Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Monday, April 28, 2008


One aspect of old-timey farming I haven't been able to get into is old-timey reading. The farmhouse has bookshelves lined with dusty tomes (tombs, really) on every imaginable farming discipline, most published decades ago.

During coffee breaks of the past week, I noticed Intern Tom was eagerly devouring the pages of an old, thick book devoted entirely to the topic of feeding horses. That guy's going to be a great farmer. Meanwhile, I was flipping through the latest issues of Wired and Popular Mechanics, which I smuggled into the nineteenth century as contraband.

For some people it's the nutrition of horses, for others it's American Idol, but the subject I've been crushing on these past months is the technology of alternative energy. I think energy, like food, is one of the elemental human commodities. The acquisition, production, and use of energy is again and again at the core of big issues, no matter what point in history you're looking at.

Big changes to the way we make and consume energy are now looming because of peak oil and global warming. I'm endlessly interested to read the latest article that claims to know what's going to happen next, or what new technology will be the one to rise up and save us. I find it all fascinating, just as good as following the Yankees.

Plus, this stuff is important. The ripple effects of our energy dilemma are already starting to crash on distant shores. Skyrocketing food prices around the world – there have been riots because of them from Haiti to Bangladesh – are largely attributable to American farmers growing more corn for ethanol fuel and less crops for food. Another contributing factor to the food crisis is recent droughts around the world, which many scientists say are made worse by global climate change, which, in turn, is largely caused by the release of carbon in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. It's all connected in its own weird, complicated way.

In my ongoing, informal survey of the American media as it writes about alternative energy technologies, I've read many articles that seem pretty impressed by one particular technology, and then the next week another, and then the next week another. I think the best writers point out that it will probably be a cocktail of technologies that will help us produce renewable energy in the near future, and that no technology has yet seen the big, game-changing breakthrough needed to compete on cost with coal and oil.

More recently, though, I've noticed a few large trends -- adjustments in the conventional thinking of the amorphous, floating blob that is the collective consciousness of the people who write about renewable energy for major publications:

- Corn ethanol is on the outs. Many writers now seem to be in on to the idea that corn as fuel does more harm everywhere than good.

- Hydrogen cars vs. electric cars used to be a debate, but now most writers seem to have come to the understanding that hydrogen is a long way off. Many articles in the past year or so have touted plug-in hybrid vehicles as shaping up to be a really good near-term solution to our transportation needs. Even though these vehicles haven't even arrived yet, they're already starting to feel like old news.

- Newest on the mass media's radar seems to be solar thermal power. In just the past two months or so, it seems to me that this technology has gone from being considered just another good idea to maybe THE great idea that will actually help us wean off coal.

Time magazine references it on page 44 this week, and here's an article from which comes close to declaring the world saved:

- For other clues on what might be the next big thing, I simply look at whatever Google has embraced. They're already supporting solar thermal, which has just recently gone mass media mainstream, but you might have a few second left to get in early of high-altitude wind energy:

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Saturday was a day of potato planting.

In order to grow potatoes, you are going to need a potato. Take you knife and cut your potato in half and then half again. Walk your four potato chucks to the nearest fresh-plowed furrow. Place your first chunk, skin-side up, into the furrow. Now, place your second chunk about 10 inches away down the furrow. Repeat this process with your third and forth chunks. Now repeat the whole process about a hundred billion times.

The following types of potatos are now resting peacefully in the soils of Howell, waiting with the oats for some rain: Green Mountain, Russet, and Yukon Gold. I'm told the Russets make the best French fries.

One successfully planted chunk will sprout as many as five or six new potatoes. They should be ready to harvest in September.


In this latest masterpiece of cinéma-vérité, Tom weeds a field of young oats.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Intern Tom and I have been making the rounds after work to the small farms of Central New Jersey – several organic vegetable farms, an orchard, and two grass-raised cattle ranches among them.

I've enjoyed our trips. They've reminded me what a beautiful place my home state remains to be in its most pastoral pockets. I've been all across the country and I think its green hills and fields are outshone by none.

