Getting ready for the Sheep Shearing Workshop

by melissa on April 24, 2015 | 0 comments

Bryan setting up the fencing along the lower Harwood Barn. The sheep will stay in the barn until they are sheared at this weekend's Sheep Shearing Workshop

Bryan setting up the fencing along the lower Harwood Barn. The sheep will stay in the barn until they are sheared at this weekend’s Sheep Shearing Workshop

Yesterday was a big prep day for this weekend’s Sheep Shearing Workshop. With the threat of rain (and snow!) in the air, there was a little more pressure to get the ewes into the Harwood Barn so that their coats will be dry for the shearing process. Bryan worked yesterday morning to set up the lower Harwood Barn for the mamas and babies to move back to (they’ve been enjoying the pasture outside the Small Animal Barn). The farm staff relocated the flock back across the road later on in the day.

For the next day or two the sheep will be Harwood side, until they get their summer hair cuts.

Even if you are not taking part in the workshop, please stop up at the farm this weekend and see the shearing take place. Shearing is an interesting and important part of keeping a flock of sheep.

 

 

Preparing for the Flood

by melissa on March 20, 2015 | 0 comments

New floor in the horse stall will help keep horses dry during spring thaw.

New floor in the horse stall will help keep horses dry during spring thaw.

The thaw is near, we think. We can catch whiffs of mud season, the smell of the earth waiting to be released from snow and ice. The past few years the thaw has come quickly. For the farm, which sits on top of shallow soils, rock ledge, and perched water tables, usually the thaw has meant water quickly moving across the pastures, down the hill, and toward the farmyard–often times infiltrating the foundations of the barns and making for a mucky, icy, muddy mess of the lower Harwood and Small Animal barns.

With all of this year’s cold and feet of snow, Tim was starting to get a nervous look on his face in mid-February. You could see him calculating: Lambs were to be due in a month, Peggy Sue has piglets, and depending on the weather the horses may be in their stalls or outside in pasture. If it was a quick thaw, this year could be a particularly muddy mess, and wet, damp stalls are not conducive to keeping animals healthy. Time to plan ahead.

The farm ordered thick hemlock boards to fit to the floor of the horse stalls. The way the historic barn is banked against the hill, heavy runoff moves through the foundation and sometimes collects right where the horses are kept when inside. The boards are elevated, and they will hopefully keep the horses from any unwanted wet hooves.

Bryan tests out the soundness of the hemlock planks.

Bryan tests out the soundness of the hemlock planks.

A raised sleeping platform was built for Peggy Sue and the piglets in the Small Animal Barn. Quick thaws sometimes bring flooding into that space too, but with full range of the pasture and an elevated platform, the pigs should quite literally stay high and dry.

The lambing operation has been set up in the Outside-In (the west room of the Harwood Barn, now aptly dubbed the “Maternity Ward”). It’s a much better space for visitors to walk through and see the lambs, and it doesn’t have the same challenges with water that other rooms in the barn do.

With all the the planning and action in anticipation of a very dicey mud season, so far we’ve been thawing slowly. This year might prove the adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If it wanted to warm up any time now though, I think we are all more than ready.

 

 

 

Recipes from the Winter Workshop

by melissa on February 19, 2015 | 0 comments

Blog_Suet Cakes Recipe

Winter Workshop Two: Who Sticks Around for the Winter

by melissa on | 0 comments

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The second winter break workshop happened today. Snow and sickness dropped our group by half, but the eight participants had a great time learning a bit about backyard birds, and then making their own suet cakes! Each participant got to measure out seeds, nuts, and lard into cupcake tins, which were then placed outside to harden. At the end of the program, everyone took home a bunch of suet in mesh sacks!

 

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Ladies of the Gold Lamé

by melissa on February 17, 2015 | 0 comments

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The Ladies of the Gold Lamé, a group of wonderful women that comes annually to Ned’s Cabin, were here just a few weeks ago. We know that they have arrived when we see several cars from various states up and down the eastern seaboard, and if the license plates don’t give them away, their golden pants and velvet moose ears sure do! (Their outfits are a story for another time).

This year, after visiting, one of the members sent in this lovely note, which we would like to share with you.

Hi! We are still riding the wonderful high that we get from spending our annual January weekend at Ned’s Place, laughing, sharing, snowshoeing, eating, drinking, enjoying each others’ company, and sporting our gold lame pants and moose ears. Thank you so much for this amazing place and experience that means nothing short of magic to 9 women who have been going there for 15 years now.  We want to share with you one of the many pictures that we took while there, as it makes all of us smile to see it, as well as others who have never been to Merck at all. We hope you like it as much as we do! Several of us are also delighted to have experienced the first sleigh ride offered and are singing the praises of this form of travel! We are so grateful for all that you do to provide and sustain this incredible environment. We call it paradise.

Hugs,
CJ Mauger
South Berwick, Maine
We can’t wait to hear your stories after next year’s visit!

Piglets Get Vaccinated

by melissa on February 11, 2015 | 0 comments

Yesterday was a milestone for the piglets…they received their first vaccinations.

