3/19 – 3/26

The ponds around the farm are freezing and thawing daily, making incredible patterns every morning.

Winter is clinging to the farm, with snow still covering a good portion of the pastures, and lying thick through the woods and shady places all over the farm. Our ten day forecast does include some warmer days, but most nights look like they’ll being going well down into the twenties. We are almost always grazing by the first week of May, so April is certainly lining up to be quite a month for transition and change from where we are now, to pastures full of grass. We set up lambing jugs at Maggie’s Farm this week, in anticipation of lambs starting to come the first week of April. We really try to avoid cold weather lambing, so I am eager for this extended winter weather pattern to change before lambing gets going. We also have our first batch of chicks coming in the mail the first week of April, and I hope temperatures aren’t really cold for those little ones too. These signs of the coming production season seem to be in disagreement with the wintery scene still apparent around the farm, but I expect that things will come back into alignment with a snap any time now. Any time that I’m feeling like spring will never really get here, I remember five or six years ago when we were lambing with temperatures in the nineties, and running a sprinkler on the roof of the old lambing shed to keep the place cool since there were no leaves to cast shade yet. The weather here in New England is unpredictable, changes quickly, and always keeps us on our toes.

This coming week will be our last week milking Phoenix before we dry her off next

We are rebuilding a high tensile fence 10 or 20 yards deeper into the woods along the east side of the Runway pasture, and we’ve put up our bracket holders on the trees as a first step.

weekend. Once she is dried off, we will have no cows in milk for a month, before Patty is due the first week of May. Although this is not a situation that we like to be in, and one that came about because we had to cull Emily unexpectedly, we are going to try to take advantage of the milking break to renovate our milk room. The cement floor is a little rough after years of use, the walls could use a little refreshing, and this will be a chance to renew the plumbing and electrical setup, and refresh our sinks and shelves as well. We also have plans to remove the large two-hundred and-fifty-gallon bulk tank, and to replace it with a much smaller ninety-gallon version. This planned removal means that we are going to have to tear down one of the walls of the milk room, since the bulk tank will not fit through either of the doors. All of this work is the first step in our planned development of a pasteurization facility attached to the existing milk room, with dreams of pasteurizing our milk and developing a product that we can sell or consume on the farm.

Student farmers pruned blueberries this week, trimming and cleaning up the hundreds of bushes at Blue Ox Farm, a local blueberry operation that we work with every year. We harvest blueberries at Blue Ox throughout their production season, leaving some with them to sell on sight, and taking some to sell at our farmer’s market tables and in our veggie CSA. This partnership has worked really well for both The Farm School and Blue Ox Farm, giving us a wonderful resource we wouldn’t otherwise have, and giving them a large and constant customer, and a pruning crew. The students also had a great workshop about accessing farm land, lead by a representative from Land for Good, an introduction to honey bee farming with our great alum Anne, and a trip to Cold Springs Farm to learn about pruning grape vines. The students were also busy in the greenhouse, seeding more trays and giving the tiny onion starts all the tender love and care that they need to grow up vigorous and delicious. Work continued in the winter hoop house, transitioning from beds of spinach to a blank canvas for our summer tomatoes, and we got the first run of trellising up successfully. I’ll include a write up and some pictures once that project really gets going!

March 12th – March 18th

Onion starts in the greenhouse

The Farm School was hit with another pretty significant snowstorm Monday night and Tuesday, with almost another foot of snow added on top of last week’s total. We’ve had to change our plans and delay projects to accommodate the snow, pushing back blueberry pruning and the start of electric fence season, and making access to our various yards and roads much more difficult. A month ago there seemed to be a regular chorus of stories in print and on the radio describing how spring is now measurably and consistently about two weeks earlier that the historical average, and while I am 100% sure that that is true for most of the world, here in the middle of Massachusetts, we seem to have slipped back into the middle of winter. The ground had almost fully thawed before we resumed our winter a couple of weeks ago, so the farm has been particularly sloppy after all of this snow on top of the muddy ground. Walking through fields and pastures is a strange sensation with soft ground beneath the soft snow above, and it seems like quite a bit of damage could be done to our pastures, paths and driveways if we’re not careful. Snow plowing is really difficult when the ground under the snow is not frozen, and the plow truck is rattled almost to pieces as the plow digs into the soft mud under the snow. We have another snowstorm forecasted for the middle of the coming week, which would be our fourth in the past three weeks, and another for the weekend, even further deepening this springs strange weather.

