Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Agriculture Power Systems

On-farm power systems range from poking one's fingers in the soil to plant a seed to large scale diesel tractors. Here, students learn how to operate two pieces of machinery used at Sterling College: A portable sawmill and a brush-hog mower. Following this course, students will be able to make an informed decision about the power systems required to work a piece of land.

Monday, July 28, 2008


Last friday I was fortunate enough to work with Paul and his two steers Bronze and Chrome, some of my favorite animals here at Sterling. Working with them is similar foundationally as working with the horses, things like haw and gee still mean left and right, and whoa means stop. However unlike working with Pete and Rex where you use your voice and your direct contact through the lines, Bronze and Chrome's behaviour relies on voice only, and usage of the whip when needed. It is pretty impressive to see how well they obey if you are clear and firm. I find one of the most important things when working with animals is the ability to establish dominance without feeling overly harsh or mean, but to the point where you are still firm and obviously in charge. At first Bronze and Chrome, especially Chrome, tried to test me by heading to the nearest patch of grass, it didn't take long though for me to gain the confidence to properly command them to listen to me, and the rest of the evening went rather smoothly. As with the steers and the horses, and pretty much everything else I do in life I need to: slow down, breath, don't have too much slack on my outside line, and smile.- advice given to me by many different people throughout my life, most recently given by Rick last Thursday morning. It is true, and infact I attribute the progess I have made in this department throughout the years, to horses, and now many of the animals here at Sterling, and just the overall pace of life here in Craftsbury.

This summer has been a really interesting one for me, but I have learned a lot, and am sure I will continue to do so over the next three weeks. Part of my wanting to get home in a hurry, is really just that there are so many things this place has taught me how to do and motivated me to do them, that I am itching to apply them to my life back in California,

Vegetable Brianni for dinner in a half hour, I'm pretty stoked. See ya all there

Working Cattle

Thanks to the careful instruction from our ox trainer and teamster Paul Ferrari, students receive instruction on how to work cattle in yoke. Here, a student learns the basic commands necessary to move a team of oxen. Chrome and Bronze arrived about a year ago and have become integrated into the farm power systems. In addition to the draft horses and tractor, these oxen round-out our ability to do a multitude of traction tasks on the farm, in the garden, and in the woods. As the team matures, their ability to do more work will increase as will their utility in the Colleges' curriculum.

Friday, July 25, 2008


When is a pig not a pig? When she is a jersey calf! Pig, a 5 week old jersey calf has been the resident "greeter" on the farm since her birth. Arriving in the back of a Ford stationwagon, Pig has captured our hearts as she greets us daily with a juvenile "moo", a hop-skip-and-a-jump about her paddock, and looks mournfully if you walk by her without a scratch on the chin. Pig is a student farm project--those projects that extend a learning experience outside the domain of the current animal load--other projects include pasture-fed pigs (real ones!) and chickens, the construction of an earthen bread oven, and a medicinal plant garden for treating ailments encountered with our farm animals.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fertility Systems: Compost

As a community, Sterling College generates roughly 20,000 pounds of organic waste per year--waste that includes kitchen scraps, garden residue, grass clippings, manure, bedding, and mortalities. All the organic waste is captured in a holding and mixing area then brought out to a working pad where the pile can be adjusted to achieve a carbon to nitrogen ration somewhere around 30:1. Students learn how to manage the pit, drive a tractor, run a PTO-driven manure spreader and "spin the load" to build a pile. Once the pile heats to around 130 degrees farenheit, the pile will be turned to continue the aerobic respiration process. In a few months, the finished compost will be delivered to the gardens with horses and applied via a ground driven spreader.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Working Horses: The Video

"...I write, as I must, from the point of view of a country person, a member of a small rural community that has been dwindling rapidly since the end of World War II. Only the most fantastical optimism could ignore the possibility that my community is doomed--that it was doomed by the overwhelming victory of industrialism over agrarianism (both North and South) in the Civil War and the history both subsequent and consequent to it. It may be that my community--its economy, its faith, its local knowledge, its affection for itself and its place--will dwindle on for another generation or two then disappear or be replaced by a commuter's suburb. If it is doomed, then I have no doubt that much else is doomed also, for I cannot see how a nation, a society, or a civilization can live while its communities die."

