Thursday, February 28, 2008


I was out on the farm by 6 a.m. this morning. The wind-tipped cold was brutal; the temperature throbbing at 18 degrees. My reason for starting this icy morn' pre-sunrise: The television crew was coming.

Apparently, the CW 11 morning news show out of New York City has done some shoots at Howell Farm in the past, and today they wanted to do a segment on cutting your own firewood the old-fashioned way. So, along with four other farm workers, I was there to assist Larry the reporter in his effort to educate his audience on the finer points of felling a tree with a two-man saw and then dragging away the logs with a draft horse.

If not for the frigid temperature I would have found the experience enjoyably bizarre. As far as I know, I ended up on TV in one of the later shots, manning the saw, down on my knees in the dirt, snot running down my nose, wearing a funny-looking hat, shivering, thinking to myself, "Hell am I doing?"

A lot happens at the farm everyday. It's Day Three and I'm starting to learn my way around the morning chores – feed the horses, feed the oxen, feed the sheep, feed the chickens, light the woodstove. I received my first instruction on draft animal commands – "Haw," "Gee," "Git up," and "Whoa." I was cautioned on leading horses on a windy day, because it "Puts the Devil in 'em." I saw firsthand that the cornstalks I grinded up a few weeks ago are indeed excellent for soaking up urine.

More on all that to come soon. And pictures, too.


-I mentioned in my previous post that on the large mirror in my bedroom are written the words, "Scream Vodooo!!" I've been studying the unruly, double-lined penmanship of the message further, and I'm now less certain about the content of the second word. The message may in fact read, "Scream Wooooo!!" which strikes me as an entirely less ominous incantation to have written on one's bedroom mirror.

-I also mentioned the interns scheduled to join me in weeks to come. They're still coming, but I heard today they may actually be living in another house across the street from the farm, which means I'd have the farmhouse to myself the next three months. Either way, I'm eager to meet them.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


I moved into the farmhouse today.

I sit now at the kitchen table, writing in my journal, which I'll transfer to my laptop computer and the Internet later.

This house has been lived in by generations of interns before me. I'll have it to myself for the next seven days. In one week another intern starts – a former computer programmer from New Jersey, I'm told – and a few weeks after that a farmer from Nepal is to join us.

I am glad to be here first. It gives me a chance to snoop without boundary, and I'm also happy to observe that I have landed in the best bedroom (and by best I mean warmest.) The second bedroom in the house is both smaller and colder, and the third bedroom, while larger, is a floor higher and coldest of all. I'll take the heat.

My room and the rest of the upstairs is strewn debris, as if this were a grungy frat house at a farming college – with layers of relics left behind by past inhabitants. I plan to push back against the mess, but first I thought I'd document some of it:

-Two exciting posters on my wall: "The Evolution of Agriculture," and "The History of Farm Implements."

-On a large mirror, a message written in permanent marker: "Scream Vodooo!!"

-On top of some drawers: A camouflaged bag with a long zipper, perfectly sized to hold a rifle, and a large piece of black cloth on which is printed a colorful scene of four karate masters jumping and kicking one another.

-On the floor: A well-worn soccer ball.

The room attached to my room is a common area with a couch and a TV and bookshelves. On inspection, the shelves are dominated by classic tomes of agricultural wisdom, such as "Genetics of Livestock Improvement," "The Finest Fowl," and "Leather as Art and Craft." There are old CDs scattered everywhere, and old VHS cassettes tapes, too. Judging by its proximity to the VCR, the last tape watched was, "Scooby Doo and the Alien Invaders."

I'm hungry and tired, so that's all for today. But first one more list. Concerning free food, I was told this morning that I have access to all of the following:

-A practically unlimited supply of fresh farm eggs.

-A practically unlimited supply of potatoes, as long as I eat them within a month, after which they will start to get soft and disgusting.

-A large cabinet full of jarred tomatoes and tomato sauce, canned sometime last year.

-A large bag of frozen pesto.

-A heaping sack of dried black beans.

So far, I'm most excited about the sauce, with the eggs a close second.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Two summers ago, I drove across the country and back—the American road trip. After some 5,000 miles, I found myself in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and decided it would be prudent to get the oil changed in my Camry. So I stopped by the local Grease Monkey. I remember the oil change as unremarkable, except that it took them longer to complete than promised.

