Winter, for Real.

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Furnace wood ready to burn.

I’ve definitely written about it before, but I am always struck by the profound impact that the condition of the physical world around us has on the work of farming. Our work is so rooted in the material world, in the surfaces and objects of the farm, in the temperature of the air, the strength of the sunlight, the falling snow and the melting snow, and the condition of the matter at hand. Last week’s snow storms really took us back to winter, after a January that felt a lot more like October, and this week has certainly witnessed a typical week of work on a New England farm in winter. We’ve been shoveling snow all over the place, making paths between buildings, opening up room to roam for various groups of livestock, and digging out equipment that we need to use. Bradley has spent countless hours tinkering with the plow truck, trying to keep it going on their seemingly endless rounds of plowing. Every project now requires an accounting for the snow, every step must be considered on the ice, and every engine needs time and tending to run well in the cold. Depending on the temperature of the day, and the strength of the sun, we may be dealing with a world hard and frozen, or a soft, wet, muddy mess. For the most part, the nice blanket of snow gives our livestock a cleaner environment, and most of them are comfortable lying out in the snow most of the time.

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A view from inside the firewood shed.

Cord wood production has continued this week, with some extra work required to clear the work sights of snow before work could continue. Students are making regular trips from the landing back to the wood furnace with large wagon loads of split firewood to dump, and the stacks are growing daily as we work to build up our supply. Those stacks will stay in place through the spring and summer, and will get re-stacked inside the firewood shed before furnace season gets going again in the early winter. That move will make room for the next batch of split wood to move in over next winters firewood production seasno, and the continuous rotation will move forward, ensuring that we have dry firewood stacked and ready next to the furnace every winter.

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A look at the foundation and flooring at the new brooder house.

We installed floor joists in the new brooder house last week, and started laying the floor down on top of those this week. We opened with one-by-six rough-cut pine, laid diagonally across the floor joists and screwed down. This pattern built in a lot of little triangles throughout the flooring system, as each piece of flooring crosses several joists at a forty-five degree angle, making the whole thing extremely rigid and strong. We then applied a layer of thirty-weight tar-paper over the sub-floor, and began topping all of that with more one-by-six pine laid perpendicular to the joists. This three-part floor will ensure that there is no airflow up from below the house, keeping our tiny little guests snug and warm.

This has been another great week of programming at the Learn to Farm Program. We had

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Each tree takes a lot of planning.

another in the business planning series, an introduction to fiber arts followed by a full day intensive hands on fiber arts workshop, and another crop planning session on Friday. We’ve been able to maintain a nice classroom and firewood work balance, just like the past few weeks, keeping everyone learning and moving every day.

We’ll be shearing the sheep next week, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, marking one of our first concrete steps toward spring. I will be off the farm for the week, but I will try to get at least some pictures up to show the process.

This has also been a great week of farming at the Program for Visiting Schools, with two visiting groups of seventh and eighth graders from The Mission Hill School in Boston. Mission Hill has been coming out to The Farm School just about from the founding of this program, and uniquely, their students come out to see us in every grade. This gives us the opportunity to watch their students grow up from kindergarten through eighth grade, to develop long and meaningful relationships with them and their incredible teachers, and to share the farm with them in a truly familial way. Their recurring visits have also pushed us to adapt our program in significant ways, aiming to make each successive farm visit build on the last, and to give them a fresh experience every time. Several years ago we began trying to think about The Farm School as a second home, or home-away-from-home for the students from Mission Hill, and that structure has made these kids feel even more like family. Their visits are exceptional and wonderful, and are highlights of our year. We try to get the seventh graders to build something for the farm that will outlast their time on the farm, and we’ve included picnic tables, benches, and several infrastructure projects over the past few years. This year they are building a whole array of garden ‘furniture’, like tomato cages and large sections of trellis. The eighth graders have spent their days in the kitchen, doing all the cooking, including huge community meals for their second night at the farm, the Big Deal Meal. This year they are working on a dumpling extravaganza!

