Planting photos by Jeff Kelly.
Over the past two days, Farmer Ian and the draft horses 'got in the oats,' as they say. Planting happened on Wednesday, and packing--going over the field with a roller--was finished just this morning. Now what the oats need is some rain. The spring to date hasn't had many good soaking rains. North Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania are official "Abnormally Dry" according to the US Drought Monitor, and Mercer County will be soon if we don't get some showers.
Planting photos by Jeff Kelly.
Plowing season at Howell Farm has commenced. Following the traditional COWS rotation (corn, oats, wheat, sod), the farmers are plowing up last year's corn field to prepare for planting oats, the first crop of spring.
The first few days of plowing are always challenging. Not only is the soil this year still a little wet (and thus heavy) but the horses and farmers haven't plowed since last fall--they're not quite in game shape. On the plus side, spring plowing is often completed on beautiful, warm-but-not-hot, sunshine-filled days such as today.
Visitors to Howell Farm help the sheep into the pasture by forming a human fence. Green grass awaits.
As the temperatures finally climb, maple syruping season at Howell Farm has reached its end.
Bottling Coordinator Danielle delivered the official spreadsheet to me, which details gallons of maple syrup produced, and bottles bottled, dating back to 2005. The grand total for 2015 was 84.88 gallons of maple syrup produced, resulting in 1,291 finished 8 oz. bottles, plus 4 gallons set aside for Howell Farm program activities. Farm Director Pete Watson and I both received these results with a certain sense of mixed regret. Nearly 85 gallons is a wonderful haul of syrup—it’s the second best year ever for Howell Farm, losing out only to last year’s record-setting triumph of 88 gallons. But to come so close to breaking the record—falling just 3 gallons short—leaves one with the sense of missing a fantastic opportunity at leaving a historic mark. Surely the 120 gallons of extra sap required to break the record (40 gallons of sap = 1 gallon of finished syrup) could have been squeezed out of the woodwork somewhere—a few more trees along a distant slope, or a few more tap holes, or an extra day or two of late season operations. ‘Bittersweet’ is the only word that comes to mind when summing up the emotions of missing the syruping record by the whisker of a barn cat.
Farmer Jim (who heads the syruping operation) and the rest of us will regroup during the off-season by clinging to a thought that has brought a limited degree of comfort to second-place finishers throughout the ages: Well, there’s always next year.
Once a week during maple syruping season, I stroll down to the Sugar Shack to get an update on syruping operations from Farmer Jim. He's been syruping in New Jersey for many years, and he says this is only the second year ever he's still been boiling sap in April. The first time was last year.
With the weather finally turning warmer, Jim thinks next week will be the last week for collecting sap.
I also checked in with Syrup Finisher Danielle and she said this year is shaping up to be an average year in terms of production. It will fall short of last year's record setting haul, but will be much better than the worst years on record.
With plowing season rapidly approaching, the farmers are working hard to shrink the manure pile that's built up over the winter and get it spread over the crop fields.
On a gusty day such as today, it's especially important to consider the direction of the wind before spreading a load of manure.
I just checked in with Farmer Jim in the Sugar Shack and the boiling of sap in the evaporator is, in the most literal sense of the word, full steam ahead. He said the sap is still running clear, so it seems likely that sap collection will be able to continue for another couple weeks. If so, this will shape up to be one of the later syruping seasons in modern memory.
Just across the parking lot from the Sugar Shack, in the kitchen of the school house, Office Worker Danielle has made her yearly transition into the role of Syrup Queen, in which she assumes the responsibility of finishing and bottling the syrup. Having sampled the finished product, she confirms that it’s as good a batch as ever. I also learned that the very first bottle is set aside for entry in the county fair.
There are now nine baby lambs gracing the barnyard. Every year I'm astonished to remember how much the youngest lambs resemble raggedy dishcloths.
Not everything at Howell Farm is done the old fashioned way. Today a modern well-drilling rig visited the barnyard to drill a new well for the restored farmhouse.
For some well-drilling history, here's a good primer from welldrillingschool.com:
The Furrow is the online newsletter of The Friends of Howell Living History Farm. We will be updating this site about once a week with crop reports and other insights into life on a horse-drawn living history farm.