Friday, April 26, 2013

A Sad Night on the Farm

April to date has seen an almost frantic level of activity at the farm as we rush to get plants going, soil beds ready, and our high tunnel greenhouse erected.  We've had some nice successes, and one very unfortunate setback, but all in all Old School Farm is thriving.

For starters we now have 25 holes dug for our wide range of cold-hearty heirloom fruit trees that will soon arrive bareroot packed in damp sphagnum moss from Michigan.  These will be planted in our newly established upper orchard out of the frost pocket found lower down on the hillside where our current orchard is located.

The chickens have been re-directed into the orchard for a few weeks, as they had picked the hillside behind the barn bare (aside from a clump of wood leeks seen in a photo later in post)  We  have since re-seeded this slope as well as a couple of acres that were cleared for pasture up near the upper orchard with a clover/grass mix - good for both chickens and deer/wild turkeys.  We also planted a wildflower mix for bees and other pollinators around the perimeter of the orchard and near other boulders and trees in the upper pasture.  This will help with flower pollination and fruit set on the trees when they  reach fruit bearing size in 3-4 years.

We had a serious micro-burst of wind a few days ago that flipped one of our sheep shelters upside down (fortunately no sheep were using this one)  We used our truck "Hoss" and a tow strap to right it.

Speaking of sheep, we had a horrible incident occur ten days ago, when two newborn lambs died
soon after birth by drowning in a water trough in the wee hours of the morning.  It's a long story, but suffice it to say, we learned a very valuable lesson the hard way and are still reeling from the loss.  Our dark colored ewe Freya had given birth to twins - one black and one white - it was a major blow.  Fortunately Elska and Opala are still very much pregnant and we are very optimistic about having lambs frolicking in our pastures soon.

Egg Delivery to neighbors in Philadelphia

Our chickens are not going broody and the
demand for our free range/organic eggs is out-stripping supply, so as part of the boy's birthday present, a 41 egg, auto rotate incubator was purchased - we have it loaded up with 23 days to go in the 28 day cycle at 99.5 degrees.  Our plan is to start another large flock in the lower pasture along w/ the sheep.

Our heritage breed turkey hens are either out of touch or know something we don't, as they have been diligently sitting on two large clutches of eggs in the coop for several days now.  Although we have no surviving Toms to have made the eggs fertile, we did regularly observe a very "enthusiastic" wild Tom circling round and round our orchard fence enclosure where our hens are kept.  He also roosted nearby in trees.  Did he fly in and spend some time with our girls?  Time will tell !

Asparagus is poking through the ground now - we have 300 plants that are going into their 2nd year. With up to 12 stalks per plant last  year, we are expecting to remarkably make a small harvest in this the first full year of growth - normally you wait 2-3  years.

Roger Hill has been over with his Kubota to till the beds, and Al and Dave were hard at work getting all the hoop insert sleeves driven into the ground for the high tunnel - a lot of hard work, as getting them plumb (straight) is challenging.  Thanks to Ben and Sam from Ant Hill Farm who helped Dave out to get the first five hoops up... we have 20 or so to go!

Spinach from last  year that spent the winter under fabric row covers is pushing forth new growth and Al's first harvest was incredibly flavorful - he'll be bringing and "old school" spinach and egg salad to a friend's house this weekend.  The peas are in and the potatoes and onions go in soon.

Our new sign is up down by the old Norway Spruce at our driveway entrance.  Close to fifty 4' logs have been inoculated with mushroom spawn (logs are drilled and wood plugs tapped in)  We used poplar/aspen for the Oyster
Mushrooms and Maple and Hornbeam logs for the Shitake.  We will soon be inoculating some beech stumps with "Hen of the Woods" plugs as we don't have any oak trees on the property.

Rainfall has been hard to come buy, so we are anxious to get our solar powered watering system revamped and working more efficiently.  The barn has now been plumbed and wired for water and power.

We will be hosting our first "Family Farm Getaway" on Sunday, May 19th.  If you or anyone you know is interested in joining us, please sign up as space is limited.  We will not only be providing a complete hands on farm tour, but will be doing a workshop on how to build an earthen oven and will be mixing up the earthen cob mixture and applying another layer to the oven.  We'll then enjoy a wood-fired farm pizza together.  There will be plenty of activities for the kids if you decide to bring them along.

To learn more and sign up, please visit our website here:
You'll notice we added a slideshow with a lot of photos from the farm. We had this running at our booth at Philly Farm Fest on April 14th where we had a lot of interest in our Farm Getaways.

Time to sign off, but in closing, be sure to get out and soak up this amazing spring weather while we have it and enjoy the photos from the farm... The first of which shows some "old school" forking of of hay stems left behind during the winter by the sheep.  It was used as mulch for the asparagus...

Your Friends at Old School Farm

Chickens enjoying fresh greens in lower orchard

Wild leeks - not a favorite of our chickens.  Remaining area picked clean

Hens enjoying bugs and larvae in compost pile

Big tooth Aspen logs await oyster mushroom plugs

Final batch of syrup - For next  year we will build a large stainless evaporator pan so we can process all our sap before it spoils

Al used river rocks that he and his dad, Dave raked out
of the area that was trenched from house to barn for power
and water lines prior to seeding with grass.  Then topped
with fieldstone to form a "French drain" for the outdoor
shower that will be installed here.