Snow

img_4164The snow has been coming down hard all day at the farm, and with more than a foot on the ground as I write this at 2:30 on Thursday, I’m not sure where we’ll finally top out. Our snow pack has come and gone pretty consistently this winter, but with some cold weather forecast for the next few days, and more significant snow predicted within the next week, I’m optimistic that we might finally see an extended period with snow cover. Most of our winter livestock systems depend on the ground being frozen, but a nice clean blanket of snow goes a long way in keeping the animals clean. Other than the pigs and chickens, all of our animals are happy to lie down on a thick blanket of snow, right out in the pasture, and we can be pretty confident that their in a clean spot. Despite the cold wind and heavy snowfall, the dairy cows, with a body temperature right around 101, and a huge barrel of fermenting hay for a stomach, have been out eating their newest round bale all day. They’ll come into the barn this afternoon for some grooming with the visiting students, and they’ll have a chance to dry off a bit out of the snow. They have a nice bedded free-stall area in the back of the barn to get out of the weather, but we give them the choice whether or not to use it.

This has been another great week of programming at Maggie’s Farm, with another session

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PVS layers, snacking on some leftovers.

welding with Ron Mott, more business planning with Ray Belanger, and a livestock budgeting class with me. We focused out livestock budgeting on a close look at the money spent in 2016, a comparison to the budget from 2015, and a deep dive into how the costs and value of the product relate. We’ve kept with the morning class and afternoon cord-wood schedule this week, trying to keep that nice balance of physical work and intellectual pursuit. The student farmers have really mastered the skills and process that goes into firewood production, and by this point in the winter they are producing several cords per day. We have a goal of making thirty or forty cords this winter, so we’re hoping to be done in a couple of weeks.

Visiting students returned to Sentinel Elm Farm this week, with Carlton School here Monday to Wednesday, and Haggerty School here for the back half of the week. It is wonderful to have kids back on the farm, stirring things up, visiting the animals, getting some great work done, and enjoying some remarkable food in the bunkhouse. This snow storm has transformed the farm, made getting around much more difficult, and forced us to spend more time inside than we’d like to, but our visiting students are enjoying it all.

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Farm School potatoes, prepping for another great bunkhouse dinner.

Lunch at the bunkhouse today was home made ramen bowls, with hard boiled eggs from the farm, scallions, farm-made kimchi, thin sliced pork and bacon from the farm, dried sea weed and various sauces to put on top. The ramen noodles came from Vermont Fresh Pasta, and they were perfect for the meal! Cristina and Eliza fed thirty kids visiting the farm, fourteen student farmers, ten PVS farmer/teachers, and six or seven more folks that work and live at the farm. Each one of us walked away from the buffet table with an incredible bowl of delicious food, prepared with love, care, and lots of time and effort, and sourced right here on the farm from super high quality livestock, raised to highest standards by all of our students.

We made some great progress on the new Maggie’s Farm brooder house this week, lowering the building off its cribbing towers onto the cement foundation blocks for each corner. Getting the building down off those towers was such an incredible relief, and to have done it with all of us intact and whole is a wonderful thing. Once it came down onto the foundation, we quickly finished up leveling it, and started building the flooring img_4167system. We got two-by-eights from our sawmill, purchased ‘rough cut’ joist hangers from the local hardware store, and put in the structure that the floor will rest on. The next step is to put down the flooring, hopefully also sourced at our sawmill, and then we can start putting up framing for walls. Now that the building is down and leveled, the work should be able to push ahead much more quickly. I’ll keep you up to date as we move along!

Getting Ready

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Clipboards and cast-iron

The visiting students come back to The Farm School next week, so we’ve been busy at Sentinel Elm Farm, getting everything put back together before they arrive. We’ve been working and meeting, refreshing work spaces, making plans, and doing everything we can to make the farm as welcoming and ready as is possible for when things really get going. We did a lot of work on the Bunkhouse over the winter break, with kitchen painting, new shelves, lots of work in the bathrooms, and some refreshing in the visiting teacher’s rooms as well.

