6/8/08

Long time, no write

I haven't written in quite some time now, obviously. I am enjoying the farm and learning lots about growing. Caitlin and I setup a raised bed in front of the camper and we are going to be planting a small herb garden. Also, Friday I met a guy who is going to let me dig up some hops on his property so I can plant them. The last things going in our garden are three tomato plants, mainly for canning.

5/10/08

First Week

Today is the end of the first week on the new farm. I love it there. I am having a great time and actually learning how to farm. We spent most of the week seeding trays and transplanting to larger containers. Also, we have been assembling some new greenhouses.

I am so much happier at this farm. I enjoy the work pace and load, we work 8:30-5 and are generally busy but not hectic. I don't have the head to write now so I will write again soon.

5/4/08

Well, I finished at the last farm and am going to be starting on the new farm tomorrow. My experience at the last one ended on a good note and I am excited to be starting at the new one. Caitlin and I used the weekend to move into the new farm, we are living in a camper there. I will write more about the new place later when I can include some pictures.

This entry is going to be about my last experience on the old farm. I spent the last week researching and then building a mobile chicken coop. There was one at the farm, however it was not very user friendly (for chickens and people). Some of the problems were that people could not enter the space, if food or water was placed inside they would get covered with chicken shit, the nesting boxes were higher than the perches and would not hold nesting material, and it was difficult to move.

So I designed this new mobile coop that is a compilation of other people’s designs:


The idea is that one would move this coop every few days within a fenced in area. Then move accomplished several objectives. First it stresses the land under the coop much less than leaving it in place. Most of the chicken muck accumulates under the roost, so rather than cleaning out the coop, one just moves the coop to a cleaner spot. This also helps to more evenly fertilize the chicken yard. Also the chickens spend much of their time in the shade (under the coop) scratching and generally destroying the land, so moving the coop more evenly distributes the scratching and trampling. In fact, pasturing the chickens on a piece of land is quite healthy for the area if they are moved at appropriate intervals.

As you can see in the picture there are wheels on the back. To move this you just put a dolly under the front and then use the rope tied to the frame to pull the coop. Caitlin and I move it about 100ft with little effort. The food is hung and the water elevated so it stays clean and dry, being protected from weather and cloacae. With the last coop there was nowhere to shelter the food. The roost is not over the food, water, or nesting boxes, which helps keep them all clean. The nesting boxes are lower than the roosts which means the chickens are less likely to roost in them and subsequently less likely to crap on the eggs. Finally, the new coop is people friendly too. We can walk in it to do whatever needs doing.

All in all, I learned quite a bit from this project. Throughout my time on the farm I became invested in learning about pasture chicken management practices, this project was the culmination of all the research I did. I felt accomplished and appreciated through this project, which was a very nice way to end the time at that farm. And the most exciting thing about this was that I made it from 95% scrap material.

At the new farm there is no internet service so I will try to go to a library by next weekend to write again.


Here's your fun extra, a video of the piglets waking up:

video

4/19/08

Next stop "The White House"

I have been very busy recently; in fact I have been feeling a lot like White House Press Secretary Dana Perino. I have spent the last week shoveling about a ton of shit. Not just one type of shit mind you, but chicken and cow. This might not sound like lots of fun to most of you, but don’t knock it until you try it. Really, this has surprisingly been one of the most rewarding jobs here so far. There is a clear beginning and end to this job, which leads to a clear sense of accomplishment, not to mention improving the animal welfare. Also it is very strenuous hard labor, which I enjoy immensely. There is nothing greater than passing out at the end of the day from copious amounts of physical exertion.

The Barn 3/4 Mucked


The other day after spending about 4 straight hours shoveling (actually pitch-forking) I put on my sandals and sat in front of the green house drinking a beer as the sun set. It was totally awesome! I mean really, SANDALS. I thought for sure this year was going to be the one where spring never came, it really seemed that way. But here it is, I guess Jesus must have seen his shadow on Easter, or is it that he didn’t? Anyway, I am so glad spring still exists.

I have not been keeping you all as informed about the farm as I was originally intending, so here is the low down. Caitlin and I are officially done with our hours for the month. However, there is still so much to accomplish that the farm has agreed to pay us hourly to continue for the rest of the month. So far we have we have organized the greenhouse, planted most of the transplants, hooked up the drip-tape system, mucked the barn (the pitch-forking mentioned above), organized the barn, designed a mobile pasture system for the chickens (but have not built it yet), filtered all the Maple syrup, and created a spreadsheet for recording crop info. It has been a fulfilling month.

