Before long, it will be full steam ahead inside the Howell Farm sugar house.
The last time I blogged, I speculated that the coming freeze might be too late for Saturday's scheduled ice harvest. Fortunately, my speculation didn't account for the fastest ice freeze anyone around Howell Farm can remember. Starting with open water on Tuesday, the pond formed five inches of ice by Saturday morning. The ice harvest went ahead as scheduled, drawing about 250 visitors to contribute to the sawing, hooking, and hauling of blocks of ice from the pond into the ice house. Ice harvest estimations are more art than science, but our best guess is that the total haul on Saturday equaled five to six tons. The ice house is now about one-third full.
If the cold weather continues and the ice thickens to 10 inches, that would allow our farmers to bring the draft horses out onto the pond to help with the hauling. This is a beautiful and relatively rare sight. The last time the horses were on the ice was about five years ago.
An astute reader of The Furrow points out that my allusion to manure spreading at Howell Farm as a Sisyphean task may suggest that the job is not only endless (which it is) but also ineffective (which it’s certainly not.) When early farmers began adding manure to their fields, it led to significant increases in crop yields. A better allusion for manure spreading may be to call it a Hurculean Task. After all, cleaning out the stables was one of Hercules' great accomplishments. And our farmers won't mind the comparison.
The return of bitterly cold weather may come a little too late for Saturday’s scheduled ice harvest. Low temperatures of 1, 9, and 4 degrees over the next three days will surely add some inches of ice to the surface of our pond, but likely not enough to create the 4 inches necessary for a safe harvest. Though, ever optimists, we’ll be checking closely.
The good news is that even if we miss the public ice harvest on Saturday, continuing extreme cold weather over the coming 10 days should allow for a decent ice harvest in late January or early February.
What impact this sudden freeze will have on this year’s maple syruping operation, which is just getting underway, is still uncertain. To date, Farmer Jim has been able to collect 170 gallons of sap from approximately 100 tapped sugar maples. But the sub-freezing temperatures have stopped the flow for now.
Climate studies are an interest of mine (is this an unusual hobby?) and it’s interesting to note that while 2013 was a relatively cool year for New Jersey, a trend that continues into 2014, globally 2013 ranked as the 4th hottest ever recorded, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Current predictions are that there's a 50% chance for El Nino conditions to develop in mid-2014, a naturally variable warming of the South Pacific ocean that often leads to the greatest spikes in global temperature. When natural and man-made climate forcings (such as adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere) combine, that sets the stage for setting and all-time hottest year record.
Winter, spring, summer or fall, at Howell Farm there's always manure to spread.
The steel buckets are hung on sugar maples, taps in, lids down, waiting for freezing nights and warmer days to send the sap running.
I checked the taps a few minutes ago and the sap is dripping. Forty gallons later and quite a few pieces of firewood (about 80 pounds) will transform it into one gallon of maple syrup.
There's not a whisper of ice to be found on the Howell Farm pond. After the striking cold of early January, the much milder temperatures over the last few days seem to have dashed the hopes of an ice harvest on January 25.
The latest report from the Howell Farm farmhouse is that restoration work is on schedule to be completed by May, maybe even a little ahead of schedule. Once the farmhouse is open again, historic cooking activities will resume -- and everything else that happens in a working farmhouse. My fondest memories of the farmhouse, back from when I was an intern, are of sitting at the kitchen table for a few minutes during coffee break or lunch on cold March days, drinking hot coffee, frying up a few eggs, spooning out Farmer Rob's homemade hot sauce, and trading stories and jokes with the farmers and other interns. At the time, I was joined by three other interns, Tom, Peter, and Matt. Tom is now farming organic vegetables in northern Maryland and owns a few draft horses. Matt and Peter are both farriers. Matt works in upstate New York. Peter works in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and sometimes Florida and other exotic locations.
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.
|THE FURROW: The online newsletter of Howell Living History Farm||