Eight Weeks to Grass

Essex Farm Note

Week 9, 2015

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Mark and I just came back from a walk through the sugarbush. The snow is soft and drifted in some places, and blown thin and hard in others. In the tracks you can read the late-winter hunger of the predators, the anxiety of the prey. There were lots of coyote paths, and the remains of a rabbit kill. Coyote had left only the fluffy brown-and-white tail and a little smudge of mess. We saw a medium-sized white raptor that I could not identify hunting the edge of a field, and then a bald eagle swooping out of a tall dead tree. Back down the hill, we were checking the body condition on the ewes, not paying any attention to the dog, and a few minutes later noticed she was outside the fence, chewing on something that looked like a giant rat, except for its strange flattened tail and powerful curving claws. It turned out to be an unlucky muskrat who had come out of his den at the wrong moment. Mary must have killed him while we were busy with the ewes. He had the softest, thickest fur! Made me want to wear him whole as a muff or a mitten.

We paid for the year’s corn this week – 100 tons – and lightened the bank account considerably. When forking over large sums for grain it is comforting to remember that we get to make use of grain twice: once to feed the animals, and, if we do a good job with compost production and fertility management, we use it again to boost the fertility of our soil. Also, this organic corn is local – thank you, Mark Wrisley and Bob Perry – and keeping money in the neighborhood always feels better than sending it far away. In other financial news, we paid down the last of the line of credit we opened with Yankee Farm Credit two years ago. It is a very useful line of credit but it feels good to not make an interest payment on it this month.

We’re playing a complicated shell game with various groups of pregnant animals for the next couple months. Ewes are going to lamb in the east barn, so we have to scoot the laying flock out of the north side of it. The layers can’t stay in the east barn for long – we’re going to need that space for brooding chicks. Meanwhile the 13 farrowing sows are moving to the west barn, which is currently occupied by the dairy heifers. Heifers will be moving down to the metal barn in the middle of the farm. Indoor space is really at a premium this year.

I keep gazing at the National Weather Service web page as though it is going to magically change. It was -24 on February 24th. Is it possible that grass is only eight weeks away? The lake is frozen fast and hard, and the fields look like tundra. Animals are all eating like maniacs to stay warm. I am looking for excuses to be in the greenhouse, where it was 75 degrees this morning. But the cold really is coming to an end. It’s supposed to break freezing on Wednesday. I can almost smell the mud and hear the drip-drip-drip of sap from the sugar maples. Mike has hitched the horses a few times, to pull wood out of the sugarbush for the evaporator. The sight of them has made me itch to be out there with a horse myself. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this deep-frozen 9th week of 2015.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball

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Hello, coyote

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Long pasture, with Camel’s Hump in the distance

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Cows dream of grass, Mark dreams of windsurfing.

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Pretty sow

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Muskrat!

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The best place on the farm today.

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Who needs Florida when you can visit the greenhouse? 75 degrees.

Lipstuck

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The woolies should be getting wider every day. We’re six weeks out from lambing.

 

Essex Farm Note

 Week 8, 2015

The lake froze hard enough to stop the ferry this week, and Mark got into a battle of wills against the cold. First, during the deepest stretch, our internet access died. We have a radio receiver on top of the silo that picks up the projected signal from a fiber optic line across the lake in Vermont, which generally gives us a fast, reliable connection. We depend heavily on it. Apart from the usual things, we use Trello, a web-based management program, to keep track of everything that is being done, should be done, and has been done on the farm.

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Everyone who works here checks Trello many times a day to figure out the daily plan, pose questions and record data. When the internet access went dark last Friday it felt like we were all suddenly blind. So Mark ended up climbing the silo in the pre-dawn dark when it was -10 with a brutal north wind. Perched precariously forty feet in the air, he had to take off his mitts to fiddle with wires, and it all took longer because his fingers were numb. When he was finished and safely down and warming his hands, they ached so much he almost threw up. But no rest for chilly farmers. Next he had to go fix a frozen fuel line on the skid steer, and as he was crawling around underneath it, he bumped his face against a piece of metal and got lipstuck. Indignity on top of injury! But the internet is working now, skid steer is running, his hands are fine, and the lip is healing.

