Shearing

Essex Farm Note

Week 13, 2016

Snow fell on the backs of 49 naked-looking ewes yesterday. It was not the best day to take off your thick wool coat, but aside from that, everything went smoothly. The flock was locked in the barn the night before to stay dry. Mary Lake drove over bad roads to get to us from Vermont, bringing her fancy new shearing machine. Matt and the animal team had a good crowding pen and catch system set up, so the sheep stayed calm and happy. Mary Lake has been shearing for us since her second year at it, when our flock totaled 7, and every year she’s done the job faster and more gracefully. The sheared ewes came off her board and went to Conor and Charlotte, who trimmed hooves, vaccinated them, and recorded their tag numbers. There was a rotating cast of farmers – Alex, Aiden, and Ben – learning to catch sheep and move them through each step of the process, before releasing them to the outdoor corral, where they bleated and milled, trying to recognize one another. We have 4 ton-size totes of wool this year. Without it on their backs it’s possible to really see the ewes’ condition, which is good and pregnant. I can’t wait to start lambing in three weeks.

Lots of news on grant applications this week. We’ve dropped our quest to add 75kw to our solar array. The best we could come up with offered about a 30 year payback on the project, which is not viable. But there will be other funding rounds in the future, and we will keep alert for opportunities there. On the upside, we got word of partial funding for two new projects. One is big: a ½ acre composting barn that will help us be better stewards of the land and the waterways by minimizing silt and nutrient runoff. It will also help us make better compost, and our own potting soil. The other project is smaller, but probably more interesting to members: a 30’ X 80’ greenhouse that will allow us to grow vegetables earlier and later in the season, and also gives us total control over those fickle elements of nature, like water and heat. As Mark says, it’s like having a tiny piece of the Central Valley of California on your farm. It’s always warm and rain comes as ordered, when you turn on the sprinkler. I’m thinking of moving in. Construction will take two weeks, and should be wrapped up by June 1st.

Big runs in the sugarbush this week. Volume is high but the sugar content is low at 2%, and the season is closing fast. Thanks to Taylor and Conor for many hours at the evaporator. Members, the beef that we butchered last week was from Jersey cows. The special thing about Jerseys is the way they metabolize the beta carotene in their feed, which gives the beautiful tint to their cream and also makes their fat yellowish orange, which can be disconcerting if you don’t know what it is. Taste is unaffected and it’s delicious and healthy to eat. We’re saying goodbye to two team leaders this month. Tonight is Matt’s last team dinner. He has led the animal team over the last two seasons, and we will very much miss his skills and his kind presence. Lindsey has one more week! She will leave behind a healthy happy herd of dairy cows, and a better-organized dairy. We are so grateful to both of them for their hard work and dedication. We have lots of welcomes and introductions to make too but we’ll save them for another week. And that’s the news from Essex Farm for this sugar-on-snow-and-mud 13th week of 2016.  –Kristin & Mark Kimball

Bluebird Blue

Essex Farm Note

Week 12, 2016

Reber Rock Farm is recovering from their barn fire. Last Wednesday, the Essex Farm crew joined Racey, Nathan, Gwen and Chad for an afternoon of cleanup. It was the first pass over the ruins, and the goal was to separate what could be saved from what must be thrown away. At first glance, it seemed like more appropriate categories would be what must be thrown away, and what was vaporized. But close up, under ashes, it was fascinating to see what had come through intact: a box of files; a heap of nails with their bucket melted away; gears to something, still arranged in logical order but without the casing that would have made their function clear. Hay burns slowly and there was a pile of it left, perfectly insulating the ground underneath it. Grain burns slowly too but only a remnant remained, toasted black. Along the barn’s perimeter there were exploded carcasses of some summarily evicted rats. But Piggles the livestock guardian dog, who was injured in the fire, is making a good comeback, with a new look, which Racey describes as toasted marshmallow, his thick, white fur singed down to a minimal dun-colored covering. There is a gofundme page if you would like to help out. The barn and its contents were insured, but a setback like this, so early in the life of a new farm and a young family, is still very difficult to handle. All the energy that should be going toward spring planting, toward short and long term planning, must be diverted to emergency mitigation. These are resilient people, and they will come back stronger than ever, but they could use a collective hand. www.gofundme.com/reberrockfarm