The central distribution point from which 1 ton per acre of lime was spread to
raise pH in the pasture. This will free up more minerals in the soil for the grass - an
important feed source for the sheep and chickens.

An additional plot that Roger just roto-tilled.  Beets, cover crops and
perhaps some heirloom field corn will be planted here this year.

Sleeve/inserts for high tunnel hoops being positioned

Signs of spring in Northeast PA

Al snuck out one warm afternoon and took his old man fly fishing on the Upper Delaware 

Raking up the remnants of feed hay from the winter - to be used as mulch 

You never know what will happen next on the farm !  -  A microburst of wind flipped a sheep shelter

Friday, April 5, 2013

Spread Thin...

We are hustling in a lot of directions all at once right now, trying to get ready for what promises to be a very busy year for Old School Farm.

Well, we did such a good job of setting up our gravity feed sap line from twelve sugar maples on the hill above the house, that we have not been able to keep up with the flow rate.   Currently there are over 200 gallons of sap in food grade drums waiting to be cooked down in our antique cast iron cauldron.

So far we have produced about 6 quarts of "kettle" syrup and expect to make quite a bit more.  Keep in mind it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.  So we have really only cooked down about 60 gallons of sap so far!  Next year we will be setting up a large stainless steel evaporator pan so we can spread the sap out over a much larger surface area and cook it down much faster.  We need to cook down as much as we can as fast as we can now, for if it sits too long it begins to ferment!  Here is a short video clip showing the sap flowing into our kettle via the syphon/gravity feed line:

Our chickens are averaging close to an egg a day and we are giving them away as fast as we can.  So far finding regular customers for our free range organic eggs has proved challenging.  We hope some area restaurants soon begin ordering, as we distributed some samples recently.  Our flock is now up to 27 birds since we acquired some speckled sussex hens from a farmer friend.

Our barn will soon be wired with electricity and plumbed with water - we are finalizing our contractor selections now.   A small food prep. area will then take shape in one corner of the barn near the earthen oven. We will be prepping food for our Family Farm Getaways and summer workshops for area summer campers from this location.

Twenty five more fruit trees are arriving in mid-April, and the boys and their dad along with Dave have been hard at work installing a virtually invisible deer fencing system for this new 1/2 acre orchard area.  Watch the video clip here:

Al and his sons Owen and Coleman recently took a 1.25 hour drive north to Binghampton to visit their friend Mary Thomas - now 95.  As you may recall, Mary was one of four children who grew up in the Walter homestead that the Benners now own.  It was a great visit - Mary treated the Benners to lunch in the dining room
of her very nice retirement community, and then Al and the boys enjoyed a swim in the indoor pool.   Thanks Mary for a great time!   Note: Unfortunately the box of German chocolates that was sent along for Al's wife Deena was pilfered by the two youngsters, who proceeded to eat the entire box the next afternoon.

Back to the farm...    Seeds are sprouting under the high pressure sodium grow light.  The hay/farm tour wagon that Dave has been
working on for several days now is nearing completion, with the hemlock decking going down.  All that remains to do is to build the sides.  This is one heavy duty wagon!  Owen and Coleman can't stop talking about all their plans for a haunted hay ride come fall...

Cold weather and frozen ground have kept us from erecting our 100' x 28' high tunnel (greenhouse) -  a grant from the USDA.  We expect to be focusing on this work in the coming weeks.

Our four ewes all appear to be very pregnant.  We are anticipating the births of several lambs sometime this month - it's very exciting!   Congratulations to our young and very friendly ram, Uncas for making good use of all his free time this past fall!

Thanks to our neighbors Jim and Pat Sanders for all the firewood we have been getting from their property and for the four bluebird nesting boxes that Jim so kindly set up for us on our fence posts around the garden.  These are essentially predator-proof, as they are installed above an electric fence.

Bee update:  This winter was very hard on bees for some reason, with many area bee keepers losing large percentages of their hives.  Fortunately one of our two hives pulled through and we hope to re-colonize the other hive later this spring.

We  have an awful lot going on, but spring is in the air and it is all very exciting.  We even have a new sign for the farm - made by local artist, Joe Kluck.  Joe has also put some of his artwork on consignment at Old School Farm for guests to enjoy (and possibly purchase).  You can see some of Joe's art here:
Joe will also be on hand May 19th at the farm for the first Family Farm Getaway to offer a beginner's painter workshop.  Sign up here for the workshop:

Old School Farm will have a booth at to promote our farm workshops and to display raised bed systems from  Stop by and say  hello if you happen to be at the show - it's at the Philadelphia Convention Center on Sunday, April 14th from 11 - 4.

Until next time, soak up that early spring sunshine and keep those seedlings moist...and enjoy the rest of the photos below...

Your Friends at Old School Farm
Watercress transplanted into spring pond

Boys at Cooperage with Mike - guitar & vocals for Great Party Band

Coleman in "jail" for candy thievery 

Great Party Band at the Cooperage

A quart of "Old School" Kettle Syrup

Al's friend Frank in from Chicago for a visit

Gravity sap line to 55 gallon drums.  Six year old with maul.

Fresh sap - what could be better

A boy on his favorite moss covered boulder

Coyote scat with deer hair

Being six

One of four of Jim's Bluebird houses

A boy-size bonfire kept the little fellas entertained for two hours burning up scrap wood

The Sap Man, or is that Grizzly Adams?...