Monday, January 28, 2008


In other farming news, Bill Gates announced last week at the World Economic Forum that he is donating $306 million to help farmers in poor countries. The link:

Sunday, January 27, 2008


In colder times, I would have spent my day yesterday out on the ice of Howell pond, helping saw the ice crop into 16x24-inch blocks, hooking the blocks to the pulley system on the ice ramp, and finally storing the blocks in sawdust at the bottom of the ice house.

Unfortunately, this winter the ice is only an inch thick.

According to the ice harvesting veterans I spoke to:

Anything less than 4 inches of ice and it's too dangerous to go out there for risk of falling through. During an average ice harvest, the ice is usually 6 or 7 inches thick. To use the horses on the pond, the ice must be at least 10 inches thick. And the best ice harvest anybody could remember was 14 inches.

So there was no ice harvesting yesterday, and the chances of it getting cold enough the rest of the winter to take another crack at it look doubtful, at least according to the long-term forecasts. But I still learned a lot about the practice:
  • Ice must be tended like a winter crop. When it snows, the ice needs to be cleared off, or else the snow cover can act as an insulator and prevent the ice from getting any thicker. In other cases, the snow can get trapped under a layer of ice that freezes on top of it, creating ice blocks prone to breaking apart at the weak layer of snow.

  • The ice house at Howell holds about 25 tons. Ice stored properly there -- with sawdusk insulation -- can last three years. (A block of ice will melt about 30 percent each year.)

  • A hundred years ago, if there were a warm winter with no ice on the pond, the farmers would have had to buy northern ice shipped down from Maine. The ice that was used yesterday in some of the demonstrations was either bought or left over from last year.

  • Back in the day, if you wanted a cold drink, you wouldn't drop ice into your glass, you'd put your glass or bottle into the ice bowl. That's because there could be some nasty things in the ice itself (dirt, mud, animal waste, etc.).
Some photos:

Here's me sawing some domesticated commercial ice, just for kicks. Kind of like shooting fish in a barrel.

Maggie the farm dog likes to chase chunks of ice.

The view down the ice ramp.

One inch of ice will support the weight of four geese.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Yesterday was my first day of work at Howell -- I'll be making several visits before my internship proper begins at the end of February.

The morning's first order of business was to coax the sheep from their pen into an area called the Market Garden. I assume the Market Garden is where vegetables that are grown for a market are cultivated, but at this point that's just a guess. (Being the new guy, I'm trying to refrain from asking too many annoying questions all at once.)

Rob, my internship coordinator, explained our purpose: If the sheep eat in the barn and drop their manure there, somebody will need to shovel it up later and take it to where it's needed as fertilizer. Since the Market Garden can indeed use some fertilization, it's easiest to let the sheep make a "direct deposit."

The farm recycles itself. The animals' manure is put into the fields to help the crops, the crops grow, and then the crops are fed to the animals. Or, in other cases, the animals sleep on the crops.

My job the rest of the day was to feed a mountain of dried cornstalk into a fodder chopper. (I was introduced to this machine by being told it was one of the most dangerous on the farm. Apparently, somebody's arm was broken some time ago when it--the arm--got caught in the big iron wheel that spins on the side of the chopper. Needless to say, that's definitely preferable to mangled inside the chopper.)

I don't have a picture, so I'll try to describe the setup: A machine with sharp, rotating metal teeth is attached to a heavy fabric belt; the other end of the belt is attached to the spinning pulley on the side of a farm tractor. The result is very much like a wood splitter. I fed the stalks into the feeder, a powerful grinding noise followed, and they came out the other side as stalk dust. It was very satisfying.

After a few hours, I had a giant pile of shredded cornstalk before me. Three different farm workers came up to me individually and waxed on about the amazing and apparently one-of-a-kind qualities of shredded stalk as animal bedding. Apparently, it soaks up animal urine like nothing else. So there you go.

Note: My next visit to Howell will be for the Ice Harvest on January 26. Until then.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Concerning the pumpkin. This berry is a favorite with the natives of the interior of New England, who prefer it to the gooseberry for the making of fruit-cake, and who likewise give it the preference over the raspberry for feeding cows, as being more filling and fully as satisfying. The pumpkin is the only esculent of the orange family that will thrive in the North, except the gourd and one or two varieties of the squash. But the custom of planting it in the front yard with the shrubbery is fast going out of vogue, for it is now generally conceded that the pumpkin as a shade tree is a failure.

-Mark Twain, 1870

I can only hope my study of Twain's agricultural writings will serve me well in my coming endeavor.

I know nil about farming and I have never blogged before, so this is something new for me on multiple fronts. It will be my goal here at Farmbedded to document the lessons, achievements, and follies I expect the next several months to present.

What I'll be doing:

As a journalist embedded on a farm (get it, "Farmbedded?") I will be living and working for three months at Howell Living History Farm in Titusville, New Jersey. As a farm intern, I envision myself shoveling a lot of manure, but my hope and expectation is that I'll also learn many things about all different aspects of running a farm and growing food.

The particularly interesting thing about Howell is that its primary purpose is to preserve and practice the animal-powered farming techniques of the late-nineteenth-century. So they farm here like it's 1890. I've already met the oxen and they are as big as SUVs.

Why do this?

Part of it is that I'm a reporter. I believe the interrelated stories of sustainability and self-sufficiency, energy and resource management, global warming and climate change, are issues critical to humanity that need to be covered from all angles by knowledgeable writers. Like many Americans, I know very little about where the food I consume comes from and less about how the new ways of food production have replaced the old. Howell seems a good place to start my education.

And part of it is I've just always wanted to live and work on a farm for a while. Anyone else feel that?

I won't actually be moving into my room at the farmhouse until February 26, but this seemed the right time to start this blog. (I will be making several working visits to Howell before then.) The farm calendar promises upcoming activities that include "Ice Harvest" and "Maple Sugaring." I will keep you, Esteemed Reader, updated on every experience as it happens, although my initial blog postings may be infrequent.

I'm eager to get started. Below is a passage from a letter Inez Howell wrote in 1974, in which she announced her decision to donate her family's farm to the public as a Living History Farm:

And the barn. The rugged old individualist, pigeons in its belfry, and bats, too, and barn swallows swooping in and out -- because life lives on other life -- wooden plough and oxen, treasured manure, sowing and reaping -- Harvest Home and fiddlers -- swing your partner and steal a kiss. Sleigh bells and up before dawn, fragrance of mint as you herd the cows up from the meadow, with the sun slanting across the Delaware. And church. And spring again.