Now we’re bustling around to get all those work sights cleaned up and made straight again, ready for the visiting students to move in and call it home.

The PVS staff has also been working to make their winter and spring project lists in our three primary work areas of the farm, making sure that we have the supplies and tools we’ll need to do the work, and that the farm will be able to push ahead to meet our production goals. Although the experience of our visiting students is our primary product and focus, Sentinel Elm Farm is a production farm, supplying the kitchen that feeds

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Big new speakers!

thousands of visiting school kids and teachers every year, as well as the staff and their families that keep the farm going. We also heat just about all the staff housing and the bunkhouse with firewood, cut, split and stacked on the farm. Now is the time for mapping out the farm-work of the coming months, designing each project to make sure that students can do it, and fitting it all into the larger production plan.

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The timber frame has been moved out.

This has been another great week of winter programming at Maggie’s Farm, as the Learn to Farm Program charges ahead with more firewood production and a full slate of wonderful classes. This is the most classroom heavy stretch of the program year, reflecting the planning heavy nature of the work that most farmers in New England are doing this time of year. This week included a calf castration hands on workshop with our large animal veterinarian, the second in the Farm Business Planning series with Ray Belanger, Garden Planning, Starting you Farm with Ben Schute of Hearty Roots Community Farm, and finally the next in the Crop Planning series, mapping out this season’s veggie CSA planting schedule.

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The layers, and a shadow, at sunrise. .

We can’t spend all of our time inside however, so we’ve also been out making lots and lots of firewood. We supply firewood for our neighbor Maggie, who lived and farmed at the Maggie’s Farm sight with her family before we started there. We cut, split and stack five cords for her every year, before turning our focus to our own supply of furnace wood. The

furnace uses between fifteen and twenty cords of thirty inch length firewood every winter, and we dream every year of making enough so that at least some of it can dry for two years before use. These winter days, split between a morning inside thinking and learning, and an afternoon at the firewood yard, have a nice natural rhythm that keeps us all healthy and growing as farmers and workers.

This week also included another day with Ron Mott, a local welder who leads a yearly workshop with our students, introducing them to the basics arc welding and torch cutting. He takes a new small group of students each week for three or four weeks, and gives every student time with the tools in their hands and an opportunity to develop a bit of comfort and experience with these difficult skills. Although students only get one day with Ron, we always seem to have a couple of vital welding and metal projects on the farm every year for students to try out their new skills. Many students have also used the independent project time in the spring to work with metal, building on the work they did during the welding workshop.

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Gladys, the heifer, up close.

We started installing a second door on the Maggie’s Farm egg mobile this week, hoping to bring that unit into AWA compliance for the coming season. The layers will move into that house some time in the first week of May when the pastures are ready for them, and I am hoping to get that project crossed off my list now so that we’re wide open for fencing and grazing when the spring rush comes.

Crop Planning

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We’re weaning two calves. The nose rings make it so they cannot nurse.

The student farmers at Maggie’s Farm have started their series of garden and field crop planning this week, starting with the basic principles of laying out the schedule and sequence of the growing season, then digging deeper into the details of how we ensure successful production to meet demand for all of our customers through the spring, summer and fall. This series of classes will give the students a chance to contribute to the crop plan for The Farm School’s cultivated acreage, as well as some time to imagine how they would map out their own potential vegetable production. In January, veggie growers all over New England are reading seed catalogues and dreaming big.

We have been working over the past few months to bring our sheep and layer operations into compliance with the specifications of the AWA, and we took another step forward this week with the completion of another larger chicken door on the winter coop at Sentinel Elm Farm. The AWA mandates that the chicken doors be large enough that no hen feels trapped inside, so we have been expanding the doors on both winter coops to accommodate a more free flow of hens in and out. I mentioned the start of this project last week, and I can report that we have finished both coops by now.

