Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama on energy

During Obama’s big convention speech last night, this is what he had to say about energy:

And for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as President: in ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

Washington’s been talking about our oil addiction for the last thirty years, and John McCain has been there for twenty-six of them. In that time, he’s said no to higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars, no to investments in renewable energy, no to renewable fuels. And today, we import triple the amount of oil as the day that Senator McCain took office.

Now is the time to end this addiction, and to understand that drilling is a stop-gap measure, not a long-term solution. Not even close.

As President, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I’ll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America. I’ll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I’ll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy - wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced.

America, now is not the time for small plans.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Howell Farm will celebrate its 25th-anniversary plowing match this Saturday. The article below appears in this month’s issue of THE FURROW:

Elmer Lapp is one of the great figures of Howell Farm plowing match history.

A lifelong horse farmer from Lancaster County, Pa., Lapp was the plowing match’s first and longest serving judge.

Elmer was judging even when he wasn’t judging,” remembers historical farmer Jeremy Mills. “You’d be talking to him and he’d look up and say, ‘Oh look, that team of horses just broke into lockstep.’ The horses might be a football field away.”

Farmers who knew Lapp remember him as a man who didn’t waste words, but when he spoke about horses people listened. He was considered an expert horseman and was known for his strong will when it came to the job he loved – farming.

Essayist Wendell Berry once wrote of Lapp: “He is not a man to put up long with anything he does not like.”

As the story goes, Lapp suffered from heart disease in his later years and underwent Carotid artery surgery. Shortly after the surgery, his doctor expressly forbade him from attending that year's plowing match, as his health was too poor. Lapp, unwilling to give up so easily, called up his horse veterinarian in hopes of receiving a more favorable second opinion. After the horse doctor proved unwilling to overrule the judgment of Lapp’s medical doctor, Lapp simply decided to attend the match anyway.

Fortunately, Lapp proved no worse for the wear as he rendered his plowing match decisions that year.

On Saturday, August 30, Howell Farm will celebrate its 25th-anniversary plowing match, bringing together more than a dozen horse teams and teamsters. In addition to the plowing contest and the recitation of favorite memories, the day will feature a Howell Farm first—the assembly of a twelve-horse hitch.

It will be Elvin Lapp, Elmer’s son, who will take the lines of a team of 12 draft horses pulling a flatbed wagon loaded with logs. Elvin will also reprise his father’s role as a head judge.

Plowers will be evaluated on 10 criteria, including the depth, straightness, and evenness of their furrow; the condition of their equipment; and the condition and control of their team.

Mills, this year’s other head judge, says that judging the contest can be difficult because often little separates the very best plowers — so many of them are excellent.

Unlike horse shows, Mills says one thing that doesn’t help win a plowing match is a pair of plucky horses that march with their heads held high. “Actually, what I’m looking for is, are these the horses I’d want to work behind in a field all day?” he says. “Do the horses know exactly what they need to do and do they get down to business?”

Longtime Howell Farm horseman Halsey Genung won the first plowing contest in 1984, and since then the title has shifted hands many times. Since 1988, the winner of the match has been awarded the Ben Ellingson Award, a bronze statue of a farmer plowing behind an African zebu. Howell Farm director Pete Watson bought the trophy in a marketplace in Togo in 1988.

“I guess an African zebu might not seem to have the most logical connection to plowing with horses at Howell Farm," Watson admits. “But I saw this statue sitting there in the market and it reminded me of one of the missions of the farm, as well as the people who have helped further that mission.”

Ben Ellingson was a horse farmer from Tennessee and a Hollywood horse stuntman. When he wasn’t farming or making movies, he devoted much of his time to helping train Peace Corp volunteers going into animal traction programs. Watson says Ellingson taught him many valuable lessons, and served as an inspiration for the internship program that exists now at Howell Farm.

“Ben would help anybody,” Watson says. “He helped people in his own backyard the same way he helped animal traction programs in West Africa through the volunteers he helped train.”

Ella Johnston, Ben’s daughter, is scheduled to present the trophy at this year’s match. Brian Hughes, Mercer County Executive, will also help present awards.

The anniversary celebration will feature pony rides, hayrides, a children’s craft program, a pig & chicken roast, homemade ice cream, live music by the Jugtown Mountain String Band, and a plow exhibit by the New Jersey Museum of Agriculture.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I learned something from the newspaper today:

The average daily temperature in New Jersey in June and July was higher than it has ever been in the 114 years weather records have been kept.


Check this out:


Ben the horse continues to inspire. I like his tenacity.

At evening letout last night, Intern Peter and I deposited Ben in the round pasture before continuing our chores. Not five minutes later, Ben teleported back to the barnyard. We found him over near the fence of the back pasture where the farm’s four biggest horses spend the night.

I don’t speak horse, but if I didn’t know better, I’d say little Ben was talking trash to Bill, Jess, Chester, and Jack. He was doing this from the safety of his side of the fence. The other horses looked furious – they were pacing and rearing up and letting out horse snarls. Given the chance, there’s no doubt they would give Ben a severe equine beatdown.