These visits (in addition to my recent reading, and the natural observations that come with living on a farm for the first time) have also caused me to think more about the food I consume.

I've never been a vegetarian, and I doubt I ever will be, but I don't really like the alternative either – continuing to eat meat from cows, pigs, and chickens that live unhealthy lives in factory-like conditions. I bought my first pound of grass-fed ground beef a few weeks ago from a local cattle farmer, and this is what I think I purchased:

- The knowledge that the cow I was eating lived in a way that seems decent to me. It roamed a pasture eating grass, which is exactly what a cow will do when it is left to do as it pleases.

- The hope that the beef I was eating was healthier than the beef I would get from a cow raised in a feedlot and forced to gorge on corn and often worse.

- The further knowledge that my money was going to support a local farmer, whose farm might otherwise become a cement factory or something other than the beautiful natural vista it currently is.

In my idealized future, I'd like all the meat I consume to come from local, organic farmers who raise their animals humanely. Maybe one day I will follow through on this. But even in the last week, I've eaten many servings of the "other" meat. Why would I do this?

Two of the biggest reasons are certainly cost and convenience. The pound of ground beef I purchased fetched about $6. That's expensive, especially on an intern's salary. I could afford it if I was dearly committed to the notion of eating Good, but so far the temptations of Cheap have won out. The other factor is Easy. Meat that comes from factory-raised animals is nearly ubiquitous. Especially when I feel like grabbing a quick bite at a restaurant, or I have the option to eat a free sandwich lying around the farm, the convenience of just shoving the food in my mouth and chewing often wins out over some vague moral misgivings floating around the old Superego.

So, clearly, I'll be need to make a decision one of these days either to man up and eat only Moral Meat, or else strike some sort of balance that may at least be better than nothing.

Some of the same eating dilemmas trouble me as I browse the fruit and vegetable aisle of the supermarket these days. I know that the cheapest vegetables are often the ones grown with the aid of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This produce is then shipped across the country, sometimes the world, in order to reach my supermarket -- using up valuable fossil fuels and contributing to global warming. The local organic stuff? Once again, it's often the most expensive. I've heard that subscriptions to some local CSAs run more than $700 a year.

I'm still trying to figure out what is the most responsible yet reasonable way to make my food-buying choices. There are many variables to consider, and economics is certainly one of them. I was talking to Tom today about this, and the ideology he's arrived at is roughly this:

Buying local does the most good. Organic local is best. Falling short of that, when choosing between local non-organic, and non-local organic, go with the locally grown food.

That sounds reasonable to me.

Better yet, if you can: Tend your own garden.

One other thought that didn't seem to fit anywhere else: The pigs we are raising on the farm seem so friendly and doglike to me that I might just have to give up pork altogether.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I haven't posted in a while about the fieldwork that's been ongoing about the farm. Here's a quick update as I steal a few minutes on the Internet at lunchtime:

- The oats appear to be growing. They are green at this point and above the soil not more than a few inches. Tom drove the horses and a spring-tine weeder through them last Thursday in order to get rid of some undesirables. (See first two pictures below.) There hasn't been decent rain in a few weeks, which isn't helpful to the oats, but so far they still seem happy.

- Meanwhile, one of the next fields we've been preparing to plant will be feed corn. We've all done some plowing, and then on Saturday Rob hooked up a big roller to the oxen and crushed clods. (See third picture.)

- Potato planting is scheduled for this coming Saturday in last year's cornfield, which is way out on the far side of the farm. I haven't seen what's going on out there in the last few days, but I understand there's been some tractor assistance in order to help get it ready.

- Growth also continues among a field of spelt that was planted before I got here and so far have nothing to do with. My one contribution is that I drove a tractor over the corner edge of the field just because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


When times get busy at Howell Farm, and there are just not enough horse hours in the day to complete the work that needs to be done, a band of superheroes from the future appears at just the crucial moment: the tractors. They come from a planet called The Green Barn.

