Monday, March 31, 2008


During the final week of the month of March, lambs started to fill the sheep barn, but the weather remained largely lionish – cold and windy.

When I made my first visits to Howell in February, New Jersey was undergoing what I described at the time as an "unseasonably warm winter." The ice harvest was stymied because there was only an inch of ice on the pond, and the maple syrup season looked as if it might be a dud because it was getting too warm too quickly.

The journalistic wheels in my head were already turning. If the pattern of warm springs this part of the country had experienced over the past five years continued, I might end up with an interesting angle – how would an old-time farm that grows crops in an old-time way be affected by the brand new reality of global warming?

But since that February 9th post, something different happened: It stayed relatively cold.

I wouldn't say the cool weather New Jersey experienced during the second half of February and most of March was extreme, but it felt cold in comparison to the coming warmth I'd imagined in my head. Here's some data I dug up for my native 08822 Zip Code:

-Number of days in February on which the high temperature reached 65 degrees Fahrenheit, my unscientific threshold for what I consider to be a comfortable spring day: 2 (Feb. 6 and Feb. 18).

-Number of days in March on which the high temperature reached 65 degrees Fahrenheit: 0

-During the final 15 days of March, only two days topped 55 degrees.

-The rest of the country has been experiencing a cold March as well (and a frigid winter overall). In comparison, March 2007 nationwide was the second warmest on record.

So what's happening here? Is global warming receding, exposed as the hoax conservative talk radio knows it to be?

Not likely. One climate blog I read regularly,, has several posts on the subject:

The basic theory on this year's cooling, if you don't want to do all the reading yourself, is this:

"The cooling trend through the year was due to the strengthening La Nina, and the unusual coolness in January was aided by a winter weather fluctuation."

If you enjoy conspiracy theories, there's another explanation you might find intriguing. Google the word "chemtrails" and you'll find thousands of links proposing a theory that the U.S. government is already engaging in climate modification tests – using jet contrails to seed the atmosphere with particles that reflect sunlight and cool the Earth. I haven't seen any evidence that makes me think this is true. But it doesn't strike me as totally implausible that secret attempts to geoengineer away the global warming problem are already being experimented with.

Here's a news report that summarizes the conspiracy theory:

Sunday, March 30, 2008


To see additional Farmbedded photos that don't make the blog (or to see bigger, higher quality versions of the photos that do), check out my new Picasa Web Album:

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Today at Howell, Jeremy hitched the four biggest horses to a soil-pulverizing contraption called a spring tooth harrow. In addition to being the final step of field preparation before the oats can be planted with a grain drill, it made for a decent photo.

I had an interesting conversation with Jeremy about how it's a lot easier to find a good plowman these days than a good harrowman – likely because plowing is more glamorous, he said. I laughed, because I didn't realize there was glamour in either plowing or harrowing.


On Wednesday at midday, I entered the brooder in the chick barn to stoke the coal fire as I've done many times this past week. The first step in the process is to clean out an ashtray at the bottom of the stove, transferring the ash to a metal bucket using a small shovel.

In order to get more ash to fall down into the tray, the stove is equipped with a tiny lever on its side that operates a grate. The more your turn the lever, the more ash falls down through the grate. Turn the lever too much, and you start to get hot coals in your ash.

Well, I turned the lever too much.

As I removed the iron plate at the base of the stove that holds back the ash, a significant heap of orange coals poured out onto the floor. (Now consider, the floor of the brooder was covered in dry wood shavings that had been cooking at 95 degrees for the past week.) Aware of the danger, I moved quickly to shovel up the hot coals and scoop them back into the tray. My performance was less than perfect, because in my scooping I managed to scatter a number of the coals further from the stove and onto a greater quantity of the shavings.

I watched with increasing apprehension as the wood shavings alighted and started to burn. My response was I think sensible -- to stomp on the flames with my boots. Incredibly, this didn't do the trick. If anything, my stomping seemed to spread the growing fire to whole new areas. I speculate now that perhaps hot coals or burning wood shavings became stuck in the engineered crevices of my Vibram boot soles. I don't know. But the fire was growing.