Today, nearly two years later, I received a coupon in the mail from Grease Monkey of North Dakota, addressed to my New Jersey place of residence. "$5 Off Full Service Oil Change," only valid at their Grand Forks location.

Hey, thanks, I'll swing by after work.

Sustainability Tie-In:

If you haven't heard, the common knowledge that you should change the oil in your car every 3,000 miles no longer applies to the modern vehicle. Depending on the model, manufacturers recommend 5,000, 7,000 or even 10,000 miles between oil changes. According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, which did a study, three-quarters of Californian drivers change their motor oil more often than needed, generating millions of gallons of waste oil every year in California alone.

Check it:

I start fulltime at Howell on Tuesday, at which time my intention will be to post here faster and more furiously. See you then.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


In apparent close coordination with my previous blog posting, the USDA today issued the largest beef recall in American history -- some 143 million pounds from a California slaughterhouse:

The article says the slaughterhouse is the subject of an animal abuse investigation. Where did most of the meat end up? School lunch programs.

A quote from the article: "Federal officials suspended operations at Westland/Hallmark after an undercover Humane Society video surfaced showing crippled and sick animals being shoved with forklifts."

Saturday, February 16, 2008


I watched the movie "Fast Food Nation" last night.

I can't speak to its accuracy, but it definitely paints the act of stopping into McDonald's to grab a burger as something to feel guilty about. The film is a work of fiction – not a documentary – but it uses realistic and graphic footage of a meatpacking factory where the cattle are crammed in, electrocuted to death, and then sliced, diced, and shredded into burger patties as rapidly as possible by wage-desperate illegal immigrants.

I wouldn't say I enjoyed the movie, but it definitely gave me something to think about.

In contrast, I spent the greater part of yesterday afternoon at Howell helping to saw down a dead tree among a grove of Sugar Maples. When it wouldn't come down despite being cut almost all the way through (the top of the tree was tangled up and held aloft by other neighboring trees), I helped yoke a team of oxen – Chris and Jake – who were employed to pull down the tree by means of a long rope. When it finally came crashing down, the oxen then dragged the trunk back to the farmyard, where I trust it will serve its last purpose as firewood.

At the risk of sounding sentimental:

One of the things I've enjoyed most about my visits to Howell Farm so far is that every act is intimate. Need breakfast? Fry an egg from the henhouse. Need firewood? Harvest a dead tree and then get to work sawing. Fertilizer for the fields? Put on your boots and start shoveling. I don't think any animals get slaughtered for meat at Howell, but if they did, it would be an intimate affair, and the people who ate that animal would know where their burger came from. Somehow I think that makes a big difference between it feeling right and it feeling wrong.

Saturday, February 9, 2008


If you should one day happen to receive a jar of Maple Syrup harvested from the sugars of Howell Living History Farm (and you're a hypochondriac), you may ask yourself, "I wonder if the equipment used to boil down all this syrup was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected beforehand?"

Rest easy. I spent several hours yesterday scrubbing down the metal and aluminum parts of the evaporator in which every 40 gallons of sap will burn to a single gallon of syrup. I used a mixture of warm water and white vinegar, and those scruffy, scratchy green pads I associate with doing dishes in the kitchen sink. During most of my labors I was all alone in an old barn, just me and the metal and my thoughts. It was very Zen.

Jim, one of the expert farmers around here, explained to me there's a window of about 8 to 10 weeks -- starting about now -- in which the trees can be harvested for sap. It depends on the weather. I'm not certain I understand all this precisely, but here's what I think I know:

Sugar-laced sap will start pumping up from the roots of the maple trees to the limbs and branches and finally the new buds at the first signs of spring warmth and sunshine. But if the sap were to stay in the new buds all night when the temperature drops back below 32 degrees, the buds will freeze and burst. So on cold nights trees pump their sap back down their trunks. It's this pumping -- up during the day's warmth and down during the night's cool -- that enables farmers to siphon the sap from the outer layers of the tree for use in making syrup.

And what can happen during an unseasonably warm winter such as the one we are now experiencing in New Jersey?

If spring comes early and fast and the temperatures rise and stay high even at night, the trees will pump all their sap from roots to bud early on. The buds will hold the sap and mature quickly. At that point, the trees will shut down their sap pumps, and the year's tapping will be over prematurely, resulting in a poor harvest and less syrup.

In the next few days, however, according to, the temperature is supposed to drop back down again, to the lows 20s at night, and then up to the 40s during the days. Could be good news for all the syrupheads out there.