Letters from the Lodge- June 2016

by merckforest on July 5, 2016 | 0 comments


6th grade Mettowee students in our NGSS pilot program

6th grade Mettowee students in our NGSS pilot program

Haying with beautiful views!

Haying with beautiful views!

Dear Outside World,

It’s been a while since we’ve written, and that probably reflects life on the farm in the summer time. Since the last update, 44 fluffy lambs have been added to our flock! They are almost two months old and are growing fast, but are definitely still worth coming to visit. Peggy Sue’s piglets are also getting big (*sniffle* they grow up so fast), and we’ve moved them and Peggy Sue to wooded areas beyond the chestnut plantation in order for them to get a taste of the wild boar lifestyle. It makes them extra tasty, we promise.

We also have finished our first cutting of hay! The barn loft is stacked with nice quality hay that will keep Fern and Arch happy all winter. The dry weather definitely made getting all of our hay in a breeze this year. However, it does put more pressure on us to irrigate the gardens and blueberries, so we’re in the process of getting that system in place right now. Other things that we’ve done: planted close to 300 more chestnuts in the plantation; led 2-day field science classes for Dorset, Mettowee, and Sunderland 6th graders about forest nutrient cycles and decomposition, in compliance with New Generation Science Standards; Alessia successfully moved Eliot the ram to a new paddock; and Sarah has exhibited just how strong a few months of farming can make you (you too could go from struggling to lift a bale to happily throwing them onto the hay wagon in just 12 weeks!).

The lodge has gotten cozier as Tim, our assistant forester, has joined Sarah and Alessia until he returns to SUNY ESF in August. Not only did Tim surprise us (A & M & our coworker Katie Connor) at our half-marathon in Lake Placid to cheer, but he also supplies us with plenty of ice cream and laughs, and lets us sit on the futon (our only comfy seating). What more could you need from a roommate? Aside from some struggles with the solar panels, which don’t seem to support our new-fangled washing machine, and the continued nocturnal porcupine visits, life on the hill couldn’t be sweeter!

Things to come: Garlic and blueberries will be ready in a few weeks! We’ll have fun activities and a pizza social with NOFA-VT (August18th) going on during Open Farm Week, August 15th-21st. And of course come visit anytime to see the animals, hike the trails, or taste our delicious syrup.

Until the next one,

McIlvennie and McCobb

Letters from the Lodge- April 26th

by merckforest on May 21, 2016 | 0 comments

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Dear Outside World,

Despite the snow today, on April 26th, flowers have finally started to bloom! Since our last foray into blog writing, Peggy Sue gave an outstanding performance delivering her piglets between the hours of 7pm and 7am. We apprentices had the novel experience of collecting the piglets as they were born, cleaning and drying them, keeping them warm in our jackets, and helping them suckle for the first time. Ten spotted piglets are now happily parading through wallows, under fences, and among the chickens.

Another on-farm discovery is the plethora of opportunities to get in some yoga. While our mats at home have sat idle, we have stretched and reached during such activities as sheep shearing (a delicate dance between person and ewe) and apple pruning (a delicate dance in balancing among branches). A sheep-shearing workshop led by Jim McRae and Andy Rice served the dual purpose of providing an introduction to shearing and also getting our sheep shorn. The sheep don’t seem to mind their uneven trims too badly (and thankfully, it’s already growing back). Training the apple trees rounded out our fruit pruning this spring, and we look forward to the blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries to come.

While Merck was the last operation boiling in Bennington County, the time to pull taps has finally come. After providing us with the sap needed to make 1,395 gallons of syrup (roughly 60,000 gallons of sap), the ~3,000 trees deserve a rest. One of the benefits of climbing the steep sugarbush slopes is discovering ramps! These are wild leeks that can be used for tasty dishes such as ramp and potato soup and mushroom and ramp quiche (we can attest to their tastiness).