My next attempt at regulation was to create a fire line of sorts. Using the toe of my boot, I traced a circle in the wood shavings around each hot spot, thinking to rob the fire of fuel. This didn't work at all, and after another 30 seconds of firefighting my blaze was beginning to look like a real threat. All the chicks on the near side of the brooder chirped in horror and ran to the farthest corner, huddling there with expressions of great concern.

At about this point I believe I arrived at the conclusion that I needed either help or water, maybe both. Everything seemed to be happening very quickly now, but here's my best recollection of the exciting conclusion (I'm throwing in a "best recollection" caveat because I know from my reporting experience that participants in stressful events often make poor eyewitnesses):

I ran out of the brooder to the adjacent room in the barn and then out of the door. I called out to the nearest person I saw, which happened to be one of the young ladies who works on the farm. I told her something about finding Jim and telling him I needed help with a fire. (Farmer Jim had been nearby when I entered the brooder, and he's the type of guy who would know exactly how to best squelch the situation.)

Having delivered my important message, I ran back into the barn, located the nearest bucket, and started filling it with water from a faucet located, thankfully, right next to the doorway. I hauled the water back to the fire – I was shocked to find the flames had spread exponentially during my short absence -- and tried my best to deliver a well-aimed splash. The water helped, but I didn't have nearly enough of it, and the fire started to regrow almost at once.

In the meantime, no firemen came running to my rescue. I must have somehow bungled my initial communication for help, so I tried again. As I ran to the barn door for the second time, I found a miscellaneous farm visitor walking past the barn. I sputtered something terse, like "Need help, bring water," and then I turned my attention back to the faucet and a hose lying right next to it on the ground. I fumbled with the hose connector for about 10 seconds as I tried to thread it onto the faucet head in the wrong direction.

Frustrated, I tossed the hose aside and opted instead to fight on using bucket power. It was at about this time that the shadow of Farmer Rob at last appeared in the doorway. He took over the job of assembling the hose as I returned to the scene of the fire with my second bucket of water. As I unloaded it toward the flames (they now covered more than half the floor) some of the water hit the hot stove and sent steam hissing through the air, adding to the apocalyptic dynamic in the small, hot, dark, smoky room.

Moments behind me, Rob entered the brooder with a working hose. He seemed calm in his movements, perhaps even nonchalant. He aimed the hose brooderward and before long the fire was retreating and then defeated.

No chicks died during The Great Brooder Fire of 2008. But let this stand as a cautionary tale to all you out there who enjoy using coal stoves with bottom-emptying ashtrays in rooms whose floors are blanketed in inflammable wood shavings.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Following my entry last week about the chicks arriving at the Post Office, one of the questions I received was whether baby chickens circulating via U.S. mail is an unusual occurrence.

Apparently it is not.

For Howell's purposes, the chicks that arrive in a cardboard carton each year are pre-screened to ensure they are hens and not roosters. In addition to giving up the benefit of gender selection, I've been told that hatching chicks from eggs here would be a difficult process – for whatever reason many of the hens in our henhouse don't possess the motherly instinct to sit and stay sitting on their eggs.

Even taking eggs from the henhouse and putting them in a poultry incubator doesn't always work. As an experiment this year, one of the Howell staff members tried to incubate a number of henhouse eggs. I'm not sure about the details of what went wrong, but none hatched.

Tom, a retired gentleman who visits Howell often (Intern Tom is an entirely different person), grew up on a large chicken farm just down the road. He assures me their chicks used to come in the mail, too. In fact, the practice of sending chicks through the U.S. mail likely started in nearby Stockton, New Jersey in 1892. Local historian Larry Kidder wrote this informative article on the subject:

Now, some unpleasant news:

Approximately 18 of the original 50 chicks that came in the mail last week died within three days of their arrival. One got crushed under a farmer's boot by accident, and the rest dropped dead face down on the floor of the brooder from unknown causes. We do know that a Post Office mix-up led to the chicks spending an extra day traveling, and the die-off may be partly attributable to the extended stress of their journey.

Some further harrowing news:

I nearly managed to kill all the remaining chicks in one cataclysmic swoop. Check my next post for the disturbing details.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


The lamb count this spring is now 7 and rising. The picture below is a fairly representative sample, with the exception that several of the lambs are black, some are smaller, and others are larger.