I have a feeling this is going to be one of those winters that stays strong until it suddenly cedes to full-on spring. We need to hurry to prepare for sugaring, even though it still feels like deep winter. Mark and I walked the sugarbush this week. It felt so good to be in the snowy woods.

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We made a new road last year to give us easier access to the maples in the eastern section, and the old roads look relatively clear. Our primary concerns are patching up the old arch, which is nearing the end of its days, and laying in enough wood to fire it. It would be nice if we had stacked, split, seasoned hardwood to burn, but we do not. (If we did, I would have already stolen it for the farmhouse, where I am keeping a miser’s eye on the quickly shrinking woodpile!) Doug went to the woods on Wednesday and cut some loads of standing deadwood. We are lucky to have an experienced woodsman on our part-time team, since deadwood can be tricky to get out safely.

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I love this tenacious maple. The V doesn’t quite touch the ground.

I did get my own chainsaw (thank you Barbara Kunzi, for passing it on to us!) and after using it for a day I’m kind of in love with it. It’s petite but powerful.

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Mark and I spent my birthday felling and limbing an ash that was growing in an awkward place in the farmyard. It’s bucked, split and stacked now, the first deposit on heat payment for next year. I’m highly motivated to get three years ahead on our wood supply, since I’m the one who drives the woodstove.

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My birthday ash, split and (somewhat awkwardly) stacked.

We have kim chi in the share today, and it will be available in the farm store soon, thanks to Jori, her crew, and the Grange Community Kitchen. It’s a fairly mild version so if you want to spice it up, throw a hot pepper in there. Big thanks to all the farmers for powering through the cold. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this snowy-woods 8th week of 2015.

–Kristin &Mark Kimball

PS I know I am late coming to this trick but I’m posting it here as a public service message, for any of you who burn wood and have not yet seen it. In the past, kindling was the key to my heart, because I always needed it, and found splitting it myself difficult. Now I can make a week’s worth in ten minutes on my own without stress.

The key is to choose straight-grained pieces and tuck them into the tire with their butts against the ground.

The key is to choose straight-grained pieces and tuck them into the tire with their butts against the ground.

Whack away at it. The split wood stays put and if you miss the maul hits the tire. I use an 8lb maul.

Whack away at it. The split wood stays put and if you miss, the maul hits the tire. I use an 8lb maul and walk around the tire so I can hit it at every angle. You can make it as tiny as you want to.

There are tons of videos on YouTube that show this method in action.

Pancake Redux

Essex Farm Note

Week 7, 2015

I thought I was finished writing about Pancake, but he’s back in the news today. He got a dramatic hematoma on his ear a couple weeks ago, probably bitten by another pig. Sometimes hematomas go away if you just leave them alone, but he looked uncomfortable, and it wasn’t getting better. Luckily, we have Dr. Ed here three mornings a week. He is a man of many skills: a very handy shop mechanic, and also, veterinarian emeritus. He studied the problem and then took Pancake back to the greenhouse to drain the ear. Pancake now has his head wrapped in bandages that make him look like a porcine Civil War veteran. Mary and I made a get-well visit yesterday. Surgery has not dimmed Pancake’s appetite nor his friendliness.

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Pancake in his post-surgical transport cage.

We brought Jake and Abby up from pasture this week and hitched to the wagon for a ride around the farm, with the entire crew (13 strong this week!) on board. I love watching new farmers encounter the draft horses for the first time. It reminds me of the first time I drove a team, and the amazement I felt at holding so much living power in the palms of my hands. Mark and I have been talking often this winter about how best to use the horses so that they are relevant, affordable, and safe. One idea is to use more large hitches of horses (4, 6 or 8 horses) with bigger machinery. The problem with that strategy is that learning how to drive a large hitch safely takes a good deal of training; most of our farmers are here for two or three seasons, so there is the rub.

