August 20th – August 25th

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Onions curing in the greenhouse

Another inch of rain fell on the farm this week, adding some icing to an already fully saturated cake, but in comparison to the rain totals we’ve had since the beginning of July, an inch for the week was actually a bit of a relief. Other than that one rainy day, we’ve had some nice sunny weather, and things are finally beginning to dry out a tiny bit. While much of the ground under-foot, the roads, lawns, veggie beds and pastures seem to be drying, the immense volume of rain that has fallen in the past two months means that there is still an enormous amount of water moving through the soaked soil and heading down hill. Many of our pastures, especially at the dairy farm, slope up away from the main farm complex, and there is still water seeping out of the base of those pastures into the farm. The abundance of standing water on the farm has also lead to an explosion in our resident mosquito population, and venturing into the shady forests, or outside at dusk, has become remarkably challenging. The soaked soil should lead to strong pasture growth, and we certainly have been mowing the lawns a lot trying to keep up with the grass, so I am hopeful that we will have a great fall of grazing. The rainy weather slowed the grass for a while, but it really seems to be getting up to speed again now.

August has been incredibly busy here at the farm because we made an effort to schedule several large infrastructure projects while the Program for Visiting Schools was out of session. We pressure washed and painted the bunkhouse, re-roofed the bunkhouse, put in a new farm road branching off the main driveway and going around the lower (east) side of the dairy barn, drilled a new irrigation well in the Flat Field, added a new bar-way at the road-side end of the Upper veggie fields, and made more progress on the new dairy facility. The new road, bar-way and well are all connected to an effort to develop the Flat Field at Sentinel Elm Farm into a more intensively cultivated bit of acreage. We hope that we can enhance our veggie operations and teaching facilities by making the Flat Field, and its great soil, the highly managed, smaller scale heart of our veggie production. We will keep the larger scale field vegetables going strong, and keep the Maggie’s home garden, but the Flat Field will offer us another relevant model to share with our students. We also recognized that this change would mean more truck traffic to and from the Flat Field, so the new road and the new bar-way are efforts to give folks headed to veggie acreage at Sentinel Elm Farm ways to avoid driving through the middle of campus.

Monday marks the start of what we call the Capstone part of our Learn to Farm year. Friday was the early graduation celebration, an earlier date where some students have the opportunity to head out to start new jobs or to go back to school. This leaves about half of the initial class to finish out three more weeks of farming, and gives them the chance to take on more responsibility in the management of the farm. The class divides itself into either Vegetable or Farm tracks, and the students will spend their final weeks working exclusively in those areas. Students in the Vegetable track will manage the whole of our veggie operation, weeding, harvesting, packing, marketing, and all the rest, while those in the Farm track will manage the livestock and do a large renovation on our beef winter barn. We are hoping to expand the bedded area for the beef cows to use in bad weather, build a new and improved feeder, and re-install windows all around the barn to keep a bit more of the weather out. We have cleaned and gutted quite a bit of the beef winter barn this summer in preparation for this project, and we discovered that there is more work to do in there than we can complete in this three week Capstone period. I expect that renovation and repair work will continue in the beef barn through most of the fall, with the goal of having everything ready for the cows to move in at the end of October or beginning of November. We had dreams of renovating the outside systems as well this fall, but it is beginning to look like that will have to wait until next year.

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August 13th – August 20th

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The draft horses and cows are in the same pasture. 

I hope that we are coming to the end of an extended period of remarkable weather here at The Farm School, and the experience has got me thinking a lot about adapting our farm to changing weather patterns and extremes. We’ve had over fifteen inches of rain since the second week of July, and I think the thermometer stayed over seventy degrees for just about that whole stretch. The humidity has been constant and quite high, giving the farm a rain forest feeling. This part of the country usually sees somewhere between three and four inches of rain per month, so this has been a departure from what we expect and what we are prepared for.

Though this wet weather has swamped a good portion of our vegetable acreage, softened fields up to the point where we could not go on them with the tractors, and saturated several types of crops, my focus has been on the effect on our livestock. For them, the rain has meant never having a dry place to lie down, constantly wet hoofs, an explosion in the population of pasture parasites in their environment, wet feed, mud all around them and on their legs and bellies, and water in the pastures and the roads that they use to move around the farm. Some of these issues are more nuisance that problem, and many will resolves themselves once the rain stops, the sun comes out, and the water soaks into the soil. Other issues have had a much more significant impact, with a real effect on the health and performance of our livestock.