This past week included the following tractor interventions:

- I watched a big, green John Deere blaze through the hayfield up on the hill as it spread bags of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

- I listened with gratitude to a report that last year's cornfield was now free of stalks thanks to another tractor. The previous week, two other workers and I spent an entire morning cutting stalks by hand. Between us, we cleared only a small fraction of the massive field.

- I drove a smaller John Deere around the farm under the pretence of needing to move some equipment. This the horses could have done, but the tractor made it easier, and anyway I think Farmer Rob could tell I was eager to take a spin.

Of the many things I've come to appreciate while working on a historical farm, one of them is how tractors changed nearly everything. By my gross calculation, one modest tractor can finish more work in a day than 10 strong horses. Factor in all the time a tractor teamster doesn’t have to spend feeding, watering, cleaning, harnessing, shoeing, and shoveling manure, and maybe a tractor is 20 times as efficient.

What I think is crazy is that, in the long view, tractors haven't necessarily made the life of the average farmer any better (or at least any more lucrative.) Many farmers with a stable of tractors need to work longer and harder than they ever did in order to make a living.

According to Howell's website, farmers of 100 years ago kept a larger percentage of the money they made from what they grew than they ever did prior or since. It was during this period that horsepower was at its peak.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Today I discovered what must surely be the hardest work on the farm – shoeing and unshoeing horses.

I have very little farming experience on my side – seven weeks now – to be able to make such an assessment with any authority. (For example, I've yet to work the hay collecting rig nicknamed "The Man Killer.") Nonetheless, I can't imagine anything being more intense than the tryst I had this afternoon with the feet of Mac the workhorse.

For my money, the squat is the most grueling weightlifting exercise there is. Now, to remove a horseshoe, just imagine holding yourself in a suspended mid-squat position. During this uncomfortable time, you will also be holding up the foot and leg of a large horse by squeezing it between your crotch and your knees. Meanwhile, your hands will be required to perform with both strength and dexterity as they operate a pliers-like tool that grabs a nail in the bottom of the horseshoe and wrenches it slowly out. Multiply this action by eight nails in each shoe, consider that horses traditionally have four feet each, and then realize that getting the horseshoe off is probably the easy part compared to trimming a hoof with clippers, filing it flat, and then nailing on a new shoe, acts that require not only all that is described above but also the eye and skill of a craftsman.

In all, I took the nails out of one horseshoe and started to clip two hoofs. And that was on Mac, who is the oldest, smallest, and most docile of the six horses on the farm that still do work. After completing just a fraction of the shoeing required for a single horse, I was utterly exhausted.

Part of it is that I might just be a 170-pound weakling, no doubt. But in the next stall over, Tom was working on Barney, the second smallest, oldest, and most docile horse. I heard him exclaim aloud, "This is hell," and that's before he shouted in pain a few minutes later as he tweaked a muscle in his back.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Welcome to my first Farmbedded video segment.

My hope is to capture some decent footage of the farm, add narration, and then edit it all together into something watchable. Between farm chores and blogging, however, getting it all together is going to take some time. Until then, I'm going shoot Blair Witch style and just post a few of the raw shots.

In this first video, Intern Tom transports four hungry draft horses from their pasture to the barn. Here are all five and a half minutes of the drama, uncut.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


A band of Howell Farmers (myself included) loaded two horses and a plow onto a trailer Tuesday and traveled to inner-city Trenton. There we joined forces with about 150 local school children and plowed the soil of Garden of 3 Points on Chestnut Avenue, a community garden located in a not-so-great looking urban neighborhood.

Howell Farm has been plowing this small plot of earth annually for some two decades now. The garden is maintained by a changing group of about a dozen gardeners from the community who plant and care for whatever vegetables they choose to grow.

(The project is sponsored by a Trenton-based community development organization named Isles, Inc. See their website

Inner-city plowing will be an experience that stays with me. I appreciated the striking contrast of city streets to old-time draft horses, and even more so I enjoyed watching the excited kids interact with the animals and get down in the furrow for a chance to steer the plow.

