Friday, June 27, 2008


Tomorrow is one of the most important days of the year on the farm – the annual Old-Time Baseball Grudge Match between the interns and staff members.

This year’s contest is especially important because the all-time series stands at a deadlock, 10 wins for each side.

Last week, we played a practice game during lunchtime so that all the newcomers, including myself, could get a hang of the archaic rules. For those keeping score at home, the better team won, 8-3, and your hero of the game went 2-for-2 at the plate with 4 RBIs. Then my loyalty-challenged team captain, Intern Matt, threw me off the team in the final inning. He thought I was costing him too much in monetary fines levied by the referee. I call it good-natured trash talking.

Some of the rules of Old-Time Baseball include:

-No strikeouts or walks. Everybody keeps hitting until they hit.

-One out per inning.

-No force outs. Every runner must be tagged or pegged.

Come out tomorrow to check out the game. Members of the public are welcome to join in. It starts at 1:30 p.m.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Back when Intern Tom was still around, we often discussed the merits of farming. On one occasion, he repeated something I’ve heard before, which is “Food always taste better when you grow it yourself.”

I have discovered this to be a myth. (I’ve been snacking from the kitchen garden lately and I have noticed no difference in taste between the three heads of lettuce I planted and the three Tom planted in the next bed over.)

My mother often says, “Food always tastes better when someone else cooks it for you.” This I do believe.

Based on recent experience, however, I now believe foraging to be the most satisfying eating of all. Yesterday, following my close watch this past week, I discovered the very first ripened blackberries of the season. I ate them all in a moment. They were good.

In regards to the blueberries growing in the kitchen garden, they too have been ripening at a rate of only a handful each day. I have made it my practice to harvest a few of the choicest first thing in the morning, lest other diligent blueberriers beat me to them.

Like most things, I suppose, the berry chase often surpasses the enjoyment of berry having.

Consider the recent strawberry harvest. The patch yielded so many strawberries that the other interns and I were able to eat ourselves full and then fill a large pot with the extras. I soon lost all interest in the potted strawberries, and I noticed that they sat uneaten for several days.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Oats are the grain that horses like best, at least by reputation. At Howell Farm, the draft horses receive oats before or after a bout of hard labor. They do seem to enjoy them.

Intern Tom planted this year’s crop of oats back in early April, in the long field nearest the farm’s main entrance. He planted oats with hulls, for the animals, and hulless oats, which are more suitable for us humans.

That was a day full of optimism, with predictions of Tom returning months hence to enjoy a bowl of homegrown oatmeal. It appears now that this optimism may have been misplaced. Unfortunately, a double attack of gooey bug larvae (from cereal leaf beetles) and thistle (a prickly weed) have brought about the premature demise of all the animal oats, while leaving the human oats in jeopardy.

Last week, the decision was made to mow down all of the animal oats and salvage the crop for straw. The human oats were spared, as they're in better shape, but remain in danger.

According to Farmer Rob, the human oats are also more valuable, and thus worth more effort to try to save. That effort would include pulling thistle out by hand. As for the leaf-munching larvae, they seemed to prefer the animal oats, which were planted a week after the human variety. In any case, the larvae are now transformed into beetles burrowed into the soil, and no longer a major threat.

I will keep you all updated on the situation. Here’s a picture of a thistly section of the oat field as it appeared this morning:

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I haven’t posted in about 10 days, which wasn’t my intention, but the onset of some excellent summer weather plus a really busy week contributed to the shirking. I’m now back from my vacation. Some updates:

- My big personal news is that I signed on for another 3-month tour of duty at the farm, albeit in a slightly different role. About 60% of my working hours now will be dedicated to blogging, getting the farm’s dormant newsletter -- The Furrow -- going again, and pursuing some other writing projects. The other 40% will be farm work. I like the mix.

- Haying continues. The potatoes are growing. The oats are being challenged by thistle and eaten by bugs. The wheat is past knee high. The lettuce in the kitchen garden has been my dinner a few nights, and the blueberries growing there are almost ready. A patch of strawberries near the old schoolhouse has yielded more strawberries than I care to eat. Walking around the farm fields today I discovered a strip of blackberry bushes I will be watching closely.

- Groups of young campers will be running around the farm the next few weeks as they learn about the animals and play games. The other day they watched as interns Peter, Matt, Ramchandra, and I brought loose hay up into the ox barn using the big claw. I was working the upstairs when a pulley slid out of position on its track. As I conducted several unsuccessful maneuvers to get everything back in order, the kids started heckling me. I like their enthusiasm.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Our bale count yesterday was 661; the temperature held steady at 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Farmer Jeremy attests that the hottest part of the day is 5 p.m., as by this time the sun has had all afternoon to bake the earth. My own experience had not convinced me that 5 p.m. is in fact the hottest part of the day, but under this premise we started baling at about 1:30, so as to avoid the worst of the heat.

Farmer Jim drove the tractor and baler; Farmer Jeremy ferried wagons; Kyle (a Penn State ag student off for the summer who is the farm's go-to-guy for hard work at 7 feet tall and 300 pounds of muscle) stacked the bales; and I hooked the bales and passed them back to him.

The best thing about working in the heat is that it supercharges your appreciation of the basic. Water never tasted so sweet as yesterday at 3 p.m. The bag of salty potato chips I dumped down my throat at 4:3o was the most nourishing I've met.

After four hours out on the wagon, I was glad when it was over.