Also on the farm now are four growing piglets. They came in on the back of a pickup truck a few days ago from I know not where. From what I can tell, they seem to be enjoying their new home in a fenced area adjacent to one of the horse pastures.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I took grip of the ox team's steering wheel for the first time today (as Rob looked on like a nervous man letting a youngster take his prized Mustang out for a joyride.) At my prodding and pleading, the team pulled a disc harrow across ground we've already plowed – breaking up any big clumps of soil in order to get ready for a final flattening and then planting.

There are several ways to influence oxen to go in the direction you might wish them to go. The first is voice commands – "Haw" means go left, "Gee" go right, "Come" means come, and "Whoa" means stop.

The second tool is the ox whip. Hitting an ox on the back with the whip will clue them to go faster, on the snout to slow them down, and on the front of the front legs to slow them further or make them back up.

Finally, there is body position. Walking alongside and slightly in front of the head of the nigh ox (the ox on the left of the team) signals the team that all is well and they should continue on straight. Hanging back alongside the flank of the nigh ox signals the team to turn left, and walking up in front of the team tells them to turn right.

On my first time out, I found that my voice commands were mostly useless, and that the random flailing of the whip in my right hand did little to help me communicate my desires. Body position was my most effective weapon. I walked where I wanted the oxen to go, and sometimes they followed.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Friday afternoon:

Tom, Rob, and I were just beginning to poke into the manure pile with our pitchforks, endeavoring to fill the spreader once more for the oxen to pull out to the fields.

On a hillside in the distance, some hundreds of yards away, the sheep were grazing as puffy white clouds against a green sky. It was Tom, with keen eyes, who noticed that one of the sheep was apart from the flock. Further gazing confirmed what he suspected – a new white speck, much smaller than the others.

Tom climbed the hill as Rob and I leaned on our pitchforks and watched with great interest. When Tom approached the lone sheep, he paused a few moments before reaching down and picking up two tiny objects, one in each arm. The First Lambs of Spring. As Tom came down the hill, the bleating mother kept a close chase at his heels. Tom would stop periodically, allowing the ewe to nuzzle and lick her new young.

Something strange and perhaps wonderful was happening. As Tom finally finished the hill and reentered the barnyard, the giant draft horses in the pasture moved as one to the near fence and then stood at attention, as if each was most eager to be the first to view the new life. It's nothing I've seen them do before. The rest of the sheep, too – all those who weren't pregnant we kept separate from those who were – crowded to the corner of their pen to try to get a better look.

I, too, strained to see. And then there they were – two wooly and wet lambs hanging from Tom's arms. (My first impression, strange though it may have been, was of their resemblance to scraggly white dishcloths hanging damp on a clothesline.) Tom carried the lambs into the sheep barn and we all gave them a looking over. And then we left quietly, leaving the two to their mother and privacy among the straw.

Saturday morning:

A few minutes past 7 a.m., I was the first into the sheep barn as I began the day's chores. The two new lambs were there, huddled in a pen with their mother. Then I looked deeper into the barn and spied two additional lambs – one tiny and white, the other tiny and black.

The smile that surely crossed my face would have been something to see. New life had sprung overnight. For a few moments I lingered there and considered my monumental discovery.

After some time, I thought I'd take an even closer look, so I took a few more steps into the barn.

The sheep I've gotten to know at the farm are at almost all times the most timid and fearful of animals. They run away in blind and unreasoning panic at a first step in their direction. So I was most impressed when that mother sheep advanced boldly to a new position between me and her infant lambs. She might have been a lion, the way she puffed up and started stomping the ground with a hoof. I backed off.

Amazing things all, these past two days. They seem so to me.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


The chicks arrived today in a cardboard box. There are 50 in all – each about the size of a child's hand.

For the next few weeks, their home will be a small room in the back of the tool shed, which doubles as a brooder. My role in promoting their survival will be to help keep the brooder at about 95 degrees, the temperature the chicks like it. This will include stoking the coal furnace at 9 p.m. before I go to bed, and hoping they don't freeze before I return to stoke it again the next morning. When so many chicks are depending on you, it makes it difficult to justify oversleeping that alarm clock.

