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Friday, August 5

Sterling visit Day 4 (Wednesday June 8)

Today I woke up at 5:30am to join the 6:15am Grazing Lab class. Let me just tell you, this was super amazing. I thought at first it was going to be moving the animals from one lot to another (grazing rotations) but it wasn't. Not any less fun or interesting though!

We hiked through several pastures on the property identifying, noting, and discussing different types of native plant species. Today the students were focusing on the toxicity levels for grazing animals of native weed plants. It was just fascinating watching the instructor tromping through this tall grass and sporadically stoop down, pull a weed out and ask the class what it was. She used hints like, it's has a square stem, or it has a spiral growth pattern, or it's kind of sticky/fuzzy/prickly/etc. Honestly, to a layman like myself, we were just walking through a bunch of grass but to the trained and educated eye, a 2x2 patch of "grass" was chock-full of different plant species (by the handfuls sometimes)!

Did you know that certain grazing animals learn from their previous generations which plants are safe and which are not? Others learn through a very specific communication system in their bodies, an animals will know almost immediately by way of direct communication from their stomach (or stomachs) which plants are good for them, which they need more of, which plants are healthier than others, and which to avoid due to the different levels of toxicity. Did you know that there are over 30 different types of Thistle species alone?! And, even more interesting, the Canadian thistle (the one we're all used to seeing, super spiky with those deceptively gorgeous purple flowers at the top) has one of the highest nutritional values for grazing animals! For obvious reasons, they simply chose not to eat it and therefore, their stomach systems cannot tell the brain to continue seeking and eating it! Did you also know that grazers will follow a certain grazing order per their needs and plant-diets? Yes, it's totally real, one type of grazing animal will eat only certain plants and move on leaving plenty behind (yeah, I didn't even know that animals could eat from a patch of "grass" so specifically) for the next round and the next round of grazers. 

At Sterling for example, the kids and lambs along with the Llama are first in line for prime grazing, behind them the draft horses, and last of the grazers are the cows. The chickens are actually sent in after all the other animals to clean out the grubs and bugs from all the manure left behind because this process of feed/drop makes for the most fertile and rich compost needed for the specific lands up here! Isn't that just AMAZING!? I mean, who learns this kind of stuff in the first place (I'm talking our Grandpa's great-great-great-Grandpa TOTALLY knew what was up)!!!

So the class has decided to begin an experiment based on the 10+ year research studies of a local farmer who has proven not only do grazing animals learn from each other, learn from their own internal communication systems, but they can be taught to eat outside of their comfort zone/normal dietary selection in a mere 10 days! The class chose to begin training the kids, lambs, and the llama to start eating the Canadian thistle (it's abundant up there and very good for them, just a little uncomfortable). So they set themselves a schedule, each day they'll break up the thistle from tiny to gradually larger pieces and throw it in with a "treat." Within 10 days, the animals will know what it is that they're actually eating (eventually the treats will be taken out completely) and they'll actually begin seeking it out on their own in the pastures (have no fear, the woman's study showed that she's never once in her 10+ years of researching this subject seen an animal get internally injured from eating prickly plants)!

I was quietly chuckling to myself for much of the morning thinking, who gets this excited about GRASS and DUNG?! I DO!!! It's not unlike Steve's super excitement over light bulbs and insulation (he even said to me at one point, now I know what it's like to finally have found the one thing that's so seemingly mundane to the rest of the world but just grips you with fascination and feeds that insatiable hunger to keep learning)! I can't wait to be taking this class myself. The whole morning I was wishing I had brought my notebook and camera but I didn't want to interrupt the real classmates as they were learning (at sunrise) and because I thought that we'd be moving the animals, I didn't want to have to keep track of a bunch of little things that could be lost, trampled, or dirtied and ruined. But you bet your bottom dollar I went right home and added the class title to my little list of "Classes I definitely want to take."

After class was over, I went back home and enjoyed a lovely little breakfast with Phyllis. I just love this woman!

The rest of my morning was spent in Literature of the Rural Experience; another class I thoroughly enjoyed! They have been reading My Antonia which I remember reading ages ago in junior high or high school. I certainly don't remember having the same appreciation for the story as these students had which made me want to read it again now that I'm in a much more mature, confident part of life.

One thing I haven't really been mentioning about these classes, aside from wildly interesting and gripping course material, these class sizes are 3, 6, 8 (I think there were about 8 students max in the Farmstead Arts class which was the biggest class size I've seen yet). There are 3 students in this literature class and there were only about 6 or so in the morning's grazing class. I just can't get over the amazing connections being developed here. With a class size of 4, there's no way you'll be lost in the crowd because there isn't one. I truly believe that Sterling wants nothing more than ultimate success in all of their students and therefore, they've built this gorgeous method for which it becomes inevitable.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Sterling library (testing it for it's studious/motivational environment; it passed). I had plenty of homework for my online literature class back home that I've been putting off in my pure awe of everything Vermont/Sterling. Not wanting to waste the rest of my semester, I forced myself to sit down and just get it done (plus, Phyllis has been on me like any Grandma would be "to keep it up, stick with it")!

On my way there, I ran across the Driving Lab class (yet another one I cannot wait to get into)! I haven't taken a lot of pictures today but I made sure to grab some of the horses I am so inexplicably enthralled with!

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