And for some fun:
I named this rooster John Cleese. If you do not get it look here.
video

4/10/08

Moving on

Well, I have not written for a while now. This is because I have uncertain about what was going to happen with my apprenticeship, but now I know. Caitlin and I are going to be moving to another farm to do our apprenticeship there. We will both be leaving here at the end of April and starting at the new farm May first. This has been a difficult decision to make because I committed to being here until Sept. However, this farm is not the best fit for me. I think this farm is great for a person that is looking to have some fun living on a farm for a summer. But this farm is not good for a person looking for professional training.
I was planning on sticking it out until Sept. until several people emailed to see if I wanted to work on their respective farms. So I went to talk with one of the farmers close to where I am now. They have a very professional farm that is operating at a net profit and seem to be well versed in the small-scale farming industry standards. In fact the owner, Paul, is on the VOF review comity (VOF is the organic certification organization in VT). Ultimately, Caitlin and I decided that working for the new farm would teach us how to successfully operate a farm, which our current apprenticeship does not.
I have to say that I am a bit scared to move to the new farm. For starters I do not want to trade one ill matched apprenticeship for another. Really though, more of the fear is that the work will be too hard. I feel like I have been farming in the peewee league and am now moving to the pros.
I think that this new position will definitely be much more work and more demanding. Truly this is what I want and am not getting now. So I think that even if there are large challenges at the new farm they will have a much greater reward.
Well this has been very rambley but I wanted post an update. I will write again soon and I promise to include some pictures of all the work I have been doing recently.

3/31/08

Sledding

I know this has nothing to do with farming, but is one of the best experiences in VT so I am including it. Here is a video from yesterday when Caitlin and I sledded Appalachian Gap. Also, my apprenticeship officially starts tomorrow.

video

PS This feel much faster than it looks.

3/18/08

Yankee Gold

We are planning on boiling sap again today. It is 8am and brilliantly sunny out, a perfect day to boil. A few days ago we got our first maple syrup. What happens is that one boils maple sap down for a very long time until it concentrates to become syrup. Some numbers; it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make about 1 gallon of syrup. We are doing it the old fashioned way (over a wood fire) so it took us 3 days to get syrup.

Some more detail. We collect the sap in a holding tank, then run it through a tube into the sugarhouse. From here we pour a few gallons into the boiling pan (larger back pan) where it evaporates. Once it cooks down a bunch we put the sweet (sort of sap/ not quite syrup) into the finishing pan (shiny front pan) where it boils until it becomes syrup. Pretty simple really.

I should mention there is a fire under the finishing pan that needs to be constantly stoked to keep the liquids boiling. Also, there is a chimney attached the furnace; we had not hooked it up as of this picture (in case you were wondering).

I would like to take this time to say that the sweet is delicious. We had our staff meeting out at the sugarhouse over glasses of sweet infused with ginger tea. I can't think of a better way to have a meeting.

3/12/08

Spinach!

Yesterday I learned how to plant spinach, and planted the whole green house with it. We heavily seeded the spinach because we will harvest it while still very young, so there is no need to worry about it being too crowded. After the spinach is finished we will re-till the greenhouse and plant tomatoes there.

I have been learning a good deal about farming while here, it’s great. I am reading New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman; this is a brilliant book that I highly recommend. The farm manager calls this book one of his farming bibles, which I can see why. However we do not follow all of the practices recommended by Coleman. I asked Noah about this and he said it is because when he got here there was already equipment for another method of farming; the idea you go with what you’ve got. Also, he said that he did not learn to farm that way. If he had, we would have soil blocks. If he learned to farm with a tractor, we would have one. Noah learned to farm with the tools we own. This is not a judgment of anything, just interesting to see how different people can effectively feed their community.

The confusion from the last post has been cleared up. We now have a clear definition of our roles on the farm and the time expectations for us. C and I will focus on the gardens and have a small amount of animal responsibility. We will have about 4 hrs (combined) of animal chores. Our only other responsibility is managing the chore schedule that the animal manager creates. This means if someone cannot do their animal chores on a given day they will call us and we will find substitute or do it ourselves.

The first boil, alluded to last post, has not happened yet (too cold). But we are planning on boiling on the next above freezing day.

3/8/08

Sugar and frustrating

To correct my last post, Noah thinks we put out about 130 buckets to collect sap. And this brings me to why last post I could not tell you how much food goes to each place. No one knows! The farm has no accurate form of record keeping. An example is that no one counted the number of buckets we put out.

I hope to change this. I have taken on the project of creating an accurate record-keeping system. I think this will benefit both the farm and myself immensely. This is going to be a great trial run for me of managing records on a farm. Also, these records will provide me with some basic info on farm logistics that I can then use when Caitlin and I start our farm. However, I feel the most important part of this process is creating good business habits for myself.

As far as the farm is concerned, I think that this information can help them to better organize the farm program. This brings me into my experience on the farm so far. I have enjoyed all the activities and opportunities open to me on the farm, and I have been slightly frustrated and confused. My frustration and confusion is from feeling like there is a lack of effective management on the farm. This farm is definitely not a well-oiled machine. There is a gross of inefficiencies and major lack of using all resources to their full potential. As an example, we still have not hammered out the specifics of our responsibilities. Originally, we were told we would focus on the gardens and have some animal chores (about 1 hr a day). Then we were told that we would be taking over for the animal manager and have 3 hrs a day of animal chores plus implementing a new animal management plan. Now we are told we will only have 1 hr a day of animal chores. We are each contracted for 20 hrs a week on the farm; consequently, 7 hrs a week of animal chores is much different than 21 hrs a week.