The next step will be do similar work on the summer ‘egg-mobiles’ used at both farms, but in that case we will be adding a second door, rather than one large door. We’ve ordered a second automatic door for the Maggie’s egg-mobile, so that both doors will have light sensitive controls opening and closing them at dawn and dusk. We also added a feed house out in the yard at the Maggie’s winter coop, hoping to encourage the hens to come outside more, and to give them some shelter out there.

We’ve gotten every student farmer through the firewood yard this week, re-introducing everyone to the hydraulic splitter, the chainsaws, the team of horses, and the mauls. Once everyone is comfortable using the requisite tools, and knows the workings of the yard pretty well, we can push production up to top speed, and try to get through this year’s quota as quickly as we possible.

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The latest view at the firewood yard.

Every tool we use for making firewood is dangerous, and every step is physically demanding, so no matter how quickly we’d like to get the firewood split and stacked, the work demands care and attention.

 

Our chick brooder at Maggie’s has been a small outbuilding in the yard, originally built as a chicken coop. It is too small to accommodate the groups of chicks we work with for more than a couple of weeks, and we have been considering an upgrade for quite a while. We salvaged a small timber-frame structure from the sheep yard when we upgraded their situation this fall, and we’ve pulled it up near the barn to use as our new brooder house. This frame was the first built by Maggie’s student farmers way back at the start of the program, and we are currently trying to adapt it for its new purpose.

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The new brooder, still working on the foundation.

Time and use have twisted it a bit out of square, and the trip from the sheep yard didn’t do much to make it any straighter, so we’ve spent quite a bit of time this week trying to establish a level foundation, and a vision for how the whole thing will work best. We need to have a suitable brooder house ready for broiler chicks coming in the mail May 1st, and while that seems to be quite a way off, the spring is notorious for getting incomprehensibly busy all of a sudden in April, and we’re trying to get this thing finished before the crush of warmer weather. We’ll keep working on the project, and I will report back with progress.

Back to Work

Snow fell on the farm Tuesday night and Wednesday, and the landscape has gone back to mostly white. Some winters, our backdrop is white nearly the whole way through, and some winters, like last, we see snow only once in a while. This winter has had an almost predictable calendar, switching from brown to white, and back to brown, like a snake shedding its skin. With warm weather in the forecast ahead, I expect that we’ll lose this latest covering pretty soon. The skating pond has held up pretty well through it all, so we’ve been enjoying plenty of winter fun, no matter the snow pack.

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Emily and Phoenix trying the new feeder.

The Learn to Farm program got going again this week after a month of winter break, and the schedule has been packed with some new things, and some continuation of the pre-break work. Work at the sawmill continued, milling out the last few timbers for the timber-frame project. Students were back in the timber-frame shop as well, chipping and chiseling out the final joinery on that frame, in the hope that it can be completed in the next two weeks. Once the timber-frame is completed, and moved out of the greenhouse, that space will be cleaned and setup for starting seeds and raising seedlings. The conversion from timber-frame shop back to greenhouse is remarkable, and is a sure sign that the spring, and the growing season, are coming soon. Firewood production is ramping up, but once the timer-frame is completed, that work will really start to dominate the schedule for the next six weeks or so. We rarely get the whole student-farmer group making firewood all at the same time, but even with a half-group of seven, the work can move along pretty quickly. Bradley and his horses play a vital roll in our firewood production, helping to pull logs from the forest out to the landing for bucking, splitting and loading. Brad started taking each student on a refresher drive with the horses this week, giving everyone the chance to get behind the horses again, remember the technique and commands, and to get ready for the driving time that is coming.