It also is a milestone in the apprenticeship. Nothing makes you think and act more quickly than the high-pitched squeal of the piglets when they get picked up, and the answering (and somewhat threatening) angry grunts and protests from the sow. Peggy Sue, no matter that she is one of the nicest, sweetest pigs we’ve had at the farm, goes into full maternal mode when it seems like one of her piglets is under threat, which is exactly what she thought yesterday when Bryan, Stephanie, and Kate worked with Tim to round up the little pigs and give them several needles full of medicine.

The job got done though, as you can see below. (Please, excuse the picture quality as they were moving quickly, and I didn’t want to use the flash, which might have further upset the animals).

A quick meeting to discuss strategy for getting the vaccinations done in a neat fashion.

A quick meeting to discuss strategy for getting the vaccinations done in a neat fashion.

Piglets trying to decide what was going on...

Piglets trying to decide what was going on…

Peggy Sue also wanted to see what was going on.

Peggy Sue also wanted to see what was going on.

For this one piglet, Kate held her while Bryan injected her with the vaccines.

For this one piglet, Kate held her while Bryan injected her with the vaccines.

The newly vaccinated piglet will run back over to the other side of the pen to be with its siblings again.

The newly vaccinated piglet will run back over to the other side of the pen to be with its siblings again.

Subnivean Zones

by melissa on February 3, 2015 | 0 comments

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We got a new children’s book in the Visitor Center the other week (which was posted yesterday on our facebook page). “Over and Under the Snow” by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal, is a delightful book that I picked up off the shelf, intending to leaf through. I ended up sitting down to read the whole thing because I found the story so interesting!

The story book tells the tale of a father and daughter that go cross country skiing through the forest, looking for signs of winter life. While some pages illustrate the movement of animals above the snow, the main purpose of the book is to share what happens beneath the snow–there is a whole world at work during winter. This world, known as the subnivean zone (“sub” meaning “below” and “nivea” or “niveus” meaning snow), the area between the bottom of the snowpack and the surface of the ground, is a interesting place, both in how it is created, and how the animals, plants, and organisms that live there function.

Subnivean zones are created when the snow falls and covers the ground. In places, small plants, tree roots, or rock act as umbrellas keeping pockets of air under the accumulating snow fall. When the snow reaches a depth, generally of about 6 inches, sublimation occurs. The warmer air from the ground causes the snow along the ground’s surface to not melt, but vaporize. The water vapor rises and then refreezes along the bottom of the snow, sturdily encrusting a space that rodents, insects and plants will use.  The relatively warm (32ºF approx.) subnivean space allows many animals protection from winter’s harsh climates and from predators (though, many predators are wise to the subnivea and have their own ways of capturing prey).

While “Over and Under the Snow” only delves so deeply ( a few inches, perhaps) into the ecosystem under the snow, there are scientists that are really working to understand the importance of subnivean zones. The Audubon article by Jeff Hull, “Life Under the Snow” details more of the ecosystem functions of the space. Part of this particularly interesting article discusses how specific microorganisms, which for a long time were thought to be dormant during the winter, actually proliferate in the subnivea. It is these specific microorganisms that produce the all important nitrogen that truly helps plants regenerate in the spring. With the inconsistencies of the weather for the past few years, a stable below snow zone is not being created in many parts of the world, and animals, plants, and microorganisms may be feeling the negative ramifications of early or late thaws, or no snow at all!

There are more than several articles online about subnivean zones, everything from children’s videos on Youtube to the more scholarly Audubon article. They are definitely worth the time to read (see below). If a beautifully illustrated introduction to the subnivea is for you, our Visitor Center carries “Over and Under the Snow” by Messner.

The next time you are here at Merck, snowshoeing or x-country skiing across the snow, be mindful, as there is a whole world beneath you.

 

Audubon Article, http://mag.audubon.org/articles/nature/life-under-snow

National Park Service, Winter Ecology Teachers Guide http://www.nps.gov/glac/forteachers/upload/Winter%20Ecology%20Teacher%20Guide%202010.pdf

Burlington Free Press, “Subnivean Zone”, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/local/2014/12/26/subnivean-zone-shelter-snow/20901281/

Wild Kratt’s Journey to the Subnivean Zone, Youtube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXtV5iCd74Y

Redpolls are here

by melissa on January 20, 2015 | 0 comments

From: http://www.wunderground.com/wximage/Jayne/1687?gallery=

From: http://www.wunderground.com/wximage/Jayne/1687?gallery=

Tom walked in this morning, and said, “the redpolls are back.”

To a non-birder that sentence could have sounded more like ” the red poles are back”, which brings up all sorts of ideas. New fencing for the farm? Red-painted snow stakes for along the driveway? But, oh, wait, of course. Tom means the birds.

Much of the winter, the woods are silent. You might hear a raven or a junco, but not often. This week there has been some more twittering than usual outside, and that is because the redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are here.

These cute, small finches, which nest and breed around the Arctic Circle, travel farther south in the winter. You are not guaranteed to see them every year, but if you put out thistle feeders, you just might have a flock visit your house for some of the winter.

Check out Cornell’s Ornithology Lab to hear what these fellas sound like and to see a map of the redpolls range.

Friday and the Weekend, Busy Days

by melissa on January 19, 2015 | 1 Comment

Friday was a busy day. We all were eagerly anticipating the birth of Peggy Sue’s piglets, it was the last day of orientation for the apprentices, chickens were going to slaughtered, and we were hoping for some snow so the sleigh rides could run.