This early spring season seems to be the last chance to finish up projects before the real rush of the growing season starts, but the list of things that we would like to get done still seems to grow longer and longer, rather than shorter. We finished adapting the automatic doors on one of our pasture egg-mobiles to meet AWA standards this week, and will turn our attention to the other two egg-mobiles next week. We also finally

Sentinel Elm collects all the old layers, but they look good, and keep laying eggs!

installed a gate between our new brooder house and the side of the Maggie’s barn, giving farmers a much shorter route from the barn hayloft down to the sheep’s hay feeder. Alex had various pieces of cultivating and seeding equipment down in the garage for fine-tuning before they have to go into use in the coming weeks, though the snowy landscape gives this work just the tiniest feeling of absurdity. Alex’s record show that a few years ago, he began cultivating his first fields by next week’s time. This also feels like our last chance to get together to talk about big plans and ideas before the cascading work of the production season shifts our focus so directly to the many tasks immediately at hand. The dreams we share of ways to adapt and enhance this collective endeavor are the fuel that keep the work humming along at the fevered clip that we’ve grown accustomed to, and it feels really important to make as much time and space as we possibly can for dreaming, while we still can.

We have plans to grow this year’s tomatoes in our hoop-house over the summer, and we are working to get that space ready for the effort. This week’s work has been focused on harvesting and clearing the rest of the winter’s spinach from the beds in the hoop-house,

The hoop house, before clearing the beds

and we have been researching and developing a design and plan for the trellis structures that will support the tomatoes as they grow. There a many different ways to support growing tomatoes, and we are hoping to develop a high-tensile trellis system that will allow us to prune and tie up our plants for optimum air flow, health and fruit production. Our plan calls for five long trellis structures running east to west, each with a row of tomato plants on each side. We plan to build the first prototype this week, and I will be sure to let you know how it goes.

March 5th – March 12th

A mixing of the seasons

As the same milestones in the farm year come around again and again, I sometimes start to worry that these weekly updates from the farm have become a bit repetitive in describing these events year after year. Imagining the year on the farm like the face of a clock, with a pointer slowly revolving around, it is clear that we pass over the same ground again and again. The cycle is broken into the four seasons, and further into months, but there are other distinctions, linked directly to the conditions of the natural world, that control much of the work we do. Hours of daylight, freeze and thaw, wet and dry; all these dynamics divide our time into tangible pieces, they all fluctuate, they rise and fall moment by moment, making every day fresh, despite the repetitions of the year.

Farmers here at The Farm School got back into the greenhouse this week, starting with mostly trays of onions. This marks a significant turning in the production year and adds the first

The sugar shack and our gear

load onto the wagon of enterprises that we will try to navigate through the coming growing season. The opening of the greenhouse season is also another important step up on the ladder of responsibility for our student farmers, and one that we have worked hard to leverage in their development as farmers. The responsibilities of the firewood quotas and livestock chores have laid a foundation of accountability and management, but the delicate greenhouse, and its thousands of dollars of potential produce, offers a deeper and more acute charge. The awoken greenhouse is also a marker for the start of the growing season, the end of the idle dreams of the dark winter months, and an alarm sounding that all those little projects and distractions begun when the span of winter seemed to stretch on ahead of us unendingly must be buttoned up and resolved before the trees bud out, the pastures green up, and headlong rush into summer sweeps us all away.

