud and poop out of feed dishes as a rule, so we recognized that something had to change at the new alfalfa feeder. This week we installed vertical boards every ten inches down the length of the feeder, spaced so sheep can get their heads in to eat, but not get their bodies in and defile the trough. So far, this adaptation seems to be working well, but I am sure that sooner or later we’re going to find a sheep stuck on the wrong side, unable to remember what space it squirmed through coming in.

The staff of the Program for Visiting Schools spent a day at The Mission Hill School this week, renewing and strengthening the wonderful connection that we share with that great organization. Students from Mission Hill come out to the farm in every grade, and

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The view from the top of the pasture

that unique setup makes our relationship with the school, and the kids, really strong. We work closely with their teachers to make sure that our program meets these kids right where they are, and we watch the kids grow up over the years in a wonderful and powerful way. I have been at the farm for eleven years, and have seen Mission Hill students from their first year of school through to their graduation, and the bond between our programs is one of the truly profound aspects of the work that we do.

Thanksgiving – Dec. 3rd

We had a great Thanksgiving week at The Farm School, but there was not much time to write an update of everything that we got up to. We had a short week of work on the farm, with the adult students heading off for the holiday on Tuesday evening, and the kid’s programing only running through Wednesday. It sounds like everyone really enjoyed their turkeys, and there was plenty to eat for everyone.

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The round bales have been arriving. 

Although we have not had much really cold wintery weather yet, the farm is taking on the feeling of winter more and more every day. Most of the fences are down for the winter, and the green of the pasture grass has faded to the light brown of winter. The home gardens are resting under blankets of mulch hay and wood chips, and our stack of round wrapped bales is growing by the day. We got our large tractor setup with a bale grabber this fall, and that has made the work of loading, unloading, moving and setting up round bales so much faster and easier than it has ever been for us. Rather than borrowing a bale grabber, or contracting out to get someone to come use theirs to do our work, we have been able to get wagons of bales parked in the yard where we can unload them before they’re driven off to get reloaded. Instead of trying to get all the bales delivered in one or two crazy days, we have had a much more gradual and easy-going go of it so far, and I really appreciate that!

The Learn to Farm program spends these weeks between Thanksgiving and our winter

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Josh and the students picked up this year’s meat from the slaughter house this week. 

break renewing everyone’s training with the draft horses, tractor and chainsaw, in preparation for the intense firewood production season that is coming after break. We have a nice pile of logs in the farmyard, setup well for safe bucking, and with one-on-one supervision, we’ll get everyone a few hours in that work to keep those newly acquired chainsaw skills fresh. Bradley is taking two students at a time to re-introduce them to our draft horses, Tom and King, show them our equipment, and give them a few hours to drive the team around the farm and keep themselves comfortable working with horses. Finally, everyone also gets another couple of hours on the tractor, and with more direct instruction, we’re introducing bucket work and heavy lifting. All of these tools and

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Two new winter piglets meet the old piglets. 

skills are the foundation of our firewood work, and we want to make sure that everyone has the skills that they’ll need to move that work ahead efficiently and safely. This span of the program also starts to have more and more classes, as we transition from full days out on the farm, to a more even split of classroom and outside time.

This has been the last week of fall programing at the Program for Visiting Schools, and we are ending on a high note with a full week of fourth and fifth graders from The Orchard Gardens School. A good portion of these kids are native Portuguese speakers, and it has been wonderful hearing them fill the farm with this beautiful language. They have been actively translating for each other throughout the week, and while this has slowed some of our programing a bit, it has

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We’ve refreshed the cow road, and made a mud season pad with wood chips. 

made us distill all of our wonderful chatter into concise and bite sized pieces, finding the relevant meaning in all the talking that we’ve grown accustomed to. This has been a really enlightening process for everyone, and has been a great way to reconnect to our message and work with a fresh perspective. We’ll spend the next couple of months working on the farm and infrastructure, and welcome kids back again in late winter.