Luckily, Peggy Sue’s piglets were born, a day later than expected, but twelve piglets made their way into the world in the early hours of Sunday morning. Unfortunately, one was stillborn and another was stepped on by the mother. However, ten piglets are healthy and happy up in the Outside In. It could have been the care and careful backscratching by Colene that eased Peggy Sue in her early stages of labor on Friday (see below).

Colene scratched Peggy Sue's back during the early part of her labor on Friday.

Colene scratched Peggy Sue’s back during the early part of her labor on Friday.

Before all the excitement with the piglets, Friday afternoon held a different kind of excitement, the kind that comes with the careful and considered slaughter of some of the older chickens on the farm. We often highlight the birth of animals at the farm, but we rarely mention that death occurs here as well. Some of the older chickens were carefully selected from the coop, aging ones that seemed unhealthy and several chickens that no longer lay eggs. Stephanie and Meghan worked with Colene and Will to slaughter several of the hens and roosters. The birds were quickly put down, stripped of their feathers, innards removed, and then vacuum-sealed and put in the freezer. These stew birds will help feed the apprentices this winter.

Meghan and Stephanie strip a chicken of its feathers before it is vacuum-sealed and put in the freezer.

Meghan and Stephanie strip a chicken of its feathers before it is vacuum-sealed and put in the freezer.

While it may seem sad that chickens were killed last week and two of the piglets did not survive, that is a part of the process of the farm. We always strive to make sure that the animals here at Merck live good lives, and that if it is their time to go, we try to make that easy for them as well.

We will go into this week knowing visitors will come up, excited for the new piglets and the fresh snow. Every week holds something new for us.

Kat Deely’s Presentation

by melissa on | 0 comments

Kat Deely, UVM graduate student, presented her ecological assessment of Merck Forest to the staff and Board last Wednesday.

Kat Deely, UVM graduate student, presented her ecological assessment of Merck Forest to the staff and Board last Wednesday.

 

We were very fortunate to have University of Vermont graduate student, Kat Deely, work at Merck Forest this past summer. Kat came in May to work on mapping natural communities found across our 3,160 acres of land. After months of gathering data and compiling her information into a report, she presented to the MFFC staff and Board this past Wednesday. It took a lot of work to get to that point though…

Starting in the late spring, Kat moved into the Lodge with the apprentices. Going out during the day with her dog, Moose, she hiked through Hemlock Forests, Dry Oak Woodlands, and Red-Spruce -Northern Hardwood Forests. Along the way, Kat plotted GPS points, mapping out the location of the various community types found here. It took her a few weeks to walk the entire property, but that was only the beginning.

All of that information had to be sorted through. GIS (Geographical Information Systems) was critical in helping to lay out the research that Kat had compiled. Using GIS, Kat was able to check her information with already collated research on regional soil types, geology, deer habitat, rare, threatened, or endangered species of note, etc. All of this information is presented in a layered format. This stratigraphy of information gives the viewer of Kat’s research an idea of site topography, the different natural community types, where species of concern might be located, and finally, the crux of Kat’s work, areas where Merck Forest and Farmland Center might consider implementing various management strategies.

Merck Forest, as a working landscape, actively manages its forest for wildlife habitat, sugaring, and timber sales. While studies have been done before, Kat’s work is the most extensive: it really shows us where we should or should not be working the landscape and where the best wildlife habitats are.  

For instance, Kat noted several natural community types that are rare within the state of Vermont. These include areas such as the Dry Oak Woodland by the Lookout. Applying a “no touch” or “light touch” policy to these sites may help natural communities on site survive and thrive, and adapt, as climate weather patterns change.

Thank you to Kat for such a wonderful report. Her work will be critical in our decision-making in the future.

Kat’s final document will be placed on our resource page, shortly.

Learning and Having Fun

by melissa on January 15, 2015 | 0 comments

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While learning to drive horses yesterday, there was also a lot of time for fun. Laughter at good jokes, watching the hillside and learning about the landscape, seeing a redtail hawk hunting, and exploring the back part of the farm.

A Walk in the Woods: Noticing Winter’s Hues

by melissa on December 31, 2014 | 0 comments

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Take a close look at the striped maples next time you are in the woods. Their bark is more colorful than you might expect.

 

In the summer, the forest here at Merck displays every color imaginable. The bright greens of the beech tree leaves, beautiful cerulean skies, jewelweed’s silver leaves and freckled orange or yellow flowers.

In winter, the colors become a bit more monochromatic, at least to the untrained eye. Winter just requires that you look more closely as bold colors tend to hibernate too.

The green, blue, grey, and red striping on this moosewood (or striped maple) are a good example of winter time colors that aren’t noticeable straight away, but the more closely you look at the forest, the more you see.

 

 

Quieter Time

by melissa on December 30, 2014 | 0 comments

The time between Christmas and mid January is highlighted by the relative quietness at Merck Forest. Last year’s apprentices have left, and we are awaiting the arrival of new apprentices. The forest is often muted by snow (which may melt and then return several times before we get into the much colder days of January and February). Staff rotates vacation around the holidays. School groups are all on break…

Even though the chores still need to be done, the trails are still open for walking, and the Visitor Center’s merry fire warms cold toes, it’s nice that the next few weeks might be a bit more mellow.