Howell Farm doesn't often travel like this, but groups of school children from New Jersey and Pennsylvania do visit the farm on an almost daily basis. Sometimes the kids say funny things or ask odd questions, and when a good line is overheard it is invariably passed on among the staff during coffee break the next day. This is my favorite way, as retold dramatically by Farmer Jeremy:

"Wait, you mean chicken is a chicken?!"

And then there's this question, from an inner city youth, visiting a farm for likely the first time:

"Where did you get all the dirt from?"

I can't decide if these two questions merely represent the phenomenon of "Kids say the darndest things," or if they are profound commentaries about something gone askew in modern times.

Monday, April 7, 2008


In the second half of the book, Michael Pollan leaves industrialized corn production behind and examines a different kind of farming – the kind practiced by Swoope, Virginia, farmer Joel Salatin.

Salatin describes himself as a "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer," and, more succinctly, a "grass farmer."

I made a few observations in an earlier post about how Howell Farm recycles itself – many of the crops grown here become feed for the draft animals, and then the manure from the draft animals gets used in the fields as fertilizer, helping grow more crops.

That's a fairly straightforward example of the kind of symbiosis that can take place on a farm free of the monoculture prevalent on many large American farms. What Salatin does is supersize those natural efficiencies by multiplying the elements of his web – he raises chicken, beef, turkeys, eggs, rabbits, pigs, tomatoes, sweet corn, and berries on 100 acres. Most every would-be waste product goes to enrich some other aspect of the farm, and at the core of everything is his pasture grass.

Grass is all-important in this web because it can do something farm animals and we humans cannot – convert solar energy into food energy. Up the food chain, the animals eat the grass, and then we eat the animals. Which means, indirectly, we're eating sunlight, and when that happens the result is usually for the better of all involved – the environment, the animals, and our own health.

Now that I've finished the book, I'm intrigued at how Pollan's comparison of grass-based farming to corn-based farming breaks down into an even more fundamental comparison between a world fed off the sun versus a world fed off fossil fuels (see my previous post on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer for more on that.) When we choose the sun, we get healthy food grown in healthy places. When we choose fossil fuels, we get food not as healthy grown in unhealthy places, but it comes to us far easier.

I'm struck that the same choice now faces America in regards to global warming and human-caused climate change. When we choose fossil fuels over solar and other renewable energy sources, the consequence is that the Earth's natural system of climate regulation is thrown out of balance. And yet, it is those same fossil fuels that provide so much of the easy abundance of modern life – electricity, transportation, and the ability to grow more food than once ever thought possible.

So I'd break the question down even further. Given the choice, do Americans want it easy, or do they want it Good? Having it both ways might not be an option.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


Bob Hughes, one of New Jersey's preeminent beekeepers, spoke at the farm today. I learned:

- A thriving honeybee colony consists of 60,000 to 80,000 workers (females), 150 to 250 drones (males), and 1 queen.

- New Jersey is home to about 10,000 honeybee colonies.

- The qualities of a good beehive location are: Sunlight from early in the morning to late in the day, protection from the north wind, and a water source within half a mile.

- In New Jersey, the major sources of nectar for the honeybee are (in the order they become available in the spring): Maple trees, dandelions, black locust trees, poplar trees, and clover.

- The average lifespan of a queen bee is 2 to 5 years. Her role is to be an egg laying machine -- as many as 2,000 in one day.

- The average lifespan of a worker bee is 6 weeks to 3 months. During the period of a worker bee's life when it goes out collecting nectar and pollen, it works from dawn to dusk.

During the question and answer segment, I asked Hughes about Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious bee die-off that was in the news last year. Hughes said the current health of the New Jersey honeybee is "very good to excellent." From 2006 to 2007, New Jersey lost 40% to 60% of its honeybees, according to Hughes. From 2007 to 2008, loses were down to just 3%, he said.