Part of the problem with this whole situation is that after we were hired the farm was restructured. It went from a farm manager with an animal caretaker to separate garden and animal managers (each vying for our time). On top of this, the hired animal manager will be leaving March 29th – June 6th. For more clarification on this, his new management-intensive grazing regime (translate as: order of magnitude more work and planning) cannot start until the snow melts around mid-April or early May. So the new animal manager will not be here to do any of the actual work required for his plan, not to mention he will not be here for the arrival of the bees he ordered. This is another example of the lack of planning and management at the farm. I feel the directors of the non-profit should not have let him take the time off or shouldn’t have let him undertake several new projects. Ultimately, this has created some confusion about our roles here. Caitlin and I are going to meet with the head honchos on Monday to clarify this: are we expected to do the job of the animal manager while he is gone?

Don’t get me wrong; this is a great experience so far. I think that I will have some real learning opportunities that would not be available if the farm ran perfectly. As I mentioned earlier, I am going to design a record keeping system. Also, I will learn about bee keeping by being in charge of caring for a few hives. One of the greatest attributes to this farm is that everyone encourages you to take on whatever projects interest you (regardless of experience) and supports you through the learning process.

In this light, I told Noah I was interested in learning more about field management (crop rotations, companion planting, cover crops), so he gave me the crop plans for 2005-2008 and asked me to evaluate them. Noah said he would love to learn better ways to manage the fields and encouraged me to do the research. This is invaluable to me, having a mentor who is willing to let me experiment with approaches other than his own.

Tomorrow we are going to do our first maple sap boil. I can’t wait! I’ll write soon and have some new pictures (I added a link to my flickr page at the top).

3/6/08

Miracle of Miracles....working internet

Today we tapped about 100 sugar maples. This was a very simple process of drilling a 7/8 inch hole about 2 inches in and then hammering in a spout. Finally, a bucket is hung on the spout to collect the maple sap. Tomorrow we are going to set up the holding tanks for the sap and then we have enough sap we will boil it into delicious Vermont gold.
Today I feel much more settled into the farm and my apprenticeship.

Since this is my first in-depth entry about the farm I will describe the place. On this farm we have about 2 acres cultivated with mixed annual crops which feed: a small school, residents of the farm, a 20 family CSA, and some donations to local food banks. I would love to tell you how much food goes to each place but I cannot (more later). Along the plant line, we have the 5-acre sugar bush mentioned before.

As far as locomotion is concerned, we have 4 Jersey bulls and 2 calves being raised for meat. Any day now we are going to be picking up 2 more calves. These calves hail from Butterworks Farm, a dairy. We get the calves for free because they are male and of no use to a dairy, hence Jerseys for meat. In about a month we will be acquiring 3 piglets to raise for meat. Lastly but not leasty, we have about 30 laying hens of 5 varieties. They have been producing between 25-30 eggs.

And let us not forget our friends form Kingdom Insecta! We are going to be welcoming between 2-4 nucs (nuclei) of bees in April sometime. These are small sized complete hives, I will write more about this closer to arrival time.

This was the basic overview, however, tomorrow I will be going into town so I can write more about my experience with the farm then.

3/4/08

On the Farm

I have now been on the farm for 4 days and it is going very well. We have a couple of week old calves, and we just planted onions in trays. I have been getting acquainted with the farm and talking to Noah, the farm manager, about exactly what I will be doing. Unfortunately, I don't have much time to write now and the internet is down at the farm. However I will make sure to write a more detailed account by this weekend.

2/25/08

First a cell phone and now this!

Well, I have finally taken the headlong plunge into the world of internet pop culture. You may be asking yourself why. My answer is this, “Well (insert your name here), I am writing this online journal because I am starting a farming apprenticeship during the first week of March and would like to describe my experiences.” Also, it is a great way to keep my friends posted on what I am up to.

Here is the background info on the apprenticeship. Caitlin and I are planning to open our own farm, so we took an agricultural pre-business planning course through the UVM Extension office. We both decided that this was the right thing to do and that we wanted to commit ourselves to starting our own business. Along with this we wrote this 5-year plan:
1- Planning, researching, committing
2- Practical experience (apprenticeship), look for land for year 3
3- Launch our own enterprise, look for land for year 4
4- Grow our enterprise (double or more)
5- Receive 50% of our income from our farm

We have been able to stick to our plan so far and may even be a little ahead of schedule. I do not want to mention much until it is definite, but we may already have customers to support a small enterprise in year three.

I would like to share with you what I was told at the beginning of the pre-business planning course, “Consider yourselves lucky because starting a farm in Vermont is like winning the lottery.” So far, I can’t agree more. I have been very encouraged and inspired by the support small farmers in VT receive. And I am not talking about welfare and food stamps. I am talking about a statewide community genuinely committed to small local farms. Here are some of the programs available to farmers in VT.

I will take this time to make a preemptive apology for all the future blatting I do regarding how enamored I am with VT (but I’m not really sorry, here is another reason).

I am not sure how regularly I will keep up with this journal, but I plan to write at least once every week (or two). Tune in next week for:
Actually on the farm!