That being said, don’t forget to wax your skis, book a sleigh ride, or reserve a cabin for this winter. The snow will return!

 

Merck Memories: A Good View Never Goes Bad

by melissa on December 18, 2014 | 0 comments

 Alan at a Viewpoint sleep out...Living simply and lightly.  No power or phone all summer. ~James Dickey (photo taken late 70s or early 80s)


Alan at a Viewpoint sleep out…Living simply and lightly. No power or phone all summer. ~James Dickey (photo taken late 70s or early 80s)

Merck Memories: Jimbo in Jest

by melissa on | 0 comments

More images from James Dickey:

A freshly dug privy for upper lean-to allows SCA'er Jimbo to pull a classic prank...

A freshly dug privy for upper lean-to allows SCA’er Jimbo to pull a classic prank…

Merck Memories: Team Building and Trust

by melissa on December 17, 2014 | 0 comments

James Dickey spent ten summers attending camp here at Merck Forest (read his story here). In his words: With the 70’s came lots of innovative games building group trust, cohesion, and having all-out fun.

And, from the photos Jim sent us, it looks like the summer camps of the 70s and 80s did have quite a bit of fun!

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Merck Memories

by melissa on | 1 Comment

This “Merck Memory” was written by James Dickey. He returned to MFFC from Colorado this November for his 50th birthday, and he later sent in an account of his experiences up here. Thank you, Jim, for sharing this:

In summer of 1973, I was nine years old.  I had just returned from my first summer camp experience at large YMCA camp down south, and it hadn’t gone too well.  BB guns, bullies, and bad food.  I wanted nothing more of any camp.  But my family had spent a weekend in the grand old Colburn House hotel in downtown Manchester (now Northshire Books);  in the foyer my mom found a flier for a local camp.  Small, outdoor living, $70 a week.

I protested.

I was dragged reluctantly up a road from a tiny parking lot. I saw a small group gathered under a maple tree near a barn and nothing else in sight.  A burly, long haired man with a scraggly beard smiled and introduced himself: “I’m Sugar Bear…”.  His T – shirt just said “LOVE”.

I had to be dragged away from Merck Forest at the end of each summer for the next decade…

This November, I spent my 50th hiking Antone and poking around The Glen. It was good to be back.

For the next few blog posts, we will highlight some of the photos that Jim shared. Just think of it as a Merck throw-back:

A place like Merck shapes you.  The contours of the landscape, the people met, and the lessons learned are indelible.

A place like Merck shapes you. The contours of the landscape, the people met, and the lessons learned are indelible. ~ James Dickey

 

 

Maple Syrup Grading System Changes

by melissa on December 10, 2014 | 0 comments

Earlier this year, Vermont adopted a new grading system for its maple syrup. This new system provides descriptions of each grade, or class, of syrup. It also part of a national and international effort to create a universal grading system throughout the United States and Canada. Currently, each state and the Canadian provinces each have their own demarkation for syrup.

The old method of grading maple syrup gave a range of five classes. These classes went from Vermont Grade A Fancy, Grade A Light Amber, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, to Grade B (and then there was a sixth grade that could only be sold commercially). One of the challenges with the old grading system was that it implied one end of the maple syrup spectrum was perhaps better (you always want to strive for an “A” right?). Therefore, many consumers would seek out Grade A Fancy, thinking that this syrup was top of the line.

However, all the grades taste good…it just depends on your taste preference as to whether you wanted a lighter maple syrup (Grade A Fancy) or a richer flavor (Grade B).

The new system cuts back to four grading categories, and the titles for these four classes are a bit more descriptive, thus helping the buyer choose the syrup that’s right for his or her taste palette.

 

GOLDEN WITH DELICATE TASTE: Light syrup with a  golden color. It has a mild, delicate taste. Excellent as a table syrup or over ice cream or yogurt.

GOLDEN WITH DELICATE TASTE: Light syrup with a golden color. It has a mild, delicate taste. Excellent as a table syrup or over ice cream or yogurt.

AMBER WITH RICH TASTE: Light amber color and full-bodied flavor, this class of syrup is the product of choice for consumers who desire the "classic" maple syrup flavor.

AMBER WITH RICH TASTE: Light amber color and full-bodied flavor, this class of syrup is the product of choice for consumers who desire the “classic” maple syrup flavor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DARK WITH ROBUST TASTE: Dark amber color with a more pronounced maple flavor, this class will satisfy those customers who desire the strong flavors of what has been known as Grade B.

DARK WITH ROBUST TASTE: Dark amber color with a more pronounced maple flavor, this class will satisfy those customers who desire the strong flavors of what has been known as Grade B.

VERY STRONG WITH DARK TASTE: Nearly black, this syrup has a strong flavor that translates well to cooking, where the maple syrup will carry through to the finished dish.