The bluebirds are back, scouting spring accommodations. Is there any color as optimistic as the flash of bluebird blue against a dull and muddy landscape? Oh, mud. The barnyard is so thick in it, it could swallow a tractor. All horses are in the metal barn with the beef cattle, to try to minimize damage to the pasture. The greenhouse is filling up quickly now. Taylor has been busy at the evaporator, feeding it a steady diet of wood. The forecast looks promising for another good run of sap this week.

The ewes will be sheared on Thursday, and are due to start lambing in a month. One of them aborted a couple weeks ago. Jon noticed her bloody behind at chores, and found the fetus on the ground. I peeled back the frozen caul to look. It was about a hundred days along, its naked pink head the size of a golf ball, its hooves perfect miniatures. An abortion in the flock raises fears that others might follow, which can happen if it was caused by a contagious disease. The worst case scenario is a so-called abortion storm, when most or all of the ewes lose their fetuses in quick succession. So far, everyone else is fine. A single loss could be due to just about anything, and is nothing to worry about. Which is a good reminder not to dwell on worst-case scenarios.

Today is Scott Hoffman’s last day. He and Aubrey are taking over a grass-fed raw milk dairy with a farmstand and delivery service, just across the lake in Hinesburg, Vermont. Check them out here: www.familycowfarmstand.com. Thank you, Scott, for your good work. And that’s the news from Essex Farm for this bluebird 12th week of 2016. Find us at 518-963-4613, essexfarm@gmail.com, or on the farm, any day but Sunday.                                                -Kristin & Mark Kimball

Good Horse

Essex Farm Note

Week 10, 2016

This was the week that seeds hit dirt, the official launch to the growing season. Onions were planted first, as always. Four tiny seeds to a cube of rich topsoil, 20 cubes to a block, 8 blocks to a flat, 75 flats in the germination chamber, which fills it to capacity, with another 20 flats stacked next to the dining room table in the house. Of course, the weather would turn cold now. We’re wishing for milder, cheaper temperatures by the time the seeds have germinated, when the flats will need to be taken out to the life-giving light of the greenhouse and kept snug and warm with propane.

We made our goodbyes to a good horse this week. Jack was brother and teammate to Jay, the half Suffolk, half Belgian drafts we bought in 2006. He and Jay were very well matched in looks, but easy to tell apart in the pasture based on temperament. Jay would lean in for a pat, while Jack would flinch at a touch, as though affection hurt him. That is, if you could get close enough to touch him. Some days, catching him was the hardest job on the list. But once at work, he was stoic and dutiful. As soon as he felt a lead rope slip over his neck he resigned himself to it, and became a different horse, all business, no resistance. He gave everything he had in harness, without being cajoled. He reminded me of an old Spartan, devoid of joy or soft feelings, but steely to the core and entirely reliable in his dedication to the cause. Jack was at least 25, maybe 28, which is very old indeed for a draft horse. The last few years, we left him out of the hard long hitches but he still did many hours of light cultivation. He and Jay were the perfect team for training new teamsters. Nothing surprised them, nothing made them bolt, and they were patient with mistakes. Jack started losing weight last fall, and continued to go downhill this winter; this week he began to look uncomfortable, so we decided the most humane thing would be to put him down. Farewell, good horse, and thank you for all the miles we traveled together.

The barn at Reber Rock Farm burned down last Saturday, in a most spectacular and thorough fashion. We are all lucky to live in a community where bad fortune does not have to be shouldered alone. Racey, Nathan, Chad and Gwen are making plans for cleanup and rebuilding. Stay tuned for news on what we can all do to help. Meanwhile, I’m feeling grateful that they are safe and sound.