I have yet to catch him in the act, but it’s become apparent that Ben is stepping over a low part of the pasture fence and then going wherever he feels like.

Peter and I decided we’d leave Ben in the tubyard for the night, which has a higher fence. But Ben absolutely refused to go, like a 1,500-pound boulder. Even the appearance of a horsewhip didn’t help.

Peter was, however, eventually able to goad Ben back into the barn.

The last I saw of Ben, he was clipped into his stall with a rope and both doors to his section of the barn were securely fastened. The previous night I had left these doors open. This time there would be no escape.

I arrived back at the farm at 7 a.m. this morning, the first man on the scene. Whom did I spy from across the pasture, grazing contently? Ben!

I proceeded directly to the barn to see what had happened. Inside, Ben’s rope was broken (the third he’s broken this week) but both doors were closed just as securely as I had left them. For the next ten seconds I contemplated the possibly that Ben was one of those vampire horses you hear about who can step through walls. And then it struck me what Ben had accomplished, and I was even more impressed.

This is my reconstruction of the events, which may be dramatized:

After breaking his rope with a powerful thrash off his head, Ben found the doors of the barn impenetrable, kick like the devil though he may. Sizing up his options, he saw his only chance for escape was to perform a dangerous routine of horse gymnastics. He vaulted directly forward from his stall up into the manger where his food gets delivered. Then he vaulted out of his manager, at great peril, down into the narrow alleyway on the other side. Having survived the danger of a broken leg, he turned right and discovered a false wall in the barn (the door from the alleyway into the central area of the barn, which is under construction, is currently a hanging piece of heavy canvas). He pushed through. In the pitch black, he then navigated over the uneven, debris-strew floor and discovered another door that had been left open, leading into the area where the rest of the horse stalls are located. From here, Ben quickly found an open doorway to the outside … and soon breathed in the fresh night air of freedom.

Today, I’m told, the project on the farm is to raise all low areas of fencing.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I've taken to enjoying a nocturnal stroll around Howell Farm most nights before I retire to bed — which is actually a queen-sized air mattress on the floor of my living room.

The farm is a superior course in this regard in that it is very dark. On a foggy or cloudy night, one might be the last man on earth as he trods the dirt path around the fields. And on a clear night, such as last night, I can see straight up about a hundred million miles.

Several visitors to the farm who have needed to cross it at night have remarked to me it's kind of spooky. But I've come to think just the opposite. I've become much better at startling the night animals I stumble across than they are at startling me. For the most part.

Last night, I wasn't so much strolling as traveling, as I walked across the barnyard up to the farm's visitor center. I like to hole up in the visitor center when it's late and I have some serious writing to accomplish. It's like being in an empty newspaper office, which is also an excellent place to write.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when a giant horse-shaped animal ran right past me and back into the shadows. The horses spend their summer nights out in the fenced pasture, not roaming the barnyard, so that meant this fellow had gotten lose.

A little reconnaissance helped me determine that the offender was Ben, a horse who is new to the farm just last week. I haven't worked with Ben at all yet, and the only thing I've heard about him is that he gets antsy if he's left alone. Intern Peter said Ben broke out of his stall last week when Blaze went out for the night and Ben thought he was getting left behind.

The late hour being nearly pitch black, and Ben being a stranger, I approached the horse with caution (and with a handful of hay to offer as a getting-to-know-you present.) Ben didn't seem comfortable either, and he walked in the other direction as I got near. Fortunately, I waited a minute and Ben made his way over to one of the water barrels to get a drink. When he was distracted with the water, I snuck up behind and grabbed his halter. I then led him back into his stall and clipped him in to his rope. Since I didn't know how he had gotten out of the pasture, I thought I'd leave him in for the night.

Ben was pissed about this decision. He kicked the walls of his stall as I walked away.

A few hours later I returned back through the barnyard, having made some progress with my writing. What happened next? I nearly jumped out of my skin when a giant horse-shaped animal ran right past me and back into the shadows!

It was Ben again, and this time he made it clear he wasn't letting me anywhere near him. So I walked to the gate of the pasture where he needed to be and opened it wide. Then I circled back and tried to scare Ben in that direction. This worked, to my amazement, but Ben didn't just stroll. He took off at a wild gallop, disappeared into the dark of the pasture, and, by the sounds of it, he didn't stop running for a few hundred yards.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


I saw the farm’s corn maze yesterday from the best possible vantage point – 1,000 feet directly overhead from the seat of an R44 Raven helicopter, doors off.

This was my first time in a helicopter. I found it to be several degrees more exciting than being in a small airplane, and small airplanes are pretty sweet. But if I had to describe the helo experience in a single word, it would be this: “windy.”

Joining me on the trip were John the Pilot (we let him do the flying), John Conn (a professional photographer), and Gary the Farm Manager (present to help navigate).

My good idea was to attach my video camera to a pole and stick it out the door in hopes of capturing awesome video. John the Pilot warned me that it would be fairly difficult to hold onto the camera if I did this, because of the wind that would be whipping against it. He also said that if let go of the camera and it took out the tail rotor, they probably wouldn’t invite me back.