As the sugaring season winds down, the programming season is ramping up! In May, we will have three sixth grade classes coming in for two-day sessions, a spring ephemerals walk (5/12), a full-moon hike (5/21), an art exhibit opening in the Sap House (5/15), and Meet the Lambs, a morning event to explore the farm, ride the horse-drawn wagon, and enjoy one of our pork sausage biscuits (5/28). We hope to see you here!


Until the next one,

McIlvennie and McCobb

Letters from the Lodge- April 2016

by merckforest on | 0 comments

IMG_3758 IMG_3757Dear Outside World,

Winter has finally arrived! Here at the Lodge, in April… Fun fact: snow panels are 3.14% less effective under two inches of snow. Sarah has learned that she now pays careful attention to the cloud cover. Alessia has learned that she is far too lax about eating food that has been left out or canned two years ago (note: no botulism to report, as of yet). To give some background, Sarah and Alessia are both originally from Ithaca, NY and although they met briefly in high school, and both studied Sustainable Agriculture at Cornell University, their lives eventually went separate ways. Then, the summer following Sarah’s graduation, and a year after Alessia’s, the two happened to encounter each other at an intern mixer in the Adirondacks, where Sarah worked as an outdoor educator for Great Camp Sagamore, and Alessia was a naturalist for The Wild Center. After the mixer, their lives went separate ways again. However, it was not to be the case for long! For it turns out that Sarah and Alessia both coincidentally applied for the Merck apprenticeship, and now here they are.

While Sarah has been at Merck since Valentine’s Day, Alessia joined the Merck team the Monday after Easter. In the last week, we have weathered not only the winter weather, but also the pancake breakfast, the birth of Peggy Sue’s piglets, the return of Eliot the ram, and all too many of Erik, the assistant farm manager’s, puns. For the pancake breakfast, Phil Warren and Herb Troumbley trustingly handed over the reins of the horse-drawn wagon pulled by our draft horses, Fern and Arch, in order for us to drive folks to the Sap House for breakfast. Equally as daunting as driving a full wagon was teaching fifteen three-year olds about how maple syrup is made. However, it turns out that watching small, colorfully bundled pre-schoolers bring “sap” to our “evaporator” (read: an artfully crafted cardboard creation), is pretty darn adorable. After flipping hundreds of pancakes over the weekend, cleaning chimneys on Wednesday, and practicing our drilling skills (reinforcing a pigpen following an escape), we’ve come to realize that this job at Merck is actually an apprenticeship for life.

Though this blog might not have been updated for a while, we hope to shed some light on the quirks and perks of working at Merck.

Until the next one,

Sarah McIlvennie and Alessia McCobb

Education Pilot Program Takes Flight

by melissa on September 10, 2015 | 1 Comment


Today felt like the first day of school here at Merck Forest, at least that’s what Christine Hubbard, education director, said to the visiting fifth grade students from Dorset School. It was, in fact, the first day of the new pilot program: the Merck Forest and Farmland Center / Next Generation Science Standards School Partnership Program, or MFFC/NGSS School Partnership Program.

Chris has been working for months to coordinate and create this new take on education at Merck.

As she wrote in her fall newsletter article, “With the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards by the State of Vermont in June 2013, schools and teachers are shifting their classroom instruction to reflect the new standards, or expectations for student learning.  After talking and working with several local schools: The Dorset School, Sunderland Elementary School, and Mettawee Community School, Merck has developed a multi-day program to help teachers meet the new standards.  The developing program will focus on the 5th grade curriculum this fall, and will incorporate 6th grade in spring, 2016.  Students will come to Merck for several field experiences focusing on decomposition, biodiversity, and non-native and invasive species, using the various farm and forest ecosystems found at Merck.  In addition, Merck staff will also be visiting students in their classrooms to prepare them for some of their experiences on the farm and in the forest.

Students will have the opportunity to explore with a hands-on approach.  They will be involved in a variety of scientific methods: making observations, collecting and analyzing data, and critiquing their discoveries.  In addition,they will be constructing models to show decomposition, as well as mapping the various ecosystems from a strategic vantage points on the farm.  A final culminating Expo will allow students to showcase their work.”