We have had to move along two great cows in our little dairy this week, opening up two spots in the milking lineup that have now been filled by Eclipse and Pepper. Both of these heifers were born last summer; Eclipse from Emily, and Pepper from the

Eclipse is settling into her new spot in the barn. 

indomitable Patty. Emily, who tested positive for Staph Aureus Mastitis last year, tested positive again this spring, and our veterinarian advised us that she would carry the bacteria for the rest of her life, and that we should cull her from the barn. This strain of mastitis, although not particularly dangerous to the cow’s health, is markedly contagious, and will degrade milk production and quality. In an effort to avoid the pathogen spreading throughout our herd, we aimed to eliminate the source. We also culled the wonderful Daisy this week, removing the ornery boss of the herd and breaking all of our hearts here at the farm. Daisy, with unpredictable and subtle heats, has always been a bit of challenge to breed, and after some serious efforts to get her bred this winter, we got word a couple of weeks ago that she was still open. Unfortunately, a dairy cow that doesn’t breed, doesn’t make milk, and can’t be a part of the milking lineup. Daisy was one of the two cows we bought six or seven years ago as we renewed our dairy operation, and she has made tons and tons of milk for us over the years, some great calves, and occupied a unique and powerful place in the experience of thousands of visiting students and student farmers.

February 26th – March 4th

The sugaring wagon, in all its splendor

February has turned into March, we’ve tapped the sugar maples, and smoke is rising from the sugar-shack chimney. Though is has seemed to be mud season just about all winter long here in Massachusetts, we are now really in the part of the year when thawing and mud are fully in control. The roads and driveways, paths and parking lots, are all pretty soft, with the road between Sentinel Elm Farm and Maggie’s Farm being a particularly bumpy and sloppy treat. Our livestock yards and pathways are pretty unpleasant, and we have an order in for a few more dump trucks worth of wood chips to try to improve the situation. This is our second winter in a row with more days of soft muddy thaw than deep hard freeze, and it is forcing me to reconsider how we house our livestock in the winter. Our systems are currently based on an expectation of frozen ground to keep the animals relatively high and dry, but it seems that that expectation no longer holds. All the animals have nice dry deep bedded shelter to go into, but their yards and paths are

Shearing under Fred’s watchful eye

in bad shape. I hope to spend some solid time this spring, summer and fall researching alternative ways to comfortably house livestock in the winter, and ideally have the chance to take a look at some other approaches on farms around New England. I’m pretty confident that there are quite a few other farmers facing the same challenges that we are facing, and I’m sure this will be a pertinent issue around our area. Maybe I’ll even be able to find a workshop or two in the summer conference season addressing this situation.

We sheared the sheep this week, cutting off a year’s worth of wool growth in just a few

The sugaring season record, so far

minutes, and shrinking the volume of our little twenty sheep flock almost in half. The sheep also get their hoofs trimmed at shearing time, as well as getting their annual vaccination booster. We make our sheep walk quite a bit, so in general, their hoofs are in great shape. However, with the mucky conditions they’ve been wading through most of the winter, I was a little concerned that we’d tip them over and find some foot rot or other issue with their wet feet. I am happy to report that everyone’s hoofs were found to be in great shape, and they’ve been well trimmed and cleaned up for another year of high stepping. We changed vaccines this year, moving up to a seven strain version that should give us some protection from most of the Clostridium based illnesses, like black leg and over-eating disease. Shearing time is also fruit tree pruning time, and we had students scrambling up pruning ladders all over the ridge this week. We have little orchards in several locations at both farms, and in back-yards all around the neighborhood, and the pruners had a busy week trying to get it all done.

Quite a powerful storm blasted through New England between Thursday night and Saturday morning, though we were spared most of the trouble out here at The Farm

The greenhouse opens for business Monday morning.

School. We got about an inch of rain through the day on Friday, with strong wind, and even a spit of snow once in a while too. Further north, the storm dropped more than a foot of snow, and further east the flooding and storm surge did considerable damage, but we missed most of it. Our livestock yards, roads, paths and driveways certainly didn’t need any more moisture, but things seem to be drying out pretty well now.

With the ground quickly thawing and turning soft, we had to make a sudden end to our firewood production out in the Runway pasture. Josh, Brad, Tyson and the student farmers put together a valiant final effort to get out the logs they could, burn off the slash, and clean the yard before things turned to soup and real damage could be done to the pasture. We hadn’t quite met our yearly quota for fire wood, so the loggers poked around in a couple other less

Some of this year’s maple goodness

delicate locations to find enough logs to fill out the last nooks and crannies of the firewood pile.

Next week I’ll give you an update on changes in the dairy hard. Thanks!