In other news, Farmer Gary is on vacation in Tennessee. He reports this about the trip: "This is more fun than baling hay on a hot day."

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Photo 1: Intern Matt setting the jaws.

Photo 2: The hay on its way up.

Photo 3: Kid power on the rope.


Photo 1: Intern Ramchandra dropping bales onto the hay conveyer.

Photo 2: The view from up in the hayloft.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


"The Man Killer" earned its nickname not because it is a particularly dangerous machine (that distinction belongs to "The Death Tedder"), but because it is known for wearing down hardened farm workers.

Yesterday provided a chance to test my mettle. I spent a good hour up on the wagon, spreading and packing the oceans of hay The Killer tried to bury me with. It was strenuous, tiring work, and in fairness to The Killer I know I didn't receive a full dose of her fury. Farmer Rob, who was driving the oxen who were pulling the wagon, stopped often to let me catch up when the hay came faster than I could sort it.

Based on my limited experience, however, I think that this machine is not as mortality challenging as its name suggests – at least not if you take it in the limited shift I did. In fact, I think stacking hay was the harder work of the two. The day after I stacked for a few hours my hands still burned and my muscles ached. Today, though, I'm feeling pretty good.

Watch the video below to see some of the action:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


The cutting, baling, and bringing in of hay continues at Howell Farm this week.

On Saturday, we raised a wagonload of loose hay up into the ox barn using rope, pulley, and a big claw. We hoisted in the last load just a minute before a cell of torrential rain came rumbling through and soaked everything. Our timing was good.

I learned something about the phrase, "Like finding a needle in a hay stack." My youthful imagining of this adage was of distraught ladies of the sewing profession sifting through mounds of hay in search of a needle they had carelessly dropped. On Saturday, however, I was introduced to a real hay needle, a long, slender, solid piece of steel shoved down into a pile of loose hay to help keep it from falling off the wagon.

In truth, I was a little disappointed. The hay needle was three feet long, and weighed a few pounds. Finding it in a haystack might provide a moderate challenge, but not the hopeless labor of futility I had previously associated with the task.

I was also questioned at the farm last week on the origin of the phrase, "Waiting for the other shoe to drop." This has nothing to do with hay, but I thought Farmbedded readers might like to know. Here's what Google told me:

"Its source would seem to be the following story. A man comes in late at night to a lodging house, rather the worse for wear. He sits on his bed, drags one shoe off and drops it on the floor. Guiltily remembering everyone around him trying to sleep, he takes the other one off much more carefully and quietly puts it on the floor. He then finishes undressing and gets into bed. Just as he is drifting off to sleep, a shout comes from the man in the room below: 'Well, drop the other one then! I can’t sleep, waiting for you to drop the other shoe!'"

Such etymologic distractions are a good break from throwing around hay bales, which is tough work. This morning we unloaded three wagons into the barn using a hay conveyer, and this afternoon I'm told the fabled "Man Killer" horse-drawn hay-loading machine will finally make an appearance. I've been bragging to the guys at work that the machine will henceforth be known as the "Man Pleasant Afternoon on the Farm" machine after I'm finished demonstrating my prowess on it, but that was last week when I was still feeling the best of my strength. Now I'm feeling like I could use a few steak dinners and another weekend off before saddling up.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


We brought in more than 400 bales of hay Friday afternoon, plus another wagon filled with loose hay.

I don't know if 400 bales is good, bad, or average, as this was my first experience working on a hay wagon. But it sure felt like a lot the next day.

There will be chances in the next few weeks to collect hay the old-fashioned way – with horses and a machine dubbed "The Man Killer." On Friday, however, the modern tractors and baler were humming. (Rain was in the forecast for late Friday night.) The hay that was cut and drying out in the field might have been ruined if we didn't get it all into the barn.

I enjoyed the hint of urgency that accompanied the work. I jumped on my first wagon not long after 3 and jumped off my last wagon sometime approaching 8 as the sun was beginning to decline.

Most of the work I accomplished was in the role of "stacker." Farmer Jim drove the tractor, which was pulling a baler. The baler scooped up the loose hay, processed it in its belly, and pushed it out the back in the form of heavy rectangular hay blocks tied up with baler twine. Intern Ramchandra, my "hooker," pulled the bales off the baler with a hay hook and passed them back onto the floor of the wagon. That's where I picked them up and stacked them as tall as eight layers high, arranging them in alternating patterns designed to keep the heap from toppling over.

I felt a certain pride in my first wagon, which I stacked from start to finish. The trick is to stack the hay tight and even, which makes for a stable, aesthetically pleasing hay castle that won't shed its building blocks when you pull it down the road and hit a bump. I think I accomplished my task very well, and I also think it was beginner's luck, because my second hay castle was lopsided and kind of sucked.

I tried to follow all of Farmer Jim's advice, as he's a man who looks like he's made hay a time or two. My one regret is that he mentioned he didn't like to wear gloves when he stacks, so I said to myself, "Then I won't be wearing gloves either."

This worked out well for my first two wagons, but by the time I got going on my third, this time working to pass bales back to Intern Matt, my hands were red, cut, and burning. Picking up each bale was reminiscent of touching an electric fence. I had to reset my resolve every 10 seconds before clamping down again. Things got so unpleasant that I finally made the driver stop midfield so I could jump off and slip on some work gloves.

So, youngsters, here's my advice: Don't try to be as tough as old, callused Farmer Jim.