No lambs yet. But they should be showing up any day now, too. And unlike the chicks, they won't be coming from the Post Office. They'll be born in the sheep barn.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


The soil was dry enough today to get out in the field again and continuing plowing behind the horses. If you have read either of my previous posts on plowing, then you know I haven't exactly been a quick study. My furrows zig and zag in all the worst ways.

This morning went much better. I would go so far as to say it was a solid performance. Ian steered the horses as I plowed, and we kept at it for more than two hours. A good number of my furrows were still less than straight, but for the most part I was able to avoid the bigger mistakes I had been making when I started to get off line and found myself over-adjusting way too much to the opposite side.

What changed? Essentially my whole method, especially in a philosophical sense. On previous plowing days I was grabbing the two handles of the plow in my hands as tightly as possible, thinking a deathgrip would give me the best control. It didn't.

Today I relaxed a great deal and held the plow handles loosely. More than steering the plow, it felt like I was merely guiding it. When I needed to turn, I found I could give the appropriate handle the slightest push and usually that small adjustment would do the trick.

What have I learned? One – I still need a lot of practice with plowing. Two – don't control the plow. Be the plow. Like in Caddyshack.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I have been living on the farm for three weeks now, without my cell phone, without regular access to the Internet, and with an old TV that picks up about three channels.

(How do I update Farmbedded? After work, when I have the energy, I've been driving to the Lambertville Public Library.)

In the last two days, however, my situation of technological isolation has changed. First, I learned that there is a wireless Internet connection radiating forth from the farm's visitor center. I tracked down the farm's technological guru on Saturday, he did something to my laptop, and now I'm set up to feed from the signal 24/7.

Second, I've been waiting weeks now for the landline phone number I had been using at my folks' place in Flemington to transfer to a new cell phone. A procedural snafu within the ranks of T-Mobile dragged the process out over nearly 20 days, but now my cell phone is in hand and ready to go.

I wonder if I'll be better off or worse off to have my 21st century communication tools back.

I've certainly noticed the absence of my gadgets. Yes, I enjoy waking up in the morning and having only my chores to worry about. This is the grand, under-rated, ever-fleeting Simple Life I've stumbled into, and it's pretty cool. But after work, after I've showered, eaten, and twiddled my thumbs for a bit, I start to wonder what's going on in the world. What's the latest drama in Clinton vs. Obama, how are my friends in Arizona doing, what's new on Youtube, and what does say the temperature will be tomorrow?

In normal circumstances, I would boot up the Internet and surf for an hour or so. I'd read articles from my favorite sites, write some emails, look at Facebook for a few minutes, you know, waste of time stuff. But since I don't have the Internet, I go outside and study the new buds forming on the trees, listen to the birds, and start reading that great novel that's been collecting dust on my bookshelf for too long….

Actually, no, I'm making that up.

Three weeks on the farm hasn't done much yet to change my modern thirst for flashing lights and colors. Many afternoons I still find myself switching on the TV and parking my butt on the couch for half an hour, sometimes longer. All I can ever seem to get is Tucker Carlson on MSNBC, who I think is the most annoying guy ever. But I watch him, and then the commercials, and them him again, because I don't know why. I've noticed that sitting in front of the TV usually feels like the most relaxing thing I do all day, even though there's beautiful, unspoiled farmland all around me. It's like I know any other activity would be good, and that Tucker Carlson is bad, but I need my fix.

I'm not one who thinks everything old and natural is good, or everything new and technological is bad. But I am intrigued now to delve into the roots of my compulsion to have the TV on for at least a few minutes every day. I'll report back.

Friday, March 14, 2008


I've received requests from Farmbedded readers for more pictures. My aim is to please, so today I'm rolling out a new segment called "Meet the Animals."

First up is Blaze. Not only is he a horse, he's the elder statesman around here. At 30 or so years old, his days of pulling heavy loads around Howell Farm are behind him. Now he spends his mornings ambling slowly out of his stall, to the water barrel, and finally out to the pasture. He moves so slowly (the poor fellow has arthritis), that I can let him out of his stall, leave to do other chores, and five minutes later come back and still have plenty of time to intercept him if he's failed to point himself in the right direction.

