Thursday, May 29, 2008


A few photos from yesterday:


The final day of Intern Tom's internship was yesterday. He departed in his Geo Metro early this morning. His immediate future holds a road trip to Tennessee with friends and a few weeks off. Then, for the next year or so, he will be farm manager at Kimberton CSA, a 10-acre biodynamic vegetable garden near Phoenixville, PA.

Here's the link to Kimberton's website if you're interested in learning more about it:

During his time here, Tom spoke of his goal to one day own his own small farm, grow organic vegetables, and use draft horses to accomplish the work. I bet he'll succeed. In fact, he's the recipient of a coveted Farmbedded Endorsement, a very prestigious award in the world of farm blogging. He deserves it. Not only has he already devoted years to learning about organic vegetable production, he's also a natural horseman, a philosopher of sustainability, he plays the guitar, is a good cook, and he can fix your computer, too.

If you own more tillable acres in New Jersey than you need and like the idea of helping out a young farmer trying to make the world a healthier place, you should send your contact information to me at, at which point I will pass it on to Tom.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


On Farmer Pete's recommendation, I've begun reading "The Gift of Good Land," a collection of essays by writer Wendell Berry. I had never heard of Berry before I got to Howell, but many of the other farmers and interns here are familiar with his work, which includes essays, poetry, and novels. He has built a reputation for himself as a proponent of small farms and healthy communities, and as a critic of unfettered industrial progress.

In what I've read so far, many of Berry's musings on what constitutes "progress," and what it's good for, match some of the same thoughts and questions that have risen in my mind recently. Berry writes:

"The coming of a tool, then, is not just a cultural event; it is also an historical crossroad – a point at which people must choose between two possibilities: to become more intensive or more extensive; to use the tool for quality or for quantity, for care or for speed."

In a separate essay, Berry describes a small farm on which the farmer makes decisions based not on what plantings and practices will be most profitable, but based instead on what makes him happy:

"His aim, it seems, is not that the place should be put to the fullest use, but that it should have the most abundant life. … One finally realizes that on the Lapp farm one is surrounded by an abounding variety of lives that are there, and are thriving there, because Elmer Lapp likes them. And from that it is only a step to the realization that the commercial enterprises of the farm are likewise there, and thriving, because he likes them too."

In Berry's foreword to the collection, which reads like his summation, he writes this about the small farm:

"Its justification is not only agricultural, but is a part of an ancient pattern of values, ideas, aspirations, attitudes, faiths, knowledges, and skills that propose and support the sound establishment of a people on the land. To defend the small farm is to defend a large part, and the best part, of our cultural inheritance."

I haven't read enough yet, or thought on what I have read long enough yet, to decide which of Berry's philosophies coincide with my own. Today, however, I drove two horses around the farm, pulling a manure spreader, and as I looked around at the green fields and blue sky, and at the animals, and at the people here working and visiting, I couldn't help thinking that there is something very satisfying about being here, and in doing the work I have been doing. It is that birthright, I think, that Berry is urging us to hold on to.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


"What do you think about no-till farming?"

Farmer Rob's opinion coincided with much of what I've read. He agrees that no-till is a good method to prevent soil from eroding, but the downside is that conventional no-till requires the use of large quantities of chemicals. So there's a tradeoff.

In any case, no-till farming is nothing new. Many farmers across the country have been spraying and planting for a long time. The chemicals and crops used in no-till are often specialized product systems sold by huge agribusiness companies. (If you've heard the term "Roundup Ready," that refers to crops that have been genetically modified to withstand the spraying of Roundup, which is often used on no-till fields to kill unwanted growth.)

The reason I say "conventional no-till" in a previous paragraph is because there is another method of no-till farming being experimented with more in recent years – "Organic no-till."

Organic no-till farming doesn't use chemicals. Instead, it relies on crop rotation and mechanical means (like big rollers with teeth that get pushed or pulled through a field) to clear cover crop growth and keep weeds at bay.

Other sustainability minded farmers continue to use some pesticides on their no-till fields, but far less than they would using only conventional no-till practices.