img_4054We have been working over the past six months to get our livestock operation AWA inspected and approved, and one of the changes that they asked us to make in their tour of the farm, was to enhance the chicken doors on our winter coops. We were given the option of adding a second door, or making a single door large enough that chickens could get in and out without disagreement. The concern of the AWA is that a chicken near the top of the pecking order could potentially stand in a small doorway, trapping chickens lower on the pecking order either inside or outside the building. On Monday, we boarded up the old door, cut a big hole in the wall, and installed a new large door with a gloriously large ramp. Whether the new door has really made a difference in the layer’s ability to go in and out more easily or not, the new door has certainly put a large hole in the side of the building, and we are going to need to come up with some type of bad-weather adaptation to keep that house at a more comfortable temperature when the weather gets cold and nasty. I hope to do the same project on the door to the winter coop at Sentinel Elm farm this week as well.

img_4056Despite some small vital changes that I need to make, the new dairy feeding trough seems to be working well. There were several factors that encouraged me in making this change, and it has been on my mind for quite a while. The current cow feeding area is a tiled floor space just in front of their tie-ups. It is a tough space to keep clean, with grout between the tiles, lots of foot traffic in and on the area, and the whole thing right down at floor level. Watching the cows essentially licking the floor to get the last few pellets of grain, especially in really cold weather, really started to bother me, and I took some measurements and sketched out a simple wooden frame and trough that could be built in. img_4052The frame is pine, the decking is hardwood, and whole thing means that the cows are licking on wood, rather than cold dirty tile, nobody can walk directly where they eat, and there is a lip to keep their grain accessible. The new space is more difficult to sweep out, but I am hopeful it will stay cleaner in general because the cows can access all of the area to eat, and can reach every bit of grain and hay.

Most of the students and some staff are headed off to the NOFA-NY Winter conference Friday and Saturday of this week, eager to learn new approaches, dig deeper into old ones, and meet some great farmers!

The Snow is Gone

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Our two winter pigs.

We’re coming to the end of another pretty quiet week here at The Farm School, with both programs still off for vacation, and only the Chicken Coop school in session. Wednesday and Thursday of this week were above fifty degrees, and the snow is gone from the fields. The field edges and plow piles are lingering, but the farm has almost entirely changed from white to brown. Work has continued on the Bunkhouse this week, with the attention shifting from the kitchen, which looks incredible, to the teacher rooms and bathroom. The kitchen, which was totally emptied for patching and painting, has been put back together and is ready for action. We bought a new huge pair of speakers for the kitchen, and we’re anticipating taking the cleanup music scene to insane new heights.

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Brad’s firewood world.

Bradley and his horses make regular passes through the farm, headed out to this year’s firewood yard in the forest, and the distant whine of his chainsaw is in the air most of the day.

Meetings, planning, dreaming and preparation have continued all week, and just about every table has seed catalogues strewn across them. We’re planning the next production season, but also laying the groundwork for the coming months of the Learn to Farm Program.

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The beef herd at dawn.

The schedule has seemingly limitless components, with classes, work sessions, field trips, visiting teachers, and more. They all have to be puzzled together, and an adequate amount of time has to be allotted to the vital work of the farm as well. In addition, we are in a constant search for ways to enhance and deepen the adult student’s learning and experience, and we use these quiet winter weeks to analyze, debate and develop all of our practices toward that goal. Our students make a significant commitment to spend the year here with us, and we are constantly working on ways to maximize their opportunities for learning and hands on experience.

We packed the months’ meat CSA share this week, and sent it into Boston for distribution. Josh B and Nora keep a careful inventory of the cuts that have come back from the processing facility, and work hard to craft the perfect share every month.

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Inside the hoop house.

The share this month had sausages, ground lamb, a chuck roast, several other cuts, and the usual dozen fresh eggs. We try to make each bag about twelve pounds each month, include cuts of beef, pork and lamb, and make sure that we can stay consistent and varied through the season. I am super proud of the meat we produce, and I am pretty sure each CSA share bag makes each member happy, and goes a long way to keeping them warm and well fed all winter.