I like Blaze. He's got presence, and a knowing stare.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


The National Animal Identification System is a program first proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture a few years ago that would require the electronic identification and tracking of nearly all domestic livestock – think microchips and computer databases. The USDA's stated motive, as I understand it, is to use the program to protect the American public from outbreaks of animal-borne diseases. That sounds like a good thing – when a disease is detected in an animal food product, the source and history of that animal could be quickly identified.


The NAIS proposal was met with fervent resistance from small farmers, ranchers and other animal owners. In fact, the outrage was so great that the USDA backed off the federal plan in 2006. Now, however, it seems that USDA is working with the states to get components of the program instituted on a state-by-state basis, and again the pages of small farming trade journals are filled with fiery editorials decrying the program.

The arguments against the NAIS generally seem to fall into two categories:

Economic: One editorial I read paints the NAIS as a scheme by agribusiness conglomerates to help themselves look responsible while hurting their competition – small farmers. The corporate owners of massive factory farms support the NAIS, the editorial says, because their animals are born, live, and die at the same location, and a loophole in the program will allow them to give a single lot number to cover their whole flock or herd (rather than tag and track each animal.) With little effort, they will able to show international trading partners the steps they are taking to ensure the safety of their product. And while these big corporations won't have to spend the money to tag every one of their animals, the small farmer -- who can least afford it – will.

The irony in this is that most disease outbreaks occur not on small farms but at the giant factory farms. According to the editorial, the NAIS will change little in how the big factories treat and process their animals. Meanwhile the small farmer raising his animal in a responsible manner will suffer.

Privacy: This argument seems pretty straightforward. Suspicious farmers don't want Big Brother meddling in their business. Microchips and government computer databases aren't popular among the farming set.

Check out this excerpt from a letter-to-the-editor in Rural Heritage:

"I am an anti-federalist, privacy loving southerner, direct descendant of a Revolutionary soldier, and a truckload of Confederate soldiers. … I will not go down peacefully."

Now, I should point out that there weren't any editorials in any of my trade journals praising the NAIS. I'd like to hear the other side of the argument, too.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Half a dozen people have now recommended to me that I read Michael Pollan's bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma. I have the book in my possession now and will report back after I've made some progress.

In the meantime, one might wonder what other reading material is to be found lying atop the kitchen table of a working farmhouse. The pile is ever changing – added to and subtracted from by passersby – but here's an accounting of the present stack:

- Rural Heritage magazine. This bi-monthly magazine is devoted to farming and logging with horses, mules, and oxen. Articles include discussion of farm equipment, multiple declarations of outrage against something called the National Animal Identification System (more on that later), and a thoughtful essay written in tribute to a dead horse that was apparently better than everyone else's horse. A sampling of Autumn 2007 headlines includes "Clydesdale Extravaganza," "The Misunderstood Slow Moving Vehicle Emblem," and "Rulemaking Gone Berserk."

- Lehman's catalog. This shopping catalog contains a wide assortment of specialty knickknacks and tools. Examples include: Lehman's Ice Cream Spade, Pocket Rotary Hair Trimmer, Handheld Weed Torch. I'm told by a regular Lehman's reader that the catalog is a good place to observe if a product actually exists. If it does, the wise shopper then seeks it out for a more reasonable price someplace else.

- Small Farmer's Journal. Another quarterly, but this one strikes me as more technical and probably more useful to an actual farmer than Rural Heritage. Headlines include "Chestnut Restoration," "French Gardening Part III" and "Maintaining Grassland Part II." Once again, there is an essay critical of the National Animal Identification System.

- Lancaster Farming. Whose smiling face can be seen in a big picture on the front page of this weekly newspaper? That's right, Michael Pollan's. And what was one of the first questions he was asked about in his interview? The National Animal Identification System.

So okay then, what is all the fuss about the NAIS? And why are some small farmers pledging open revolt if it goes through? See tomorrow's post for the exciting answer.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I asked Rob today about the difference between old school spray-on Bt and new school genetically-engineered-to-be-a-part-of-the-plant Bt. (See my previous post for some background.)

Here's a concise summary of his opinion: Spray-on Bt is good, genetically engineered Bt is bad.

Here's a more detailed summary:

With spray-on Bt, most of the spray will end up on the leaves of the plant, not the final vegetable eaten by we eaters, and even much of that will be washed away by the rain and cleaning. By the time the vegetable reaches one's mouth, the amount of Bt we might consume is very small.