Here are a few websites that show some of the experiments and progress that have been made in this area:



Though promising, the general sense I get from my reading and conversations is that totally organic no-till farming is still very much a work in progress. Intern Tom worked for a time on a farm in Pennsylvania that experimented with organic no-till. He said the results were "weedy."

Friday, May 16, 2008


The corn planter is now ready to do its job.

Today in the green barn we counted how many seeds the planter dropped over 30 feet of concrete, performed some high math, made adjustments, and then counted again. The counting may have been slightly off because Maggie the farm dog kept stealing kernels and eating them.

Ideally, Howell Farm shoots for 20,000 seeds per acre. Modern corn farmers will drop as many as 30,000 seeds.

In the picture, you can see the other interns watching Farmer Rob explain the mechanics of the planter. From left to right that's Peter, Tom, Matt and Rama.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


In the midst of Tuesday's runaway, car-wrecking, bridge-smashing excitement, I failed to mention the day's other noteworthy event. Two new interns, Matt and Peter, began their tours of duty at the farm.

Peter arrived in the morning, and Matt arrived in the afternoon, not 15 minutes before the horses broke away. That's quite an event to witness right out of the gate.

Peter grew up in nearby Pennsylvania and has a background in carpentry. He's already expressed interest in helping out with projects around the farm. Today he's scheduled to work on the bridge with Farmer Ian, who is also a carpenter by trade.

Matt graduated last week from Paul Smith's College in upstate New York. His degree is in adventure tourism and he's said he'd like to end up working for a living history museum one day.

There are five of us interns now. All big guys in our twenties or early thirties. We walk around the farm like a big posse, sniffing around for interesting jobs. It's nice to have the camaraderie, but one downside is that the real farm work that needs to be done is getting thin. With two interns, the load was about right. Now, with five, there's a bit more standing and watching.

I can also report that a typical farm intern's appetite is stupendous. Multiply that by five and we're churning through a lot of food at each stop, like a swarm of locusts. Yesterday at lunch the crew went through a dozen eggs, a big pot of couscous, a big pot of black beans, bread, canned peaches, and a few bananas.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


At roughly 3 p.m. today, the orange seat on the back of the roller snapped clean off.

This sundering set off a series of events strange and fearsome. (And, since no one got hurt, I can say this enthusiastically, awesome.)

It started with Farmer Ian, who was working behind two horses out in a distant field. Ian was seated on the back of the roller, crushing clumps of soil. The roller was hitched to Bill and Jess, a cumulative 3,500 pounds of beast.

The seat broke, and Ian hit the ground, falling backwards. Simultaneously, the horses spooked and took off at a breakaway gallop, running faster than I ever thought they could. The roller, still attached to the horses, thundered behind them, urging them on with its noise and momentum.

I watched this runaway train take off from several hundred yards away. The other interns and I were down near the barn, just about ready to call it a day. We all started running in the general direction of the horses, each to the place we thought they might be headed.

As I ran up the trail from the barn towards the visitor center, I watched the horses streak past and enter the parking lot area. Then I couldn't see them anymore for a half minute, but I could hear them as they and the roller smashed across the gravel.

Suddenly the horses reappeared, still sprinting hard and wild. Maybe 50 yards from me now, they turned and continued their charge directly toward me. I was on one side of the small stream that runs through the farm, and they were quickly approaching on the other side. The rumbling was growing louder, and it sounded to me like a movie soundtrack getting ready for something dramatic. No one else was anywhere near yet. I threw my hands up in the air and shouted "Whoa!" hoping this and the natural barrier of water might convince the horses to stop.

With about 25 yards left between them and I, the horses showed no signs of pulling up. I decided to sidestep a few yards up onto the narrow footbridge that crosses over the stream. The amazing thing that happened next is that as the horses reached the stream, which they cross nearly every day, they turned instead for the bridge, which they never cross. In the second I realized that I still wasn't safe, I jumped to the side. The horses crashed onto the wooden planks. SLAMMO!!! The bridge wasn't wide enough for the roller, and the side rails of the bridge ripped off during the collision.

Finally, as the horses reached the end of the bridge, their momentum ran out and they stopped suddenly as the roller became wedged in a jumble of broken wood. I was the first to reach the horses after that. I grabbed Jess's halter just in case, although I don't think those horses were going anywhere at this point. Within 30 seconds the others farmers arrived. They helped hold the horses and started to unhitch them.

