Since most of the hay harvested at Howell Farm is collected in bales, a tool that doesn't make many appearances is the hay knife. The hay knife is used to cut through loose hay, which isn't as loose as its name implies. Although a good number of bales are still in storage above the ox barn, Farmer Rob wants to use up some of the loose hay also in storage, so out came the hay knife.
According to the latest report from the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist, February 2014 was the 35th coldest February since 1895. Temperatures in the state ranged from –18 degrees (that’s cold!) to 67 degrees. The report doesn’t say, but I wonder if 85 degrees is the largest temperature swing of any month ever. February 2014 was the 20th wettest (rain and snow) and 7th snowiest on record. So if you thought the weather in February was miserable, you have some scientific data to back you up.
For the winter of 2013/14 overall, season-to-date it ranks as the 6th snowiest on record. If we get some more March snow, it could still break the record. At an average state-wide temperature of 30.7 degree, this winter ranks as the 34 coldest on record. But it’s not anywhere close to the cold winter of 1917-1918, which had an average temperature of 24.4 degrees.
In the sugarhouse, as Historical Interpreter Allison explained the science and wonder of maple sugaring to visiting school children, I caught up with Farmer Jim for the latest sap report. There's not much to report. Freezing temperatures have prevented much more sap from being collected. Jim hopes for a big collecting weekend with the expected warmer weather. As spring starts to advance, the worry is that the clear running sap will quickly go murky as buds and then leaves begin to form on the trees.
The children helped Farmer Jim load firewood into the Leader evaporator. (Farmer Jim loaded, the kids delivered the firewood.) They also whittled their own tree taps out of the best available local material: staghorn sumac wood.
There's not much to report in this week's sap report: The return of freezing temperatures have put a stop to the flow of sap, so there hasn't been much new sap to collect. Farmer Jim explains that the trees stay dormant during these freezing periods, so they're not necessarily detrimental to the syruping season. What would be detrimental is if the cold temperatures are followed by an early, mild spring, causing the trees to start to form early buds. Once the trees start forming buds, the taste and color of the sap beings to take on hints of chlorophyll.
While much of the Howell Farm crew was away this morning at CPR training, Intern Virginia busied herself with fence repair.
By late February, the manure pile outside Howell Farm's barn is starting to look a little oceanic, and it would be even bigger had Farmer Jeremy not embarked on some manure spreading sorties throughout the winter. Soon enough, however, manure mania will hit Howell Farm as our farmers put in some long days with pitchforks. The pile with shrink as load after load is deposited onto the nitrogen-hungry crop fields. Maggie the farm dog, if true to form, will follow the spreader and pluck the choicest pieces of flying manure out of the air.
When I arrived at Howell Farm this morning it was still a little chilly. When I checked the taps on the maple trees, sap was barely, barely dripping. A few hours has made an incredible difference. The sap isn't exactly pouring out of the trees, but it's probably the heaviest flow I've ever noticed. By my count, there's one drip hitting the bottom of the bucket every 1.5 seconds.
Farmer Jim says that conditions are about as ideal as they can be. Tonight the temperature is supposed to just barely drop into the freezing range of 31 or 32 degrees, but then warm rapidly in the morning. This should result in another big day tomorrow for sap collection.
Today is the nicest day of the year so far--it’s sunny and nearly fifty degrees. As maple sugaring operations swing into high gear, all the farmers seem a little extra jolly. While there’s still snow on the ground, Farmer Jeremy has been driving a bobsled pulled by Bill and Jesse through the sugar bush, while Farmer Rob and Intern Virginia empty steel sap buckets into containers waiting in the back of the sled. Schoolchildren are visiting the farm today to learn about old-fashioned maple syrup making, under the tutelage of several of Howell Farm’s historical interpreters. Farmer Jim is in the sugar shack, starting to bring the sap to a boil. Maggie the farm dog seems in good spirits too as she makes the rounds from farmer to farmer and follows the sled.
Syrup season remains frozen. With daytime temperatures remaining well below 32 degrees, (this morning my thermometer said –4) no more sap has flowed into our collection system. I caught up with Farmer Jim this morning, Howell Farm’s Director of Evaporation, and so far this winter he’s finished four gallons of syrup, and collected about 200 gallons of sap.
As long as temperatures this month shift to a period of freezing nights followed by warmer days, the sap collection season can still be a good one. The worst-case scenario, according to Farmer Jim, would be if this cold snap is immediately followed by much warmer weather. That could cause the trees to form buds, creating a premature end to the days of clear running sap.
|THE FURROW: The online newsletter of Howell Living History Farm||