VERY DARK WITH STRONG TASTE: Nearly black, this syrup has a strong flavor that translates well to cooking, where the maple syrup will carry through to the finished dish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the grading changes check out VPR’s website: http://digital.vpr.net/post/any-other-name-does-vermonts-maple-syrup-taste-sweet

Information above taken from the Vermont Sugar Maker’s Association and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce’s Vermont Winter Vacation Guide 2015

The Wind Returns

by melissa on November 20, 2014 | 1 Comment

It’s usually fairly breezy here at Merck in all the seasons. The land around the farm especially seems to funnel the air’s movements. But, come this time of year, with the trees barren of leaves, the wind really starts whipping.

The gusty weather really dictates what we can do on the farm: what kind of structures can be built that will not blow over or blow away, what types of vegetables and fruits will grow (did you know our you-pick blueberries are supposed to be a highbush variety, but because of the wind, they are more stunted in their growth?), where and how we will house the animals when the winter winds really start howling.

Understanding your land and the factors that influence it is incredibly important to designing a well-planned and laid out working landscape. Watching the land as it changes through the seasons can help you make good, sustainable decisions.

Some decisions on the farm take time to make, and often our initial plans are changed to adapt what the land and climate are telling us.

However, on a day to day basis, we know to be as prepared as possible for the wind…even if it means dressing like Nanook of the North in November.

The wind was quite chilling the other day, and big coats and ear-flapped hats were necessary to stay warm. Laughing helps everyone stay warm too.

The wind was quite chilling the other day, and big coats and ear-flapped hats were necessary to stay warm. Laughing helps everyone stay warm too.

The Root Cellar

by melissa on November 12, 2014 | 0 comments

Cricket guarding all the nicely arranged produce. This food will be stored in the new root cellar and eaten by the apprentices this winter.

Cricket guarding all the nicely arranged produce. This food will be stored in the new root cellar and eaten by the apprentices this winter.

With a great harvest from our storage garden this past season, we’ve been working on some carpentry projects to help us preserve these crops for the coming months and for the new apprentices coming in January.
First, we added a root cellar to the lower part of the Harwood Barn. There was no need to dig a hole or build a new structure: we took advantage of the barn’s below-grade back corner to create a small, well-insulated room. This room uses the temperature-moderating effects of the soil and a passive ventilation system to keep our produce refrigerated. We also installed some strategically-placed wire mesh, which will hopefully keep out any rodents who want to share our winter provisions!
In addition to temperature and critter-control, the ideal root cellar is dark–some storage crops, like potatoes, will sprout if exposed to light–and has good airflow and moisture control. Our passive ventilation system uses the simple principle that warm air rises and cold air falls to keep air moving inside the cellar. However, we realized without the proper containers to store vegetables, a ventilation system might be for naught.
Enter our beautiful new produce crates.
Made onsite, these stackable wooden crates allow for the stored food to ventilate  well and keep fresh.

Made onsite, these stackable wooden crates allow for the stored food to ventilate well and keep fresh.

After a couple of days of work, we have more than 40 handsome and sturdy stackable wooden crates which will ensure that adequate ventilation gets to every beet, cabbage, and onion!
These construction projects were also invaluable practical experience for us apprentices. In building the root cellar, we learned how to frame walls, hang a door, and wire a room for electricity. The boxes obviously involved a lot of task repetition, which taught us tricks like using jigs to efficiently build uniform products.
Not only were they fun to make and highly functional, but all of the wood used in the construction of the crates was grown here at Merck and then locally processed! With Fern and Arch, our wonderful draft horses, we dragged the ash trees that we apprentices had helped to fell during Game of Logging training out of the forest. They were then milled by Chris Stone, the Rutland County Forester, and the Stafford Tech students,  and returned to us as boards ready for construction (and because we took home the imperfect boards too, some of our boxes have lovely bark edges–with moss and everything!).
(The Winter newsletter will contain a guide to how we made the root cellar boxes.)

Authenticity of the Chicken Coop

by melissa on October 14, 2014 | 1 Comment

The old chicken coop was no longer meeting the needs of the farm or of our visitors; we hope the new coop in the barn is more visitor-friendly and authentic to our visitors' needs.

The old chicken coop was no longer meeting the needs of the farm or of our visitors; we hope the new coop in the barn is more visitor-friendly and authentic to our visitors’ needs.

I visit Merck’s chicken coop several times a week, usually when I walk up to the farm to take pictures and see what the farm staff is up to. On Tuesday, I went up and snapped some shots of the growing chickens to use on our social media pages. I didn’t have much idea of how these images would be used. However, later, as I was sorting through several images of just-born chicks and the pullets now on pasture, it occurred to me that Merck’s chicken operation is right on target with our audience’s needs.

Let me explain.

I started working at Merck three falls ago as a three-month intern. At that point in time we had close to 40 chickens living in a close-quarters coop. It took a lot of time to maintain a comfortable standard of living for our free-range hens. The coop had to be moved to new pasture weekly, roughly 35 eggs (if we were lucky) had to be washed each day during the warmer months, the coop needed to be kept clean, and our customers happy with a steady supply of eggs.

It may not seem like a large operation (and in perspective with many other farms, it most certainly was not a big-scale project), but with apprentices moving through, teaching a variety of classes, and upkeep on the farm–it just was not profitable…Nor, was the reality of keeping upwards of four dozen birds something that appealed to many of our visitors.

We laid out the needs and goals of the farm and decide how those objectives reached our visitors before finally deciding to downsize to the small, stationary coop now in the Hardwood Barn.