The overall goal with creating an education program like the MFFC/NGSS School Partnership Program is to foster collaboration between Merck and area schools, “helping to bring a high-quality science experience to local students”. In fact, with much of the new literature out on how spending time outdoors, getting in touch with nature, and A Forest for Every Classroom-esque experience, is critically important in helping students learn. With a 62 acre farm, over 3,000 acres of forest, and an enthusiastic teaching staff, we  know that Merck Forest will be able to serve as the outdoor classroom for many area schools.

Mushroom Packaging for Maple Syrup

by melissa on September 1, 2015 | 0 comments

In the summer newsletter Tom wrote an article about the new mushroom packaging we will start to use for shipping syrup. In case you didn’t see the article, a copy of it is here: 

Many of you are aware that we are in the process of making our maple syrup packaging and shipping more sustainable. Last year, we moved away from plastic containers for our organic maple syrup and are now using glass containers. The next step was to find a more sustainable shipping product than even the recyclable foam peanuts.

Over the past few years, we have cultivated a relationship with Ecovative Design, LLC, of Green Island, N.Y. The company designs Mushroom ® Packaging, which is made from agricultural waste material infused with fungal mycelium (root-like structure). We are very close to finalizing the design specifics of a sustainable, high-performing, molded shipping container manufactured by Ecovative and designed to fit our glass syrup bottles.

The result of this collaboration between MFFC and Ecovative will be the first use of Mushroom ® Packaging in the Maple Industry, and it will lead to our organic syrup product being stored in a recyclable container and shipped in stable organic packaging, which can be home-composted or used as garden mulch.  It is our organization’s intent to convert entirely to this innovative approach and to work with sugar makers across the U.S. and Canada to adopt its use as well.

Ecovative’s products are currently used to ship numerous items, including components for major computer companies. Mushroom ® Packaging products also offer a high R-Value for use as an insulating material, which is stable when kept dry, and is highly fire resistant as well (R-Value is the capacity of an insulating material to resist heat flow. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating power).  MFFC is exploring the possibility of using the material in the construction of a new cabin at Clark’s Clearing.

We are very excited to be at the forefront of this initiative and would love to hear from you when you see the packaging in your shipments from Merck Forest & Farmland Center, Inc. later this year.

We have started to use the packaging for the gallons and half gallons. Inside your package you will find a paper that describes some of the reasons for the change. We are inviting your feedback though on the change. Please let us know, good or bad, what you think.


The Piglets First Big Adventure

by melissa on August 5, 2015 | 0 comments

Piglets exploring just outside the Small Animal Barn

Piglets exploring just outside the Small Animal Barn


Peggy Sue’s piglets had their first big adventure yesterday: the doors in their stall were opened to the pasture = Freedom to explore.

Several of the more curious guys and girls poked their noses out the door right away. It took others until the afternoon to step onto the soil for the first time. By mid afternoon, everyone had gotten brave enough to stand just outside the stall door.

Besides some quick forays outside, the piglets still stayed close to Mom, choosing instead to romp hard inside the Small Animal Barn. Peggy Sue has some ornery babies this time around.






The Rehabilitation of Clark’s Clearing Continues

by melissa on | 0 comments

Salem’s Lunch, Learn, and Play Program has been coming up every Wednesday for a few weeks now. The group of middle schoolers has been working with members of our staff to rehabilitate the cabin at Clark’s Clearing (see previous post).

They have been making good progress:

The cabin needed new framing.

Ethan helping one of the students measure a board to size.

Ethan helping one of the students measure a board to size.


Be Brave

by melissa on July 27, 2015 | 0 comments

The team from Be Brave is working with a few of our staff members to start a Hike-A-Thon at Merck. The purpose of the Hike-A-Thon is to raise money  for research of benign brain tumors.

The team from Be Brave is working with a few of our staff members to start a Hike-A-Thon at Merck. The purpose of the Hike-A-Thon is to raise money for research of benign brain tumors.