But in the case of plants genetically altered to have Bt inside of them, there's no dilution of the Bt. We eaters will consume it in a full dose when we bite into that vegetable. Rob said that consuming Bt like this might not make anyone sick in any immediate sort of way, but less is known about what effects eating these GM plants might have over the long term.

In addition, there's an ecological/evolutionary concern associated with Bt being genetically added to crops. In the case of spray-on Bt, it's inevitable that some percentage of plants will get missed during the spraying process, and that some of the bugs that eat these plants will still get their meal and will continue to be healthy and to reproduce. But in the case of crops genetically engineered to have Bt inside of them, there's no variance and thus no chance for ecological checks and balances. Every GM plant will have Bt inside of it, meaning every bug that wants to eat that plant will either have to evolve, die, or go somewhere else. The effect this might have up and down the food chain is unknown and difficult to predict.

(Okay, that was the best attempt by the non-scientist I am to explain something scientific. Any of the ecologists out there want to jump in and correct my mistakes or amplify on these thoughts?)

Rob said something else interesting during our conversation. He said that in Europe the government standard when it comes to altering nature is "Prove to us it's safe." But here in America, the standard seems to be "Prove to us it's not safe."

Sunday, March 9, 2008


C.O.W.S. stands for corn, oats, wheat, sod – the traditional crop rotation practiced at Howell to preserve the productiveness of the soil and keep weeds and pests at bay.

During a rainy snack break yesterday (between coffee break and lunch break), Rob, Tom, and I talked crop and vegetable, of which they are infinitely more informed than me. I asked, "So, sod is like grass, right?"

The commonsense effectiveness of proper crop rotation is fascinating and something I hope to learn a lot more about. I wish I had a tape recorder going yesterday, or a least a notebook, because there were a lot of specific points I would like to remember better. But one of the more interesting concepts was that rotating your crops every year to different fields spaced a good distance apart helps keep the farmer ahead in the race against the bugs. Plant Crop X one season, and the X-eating bugs may find it late in the season and lay some eggs, but by the time the larvae mature, Crop X will have moved football fields away, and the baby bugs will be left with nothing but Crop Y to eat, which they find disgusting.

Similar concepts apply to weeds. Rob said that Howell got away from their rotation one year – not for farming reasons but for program reasons – and ended up with garlic in their wheat. Good for garlic bread but not for a cake.

I also heard of Bt for the first time -- Bacillus thuringiensis. It is a natural soil bacteria that is currently one of the best options organic farmers have for pest control. It is applied to crops in either spray or dust form. The bacteria is toxic to specific insect larva but believed harmless to humans and safe for the environment.

In some of my follow-up reading on Bt on the Internet (much of it from here: I also learned that many of the Genetically Modified crops I've heard ambiguous but disturbing reports about are genetically modified to produce their own Bt, meaning they are inherently resistant to certain pests. The upside is that these crops require fewer toxic pesticides, which are harmful to farm workers, eaters, and wildlife everywhere. The downside is that there is some controversy over whether GM Bt is as safe as the old-school organic Bt. I'll ask the folks around here about what they've heard.

Friday, March 7, 2008


I enjoyed my second crack at plowing today, although it was a limited engagement – just up and down the field a couple times. It was the ox teams' first experience walking a furrow together. Rob's assessment afterward was that Chris needs some strength conditioning.

A good way to test your soil to tell if it's dry enough for plowing: Pick up a lump, ball it together in your hands, and then squeeze it between your thumb and forefinger. If it breaks apart into many pieces like the Death Star exploding, it's ready. If it remains a pasty ball that simply goes misshapen, it's probably still too damp. If you plow when it's too damp, you can damage your soil structure. (Note to Reader: When I learn what soil structure is all about, I will keep you in the loop.)

You can see in the picture below what plowing looks like from behind the team. Those two handles I'm holding are joined to the plow blade, and if you look closely you can see the dirt turning over in front of the plow.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


I'm no longer the new guy at Howell. Tom arrived today and moved into the Intern House.

