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Letter From Farm School

Dug in and flat out: planting time

Tess Morningstar (above) of Hopkinton, a student at The Farm School and a newborn lamb both relax from the stresses of farm life in springtime.

Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe

Tess Morningstar of Hopkinton, a student at The Farm School.

Fourth in a series

ORANGE — It’s 5 o’clock. Time to feed and water the cows. But from the furrow where I’ve landed, they feel impossibly far away. My hamstrings, lower back, and the arches of my feet are furious with me. A day’s worth of persistent black flies have rendered my sweaty skin a map of itchy welts. Rocks jab my ribs and dirt is finding its way up my shirtsleeves. But I don’t have to move for the next two minutes so this lumpy patch of earth is pure heaven. I gaze at the sky, finger the blisters on my palms and let the satisfaction of a hard day’s work soak in. And then I remember we’re doing it all again tomorrow.

In that moment, my previously abstract understanding of large-scale vegetable cultivation became entirely concrete.

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The planting season is officially upon us at The Farm School and until now, my only experience with making things grow came from tinkering on .003 acres of city loam at our home in Medford. Even with my full-time job as a photojournalist, there was always time to fawn over each plant, marvel at earthworms, and clean a manageable amount of dirt from my nails each evening.

But now, no nailbrush is a match for what we’re calling permadirt at the farm — the caked-on result of “gardening” for our 150-family community-suppported agriculture group — and I definitely no longer have time to pat each seedling on the head for good luck. These days, my left hand pinches soil over one transplant with one swift motion while my right hand simultaneously stabs a 6-inch shovel into the soil to form a hole for the next. Stab-plant-pinch. Stab-plant-pinch. What the process lacks in ease it makes up in rhythm. And when I manage to tune out my protesting back and knees and instead focus on matching movement with breath, something like meditation emerges.

I wasn’t alone in my patch of dirty heaven; more than half of our entire class of 15 student farmers were sprawled across the field like castoffs from a retreating storm. Tyson Neukirch, our head grower, congratulated us: We had planted a mile of onions. And this was just the beginning.

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Elsewhere on the farm, life of the furry kind is popping up all over the place, too. Late last month we emerged from lambing season, during which we monitored our 10 ewes for signs of labor every two hours, day and night. Most of the lambs were born without incident or need for intervention. But sometimes, it was more complicated.

“Come on . . . push, girl . . . PUUUSH!” pleaded Josh Pincus, our livestock manager, early one morning as he pulled hard on a slippery lamb that dangled limply from the mom’s backside.

We’d discovered the ewe minutes before, laboring heavily, pawing at the ground, lip curling upward with each contraction. And as soon her baby began to emerge, we saw the reason for her outsized strain: instead of a snout framed by two black hooves, the ideal birthing position for a lamb, all we could see was a snout. Both of the lamb’s front legs were tucked back creating a logjam at the shoulders, which prevented her from slipping through the ewe’s birth canal.

“Lamb? Are you still alive?” Pincus asked, having successfully coaxed one leg forward but anxious at the slow progress.

None of us were sure. We held our breath until a lifeless-looking lamb finally slid onto the hay — a female.

Sides still heaving with contractions the ewe turned and began licking, starting near the lamb’s tail and moving quickly up to her wrinkly neck, clearing away the translucent and glistening birth sack from her eyes and mouth. Minutes passed like hours, but eventually the lamb’s back legs began to flutter. Then, tiny bleats emerged from the straw and the knot in my stomach finally eased. Within an hour, the lamb stood and made her first awkward jabs at mom’s udder. I looked on with quiet awe, grateful and nervous and wondering how this would soon play out in my life — my very pregnant wife (Globe photographer Dina Rudick) and our baby very much on my mind.

The pastures are coming up lush and green, and our cows know they’ll be snacking on them again soon. Tufts of sunny dandelions signal that it’s nearly time to put the potatoes in the ground. The garlic we planted last fall is pushing its robust green shoots from the earth, and we’ll harvest it in late July. By then, we’ll be weeding long rows of tomatoes late into the evening, I will be a dad, and Dina and I will perhaps be one step closer to living the exhaustion and exhilaration of farming all on our own.

Erik Jacobs will send occasional reports and photographs from his apprenticeship at The Farm School through the fall. To read the previous entries, to www.bostonglobe.com/food. To see his weekly photo updates, go to www.ploughandstarsproject.com.

Erik Jacobs can be reached at erikdjacobs@me.com.
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