Lindsey, our wonderful dairy manager, is moving on to a new job at the end of this month, and we are taking this chance to reconfigure staffing in the dairy barn. We will be hiring a new milker for Monday through Friday, and also a weekend/relief milker for Saturdays and Sundays. Applicants should love cows and have some dairy experience. If you know anyone who might fit the bill, please have him or her get in touch at essexfarm@gmail.com. Also, please continue to spread the word about our Air B&B listing, the Essex Farm Guest House at Windy Willow. We have enjoyed having visitors and are working on some special events there for spring. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this frozen-slush 10th week of 2016.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball

The Peasant’s Recompense

Essex Farm Note

Week 9, 2016

Sometimes, at the end of a hard day, this farm still moves me to tears, and I mean that in a good way. We had setbacks of all flavors this week, and strange weather, and a lame horse. John Berger writes that the farmer is always poised between nostalgia for an idealized past that never existed and hope for an easier future that never comes. Farming’s hard, no news there. The best cure for feeling bad about it, for me, is walking the farm, searching for recompense. I have never gone looking for it and been left wanting. The walk is a question, and the answer is always firm, but often nothing of note. Just the sight of the big horses in the barn, britchen marks still on their haunches, and ready to work again, to collect the sap that’s moving up through the trees in the sugarbush. Or the brown cows with quiet eyes and full, clean udders waiting at the gate, their milk itself a balm. Or the hard rain I’m walking through, the pleasure of which I would have missed before farming taught me not to fear the discomfort of the weather. That last one is a neat metaphor for farming’s big lesson: beauty is what lies at the heart of difficulty. Dig, and it’s there. Sometimes, it’s dig dig dig dig, and only then, there. Refuse to dig, though, and you’ll pass it up entirely. This is true in anyone’s life but in farming, for us hard learners, the lesson is rendered literally, and given in daily doses.

I pulled a deer tick off of Mary on Tuesday, which is ridiculous, but true. The high yesterday was 50, the low tonight will be close to zero. We got 4.5” of rain in the last 7 days, much of it coming on Wednesday in a steady ceaseless downpour. The cultivated fields soaked in what they could and then they let it run off into the streams and ditchbeds, purging the winter’s collection of trash and sticks. At the end of the storm, everything was bloated, soft. Pine Field was as unwalkable as the surface of a vast, well-frosted cake, boots sinking through the frosting then slipping on the cake. This morning, it was all hard again, like a magic trick.

It’s sugaring weather, for sure. Last Friday, Taylor, Scott, Alex, and Ben hitched Jake and Abby to drill holes and hang buckets on 398 trees. The next day, Abby was lame in her back right foot. I hope it’s just a back-to-work tweak, and that she’ll be out of it soon. Cub took her spot next to Jake in the hitch. They collected the first run on Sunday, 500 gallons of not-very-sweet sap. Taylor boiled all day and into the evening, the first long fire of the year that doesn’t yield much, but sweetens the pan. When you think of how much work it takes to make syrup – not just the collecting and the boiling but rank after rank of firewood that must be cut and split – it only makes sense in the context of what sugar was to our ancestors – a precious, precious treat, rare, as it should be, for our own good! Think of what it took to brave a hive of angry bees for a few handfuls of honey. At least the work of sugaring is more pleasant than those stings. I hope you enjoy the first taste of syrup this week, members; we’ll have half pints jarred and ready for sale in the farm store too.  And that is the news from Essex Farm for this sugar-on-snow 9th week of 2016.                                                                      -Kristin & Mark Kimball

Whipsaw Weather

Essex Farm Note

Week 8, 2016

Based on the highs and the lows alone it would be very hard to say what season it is. We’ve had whipsaw weather this month, from a low of -17 to well above freezing. Mark took part of the warm and windy Tuesday off to go windsurfing. The surface of the pond melted and re-froze into a perfect skating surface. I wonder what the roots are thinking, just below the surface. We are getting the buckets and the spiles out now, ready for tapping the sugarbush this afternoon and tomorrow. Who knows what kind of sugar season we’ll have? There’s no predicting. But with no snow around the bases of the maples it may well come on fast and be over quickly.