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Another tactic is to embrace the idea of a dual power farm, use the tractors for the work that is most time-sensitive or difficult with horses, and use  horses for everything else. That is more or less where we have been for the last couple of seasons. We use tractors for baling and a lot of the plowing. We use horses for some secondary tillage, raking and tedding, and for all of the cultivating. That is where we are, but we are eager to move closer to where we want to be. Our goal is still fossil fuel free farming, and we were dismayed to see how much diesel we used for the skid steer this year. It is a seductive machine! We use it for everything from clearing snow to feeding hay.

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Speaking of hay, we bought eight used J&L hay feeders from Lewis Family Farm last week.

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They are sturdy and super efficient. We have three in with the beef herd, one with the horses, and two with the dairy cows. They are cleverly designed to minimize wasted hay, which, in our previous systems, accounted for 10% to 25% of what we fed out. We had to modify them to accommodate the long Highland horns, but even in one week we have seen a big reduction in hay usage, so they should quickly pay for themselves. Hooray for that. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this I-Heart-Essex 7th week of 2015.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball

 

Squeaky Cold

Essex Farm Note

Week 6, 2015

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I was thinking this week that our perception of cold is like our perception of wealth: entirely relative. We hit negative 18 this morning – a temperature that probably sounds torturous to my friends and family from below the Mason Dixon. But one of our members, Matthew, grew up on James Bay, where negative 40 was just a normal winter day. Matthew says that when his father comes down here to visit and temperatures are a little below zero, he’s comfortable walking around outside in a light jacket. I am not that tough but I really do like the winter. No flies, no mud, no burning sun. And it gives me great pleasure to think of the funguses, blights, ticks and other baddies slowly succumbing to the cleansing cold. My daily uniform this winter is a serious set of long underwear, under a pair of light snow pants that I wear both inside and out, and either one or two jackets, depending on how deep the cold is. Also, hand warmers – a luxury that Matthew’s father would probably laugh at, but they take care of my weak spot and make me feel fairly invincible. Mark reminded me that it’s easy for me to say so, since I’m not outside for nearly as many hours per day as he and the full-time farmers are. To which I say, he’s right. And I am glad the ewes are bred to begin lambing on April 1st this year instead of our usual February 14th. The ewes and I hope it warms up significantly in the next month, as shearing is scheduled for the first week in March.

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We had our vet, David Goldwasser, here this week to preg check the beef herd. It is a good news, bad news situation. The bad news is that we had a lot of cows that did not get bred. Most of them are the oldest cows, and that should not be a surprise. Some of those cows are the original Highlands that we bought 11 years ago, so they are as old as 15 now. It is a testament to their vigor that they gave us a calf every year until now. The good part is that we are now forced to make a much-needed shift in our beef herd genetics. We have wanted to switch over to Angus or Hereford for many years now, but it was too hard to justify that expense when we had Highlands who were still raising a calf every year. Another benefit to shifting to new breeding stock now is that if we reduce our herd size over the rest of the winter and early spring we will not need to buy in hay to get us to grass time, and that money can go, instead, toward good grass-based genetics for the new brood cows.

Mark and I have been missing the horses a lot this winter, and wishing we had more work for them. Last weekend we took Amos, one of the spotted drafts, out for a ride. It was cold and windy and sitting on top of him was like being on top of a mountain. He is 19 hands, almost as tall at the withers as the 6’6” Mark. It made us both happy to end the day smelling like horses. We are planning a few days of on-farm vacation and decided to spend them using the horses to pull some logs out of the woods, for next year’s firewood. I have a feeling I’m getting my own chainsaw for Valentine’s Day. Romantic, no?

I can’t close without sending a huge thank you to Becca, who has been with us for the last month. Her help and her good company have been invaluable. Now she goes back to Minnesota to prepare for her own CSA season. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this squeaky-snow 6th week of 2015. -Kristin & Mark Kimball