These quiet winter weeks are also a chance to try a few things out before the wild tempest of visiting students return to the farm, and the production season and Maggie’s really gets going. This year I built a little feeding bunk into the dairy cow feeding setup, in the hopes of getting their feeding area up off the ground. I put the contraption in place at the beginning of the week, and if it seems to be working okay by next week, I’ll include some pictures and explanation. We’ve been using it for a couple of days, but I have not heard anything from the other milkers yet about how it has worked for them.

The beef herd bull was finally picked up on Thursday, more than three full months later than we really wanted to keep him. He arrived during the first week of August, and we like to give him minimum three heat cycles to breed the cows. A cow heat cycle is about twenty-one days on average, so two months in the herd will give a bull just about three chances to breed each cow. If the bull was actively breeding for August and September, I would have been happy to have seen him leave some time in the first half of October, pretty confident that he had done his job. However, the bull owner doesn’t have much incentive to come back for the bull, since we pay the same price no matter how long he stays, and we feed and care for the bull while he is on the farm. It is understandably challenging to get that type of priority moved to the top of the to-do list, but we finally got him shipped off this week. Now, all the cows and calves can fit at the indoor feeder, and going to visit the beef herd is a little less tense.

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An area Brad has cut.

New Year, New Plans

This is still a quiet time at The Farm School, with both programs taking time off until the student farmers come back in the middle of January. Despite the quiet, work continues at both farms, and the Chicken Coop School is back in session too. Work at Sentinel Elm Farm is focused on getting the facilities in tip-top shape, with special attention directed at the bunkhouse.

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The Bunkhouse kitchen, renewed.

We’ve had a crew in the kitchen all week patching, painting, and repairing everything they can get their hands on, and the place is looking better than ever. Dave has been in the hay-loft of the dairy barn all week sorting through the jumble that inevitably piles up in there, discarding whatever he can, and organizing the rest. This is a seemingly yearly exercise for us, but we always find more stuff to get rid of, more curious treasures stashed away up there, and a renewed hope that we can keep the space organized and useful in the future.

With the work of last year behind us, and the flush of spring still weeks and weeks away, we spend the cold winter months planning and dreaming about next year. We look back on last season to see where we may have gone wrong, where we came up short, what we did really well, and what we would like to change.

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Sentinel Elm layers having breakfast.

We look forward to the spring with an irrational optimism that we can finally get it all right, and sketch out how we’re going to get it done. I have ordered our chicks for the coming year and made our processing dates at the slaughterhouse. The new wall calendar is up in the office, and arc of the production year, at least for the livestock, is starting to take shape. Some of the big projects that we are looking forward to for the coming year include a new and improved brooder for raising chicks, and a new pullet pasture trailer for transitional housing between the brooder and winter coop for the newest layers, pasture expansion and high-tensile fencing for both the beef herd and the sheep flock, a rebuild of our piglet training area, and continued adaptations to accommodate our move toward AWA certification. I will be reporting on all of these projects over the coming weeks and months, and hopefully you’ll be able to follow along as we continue the unending work of perfecting this farm.

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Daisy and Pip enjoying a sunny morning chew.

Aside from all of our dreaming and planning, winter is also firewood season, and we are making our plans for the coming production season. We try to blend three complementary goals into our firewood production approach, so there is often a bit of added strategizing that goes into this work. Firstly, we need to produce something close to thirty cords of firewood, split between fourteen-inch stove length pieces, and the longer thirty inch furnace material. This will hopefully be enough to get neighbor Maggy through next winter, and to keep our furnace chugging along too. Secondly, we need to give every student the opportunity to take the next steps in their mastery of tree felling and bucking, building on skills introduced in the Game of Logging workshop earlier in the fall. Thirdly, we try to use this work to open up pasture and veggie field edges, expand bar-ways, or otherwise optimize the effect of our work on the larger farm landscape.

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Unwrapped round bale, like a big ball of summer!