No one was hurt, neither Ian nor the horses. The only causalities were two of the vehicles parked in the parking lot, which the horses sideswiped with the roller during their rampage. One of the vehicles was Ian's brand new pickup truck, which ended up with a few small dents. The other was my '93 Camry, a real classic. It's got a smashed rear breaklight, smashed rear blinker, and a cracked bumper.

That sucks. But I like the story.

"Dude, what did you do to your car?"

"Oh, runaway horses."


Picture one was taken on a cell phone shortly after the horses crashed onto the bridge. That's me in blue.

Picture two gives you an idea of my view right before the horses decide to try to cross.

Picture three is the orange seat that broke.

Picture four is my broken car.

Monday, May 12, 2008

No-Till Farming?

John McCain gave a big speech on global warming and energy policy today. Here's an AP article if you missed it:

Joseph Romm, one of the climate/energy policy bloggers I read on the subject, had this critique:

"McCain’s cost-containment strategy for his climate policy is a fraud. It substitutes a huge amount of low cost, phony emissions reductions both here and abroad — called offsets — for actual domestic emissions reductions."

One of the offsets that McCain touts is something called "no-till farming." I have to admit, I don't know a lot about no-till farming, yet, but rest assured the subject will be at the top of the agenda during coffee break tomorrow morning.

In the interim, I consulted my trusted advisor, Wikipedia. She tells me right away that no-till farming was once called "chemical farming," which doesn't sound especially wholesome:

"Some farmers [use] a 'burn-down' herbicide such as Glyphosate in lieu of tillage for seedbed preparation, and because of this, no-till is often associated with increased chemical use in comparison to traditional tillage based methods of crop production."

Glyphosate, if you're not familiar with it, is the generic name for Roundup, manufactured by argibusiness giant Monsanto. Roundup has come up in conversation on the farm at least a few times. Farmer Jeremy used to work at a job in which he had to spray the stuff. He says that when it first came out, everyone told him it was safe and non-toxic, no worries. But a few years later, that changed – a few studies found that apparently it's not-so non-toxic. (A quick Googling reveals that the safety of Roundup is still very much up for debate.)

Anyhow, I also have no idea whether no-till farming reduces carbon emmisions. But here is the abstract of an article in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, which Romm cites in his post:

It is widely believed that soil disturbance by tillage was a primary cause of the historical loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) in North America, and that substantial SOC sequestration can be accomplished by changing from conventional plowing to less intensive methods known as conservation tillage. This is based on experiments where changes in carbon storage have been estimated through soil sampling of tillage trials. However, sampling protocol may have biased the results. In essentially all cases where conservation tillage was found to sequester C, soils were only sampled to a depth of 30 cm or less, even though crop roots often extend much deeper. In the few studies where sampling extended deeper than 30 cm, conservation tillage has shown no consistent accrual of SOC, instead showing a difference in the distribution of SOC, with higher concentrations near the surface in conservation tillage and higher concentrations in deeper layers under conventional tillage. These contrasting results may be due to tillage-induced differences in thermal and physical conditions that affect root growth and distribution. Long-term, continuous gas exchange measurements have also been unable to detect C gain due to reduced tillage. Though there are other good reasons to use conservation tillage, evidence that it promotes C sequestration is not compelling.

Friday, May 9, 2008


In the past week I've been exposed to some high technology of yesteryear that works without the aid of electricity. One example was a sound powered telephone that converts sound waves into a signal that can be heard on the other end without amplification. Another was a crystal radio, which picks up radio stations and plays the signal through headphones, again without electricity. Tomorrow is "Back to the Future" day at Howell, during which some of these gadgets will be on display.

I recently tried building my own crystal radio from a kit designed for 10 year olds. My efforts have thus far been unsuccessful. Everything's connected, but no sound.

Something I've realized from my time at the farm is that some people here have "The Knack." Farmer Jim, especially, has The Knack. This means that he sees something mechanical or electrical, understands after a little observation and trial and error how it works or should work, and is then able to fix it.