The chickens are still allowed to roam through the grasses, but they do have a base that is easy for visitors to find and access. For visitors that are looking to raise their own poultry, the current set-up is much friendlier, much more authentic to the current ideals of small-scale sustainable farming.

Chances are that in the future the idea of an authentic farm may yet again change. We may increase or decrease the flock and change the hens’ residence. Part of having a good educational farm means that we are able to adapt to the needs of the land and of our of visitors–and in order to do that, of course, we always need your feedback.

To read more about small-scale poultry productions read these!

http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2010/11/10/changing-albanys-chicken-laws

http://shop.maryjanesfarm.org/Magazine

Fall Foliage Hikes

by melissa on September 27, 2014 | 0 comments

 Fall foliage is here! The leaves on the sugar maples are beginning to turn hues of yellow, red, and orange. Oak leaves are deepening their hue, red maples are a blaze of green-tinged red, and soon the beech will morph into their fall suit of yellow.

As the leaves change colors and successively begin to fall, the viewshed around Merck Forest opens up. Trails, which in the summer are a wall of green, become a shifting, opening, landscape of color.

Merck Forest certainly has a variety of trails for you to hike. Explore some of southern Vermont’s best in fall foliage! Here are some recommendations (bold trail names indicate the highlighted trails on map):

FallFolaige2014_Map

  • Green Trail: Begin from the Visitor Center and hike up Old Town Road to Antone Road. Just before you reach Clark’s Clearing, turn right onto McCormick Trail, and loop back down to Old Town Road. The views from McCormick Trail get better and better as more leaves fall and the views open to the northwest. Approximately 2.5 miles, moderate difficulty level.
  • Blue Trail: Take in the vista from two of the best points on the property: Viewpoint and Gallop Peak. Starting from the Visitor Center, walk up Old Town Road. Bear left on Lodge Road and follow until you reach Hammond Road. Hammond Road, itself, has several good vantage points! Continue on Hammond until you see the sign for the Barton Trail, which will take you up over the Gallop. Be sure to rest at the small rock outcrop at the top before continuing back to Old Town Road via Viewpoint. Approximately 4 miles; moderate to difficult level due to a short scramble and elevation changes.
  •  Yellow Trail: The Lookout is one of the best-kept secrets at Merck Forest. While the hike, starting from the South Gate, is relatively short, it’s worth the uphill walk. The Lookout stands at the edge of a rock ledge in a dry upland oak forest. Approximate total distance to and from the South Gate is 2.75 miles; moderate difficulty level.
  • Pink Trail: The Master’s Mountain Trail is probably the most challenging hike at Merck Forest. The switchbacks are steep, but if you take the trail all the way to the top, and then continue to the top of Mount Antone, the view is worth the effort. Approximate total distance to and from the South Gate is 4 miles; difficult level.

Pig on Pasture

by melissa on September 19, 2014 | 0 comments

Cybil in her forested pasture.

Cybil in her forested pasture.

If you are looking for the Merck piglets after this week, you won’t have much luck looking in the Small Animal Barn, their home since they were born two months ago.  Instead, take a peek down Discovery Trail. You’ll catch them rummaging around, rooting up insects and plants, and munching on all sorts of piggy goodies in the brush, all the while helping us keep that area clean and manageable.  Their mom, Peggy Sue, will rejoin our gilt Cybil a bit further down the trail, where they too will share a patch of forest.

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When they are old enough (roughly around two months) and the weather permits, our pigs our weaned and move out on pasture or in the woods, a management technique that benefits both us and them.  Their bull-dozing noses help dig up large stones, roots, and logs, which we can then remove after the space is no longer occupied.  In return, they get a balanced wild diet to supplement their feed regimen, keeping them healthy and happy, and later, deliciously flavoring the pork they produce. This year, in addition to the usual menu items, the pigs will enjoy a bumper crop of one of their most beloved treats: acorns.

Every few years, different tree species have what is known as a “mast” year.  Masting  is defined by uncharacteristically high fruit production of a particular species in an area, and the time between mastings is determined by the type of tree along with other environmental factors such as weather.  Many different hypotheses have been posed as to why the masting cycle exists in nature, from predator satiation to coincidental carbohydrate stockpiling of trees after their summer-sun gluttony.  Regardless of the cause, the results are unmistakable: more consumption by predators and higher populations of the beneficiaries of these fruits.  This year, we are seeing oaks produce high quantities of mast and leaving their acorns all over the place.  While Peggy Sue, Cybil, and the piglets will certainly be eating their fair share of acorns.

Acorns for Cybil?

Acorns for Cybil?

Some interesting information on mast seeding can be found on the U.S. Forest Service’s website at http://www.fs.fed.us/ and the Mast Tree Network released an article on the process, tradition, and benefits of feeding pigs acorns and other mast crops.  The article can be found here: http://www.mast-producing-trees.org/2009/11/acorn-finished-pork-an-ancient-tradition/ .

Bennington County Conservation District Work Begins

by melissa on September 13, 2014 | 0 comments

Merck Forest and Farmland Center is the start of the White Creek watershed. Support of resilient ecosystems upstream, allow for healthy ecosystems downstream. The Bennington County Conservation District is helping to preserve the waterway along Route 315.