We lost our third sheep in a month Tuesday of last week, and decided that it was time to get the veterinarian out for a postmortem in the hopes of determining the trouble. Losing a single sheep is pretty normal, losing a second might just be a coincidence, but losing the third shows us that we probably have a real problem on our hands. We did the postmortem on Tuesday afternoon, and although there was nothing visibly wrong with the ewe, she was thinner than we’d like. The vet took a fecal sample from the ewe, and another sample collected from various areas in the sheep yard, and tested them for parasite load back at his office. The test revealed a very high level of parasite eggs in the general yard sample, and an even higher level from the sample taken from the dead ewe. We had wormed the sheep Tuesday morning in anticipation of the high parasite finding, and we plan to worm them again next week with a different medication. The warm wet weather has created and maintained a perfect environment for the parasites resident in our pastures, with grass that never dries and warm temperatures allowing the tiny worms to remain on the grass stems indefinitely. These parasites are water dependent, moving up and down the leaves of pasture grasses as dew develops over night and dries in the sun. The sheep pick them up as they brush their noses through the grass, and constantly wet grass means that they are constantly picking up parasites.

The question we now face is how to adapt our systems, infrastructure and practices to

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We are developing a new road to the Flat Field. 

keep our livestock comfortable and healthy in the face of a changing weather landscape. Specific ideas on my mind include having a place for every animal to get out of the wet, to have a place for everyone to lie down in a dry spot, improving our farm roads so they drain and remain passable despite the rain, developing and installing nice sheep corral system so that we can catch and worm our sheep more quickly and easily, and will therefore do it more frequently. I’d also like to see us develop a high-ground area that we could move our cows to in extremely wet conditions to get them off of the pastures to a comfortable place with feed and water access. There are many other ways that we could enhance our farm landscape to be resilient in extreme weather, and I’m sure that we’ll be looking at all of them in the coming months and years.

August 4th – August 13th

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Some soil has been on the move. 

We’ve reached the end of another really rainy week here at the farm, and with something over fifteen inches of rain falling over the past month, conditions are really starting to get messy. We had over three inches of rain on Saturday night alone, adding to the incredible rain totals that we’ve had over the past month. I have never experienced rain like we’ve had over the past couple of weeks, so this is all new ground to cover for me. There is standing water in most of our pastures, and the big cows are starting to do some damage with their feet as they break through the sod. Anywhere that they have congregated, around the water trough, in the shade, or where they’ve collected any time that the sun has been out, has been ground up into a pretty muddy mess. While this is

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More field flooding

not something that we want to have happening out on the farm, it has given us the opportunity to spread grass and clover seed in these muddy areas. I am hopeful that these churned up wet spots will grow some beautiful new forage for our cows, and that we will have turned these challenging weather conditions into an opportunity to upgrade our pastures.

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These tomatoes are not very happy. 

All this rain has also put a serious hurt on our field tomatoes, and they are really starting to droop and discolor under all of this moisture. They are absolutely full of fruit, but they do not thrive when they’re regularly wet, and I’m not sure that they’ll be able to get much more fruit to ripeness. Luckily the hoop-house tomatoes are still going strong, and we’re hoping they’ll keep chugging along well into the fall. We have had enough rain falling fast enough that some soil has moved in a few veggie beds, swamping some of our smaller crops like lettuce and radishes. The wet conditions have also made getting out into the fields with tractors a real challenge, so we’ve had to put in extra time on hand work to keep up with the weeds and bed prep. Our farm roads are also getting really muddy by this point, and we’ve had some trouble getting the water wagon to the cows on the routes we usually take. After getting a few trucks stuck on the muddy roads last week, we have a tractor in the field for moving the beef cow water cube, and I am hopeful that that machine will be able to keep its head above water and to get the job done.