I seem to lack The Knack, unfortunately. In third grade I won the school invention contest, which involved designing a simple machine from a shoebox and like materials that could dispense any three objects of your choosing (I used marbles). My machine was simple, sleek, and devastatingly effective. My secret was using levers made out of plastic spoons.

That was the pinnacle of my mechanical career. Since then, I've bolted a few things together, but that's about it. The Knack is weak in me. In the same way some folks see a machine and understand it, I see a machine and think, "Black Magic." I thought maybe my mechanical aptitude would improve with a little practice, and I think maybe it could if I keep at it, but for the most part I think Great Fixers are born, not made.

On the upshot, I do seem to possess a certain gift for hooking together TVs, DVD players, satellite receivers, cable boxes, cameras, computers, and other similar technology. So at least I'll always be entertained.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


I saw something interesting today in the wheat field.

The wheat has grown by now to a height of about 8 inches, and the whole field is green. But within this sea of green, two narrow strips of darker emerald span the entire length of the field.

Farmer Jeremy was there with me, and he explained what had happened:

The entire field was sprayed some time ago with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. During the process of doing laps back and forth across the field in a tractor, however, it worked out that two strips ended up getting a double dose of nitrogen. The result was these two extra-green lanes of wheat that appear unmistakably healthier than the rest of the crop.

If you've been reading the blog these past several weeks, you know I've written several times about the benefits and drawbacks of nitrogen fertilizer. But this is my first real look at the power of the stuff. My first-glace conclusion: Yeah, it works, and apparently doubling the amount you use works even better.

Monday, May 5, 2008


I spent my Saturday at Washington Crossing State Park. This was for the annual New Jersey State History Fair. I was there to represent Howell Farm, along with two of the horses and a handful of farming colleagues.

I was bedecked in the clothes of a late nineteenth century farmer, meaning I was wearing pants with suspenders that pulled up to about my belly button, maybe higher. All around me were a mash of historical figures – Revolutionary War soldiers, Civil War soldiers, singing pirates, and pretty ladies in those Victorian dresses that make their waists look like toothpicks.

One impression I was left with was that that children's games of yesteryear were poor at best. At the games exhibition, kids were left to beat a hula-hoop-shaped ring with a stick to see how far they could get it to roll. That was it; that was the game.

At another exhibit, however, kids could get their hands on a wooden rifle and go through drills with a Continental officer, everything from fake loading to fake firing to fake charging the enemy. Comparing these good times to the hula-hoop game, I understand now why the Continentals were so eager for a fight.

I think Howell had a good showing as well. Out in a nearby field, kids lined up behind the horses and took turns steering the plow for a few yards. I think the best moment was when Abraham Lincoln himself walked up and showed us peasants how it's done.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Ramachandran, a Nepalese farmer, is the newest intern to start at the farm. He is scheduled to be here for the next 8 months.

First, a short briefing on his homeland:

Wikipedia tells me that 8 of the world's 10 highest mountains are located within Nepal, including Mt. Everest. The country is bordered by Tibet on the north and India on all other sides. Until 2006, Hinduism was Nepal's official religion. Buddhism also has a strong presence in the country. The birthplace of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama is located in southern Nepal.

Rama lives within 5 kilometers of Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal. This region is known for getting a lot of rain, and for its sharply rising elevation. According to Wikipedia, which has never led me astray, "In no other place do mountains rise so quickly." Rama says many foreign tourists come to his corner of the world for "rafting and enjoying."

Rama is about 30 years old and already owns his own farm. He grows vegetables, including cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, and radishes. He is married and has two children, ages 5 and 2. While he's gone, his two brothers will work his farm and keep everything going.

I don't know yet exactly why Rama has decided to come to the United States. His English is limited. But I do know that he came through a program called "Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture," which is sponsoring him. He will learn to work with oxen in more efficient ways (as well as other sustainable farming methods), with the goal that he will be able to return to his country and spread the knowledge.

In my first, difficult conversations with Rama, I've been able to ascertain one reason why he and the farmers he lives near don't use tractors. The hills are so steep that oxen work much better. He's the first farmer I've met for whom draft power isn't a luxury but a necessity, which makes me reappreciate a lot of what I've been learning these past few months.

I also learned that Rama rides a motorcycle. That's cool.