He seems like a good dude, and in just a few conversations it's easy to glean he's passionate about farming. He left a job in computer programming a few years ago to start learning about farming, and his goal now is to own his own land and farm it.


I got my first taste of plowing today. It was good. The soil I helped turn will be the future home of oats.

Our plowing operation included:

- The animals. We used two different teams of horses, including one team that had never been used at Howell to plow before. They worked so well that Rob and Jeremy started making allusions to plowing heaven.

- The plow. A heavy blade with handles that gets steered through the earth as the horses pull it.

- The guy steering the horses. Holds the lines on the horses, helping to keep everyone going in a straight line across the field at a happy pace.

- The guy steering the plow. (This can be the same guy who steers the horses, but today the jobs were separate). Walks behind the horses as they pull, trying to keep the plow blade straight.

Based on what Jeremy said (I'm not sure if I identified him previously, but Jeremy is the horse guy around here), the stars were aligned this morning for prime plowing. The baseline requirements to go out and plow are that the ground can't be frozen, nor can it be too muddy for the animals to get traction. In addition, the weather was cool for the horses today, the ground was especially soft, and the plow blade and all the straps on the horses turned out to be ideally adjusted on the first try.

So there I was, out in the field on my first beautiful day at Howell. Yes, my new boots where chaffing a bit, but my resolve was strong. I took the plow handles in my hands and the horses started to pull. It's not so easy to steer, I discovered. I was told it's like sailing, but I've never sailed before. I weaved like a drunken driver. If the blade starts to swing too far left, lean left to adjust. Too far right, lean right. The concept is simple, but the trick is in not over-adjusting in the heat of the moment. I'd say I did respectable enough for a maiden voyage, but don't drive by Howell today and hope to see any straight furrow lines out in the field.

I was surprised to find my heart pumping after a few laps up and down the field. The horses do all the heavy lifting, but just walking behind them and keeping the heavy plow upright is hard work. The horses will get stronger as the season goes on, and I'm counting on the same for myself.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


The largest animals at Howell are the oxen -- Chris and Jake. I weighed them a few days ago. (By weigh I mean I worked the slider on the scale. Rob and Jeremy did the hard work of coaxing them onto a heavy platform in the barn.)

Chris, who is seven, weighs 2200 pounds. Jake, age 12, weighs 2140 pounds.

Rob is the primary ox handler around here. He is starting to teach me the basics of caring for these huge, powerful pullers. Slowly, I'm beginning to feel more comfortable around them, although I still scurry away like a frightened mouse when one of them make a sudden movement of hoof or horn I wasn't expecting. My new steel-toed boots came in on Wednesday, and that's helped my confidence some.

A little of what I've learned, starting with the basics:

- "Oxen" are trained cattle. Jake and Chris are both steers -- castrated males. If they weren't castrated, they would be bulls. I asked Rob if anyone ever uses bulls to pull loads, as I figured they might have some extra spunk. Apparently this is not something a smart farmer would attempt.

- Every morning and night Chris and Jake each receive half a coffee can of grain and a big hug of hay. Rob tells me that an oxen's stomach is different than a horse's, so they eat less than horses do but gain weight more easily.

- When you have two oxen together, as you do in a team of pullers, one will try to assert dominance over the other. This includes them trying to mount one another, and also using their horns against one another. But grooming also plays a part. Apparently, the dominant ox will lick the less dominant ox into submission. So when Rob and I groom Chris and Jake with brushes, we're keeping them clean and asserting our dominance.

- The biggest practical difference between oxen and draft horses in a work sense is that one rides behind draft horses, steering with verbal commands and by pulling on their lines. With the oxen, one walks in front, steering them with verbal commands and taps from an ox whip.

On Friday, I observed the ox team in action for the first time, pulling a heavy manure spreader through a field. This was also a first for the oxen, of a sort, because Rob switched Jake from his usual position on the right side of the team to the left. The reasons behind the switch exceed my knowledge to explain them, but you can read all about it here, where Rob writes in detail about the experiment:

The oxen pulled with more speed and vigor then I expected. I had to walk briskly to keep up, and run to get ahead. Several times I crouched down well in front of them to try to snap a photo, only to look up from my lens a moment later to find them bearing down upon me. I imagine they move even faster without hundreds of pounds of machinery holding them back.