Wendell Barry, 1995 (from Another Turn of the Crank)

From this quote, one could be sorely tempted to give up, give in, and walk away from the very ideals that make the agrarian lifeway worth living--I believe that the use of draft animals at Sterling College, in one small way, continues to guide a strong community of current and future agrarians investing time in learning the skills necessary to use draft animals as a source--perhaps even THE source--of power on their farms. I am not willing to give up, not yet, never. I believe in the collective will of a small group of people questioning the current paradigm in agriculture, posing questions--good questions--and planning solutions to meet the current needs and future challenges in agriculture; these same students will build strong, vibrant (and probably very local) communities--they are the generation of change.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Making Fenceposts, Splitting Rails

In the Northeast Kingdom, "rich farms" were those with enough white cedar to make fenceposts--by that definition, we are a "rich farm"! Today, students began the hard work of processing logs on the landing; sorting logs that will go to our sawmill, cedar that will be processed into fenceposts or split rails, and soft-wood pulp. Here, students learn to sharpen a cedar post and use a series of three wedges to split apart a stem into four posts. Our farm replaces roughly 200 fenceposts per year; the life expectancy of a cedar fencepost is roughly 10 years. As we learned today, "good fences make good neighbors", with students working this hard, we should have many good neighbors for years to come.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Chainsaw Workshop: Agriculture Power Systems

At Sterling, we are fortunate to steward a working woodlot of nearly 130 acres to support our wood-product needs on the farm. Our property is managed by a local forester with faculty and students responsible for oversight of the forest management plan. Today, our Sustainable Agriculture Semester students spent a morning learning chainsaw maintenance, operating procedures, cookie cutting, bore cutting, all culminating with a directional felling workshop in the woods. Here, a student releases the trigger wood on a stem after setting the face cut and bore cutting to set the hinge; she pounds two wedges to lift the stem into the face cut, then escapes along a predetermined route while the stem falls within a few inches of her desired target. Tomorrow, students will return to the woods to learn limbing and bucking practices, releasing spring poles, special cuts to assist with extraction procedures, and finally special techniques to fell side-leaning and back-leaning trees.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fertility Systems: Mixed Power and Compost

On-farm fertility, that sacred process of returning nutrients back to soil, is the headwater of sustainable farming. Here, students learn how to work with the tractor and manure spreader to bring our compost from our storage pit out to a windrow for the finishing process. At Sterling, kitchen scraps, bedding, manure, and other organic residuals are placed into a storage pit, turned, cured, then returned to the gardens to rebuild the edaphic environment of the soil ensuring a healthy crop yield next year. As a part of the Agriculture Power course, students learn how to work tractors and associated implements to do the critical traction work on the farm. Coupled with draft animals, tractors compliment our work defining a true mixed power system. In the fall, students enrolled in Draft Horse Management will use the tractor to load the horse-drawn manure spreader then drive the horses with the spreader attached to the gardens for application.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Training Teamsters with Good Horses

Today, rising teamsters drilled with Pete, Carson, and Rex while negotiating a variety of obstacles designed to imitate situations our work horses will encounter while working in the woods--backing, stepping over debris, listening, turning on the forehand and hindquarters, and general line management. These drills build confidence in both the teamster and the horse in a low-risk environment while preparing both for work in more difficult scenarios.