All of this rain is certainly making the pastures grow well, but we are now in a situation

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The dairy herd grazing on the high ground. 

where the pastures are a little too lush and rich for the cows and sheep. This can lead most directly to super loose manure, but can also make a little trouble on a more cellular level as well. The lush pasture is super high in protein and non-protein nitrogen, and low in fiber and energy. This imbalance can lead a ruminant animal to generate excess ammonia in their gut as they work extra hard trying to convert protein and amino acids into energy. The liver and kidneys have to go into overdrive as they work to filter the toxic levels of ammonia out of the animal’s blood, drawing more energy for their operation. These high levels of ammonia can also begin to push aside oxygen in the blood, depriving the animal of this critically important blood ingredient. All of this trouble leads to lowered milk production, slower growth, and if unaddressed, serious health problems. The typical fix for this is to make sure that cows are eating a healthy

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White faced hornets in the upper orchard. 

amount of dry hay to balance out the lush protein rich pasture going into their guts. Here at The Farm School, where we practice tall-grass grazing, we allow the pastures to grow taller than is typical, recognizing that this taller grass is acting like hay in the cow’s diet, providing them with all of the energy and fiber that they need. Our pastures are just too lush to maintain this balance right now, so we’ve had to add some more barn time and hay to the cow’s routine. They have been happy to spend more time inside out of the rain, and I’m hopeful this weather will make for some great fall grazing.

July 30th – August 4th

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The sheep are on some lush pasture. 

This was another week of remarkable weather here at The Farm School, with extremely high humidity all week, and several periods of torrential rain adding to the soakings that we’ve gotten over the past month of extended wet weather. We got more than four inches of rain in total this week, with 1.8 inches falling in just two hours on Friday afternoon, and another 1.5 on Saturday morning. All of this rainy weather, stretching back over the past several weeks, is the product of a unique weather pattern that has been dominating almost the entire East Coast since the start of July. The system, called a Bermuda or Azores High, is an enormous high-pressure system centered and stalled over the Atlantic near Bermuda, and spinning clockwise. This high-pressure system, like most of these classic weather drivers, is clear and dry at its center, but the dynamic spinning pattern that it has stirred up is pulling tropical air and moisture from the Caribbean and funneling it in an almost completely south-to-north flow over New England. The high is relatively stationary, so the flow of moisture and rain can be nearly continuous, leading to the very high rain totals that we have had here over the past month. Our spring and early summer were definitely characterized by a lack of rain, and conditions have completely swung to the other extreme by now. The effect of all of this rain on the farm is complex, from making the pastures grow quickly and lush, to filling our fruiting crops with water until they actually burst. The issue that has been front and center for me is the explosion of harmful bacteria on the farm, flourishing in these constantly warm and wet conditions. This extended period of heat,

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The broiler chickens moved over the left side, and not on the right. 

humidity, and rain has made a perfect environment for bacterial to grow, and I believe that we are seeing the effect in our livestock. We have lost two sheep in the past two weeks to unknown causes, and I am suspicious that they came down with bacterial pneumonia or another bacterial infection. We also had to put down a cow in the dairy this week who developed a very aggressive case of acute gangrenous mastitis just after freshening. These are not typical events for us here at the farm, and it seems to me that the elevated levels of bacteria growing throughout the farm environment, in the damp soil, on the floor of the barn, in the bedding around the sheep hay feeder, and on just about every surface, are putting all of our livestock under added health pressure.

This was the last week of summer camp at the Program for Visiting Schools, and we

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The beef herd seeking shade in this hot weather. 

ended with the oldest kids on the farm for a full two weeks of work and fun. Most of these campers have been coming to the farm for years and years, and we have known them from when they were little. Now they are huge hard working farmers, they know these fields, gardens, forests and the livestock better than we do, and they put in an incredible amount of work over their too-short stay here. The long session of camp feels like an extended family reunion, and it is a stretch of the year that every farmer here really looks forward to.

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A look at the processing side of the new dairy facility. 

Our dairy facility renovation keeps moving forward, and this week we got the plastic panelling up on the walls, and the sinks in place. State regulations call for a three-bay sink and a hand-washing sink in every work room, plus another hand-washing sink in the little testing lab just off the processing room. That is a total of five sinks, two of which are long three-bay models, and quite a bit of plumbing. Our wonderful plumber came out and got most of that work done Friday, before he heads out of town for long summer vacation, so we are hopeful that the remainder of the work in there can go ahead now that the sinks are in place. The shape of the work spaces has really become clear over the past week, and it feels like the concept that we imagined and drew out will be a solid functional work area for the program. It is difficult to really know how a space will feel through only a drawing, to know if the dimensions will accommodate the people, equipment and movement that is inherent in a working space, but things feel good in our new facility now with the walls, doors and windows in place.