In most cases, I am adamant about leaving trees around pastures to give our grazing livestock the chance to get out of the hot sun as needed, but there are certain areas, especially around veggie fields, where adding a few more hours of sunlight every day, by eliminating over-hanging trees, can really make a difference. We strive to advance all three of these goals at the same time, working through the majority of January and February to get it all done. We will be cutting around the Back pasture, Sheep pasture and trying to expand and rescue the Horse pasture this year, and I will keep you informed as we go along.

Winter Break

Hello friends, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and stay warm out there. The Farm School Manual will return the first week of January with a new entry. We’re all enjoying the wintry farm, doing lots of ice skating and cross country skiing, and making plans for the coming spring! We’ll be back in the new year!

Quiet Times

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The log pile, ready to bucked, split and stacked.

This has been the final week before the Learn to Farm Program takes a month long winter break, so we have been finishing up several projects around the farm to make sure that the place is ready for the quiet times ahead.

We put in a solid week of work on cord wood production, bucking and splitting in the yard at Maggie’s Farm as well as at the log landing just south of the farm complex.

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A growing firewood pile, and rounds to split beyond that.

The log pile at Maggie’s is finished, but there is a massive pile, left by the logging crew that did our forest thinning project this summer, to work through at the landing. We have dreams of producing forty cords of firewood this winter, so that will be the work of the next few months.

The tools of farming change with the season, as the work moves from cultivation and fencing to firewood and forestry. There are tools, like the harvest knife or the scuffle hoe that almost become extensions of our bodies through the summer months, only to be set aside for new tools used for new work when the weather gets cold. Winter is the chainsaw season, the maul season, and the splitter season.

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The gear lineup for firewood work at the landing.

Things forgotten become newly essential, like winter gloves, a good hat, and warm boots, and things used everyday are put away to be forgotten again until spring. This change is reflected in our travels across the farm, where certain areas become focal points for a time, only to be left again for other projects in other places. In the warm months we are out in the fields and pastures, and we spend countless hours in veggie wash-up, but now our work is in the barns and yards, and wash-up is cold and dark.

We put up walls on the north-west corner of the new sheep shelter yesterday, working in some really cold and windy conditions to get the sheep a bit of a wind-break down at their hay feeder. We had milled siding material at our sawmill from pines harvested by Brad and his horse team, so the whole project, other than the screws, was sourced here on the farm.

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Sheep enjoying the new finished corner.

The walls had a great effect on the feeder area, and once we’d bedded the area with an extra bale of straw, we all wanted to curl up and nap in the cozy corner we’d built, out of the wind. Of all of our livestock, I think that the woolly sheep mind the cold and wind least of all our animals. However, it is essential that we provide them with a dry place to stand and eat, which they do for hours and hours every day, and we really want to keep the blowing snow out of their shelter. The new walls block the wind and snow, and also give the sheep a sheltered spot to ruminate. Every calorie that they spend keeping warm on a cold windy day is a calorie that is not going to their growing lambs, or their own fat reserves, so a simple wind break can do a lot to enhance their condition.

The student farmers took their annual trip up to visit the Adams Farm slaughterhouse on Wednesday, looking in on the kill floor, hanging coolers and processing room. This visit affords our students an intimate view of the process of turning our livestock into cuts of meat, and it feels like an important part of the cycle to see and to understand. This can be a challenging visit for our students, and we always follow the trip with a chance to sit around the farmhouse table to talk about the experience. There is no nice way to do the work that is done up at Adams, but they do it well, and do it efficiently, and have taken every step they can to develop as humane a process as is possible.

This week also included our final Monday morning with Dr. Major, this week focusing specifically on dairy cows. The group spent some time in our little dairy, looking at the cows and their facilities, discussing some of the common issues that dairy cows face, as well as some of the adaptations and improvements that modern dairying has made to house cows comfortably. This was followed by a visit to Hunt Farm, just down the road in Orange, MA. They milk about 115 cows, using many of the hallmark components of more modern dairying, and this visit was an opportunity to expose our students to that approach to dairying. George Hunt Jr is always a wonderful host, answering questions honestly and openly, sharing the many challenges that he faces on his dairy farm, and really offering wonderful insight into some of the business pressures that face farmers operating at his scale. From tax law to hiring staff, George gives our students a truly essential look into production farming and commodity marketing.