Our Amish friends, Samuel, Dennis and Emmanuel, were here again on Tuesday, to follow up on leads on land for sale in the region, on which they hope to start a new community. As bad luck would have it, our oldest cow, Sis, slipped in the barn that day, after evening milking, and could not — or would not — get up. This has been an occasional problem this winter, as the changing weather causes freezing condensation on the cold barn floor. Kirsten and Isabelle were milking, and Mark and the Amishmen and I went out just before dinner to see if we could help get her up. We tried lifting her in a sling, with a combo of English and Amish muscle, and then Ben Christian came over and demonstrated his fool-proof non-Amish method, which involved rolling Sis into the bucket of the skid steer, driving her out to the covered barnyard where the footing was firm, and gently dumping her, feet first, onto the sturdy bedding pack. She landed upright, and ambled off to eat hay, as though nothing had happened.

Construction projects and cleanup were front and center this week. Portable fencing reels have been measured, spliced, re-rolled, and are ready for green-up. We had a whole team cleaning up the edges of the high tensile fence lines with chainsaws and pruners. The water floats have been inventoried and bad parts replaced. The old granary has been cleaned out and repurposed to store all the fencing supplies, and the old fencing room has been cleaned out and reorganized, to store the minerals and supplements we mix into our feed. The milkhouse is also getting a major renovation, in preparation for the bulk tank we are installing there soon. All the stuff that is currently in the milk house will be moved to one of the newly installed trailers in the farmyard. We’re renovating the livestock too, actively searching for 3 or 4 new Jersey cows to replace the girls who must be culled. We bought 5 new ewe lambs for breeding stock, arriving at the end of March, and the whole flock is starting to get a touch of grain, to get in shape for mid-April lambing.

We have beef broth in the share today, our latest in a lineup of new value-added products, as we work toward making a whole-food share that is more convenient to use. We used Jori Wekin’s at the Hub on the Hill to make it, and are looking forward to more products from that commercial kitchen. I’m excited to see what works for members and to hear what else you would like to see included. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this is-it-sugar-time? 8th week of 2016.

 

–Kristin & Mark Kimball

Gape Worm

Essex Farm Note

Week 6, 2016

I was reading up on poultry parasites this week, after we lost a couple hens from the laying flock. Alex, who used to work in a vet clinic, and Charlotte, who is the resident chicken whisperer, wanted to check the flock’s fecal egg counts to see if anything looked particularly high. I am always game for a date with the microscope. I like exploring the tiny world under the lens, and I’m fascinated by the relationship between parasite and host, which is not as one sided as it appears to be at first glance. I have tested the manure of cows, horses, and sheep before, but never chickens. The basic procedure is the same: obtain some fresh feces, mix it with a floatation solution, strain out the plant matter, and place a representative sample on a special slide that has a grid on it, to facilitate counting. Wait for any parasite eggs to float to the top of the slide, where they, with their distinctive shapes and even edges, are discernible from the other detritus in a fecal sample. With horses, we are looking primarily for large and small strongyle eggs. With sheep, it’s the dreaded barberpole worm’s eggs. With the chickens, we would be looking for the oocysts of coccidia, which are very small, and for roundworm eggs, which are the most common. My reading and my interest took me further down the list of potential chicken parasites to something called a gapeworm, which infests the trachea and causes the bird to gasp for air with an open-mouth. “The gapeworm is sometimes designated as the ‘red-worm’; or ‘forked-worm’,” says the MSU extension service website, “because of its red color and because the male and female are joined in permanent copulation.” My goodness, I could think of more entertaining names than that for a creature that spends its life joined in permanent copulation. In the end, we saw some roundworm eggs, but not enough to indicate a problem, and no oocysts nor anything else. Which leads to a diagnosis, for the hens, of a bad case of Death. That’s how it goes sometimes. As an old farmer told me when we first started out, if you have livestock, you are going to have dead stock.

More warm weather this week, and mud to go along with it. Mark was in Maine for three days, picking up some dairy equipment. He came home with said equipment plus a cooler full of lobsters, which we fully enjoyed last night. Our Amish friends, Emmanuel and Dennis, were here again this week, shopping for land, and we expect them back in two weeks. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this more-like-spring 6th week of 2016.                            –Kristin & Mark Kimball