This winter, Farmer Rob tuned up the manure spreader in the farm's workshop. It also received a power washing. (It's probably hasn't been this clean in decades.) Tomorrow, the manure spreader is visiting another historical farm for a demonstration.
Every spring, an order of baby chicks comes through the U.S. postal service to be picked up at the post office by a Howell Farm farmer. This year's chicks arrived a few days ago and are chirping happily next to the warm coal-fired brooder.
Something new this year are a few elements of the brooder setup. The brooder house itself has a new poured concrete floor, now covered with wood shavings. Everything feels a little more tidy.
Previously, a ring of sheet metal was always fastened to the dirt floor to form the outer ring of the brooder. Since that won't work anymore with the concrete floor, Farmer Rob visited the old Wooden brooder house adjacent to the farm and discovered their solution: wooden stands which hold the sheet metal in place. Farmer Rob fashioned some replicas, which are now in use in the brooder.
The results of syruping season are starting to trickle in. To date this season, about 31 gallons of syrup have been bottled, with more still to come.
An average year at the farm is about 50 gallons of syrup. Farmer Jim thinks we just might make it to the average, or perhaps fall a little short. Last year, at 76 gallons of syrup, was the all-time record.
With warm days and freezing nights, the sap continues to flow, though it's gradually getting darker and darker as the season winds on.
There was a good amount of activity in the Sugar House this morning, as Farmer Jim poured off another draw of syrup at 219 degrees, and Farmer Rob came with a delivery of sap from the sugarbush to pump into the holding tank.
The first two lambs of the spring were born this morning, a male and female, signaling the official start of lambing season. The mother and lambs all appear to be healthy and doing well.
As far as Farmer Jeremy knows, 8 of the farm's ewe's are pregnant, meaning there's 7 more to go. Within a few weeks approximately 16 lambs will be running and jumping through the pastures.
I joined Farmer Jeremy on sap collection rounds this morning. Bill and Jesse the draft horses seemed to enjoy being outside and doing some work. Jeremy explained how sometimes he keeps the wagon's brake lightly on during these end-of-winter runs, to give the horses a little more resistance to pull against, which helps with conditioning. Spring plowing is coming up, which takes some muscles.
The sap flow was moderate last night, most likely because temperatures barely dipped into the freezing range. The sap that did flow into the collection buckets is beginning to take on a slight yellowish color, meaning the beginning of the end of the sap-collecting season. The yellow is a sign that buds are beginning to form on the trees, filling with chlorophyl.
Every spring, a remarkable animal migration occurs at Howell Farm and other wooded places in Central New Jersey, though the average citizen is completely unaware of it.
It’s the migration of the yellow-spotted salamander, a hefty amphibian with a purple, yellow-spotted body that can grow to nine inches long. It’s always a great surprise to people when they see their first yellow-spotted salamander, to learn these striking creatures have been living alongside them all along. But most people will never see a yellow-spotted salamander. There’s usually only one chance per year to spot one, and it comes on a warmish rainy night sometime at the end of winter.
When the conditions are right, the salamanders—along with an assortment of frogs and toads—emerge from their muddy winter homes somewhere in the forest and make a dash to the nearest vernal pool, where they will mate and lay eggs.
A vernal pool is a temporary pond; usually it exists only in the spring and disappears at some point during the summer. The fact that it’s temporary is very important to the amphibians, as it means that there will be no hungry fish in the pond. Fish like to eat frog, toad and salamander eggs.
A problem for the amphibians, at least in the past 100 years, is that many human roads have been built between their wintering grounds and the vernal pools they rely on. During migrations, the crushed bodies of salamanders, frogs and toads, run over by cars, can be found littering the roadways.
This year, for the first time, the Mercer County Naturalist’s office is organizing a group of volunteers to help the amphibians cross the road and reach the vernal pool on Howell’s Farm property, as well as at other migration sites in the Sourlands. Knowing when the amphibians will be on the move usually comes at the last moment.
Tonight looks promising in some ways, as it’s warm and expected to start raining this afternoon and continue into the evening. But on the downside, the vernal pool is still covered in a thin layer of ice. I haven’t any idea if this is an acceptable state of affairs for a salamander.
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.
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