This afternoon Kathryn and Tom will meet for a second time with team members of Be Brave, a group dedicated to informing, supporting and improving the lives of individuals affected by benign brain tumors and to drive research for a cure. “BE.BRAVE was formed by Riley Callen and Sarah Shehadi in 2015.  Over the past four years both girls have undergone multiple craniotomies to remove brain tumors.”

The young ladies have an incredibly moving story, both of how they met, and the drive they share to create awareness for benign brain tumors (see their story here).

Their team has joined with Merck Forest and Farmland Center to start a Hike-A-Thon (October 3, 2015) that will help raise money for their cause.

“This year, all profits will be split evenly between both Riley and Sarah’s choice research initiatives:  Barrow Neurological Foundation for neurosurgery tumor and hemangioma research and Boston Children’s Hospital for pediatric brain tumor and vascular disease.”

We’ll keep you posted with updates on the event, and we highly encourage you to check out the Be.Brave website. We hope that you will join us in October for a fun day of hiking, music, and more!

Positive Mind. Positive Vibes. Positive Life.

Clark’s Clearing Cabin

by melissa on July 24, 2015 | 0 comments

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Clark’s Clearing Cabin after its construction in 1972.


The abandoned cabin at Clark’s Clearing is getting a major renovation this summer, thanks to a group of junior high students from Salem, NY. Over the past two weeks, and through the rest of the summer, the group will come up on Wednesdays and work with Ethan (MFFC forester) and Tom (Ex. Dir.) to rehabilitate and rebuild the well-loved cabin in the clearing.

Clark’s Clearing cabin was built in 1972 by a team of girls from the SCA (Student Conservation Assocation). The cabin was in use for nearly forty years until the masonry chimney pulled away from the back wall and cause a partial collapse of the building.

This summer, Tom contacted former executive director, Duncan Campbell, about the reconstruction of the cabin, and when Duncan responded to Tom, he sent along this photo of it, right after its construction. (Incase you are wondering, Duncan is the tall gentleman on the right).

It’s Tom’s hope to insulate the cabin (something that the other cabins do not have!) using insulation that is grown from agricultural waste and fungi, another project we are working on with Ecovative Designs–more on this later.

We’ll keep you posted on how the construction goes…


Mark your calendars for the 23rd!

by melissa on July 8, 2015 | 0 comments

Stephanie sweeping out the Small Animal Barn in preparation of Peggy Sue's piglets.

Stephanie sweeping out the Small Animal Barn in preparation of Peggy Sue’s piglets.

Peggy Sue is due to have her piglets on the 23rd of July (just in time for the Snake Mountain Bluegrass and the Connor Sisters concert). For the past few weeks, she has been loving living at the bottom of the apple orchard, sometimes laying in the wet soil, sometimes rooting around for acorns, and always happy for the occasional beet green.

Yesterday, Stephanie and Kate were preparing the Small Animal Barn for Peggy Sue. She will be moved back to the farm yard so that she can farrow (have her piglets) in the smaller barn.

In just a few weeks, you’ll be able to see some adorable little piglets!





A Visit to the Mercklets at Flying Pigs Farm

by melissa on June 12, 2015 | 0 comments


Peggy Sue’s piglets, the “Mercklets”, just after they were born in January.

What happened to Peggy Sue’s piglets? This is a question we often get when a set of piglets moves away.

Usually, the piglets are raised on our farm until they are old enough and big enough to be sent to Eagle Bridge Custom Meats and Smokehouse. The pigs that we care for and raise onsite become the pastured meat that we sell in the Visitor Center.

However, we had a different plan for the piglets born this past January. We still had enough meat in the freezers and did not need more, so we sold the growing piglets to a nearby farm, Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, N.Y. Flying Pigs raises heritage pork and sells primarily to restaurants and Green Markets in New York City.

The Mercklets still like to get a few ear scartches!

The Mercklet gilts still like to get a few ear scratches!

Recently, the apprentices Kate and Stephanie visited Flying Pigs to see their operation (apprentices sometimes do site visits to other farms), to purchase some laying hens, and they also got to check in and see the “Mercklets”!