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A view into the inferno.

Both of our wood fired furnaces are going full speed this week, and with the super cold weather to finish out the week, we’ve been busy keeping them well stocked and cranking out heat.

Freezing

Winter seems to really be here now, with snow on the ground, ice in the water troughs, and sand spread on the driveway. We’ve had two little snow events over the past week, neither of which amounted to much, but which collectively have turned the farm nearly white. With some cold weather in the ten-day forecast, and more snow too, it is beginning to feel a lot like….

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A view under the Reemay in the hoop house; spinach and arugula might not get to full size this year.

Sentinel Elm Farm, the home for the Program for Visiting Schools, is feeling a bit empty this week with Friday of last week marking the end of programing for the winter. We hosted The Village School and our own Chicken Coop School on Tuesday, bringing the place back to life a bit for a day, but we’re missing the kids already. We’ve got a few projects to button up before the quiet winter break really takes hold, and we are spending this week making sure everything is resolved. We put a new roof on the wood shop yesterday, we’ve dusted off the wood splitter and tuned the chainsaws for firewood time, fences are down, grain is stocked up, and the windows are on the barn.

Similar work continues this week at The Learn to Farm program, with Alex leading the work of shutting down veggie operations for the winter. Wash-up and the walk-in are closed down for the winter, and strawberries and garlic will be mulched with straw in and all-group-work-project to end the week. We spent a good part of our weekly staff meeting yesterday mapping out the firewood production plan for the winter, trying to pair our production goals with the need to get every student ample time with a chainsaw in their hands, and under good supervision.

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Timbers finished and drying in the shop.

This is one of the most challenging teaching components of our program, with ambitious production targets, a super dangerous tool to master, and elevated staffing requirements to ensure super-direct one-on-one instruction. The work can also involve further daring complications, like dragging logs with the tractor, driving a team of draft horses, hand splitting with a maul, and operating the hydraulic splitter. All of these additional components deepen the learning opportunities for the student farmers, and demand heightened management from the Learn to Farm staff.

Work continues in the greenhouse on this year’s timber frame, with the hope that it can be completed and put away to dry before we break for the holidays. Students also continue to plug away at the sawmill, milling out boards to use as siding for our new sheep shelter as well as our enhanced chick brooder.

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The sawmill, and some finished boards.

They take round logs, mill them off into square or rectangular beams, and then slice them over and over, each time an inch thick, to create ‘one-by’ siding. (The siding is one inch thick, and after ‘by’ you’d say whatever the other dimension is, but ‘one-by’ can be used to refer to any one inch thick board, since they come in so many different widths. We produce ‘rough-cut’ lumber on the mill, which refers to lumber that has not been run through a planer to make it smooth. The dimensions of lumber refer to the size before the planer, so a 1×8 from a conventional lumber yard is not actually one inch thick and eight inches wide, but is usually 3/4 of an inch thick and 7 1/4 inches wide, and is still called a ‘one-by-eight’).

Pearl was in heat again Wednesday in the dairy, and Brad and Rachel managed to try another breeding attempt during evening chores. A cow bred now can be expected to deliver a calf in the middle of September, so December breeding is fine for us. We try to avoid winter calving, so December and January are really the last months that we are willing to breed in the dairy.

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Pearl, on a nasty day at the farm.

Cold weather calving can just add complications to the process that we are happy to avoid. Unfortunately, that means that we have occasionally had cows that don’t breed within our preferred window, and that we then have to carry them through quite a ways with no calf in their future. That is a significant cost to us, and we always have to decide whether it would make more sense to move an un-bred cow along to another destiny rather than keep her on the farm. Pearl is the best cow in the dairy, so we will make every effort to get her bred successfully and on target for another great year to come.