All spring, summer, and early fall, Erik Jacobs will send occasional reports and photographs from his apprenticeship at The Farm School. This is his third in the series. To see his weekly photo updates, go to www.ploughandstarsproject.com
ORANGE — We forgot to put the sheep in the barn overnight and the gentle morning storm soaked through the coats of our 10 Border Leicesters. Normally rain is no big deal, but today it makes things difficult. Lambing season is on the way and we need to get the ewes out of their year-old fleece, but the March chill has hardened their lanolin-coated wool into a knotty, stiff mass. I flip number 35 onto her back and attempt to steady her wriggling body with one hand. With the other trembling hand, I reach across her pregnant belly, threading razor-sharp shears along her flesh and gingerly begin snipping.
“Shearing sheep is an awful lot like wrestling,” explains Fred DePaul, an expert shearer from Plymouth, Vt., and our teacher for the day. “Except in shearing you get a fresh opponent each round.”
DePaul has been shearing for 50 years — a number of wrestling matches I can hardly fathom as I strain to turn my first opponent on her side.
Before DePaul’s arrival, rumors were circulating that one of last year’s students took so long to shear his sheep it just plain passed out. “I love the students here,” DePaul said, with an encouraging smile. “No one ever gives up.”
Guess I’m finishing this one, I thought, daunted by the sweat and stiffness already plaguing my back.
As a student at The Farm School, I’ve been working out of this barn for six months now, forgoing my stable city life to train for a dream I was no longer willing to defer. We started by hauling in the end of last year’s harvest and now we are getting set to plant out our own.
Just outside the barn, our farmhouse stands as a weather-beaten outpost in an ocean of mud and snow. But signs are stirring that the mucky tide will soon recede. Metal buckets decorate the base of sugar maples, overflowing with sap that we boil down until it becomes syrup. We’ve retired the temperamental wood-fired boiler for the year. And in our greenhouse, a 30-by-72-foot bubble of summer, leek and scallion seeds are already touching dirt and sending up curious green shoots.
That first sprout marks Point Zero in the circular calendar of life on the farm. Over the last six months, we’ve prepared for this moment with classes in botany, crop planning, and soil science. And over the next six months our lives will be ruled by the whimsies of the five acres of vegetables we first unleash from the unassuming little cardboard boxes that arrive regularly on our doorstep.
As seeds, our crops are at their maximum genetic potential, but inclement weather, pests, disease, and weeds degrade their latent bounty. Our job as farmers is to mitigate those threats and then stand back to let the plants do the rest. It sounds simple, but complexity is already starting to reveal itself: $7,000 in potential produce went to the compost pile this week because half our onions failed to germinate.
In our kitchen, where all of our produce for the year comes from our fields and our labor, fresh vegetables can’t come soon enough. We’ve steadily eaten through our winter stockpile of canned tomatoes and frozen chard. What remains in our root cellar are runty, rubbery potatoes and sprouted onions. Fellow farmers Kim Rich and Anne Cavanaugh managed to wrestle a surprise hit lunch of butternut squash falafel out of the slim pickings, but I’m less of a chef and I dread repeating last year’s notorious tuna pumpkin casserole the next time I’m on lunch duty.
Sunbeams burst through our dusty windows a bit earlier and linger longer these days, stretching our working hours: out by 7 a.m. and in by 6 p.m. Once lambing rotations start in April, this schedule will seem downright leisurely. We’ll work in teams to check on laboring ewes every two hours, day and night, and do our best to assist if things get complicated — a task certain to put the awkwardness of shearing in perspective.
A few short weeks later, after the last lamb lies wriggling on the hay, our own baby will follow — hopefully not onto the hay. (I am married to Boston Globe photographer Dina Rudick.) Taken all at once, the impending tsunami of work and sleep deprivation makes me pant a little. But this is what I signed up for: A farm. A baby. A farm and all of its babies.
And that, I expect, is what will really take my breath away.