Merck Forest and Farmland Center is the start of the White Creek watershed. Support of resilient ecosystems upstream, allow for healthy ecosystems downstream. The Bennington County Conservation District is helping to preserve the waterway along Route 315.

For many of our more local visitors, this may interest you:

Drivers who commute back and forth along Route 315 are well acquainted with the “hill”. From Dorset side cars scale a more or less steady uphill for nearly three miles before cresting the top (right where Merck’s driveway starts). At the apex, if you continue along the road toward Rupert, the hill very quickly drops for a quarter mile. The steep descent can be thrilling and a little nerve-wracking in icy conditions, or a good way to burn out your brakes if you don’t shift down gears.

On the steep side of the hill, water runoff in lesser weather events is diverted to ditches one side of the road or the other, and usually over the course of a year minor erosion takes place. However, during Hurricane Irene, the roadside eroded much more quickly. Some minor repair was done in the aftermath of the 2011 storm, but now the real repair is taking place.

The Bennington County Conservation District received an Ecosystem Restoration Program grant from the state of Vermont in 2011 to prepare a river corridor plan for the Mill Brook and White Creek watershed, part of which begins on Merck Forest’s property. Through a series of four steps, including GIS analysis, field research, interviews with landowners, and work on site, as well receipt of a Vermont Stream Alteration permit, work has started on several areas of the watershed in and around Rupert. The ditch along the top of Route 315, and partially on Merck’s property, being one of the projects.

The reason this project is important is that remediation of the banks will improve water quality, flood resiliency, and wildlife habitat for a variety of species. Eroding banks cause streams to gather silt, which, over time, harms the ecosystem present in the watershed.

This fall the ditch will be dug again, the stream bed harden, and the banks armored with rock, and in 2015 willow tree slips will be planted to help stabilize the slope.

For a broader understanding of the project and what the work entails, email melissa@merckforest.org.

 

Potatoes, Part Two: The Taste Test

by melissa on September 9, 2014 | 3 Comments

Potatoes, Part Two: The Taste Test

Last month apprentice Rose wrote about the varieties of potatoes that the farm planted this year (click here to reread that article). She promised to include a follow up article, once those varieties had been cooked and consumed. Here it is: 

Bubbie Karabush's famous latkes were made at the Lodge!

Bubbie Karabush’s famous latkes were made at the Lodge!

After digging up a plant each of our seven different potato varieties, we were left with a heavy bag full of muddy, unassuming tubers of various sizes. But knowing what beauty hid inside each dirt-covered potato, it was no chore to carry such a bounty back home–even up the steep hills of Old Town Road!

Over the next couple of weeks, the potato rainbow found its way into many delicious dishes at the Lodge: they were fried in skillets, cut up for a beet-and-potato salad, and baked plain to be savored in their unique flavors. And our piece de resistance: multi-colored potato pancakes (latkes, as my family calls them)…but more on that later. We all had our favorites: Sarah loves the Peter Wilcox variety, Bryan the bright colors of the blue- and red-fleshed potatoes, and I was really impressed by the fragrance and texture of the LaRatte fingerlings (“This potato tastes like a French bakery smells!”).

Tales of our beautiful potatoes made their way over hundreds of miles of telephone wire, too, and into the ears of my wonderful grandmother, who lives in the suburbs of Chicago near where I grew up. Bubbie Karabush (as we call her) just turned 90, and is famed in my family for her delicious Jewish-American cooking. But despite her mastery of traditional cooking, she was hardly shocked by my talk of purple potatoes—in fact, she loves them! Last Hannukah, after my first year as a farm apprentice at another farm, I brought back an assortment of vegetables to share with my family during the holidays. Since no Hannukah celebration would be complete without Bubbie’s famous latkes, my whole family trooped over to her house one cold and snowy evening, and I brought along the potatoes I had carried all the way home from New York. These potatoes were Adirondack blues, and they were a beautiful, bright purple.

At first, Bubbie was a little scandalized. “Purple potatoes?” she asked, clearly doubtful. “Won’t that make purple latkes?” Well, they certainly did, but the delicious taste of these funny-looking latkes won my grandmother over. So, with all of our red and blue and yellow potatoes this month, I just had to get her famous latke recipe and with her blessing, make some very-un-traditional-looking potato latkes.

Bubbie’s Latkes 

Makes 8-10 potato pancakes

  • 3 lbs. (or about 4 large) peeled potatoes—and if you can get your hands on some purple potatoes, my Bubbie approves!
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 egg, lightly whisked
  • 1/3 c flour or ¼ c matzoh meal
  • 2-3 tsp salt
  • A dash or two of pepper
  • Vegetable or canola oil to fry in

Finely grate the onion into a bowl, and then grate the potatoes (the onion juice keeps the potatoes from browning). If you have a typical four-sided grater, grate half of the potatoes on the finer side, so they make a mash, and half on the side of the grater with the large holes, so that it makes shreds of potato. Drain the onion and potato mixture in a colander, then squeeze it even more in some cheese cloth, so the remainder is as dry as possible. Put this into a mixing bowl with the rest of the ingredients, and mix. Pour oil into a skillet so that it is about 1/8 inch thick, and heat it until it’s very hot. Spoon in ¼ cup of the latke mixture, and press it flat in the pan. Fry them until they’re golden brown on one side, then on the other. Thin latkes will cook through more easily, and don’t worry if they’re not perfect circles—the ragged edges will get crispy and delicious! If your latkes are not cooking through before they brown, try turning down the heat. Add oil as needed to keep the pan covered, and keep the latkes warm on a cookie sheet in a low-temperature oven until you’re ready to eat. Serve with applesauce or sour cream…or even better, both! (Just don’t serve them with ketchup. Then they’d be hashbrowns, not latkes.)