Friday, July 11, 2008


I have found true real humus! It is sponge-like, as if walking on closed cell foam. You have probably walked on some spongy forest soils like this. I believe there is some in the cedar swamp where it is not mucky--ie it is on the rises around trees, caught up in moss-covered roots. This is where I really recognized the stuff today--caught up in cracks on rock or caught up in roots. It was clinging to bedrock near a lake in a mainly undisturbed area. It was mostly damp, retaining moisture like a humus colloid should. It seemed that moss was the key builder, so maybe this is just peat or sphagnum that I'm referring to, but I think it would have been fantastic for growing whatever, not just birch trees, blueberries, and other taiga bushes. There were hemlock trees nearby as well. I find the pine-forest soils to be very spongy as well. Plenty of water seems to have a lot to do with this humus-building, though humus resists drying out. Pines don't transpire as much as hardwoods, and so the soil stays wetter, more acid, totally fungally dominated.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Row Crops: Beans, Potatoes, and Sunflowers

As part of our continued interest in using draft animals as primary source of traction on the farm, I have recently introduced a horsedrawn tillage laboratory to our curriculum which includes row crops such as potatoes, beans, sunflowers, and corn. Students learn how to use horsedrawn equipment for tillage, cultivation, and harvesting. Occasionally, a plant or two gets damaged--I have learned that the best teacher is direct feedback as a new skill is being taught--students always keep a great sense of humor as they continue down the row. Clearly, students enjoy this time discovering a wonderful relationship between the horses, the equipment, and themselves.

Cultivating Potatoes

Hot and humid weather persisted throughout the day, the horses were employed to cultivate potatoes in preparation for the first hilling on these particular plants. The cultivator was recently donated by David Rogers from East Craftsbury; this is a McCormick-Deering Big 4 circa early 1900's. If you watch closely, you will see Mike work the foot treadle to adjust the crop shield while underway avoiding plants.

Monday, July 7, 2008

First cut in the barn

Today, we completed putting in about 14 acres of square-baled hay. Using a mix of power, horses for tedding and raking, two tractors for mowing and baling, we put up about 650 bales of good quality hay and stored another 3000 pounds of loose hay in the barn. Baling-twine blisters and sunburned necks, jugs of water and the smell of the July sun are the trappings of the day. The weather has turned away from cool and rainy to hot and humid, thundershowers returning to the forecast--we are all breathing a bit easier with first cut in the barn.

Horses over Tractors

Horses and woods leave me speechless, and Kubotas leave me frustrated along with being in an electric fence, that was at least not hot at that particular moment in time. I'm done with tractors until the day I die.  But at least haying has been successful these past couple days.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Logs to Lumber: Old School, Part 3

As part of the Agriculture Power class, we have been spending time in the woodlot focusing on the mixed power model for log extraction. Today, students used our small farm tractor with a skid winch to pull logs from a difficult hillside to a small landing where the horses could easily hitch and forward to the sawmill. Here, a student drives Pete and Rex who are hitched to a logging arch. The skid is all uphill, difficult, and very rough. Over the past few weeks, students are gaining an appreciation for what is required to manage a woodlot and operate a sawmill to fulfill the lumber needs of the farm.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Weather Woes

Nightly thundershowers continue to hamper our efforts both in the garden and in the hayfield. Although this weather pattern is normal for our region, we are anxious about putting up our hay for the winter. The first three day window with a favorable forecast is rising on Friday. Working in the woods continues, I like to say that it never rains in the woods, only drips.

Driving Journal July 1, 2008

I had my second lesson on how to drive a work horse. Zarran was present for this lesson and he was quickly brought up to speed. We were shown where all of the horse's gear is put away inside of the Sterling Farm barn, how to set the gear up so that it is efficiently put onto the horse and taken off of the horse, and we walked behind the horses while steering them through body pressure with
the driving lines. A lot of it was review from the first time , but I never remember things the first time unless its painful or traumatic. I need to become more confidant in directing animals where to go because the bigger they are the easier they can damage their surroundings, their selves, and other animals. I'm working hard and I'm hoping I can bring this semester to a more successful end than the last one. I am about one class day behind in my work now so I am hoping that this weekend will be a good chance to catch up, and maybe tell my family about what I am doing at school.