Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Friday, July 25, 2008


Farmer Rob and the interns gathered in the Market Garden today to deploy some organic pest control.

In the first photo below, Intern Peter is spraying cabbage with a mixture of water and Bt, a bacteria that will make cabbage-eating caterpillars shrivel up and die. I blogged about Bt previously,
here and here.

In the second photo, Intern Ramchandra is spreading a native plant called wormwood around the base of our tomatoes, in the hope that it will keep away insect larvae. After comparing some photos on the Internet, I believe the particular species of wormwood Ram found is Artemisia alba. (Interesting to note: Artemisia absinthium is the ingredient reputed to give absinthe its hallucinogenic kick.)

In picture three, you can see the farm employed some cheap labor to help weed the black beans. This lasted about 10 minutes.


Thursday, July 24, 2008


Some people don’t care about the global warming implications of what they eat, but more and more people do. For the latter group, several core ideas about sustainability have taken hold in the past several years:

- It’s better to eat locally.

- It’s better to eat organic.

- The widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer and genetically engineered crops is something we should move away from.

An email from a friend showed up in my inbox the other day linking to a recent study commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. The study attempts to make a scientific accounting of how valuable these practices truly are. It was an interesting read, because many of the findings were surprising and counterintuitive.

Check it out:

As my own editorial comment, I’d add that I’m usually skeptical of number crunching scientific reports that discover everything we think we know is wrong. In May, for example, Wired magazine ran a number-crunching cover story titled “Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green,” that made statements like “Crank up the A/C! Kill the Spotted Owl! Keep the SUV!”

Here’s the story:

And here’s the story being ripped to shreds:

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong or misleading about this U.K. study, but I’m still taking it with a grain of salt. For example, one part of the study compares the energy requirements of shipping orange juice from Brazil to Europe to the energy requirements of buying apple juice from a local juice squeezer:

“Take the carbon footprint of your morning glass of orange juice. One 2003 study looked at the energy requirements of orange juice produced on a large scale in Brazil, and shipped as concentrate to Europe, versus apple juice processed on a small scale in Europe. A local juice-squeezer driving his car only 10 kilometers each way to sell 100 liters of fruit juice carries an energy burden equivalent to that needed to send fruit concentrate from factory operations in Brazil to Germany.”

So the argument here is that buying local juice doesn’t save any energy compared to buying juice shipped from far away continents. The local food movement is a fraud!

But not really. What I think is that the study compares a mature economy (the super-commercial, highly efficient orange juice shipping operation) to a developing economy (the highly inefficient operation of one guy driving to town to sell his apple juice.) The study, literally and figuratively speaking, compares apples to oranges.

Imagine instead if all Europe truly embraces local eating and a few years down the road most everybody is buying local apple juice instead of foreign orange juice. No longer would the apple juice guy need to drive to town with just a few liters to sell because a mature, highly efficient local distribution system would be in place that brings larger quantities of his goods and the goods of all his farming neighbor to market in the back of a big food truck, probably running off biodiesel.

Crunch those numbers, and I bet they’ll stack up favorably to the orange juice from Brazil. And the point is, if people don’t start buying locally now, this day will never come.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Historical Pilgrimage

This past weekend, Howell Farm’s three interns and I made our pilgrimage to the Vatican of American living history, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

The instigator of our journey was Intern Matt. He heard through the grapevine that a historical farming apprenticeship is opening at Great Hopes Plantation (Colonial Williamsburg’s farm) and he wanted to put some boots on the ground in order investigate the career opportunity.

I volunteered to drive for some reason, and the other interns soon decided they wanted to go, so on Friday afternoon we set off in my 1993 Toyota Camry that has no air-conditioning and only three windows that will open.

The drive down was a windy yet hot affair, as the temperature on Friday topped out at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Driving on Interstate 95 for six hours with the windows down also exposes one to a significant dose of fumes. After a couple hundred miles of travel, the conversation in the car finally reached its peak absurdity, culminating in a debate over “If zombies attacked Howell Farm, who would you want to be stuck with as you tried to survive?” I said Blaze, the ancient horse, because he already moves like a zombie and I’d be able to ride away on his back unnoticed.

Things I enjoyed in Williamsburg:

- Watching “The Story of a Patriot,” the 36-minute video screened regularly in the air-conditioned visitors center. According to our guide, it’s the longest running motion picture in motion picture history, shown daily since 1957. The film was produced way back then by Paramount Pictures, and it was well done in the way that old movies often are. After viewing the film, I can report that I was both much more eager to visit town and much more sympathetic to the British Loyalist viewpoint. I was reminded of Howard Zinn’s claim in “A People’s History of The United States” that the average standard of living in the American colonies before the Revolution was the best in the world.

- Visiting Great Hopes Plantation, where they farm like it’s still 1770. This is the place where Matt is considering applying for an apprenticeship, so we all got a behind-the-scenes tour from Ed, one of the farmers. At Great Hopes, the most important crop is tobacco, just as it would have been during the 1700s. Tiny green tobacco worms are a big threat, and each of hundreds of tobacco plants must be hand-inspected, since they didn’t use pesticides during that era. Each crop must also be cultivated and hilled with a simple hoe. This visit made farming with horses feel like a futuristic luxury.