Dan, the Flying Pigs farm manager (also a former intern, caretaker, and assistant farm manager at Merck), originally bought all ten of Peggy Sue’s piglets. He then sold four of the piglets (including “Chunker” and the sweet runt of the litter) to SVF Foundation in Rhode Island, as they were looking for people-friendly pigs for their operation.

Flying Pigs kept six of the Mercklets: the male will be raised and then eventually taken to Eagle Bridge. The five gilts (unbred females), he hopes to raise as sows that will be able to provide piglets for Flying Pigs Farm. When Stephanie and Kate visited, the five gilts were literally romping around the forested pasture.

Dan pointed out the Merck pig in pasture. Even that Mercklet came over for an ear scratch.

Dan pointed out the male Merck pig in pasture. Even that he came over for an ear scratch.

After saying hello to the Mercklets, and giving them a few ear and back scratches, we walked up to the top of the 200 acre farm to see other pigs on pasture, including the remaining male Merck piglet.

After spending some time exploring the pasture, which is both forested and in open meadow, a good combination of habitat for foraging pigs, the group walked down to the coops to pick out a few laying hens.

Whereas, at Merck Forest we keep only a handful of chickens–just enough to provide eggs for the apprentices–Flying Pigs Farm has nearly 200 layers, and they also keep meat birds in the summer.

Stephanie looking at the unbroken egg, which came from the chicken she was holding in her hand.

Stephanie looking at the unbroken egg, which came from the chicken she was holding in her hand.


Dan wanted to make sure that the apprentices took home hens that were actually laying. Instead of taking birds from the pasture, he grabbed birds from the nesting boxes, handing them to the apprentices to hold. One hen actually was laying an egg as he picked her up, and her egg literally rocketed out of her, out of the coop, and rolled along the ground to Stephanie’s feet! Hopefully, this is a good sign that she will lay when she comes to Merck.

Thanks to Dan and Flying Pigs Farm for letting us come and visit. We are glad the Mercklets are well, and the hens are doing great!


View from Flying Pigs Farm toward Merck Forest and Farmland Center.

View from Flying Pigs Farm toward Merck Forest and Farmland Center.


















Reclaiming the “View” at Viewpoint

by melissa on June 8, 2015 | 0 comments

Plans are in the works for a few of the cabins to have their viewsheds restored. Opening up the views around several of the cabins serves a dual purpose: visitors will be able to enjoy looking at the ridges and mountains again, and the trees cut will be processed and used as firewood for those specific cabins. An on-site operation.

We contracted out to a local logger to start restoring the viewsheds. They have already completed much of the work at Viewpoint Cabin. Please, for the next week or so, refrain from hiking near Viewpoint. As soon as the work is done, we’ll let you know, and then you can go enjoy the vista.

Looking up to Viewpoint from the trail.

Looking up to Viewpoint from the trail.

From Viewpoint looking toward Mt Antone. A clear shot now.

From Viewpoint looking toward Mt Antone. A clear shot now.

All the wood cut to open up the viewshed will be used as firewood at the cabin.

All the wood cut to open up the viewshed will be used as firewood at the cabin.

What happened to the wind turbine???

by melissa on May 29, 2015 | 0 comments


If any of you have visited the farm in the past ten years, you’ve probably heard the more or less consistent swish, swish, swish of the wind turbine as the blades rotate in the breeze. The structure has supplied a small percentage of the power here at Merck since it was erected. There were days when the wind blew so strongly that it would reverberate pressure in the air, like you had rolled down the back windows in your car before putting down the front ones, causing your ears to feel a strange pressure. In gale force winds, the turbine would actually stop turning, so as to not lose its blades.

But, as you can see from the image above, the structure no longer has its blades. In April, the turbine started to make a strange noise, and before we could have someone to come out and look at it, we were subject to high winds late on that Friday evening. The blades fell from the turbine. Luckily, no lambs, horses, or people were out or hurt.

But now the turbine stands on the hill, blade-less.