Enjoy!

Rose

 

 

 

Sap House: A Multi-Use Space

by melissa on August 26, 2014 | 0 comments

The Frank hatch Sap House will be the event space for the bluegrass concert on August 30th.

The Frank hatch Sap House will be the event space for the bluegrass concert on August 30th.

The Frank Hatch Sap House was built over a decade ago. It houses everything from Merck Forest’s sugaring operation in the late winter and early spring to the Pancake Breakfast, Sheep Dog Trial events, and various classes through the rest of the warmer months.

Unfortunately, the building–named in honor of  Francis Hatch, a son-in-law to founder George Merck, a former Massachusetts politician, and who advocated for Merck Forest and Farmland Center after George’s death–does not get used as often as it should. The beautiful, open space with wide windows that look across our pastures toward the Adirondacks is underutilized for most of the year. Lack of heat make it a chilly space during the colder months, but, during the summer, the sap house is a great space for visitors to use for picnics, a rainy day gathering spot for hikers, and for concerts.

Music sounds especially nice in the sap house; the acoustics are good. There have been concerts in the past held in the building. We are excited to host another concert next weekend: Snake Mountain Bluegrass and the Connor Sisters will perform Saturday evening, August 30th. The timing will be wonderful for a family picnic during the show, and weather-permitting, the sunset will be another great show a little after seven p.m.

The show, from 5 pm – 7 pm, is free and family-friendly. We hope that you will be able to join in an evening of fun and good tunes, good times.

 

 

Maple Syrup Sales Season

by melissa on August 25, 2014 | 0 comments

Glass maple syrup bottles make a statement. We have all maple grades in stock!

Glass maple syrup bottles make a statement. We have all maple grades in stock!

The start of September marks the beginning of the holiday shopping for some. We certainly start to see an increase in the amount of shipped syrup. The new glass bottles are selling well, which has been exciting.

The staff in the Visitor Center was wondering something though, and we hope that you will provide some input.

Is there any interest for a holiday maple package: syrup, candies, maple sugar, and maybe a notecard or other item mixed in with a gift box set?

Even if you have no interest in a maple package, don’t wait to purchase your holiday syrup…we tend to sell quickly out of some grades!

 

Never Lacking for a View

by melissa on August 24, 2014 | 1 Comment

Visitors don’t have to walk very far to be treated to spectacular views at Merck Forest. Anyone that has been up to the farm on even a moderately clear day can attest to the view. We are getting close to the time when the view in the morning is especially great. As the nights become cooler, yet the day still warms, the mornings usually host a bank of clouds that hovers in the valleys, gradually rising and dissipating as the sun makes it over the hills.

View from the apple orchard looking toward the Adirondacks.

View from the apple orchard looking toward the Adirondacks.

There are multiple viewpoints to hike: The Gallop, Mount Antone, Lookout, Viewpoint. Those are the big names, but many of the trails have great vantage points (take Hammond in the fall, when the leaves have started to drop. You won’t be disappointed).

Do you have a favorite view? Share it with us, if you would like!

Reading the Landscape

by melissa on August 23, 2014 | 0 comments

Wood chips left under an aspen. A woodpecker had been scouring the tree looking for insects to eat.

Wood chips left under an aspen. A woodpecker had been scouring the tree looking for insects to eat.

We often talk about “reading” the landscape. How can you look at forest and understand some of the many natural interactions that take place every day?

Often, it is so easy to walk a trail and not even notice what is happening around you.

Take, for instance, a walk I took with Patty the new education director early in the week. We were hiking up to the farm to have cake for Rose’s birthday, talking about this and that. In mid-stride, Patty looked down, saw a smattering of wood chips scattered across Old Town Road. She looked up above her where a dead aspen stood amongst the other road-side trees.

“Woodpecker,” she said.

It was such a little moment, but one in which I quickly remembered to try and be more observant. Noticing what is happening around you takes more that just looking; observing takes awareness and mindfulness.

What have you discovered on the trails?

– Melissa

 

Game of Logging, Part Two: Preparing for This Weekend

by melissa on August 11, 2014 | 0 comments

TIm drove the team as their skidded logs out of the woods

TIm drove the team as their skidded logs out of the woods

Fern and Arch, Merck Forest’s draft team, are champs at skidding logs.

The farm staff took the horses to the junction of Gallop Road and Old Town to finish removing the downed trees from last year’s Game of Logging class. The draft team used to skid logs on their old farm, but they have not had much chance to exercise their knowledge since moving to Merck. However, with the preparation for the Game of Logging at the end of the week, and the additional downed trees that will come from Friday and Saturday classes, the two horses will be getting a bit more work under their belts (or should we say “harnesses”?).

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