Something Ed said that I thought was interesting was that Williamsburg in the 1700s was already a mature economy, meaning that its inhabitants imported many of the goods they needed rather than spend the time and effort to produce them at home. The value of self-sufficiency is a frequent topic of conversation at Howell Farm, and I was interested to learn that even Americans in the 18th-century found that it made more sense to buy on the world markets than weave their own clothes. Ed said that with enough money and time, a person in 1770s Williamsburg could get any product in the entire world shipped to them.

- Talking with the tradesmen. I’m not totally enthralled with old-time wagon wheel making and brick firing in quite the same way interns Matt and Peter are, but it was still impressive to hear the masters of these bygone trades talk with great knowledge and passion about their vocations.

- Eating at The King’s Arms Tavern. I recommend the Tavern Sampler, $12.95. If you get a beer at Chowning’s Tavern, go with the Liebotschaner Cream Ale.

- Visiting the Governor’s Palace, one-time home of Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. It’s a huge building with lots of cool stuff inside, including hundreds of swords and rifles hanging on the entrance room walls.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Farmer Jeremy needed to conduct some in-the-field adjustments on the wheat binder:


The interns shock:


At this moment, the wheat harvest is underway at Howell Farm. I've slipped away from my "shocking" duties for a moment (stacking sheafs of bound wheat in the field) in order to post some pictures, hot off the memory card.

In this first photo, you might spot Farmer Jeremy in the background with three horses and the binder.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


It has not rained much this summer and Farmer Rob used the “D Word” yesterday. He’s worried that if it doesn’t start precipitating soon, we’re going to find ourselves in drought conditions. He sent Intern Ram into the kitchen garden with a watering can and directions to give all the plants a big drink. In the larger Market Garden, however, the tomatoes are on their own.

According to Drought Monitor, one of my favorite publications, New Jersey isn’t droughting quite yet. Parts of northern New Jersey are “abnormally dry,” but the middle of the state is still in the average range. Parts of western North Carolina and South Carolina are already in a “D4” state, that being “exceptional drought” – two whole steps worse than “severe drought.”

See the map for yourself:

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


The battle against thistle is not to be won in a single afternoon.

Several weeks ago, you may remember, our farmers mowed down most of the oat crop in recognition that the thistle had too strong a foothold. This morning, Intern Matt returned to the same field to mow down any new thistle growth, lest the next crop planted there succumb to the same fate.

Pictures here:

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Blogging Blunder

I made a mistake yesterday in my description of the lamb’s departure to the auction in Hackensack. It was accurate except they really went to Hackettstown. I don’t know if Johnny Cash has ever been to Hackettstown.

Such a mistake is embarrassing. I haven’t been carrying a notebook during much of my time on the farm—it gets in the way when shoveling manure—and now I’ve reaped the consequences of my cavalierity.

I’m going to go back now and correct the previous post. Since I’m doing some cleanup work, here are some other needed corrections from the past six months of blogging:

-The correct spelling of Intern Ram’s full name is Ramchandra, not Ramachandran, and I assume Ram (pronounced Rom) is a better spelling for his nickname than Rama, which I started using because I knew a guy in high school named Rama.

-A hay needle is much closer to three feet in length than four feet, as I originally estimated.

Okay, so who has noticed some more?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


At Howell Farm, "Hackettstown" means the livestock auction. The word is both descriptive and a euphemism. When one of the farmers here noticed that Molly The Cow is looking quite old these days, he said, “Maybe it’s about time she pays a visit to Hackettstown.”

This morning, Farmer Jeremy loaded ten lambs into a trailer and pulled it away to Hackettstown. I asked him how he decided which lambs to keep at the farm and which to sell. His method is this:

At birth, he tagged all the female lambs who were twins and whose mother was able to deliver without assistance. He figures that, genetically, these lambs are the most likely to grow into fertile ewes.

The rest of the female lambs and all the male lambs will be sold.

The lambs in the trailer seemed quite calm as Jeremy prepared to drive away. They ate their hay quietly. I then walked down to the sheep barn to see how the mothers were holding up. They too, were quiet and eating hay. As far as I could tell, nobody was upset about anything.

As for myself, I know the lambs here lived a romping, free-range life – if only for three months. I’d feel no qualms about biting into a Howell Farm lamb chop. In fact, given the choice. I’d prefer the chop from Howell to chop from anywhere else. I was the first human to see many of these lambs after they were born, and I was one of the last to see them before Jeremy drove away. I know where they’ve been and how they lived. Maybe the only better situation would be if they were also slaughtered right here on the farm. Then I’d also know how they died.

(As a counterpoint to that last thought, I should note that I wouldn’t particularly want to be the guy doing the slaughtering. But I think I could, if it came down to it.)