NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Essex Farm, Essex NY

Signs of spring
The second year of this year-round CSA brings improved preparedness and a deeper understanding of the workload ahead.

By Kristin Kimball

Farm-At-A-Glance

Essex Farm
Essex, NY

Farmers: Kristin and Mark Kimball

First season: 2003

What they raise: Mixed vegetables, dairy, beef, pork, eggs, chicken, dairy, wheat, rye, oats, corn, oilseed sunflowers, maple syrup, cherries, apples, plums, pears.

Location: On Lake Champlain, a little south of Burlington VT.

Marketing strategies: Year-round CSA for 25 families.

March, 2005. The sugarbush stretches across the east-facing slope we see out the kitchen window. In the fall, these maples lit the hill in a red blaze. We're listening to the weather radio with more interest than usual, hoping for the cold nights and warm days that raise the sap from the trees' roots to their buds and tock, tock, tocking into the buckets we've hung on their trunks. We've had a long stretch of almost perfect conditions, and the sap run has been spectacular—so good, in fact, it's taking a lot more time than we budgeted for. The pace of spring is quickening, and the list of urgent tasks gets longer by the day. We have piglets arriving in a few days and haven't got a place to put them yet. I need to design new mobile coops for this year's broiler chickens. The alliums should be started by now on the sunny porch that serves as our greenhouse, but we don't even have all the flats built yet. As usual, time is our scarcest resource.

Meanwhile, though, I'm thoroughly enjoying sugaring season. In the shadowy woods, the snow is still too deep for wheels, so after morning chores we hitch the horses to a primitive-looking sledge that Mark and his friends knocked together just before the first good thaw. Around here, they call it a jumper; it's simply a set of curved hardhack saplings pinned together with homemade dowels, with scavenged boards set between them. Our friend Mr. Ben Christian showed us how to make it as it has been made for generations. On top of the jumper, we've strapped a 300 gallon holding tank, also scavenged. Once hitched, I drive the horses up to the woods, and Mark joins the team of four volunteers who turn out every morning to tramp around the woods hauling 5-gallon buckets from tree to tree. I have the easy job, moving the jumper slowly through the sugarbush so the crew can empty their buckets.

The first few days we collected, the horses were nutty with spring fever, and we had one of those accidents that makes you wince for how much worse it could have been. Coming across a tiny bridge hauling a sloshing ton of sap, the horses hit a bump with more speed than usual. The force of it jounced my feet off the sled, just as the horses spooked at the sound of their hooves on the bridge and pulled hard on the lines. There is nothing to hold onto, so I got pulled off the jumper entirely and landed hard on the bridge, narrowly missing getting hit by the heavy runners. Luckily, I kept the lines in my hands and the horses clattered to a stop, or else it would have been a very bad day indeed. The long stretch of warm days with heavy sap runs has been good for settling them down. Some days they haul 250 gallons at a time to the evaporator, which makes for a good load to drag through the mud on the driveway. Silver, our pluggier horse, had gained weight over the winter—so much that his collar no longer fits, so and we had to take out its pad. But already he's toning up, the pad is back on, and he and his partner, Sam, are settling into the old routine of work.

Once the sap is bucketed into our big holding tank, all we have to do is stand around the evaporator, feeding it wood, checking the levels of the pans and watching the syrup temperature, and enjoying all the company that stops by to see what we're up to. So far, we've drawn off about 30 gallons of syrup. The first quarts went home with our members this week.

Yesterday, Mark and I walked the farm for the first time this spring. The snow's melting fast, and under it there's life. Our winter wheat and rye is pushing up through the frosty ground. Some of the Walla Walla onions we planted as an experiment in the fall seem to have actually made it; so did some heavily mulched Chinese cabbage. In all the fields, the wet soil looks black, rich and promising.

In some ways, we're way ahead of where we were last spring. We are starting with plowed fields this year, where last year we had to break sod. We have a good load of compost made, ready to spread. Most of the machinery we need for the season is in working order. On the other hand, we have about twice as much plowed land to be planted this year. Those beautiful black stretches of turned soil will soon be the scene of our battle against the devilish weeds, and I fear we'll be overwhelmed. Last spring, I was blissfully ignorant of the flood of work that was about to hit us. This year, I know what's coming…and am bracing myself.