Howell Farm has three hives of its own, all located next to the small bridge that crosses the stream between the visitor's center and the farm. They're easy to miss. This is what you're looking for:

Thursday, April 3, 2008


I've now progressed roughly halfway through Michael Pollan's bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The book came to me highly endorsed by several of the finest recomenders I know, and so far it has not disappointed. Pollan devotes most of his first 200 pages to the topic of corn production in America, and it is gripping and informative throughout. I consider this a great testament to Pollan's ability. (Time magazine devotes five pages this week to a cover story about corn, and though informative, I feel it falls short of gripping.)

Perhaps most interesting to me in these first 200 pages was Pollan's discussion of the significance of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. In 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber discovered how to "fix" nitrogen – that is, harness atmospheric nitrogen for use as a potent fertilizer by combining it with hydrogen and heating it with fossil fuels. I'm not doing a good job of explaining it, maybe, but the point is that crops need nitrogen to grow, and before 1909 the amount of nitrogen in the soil on earth was limited.

According to Pollan:

"By 1900, European scientists recognized that unless a way was found to augment this naturally occurring nitrogen, the growth of the human population would soon grind to a very painful halt."

A geographer named Vaclav Smil claims (as paraphrased by Pollan):

"Fixing nitrogen is the most important invention of the twentieth century. Two of every five humans on earth today would not be alive if not for Fritz Haber's invention."

This is because chemical nitrogen fertilizer allows vastly more food to be grown per acre, and without it there wouldn't be enough nitrogen on earth to grow the crops to feed the billions of people who now live on the planet. Indeed, Pollan points out, after Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China, the first major order the Chinese government placed was for thirteen giant fertilizer factories.

During coffee breaks this past week, which are usually spent at the farm's kitchen table in the company of Intern Tom, Farmer Rob, and sometimes Farmer Jeremy, I tried to incorporate what I've been learning from the book in our conversations. One idea I posited was, "So, if the whole farming world suddenly went back to organic production (meaning no use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer), the result would be death from starvation of billions of people."

I'm not sure if that's even true, but conversations that followed soon settled into this related question: "If you're a farmer who thinks it's a good idea to grow food in a natural, sustainable way, but you know that adding a moderate amount of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer will double your crop yield per acre, does it make sense to do?

Tom said "no," but Rob said "yes, maybe" and they're both guys who are believers in the many merits of organic farming. Nitrogen is a complex issue.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


For the past several weeks, Howell Farm has been peddling goods at the Farmer's Market in Hopewell on Wednesday afternoons.

Didn't know there was a Farmer's Market in Hopewell? Neither did I, even when I got there. Until the weather warms up, the market has been conducted inside a nondescript shed next to the old train station, alongside the tracks. Once it gets nice, we'll move to a much more visible spot out on the lawn.

If you want to go, use Google Maps to locate "Railroad Place, Hopewell, New Jersey." Then when you get there, look for our big roadside sign. The market is open from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

We Howellers have been selling honey, maple syrup, bags of whole wheat, and bags of black beans, all produced on the farm.

Joining us most afternoons is a local baker (who sells a fine loaf made from Howell's wheat) and also a trafficker of specialty foods – delicious cheeses, olives, and spreads, as well as a variety of meats.

Hope to see local Farmbedded readers out in Hopewell one afternoon. (Produce will also be sold at the market as it becomes available in weeks to come.)


New Jersey farmers gathered in Trenton by the hundreds today to protest Governor Corzine's plan to eliminate the state's Department of Agriculture.

Corzine says eliminating the department and delegating its duties to the state EPA and health departments will save taxpayers $4 million a year.

Many farmers view the move as a slap in the face. They value the ag department as a support system and as their advocate in government:

(Although I did overhear one person muse today, "But don't farmers hate the Department of Agriculture?" Another person replied, "Yes, but less than the EPA.")

According to the Associated Press, New Jersey would be only the third state to eliminate its agriculture department, joining Alaska and Rhode Island.

I snapped some photos at the rally, held on West State Street in front of the Capitol. I counted 113 tractors.