And it probably will remain that way for a few months more…

We are at an interesting point in the organization, contemplating ways to sustainably provide energy to the site. Until ideas and recommendations formulate into a plan for electricity, the turbine will stand quiet on the hill.






Fiber Artists at the Sheep Dog Trials

by melissa on May 27, 2015 | 0 comments


Ann Gregory of Annie’s Knitting Cabin, Granville, NY was a part of last year’s Sheep Dog Trials and Farm Festival. She demonstrated spinning, as well as selling her knit items.


It may seem early to be posting about the Sheep Dog Trials and Farm Festival, it is seven weeks away after all.

From the staff end of things here at Merck, the end of those seven weeks, the weekend of July 18 and 19, seems closer than you might think. The Sheep Dog Trials and Farm Festival is one of our two main events, and it requires a lot of planning to put on the weekend festivities.

Over the past few years, we have tried to increase the fiber arts component of the festival. Last year, we had a number of regional fiber artists that demonstrated their art, sold their wares, and enjoyed the weekend. This year, we are excited that many of the vendors will return (including Amity Farm Batik and Contented Butterfly Farm).

We’d like to continue to encourage the growth of the event, including bringing in more fiber artists. If you or someone you know is a fiber artist and would like more information on the Sheep Dog Trials and/or vending, please contact Melissa at melissa@merckforest.org


Plowing the Garden, Check

by melissa on May 12, 2015 | 0 comments



The garden is going to be in a new place this year. It will still be just up the road from the wind turbine, but a little closer to the blueberry patch. Moving the garden yearly serves a few purposes: it keeps the soil in good health, and it also allows the apprentices to practice using the horses more. Friday was a beautiful day to be out in the fields. It took a few hours in the bright sun, but Stephanie, Meghan and Kate all took turns working with Fern and Arch to plow the furrows. Now, we’ll be ready to put in a few starts, and sooner than we think the vegetable garden will be in full bloom.






by melissa on May 7, 2015 | 0 comments

Tim and Meghan refashioned the seat to the front of the wagon.

Tim and Meghan refashioned the seat to the front of the wagon.

For the past few weeks, the farm has been working on repairs to the equipment. The RTVs took a beating in this winter’s snow, there is always work to be done on the tractors, and even the horse equipment needs constant looking after. Sometimes it seems like the care for our tools and equipment takes up more time than the actual use of it, but that’s just part of the farm.

The seat on the wagon needed some TLC last week. It was made a bit stronger with better screws, and reattached to the fore of the wagon. Hopefully, it will now be a more comfortable seat for whomever is driving the team.



The week of Sheep Shearing and Wind Shear

by melissa on | 0 comments

Bryan working on taking apart some of the wind blown items at the farm.

Bryan working on taking apart some of the wind blown items at the farm.

Whoops, this post was preprogrammed to go out two weeks ago (before the sheep shearing workshop), but it decided to wait until today to publish itself. We’ll leave it up anyway.

This weekend, as mentioned in the previous post, we are happy to host the second year of the Sheep Shearing Workshop. It comes at the end of a very blustery, chilly, April week. Last week, with its sunny, delightful spring feel, felt like it retreated back to this week’s snow, rain, and WIND. Monday and Tuesday saw some strong steady gusts of air–so strong in fact that some of the sign posts blew over and the trellising in the blackberries took a hit. The farm staff, while waiting for the wind to die down, took the time to look at seeds, make some orders, and stay snug indoors while tackling some machine maintenance and farm planning projects.

The wind also made cabin checks all the more exciting this week, as there were more than a few trees down on the trails. Luckily, Ethan with his hatchet and Katie with her saw were able to get through some of the larger debris.

Katie and Ethan tackled a down birch on Old Town Road this morning.

Katie and Ethan tackled a down birch on Old Town Road this morning.

Hopefully, the participants in this weekend’s sheep shearing workshop will have a warmer environment in which to learn, and a little less wind shear to worry about.



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



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!














Ladies of the Gold Lamé

by melissa on February 17, 2015 | 0 comments


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.

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


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


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


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!