I tried my technique, and sure enough, it is a little challenging to hold a camera on a pole out the door of a helicopter. But I held on, and here’s the result:

Monday, August 18, 2008


The University of Richmond, my alma mater, recently announced a new campus-wide energy monitoring system:

The system, which will be installed in all 14 residence halls, will allow students to track their energy use online. The idea is that if they can actually see that turning off their computer saves energy, maybe they will.

When the system is installed in Fall 2009, dorm residents will compete for the highest decrease in energy consumption. When Oberlin College did this, "students were able to reduce their electricity use by up to 55 percent over two weeks."

Worth noting, the system is being paid for by the Dominion Foundation. Dominion, based in Richmond, is one of the nation's largest producers of energy. They burn a lot of coal and are currently pursing plans to build a new coal-fired power plant in Wise County, Va. Here's a Washington Post article about it worth reading:


Wired magazine, one of my favorites, has two interesting sustainability related articles this month.

The first, the cover story, is about a businessman named Shai Agassi and his plan to bring electric cars to the world, starting with Israel and Denmark. His company, Better Place, has the cooperation of these governments and has raised more than $200 million in committed capital. According to Wired, Agassi has managed to launch "the fifth-largest startup of all time in less than a year." He's not building cars, but rather a grid of battery charging stations that will sell electricity like cell phone companies sell minutes.

Rather than try to summarize Agassi's crazy complicated business plan here (which began to sound less and less crazy as I made my way through the article) I'll leave it to the dedicated Farmbedded reader to find his own copy of the magazine. I recommend it.

The other article, an essay by Clive Thompson, argues for urban farming:

"The next president should throw down the gauntlet and demand Americans sow victory gardens once again."

It's worked before. Between 1942 and 1943, victory gardens produced 40 percent of the vegetables consumed in this country, according to Thompson. And innovations since then have made urban food growing "radically more efficient and compact than the victory gardens of yore," he says.

It seems like such a simple, sensible thing to do. The result would be better, cheaper food for urban Americans, less obesity, less CO2 resulting from shipping food across the world, more food independence, and you could even cool the cities by planting crops on rooftops.

What's more, Thompson writes:

"But what I love most here is the potential for cultural transformation. Growing our own food again would reconnect us to the country's languishing frontier spirit."

Well said.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


The first event of the Howell Farm Olympics finally kicked off yesterday — horseshoes.

Horseshoes history, according to Wikipedia:

“Iron plates or rings for shoes may have been nailed on horses' feet in Western Asia and Eastern Europe as early as the second century BC…. There is a theory that the camp followers of the Grecian armies, who could not afford the discus, took discarded horseshoes, set up a stake, and began throwing horseshoes at it.”

Also from Wikipedia:

“Following the Revolutionary War, it was said by England's Duke of Wellington that ‘The War was won by pitchers of horse hardware.’”

The first round results:

Unfortunately, the Howell Farm Olympics are highly dysfunctional, as it's difficult to get enough people together at any one time. Other events that have been envisioned, such as the hay bale toss and the 14-times around the farm run, are in danger of cancellation.

Worst of all was a stunt pulled yesterday by Farm Director Pete. All week long he’s been talking horseshoe smack about how, “Yeah, I’ve thrown a horseshoe or two in my day,” and “I wouldn’t count the old man out.” So the day of the competition comes, and Pete disappears suddenly, under the auspices of needing to go to Lancaster to “look at a horse.”

Nice try Pete. I challenge you, publicly, to a winner-take-all horseshoe throwdown, any time any place. The loser will buy the winner a steak, and I like sautéed mushrooms on top.

In unrelated news, the farm bought a new horse from a Lancaster horse trader yesterday. He hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m told he’s about 15 hands and 1,500 pounds. More on that when I learn more.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


At the Howell Farm honey harvest today, I learned how beekeepers make it happen.

First, the beekeepers open their hives and remove the honeycomb-filled frames. They use smoke to keep the bees docile. This works because when bees sense smoke, they think their house is burning down. They react to this by gorging themselves with as much honey as possible, fearing they might not be seeing another good meal for a while. And the result of this is that they feel so fat they won’t even bother to sting you.

Once the beekeepers have the frames, their task is to get the honey out of the honeycombs. This process involves a centrifuge.

First, take your frame and gently scrape the surface of the honeycomb with a scraper, which grants access to the honey on the inside. Then, take your frame and insert it into a holder inside your centrifuge. Start cranking the centrifuge handle. This sends the frame spinning and your honey splatting toward the outside of the centrifuge container. The honey will slowly drip down the sides until it reaches the bottom, where it is collected in a honey bucket.

Basically, the process is exactly the same as harvesting weapons-grade uranium from uranium gas, except easier.


Farmer Rob believes he has discovered a bear’s claw marks in the Market Garden. The alleged track was found among the beans.

I’ve never heard of a bear liking beans, but other evidence also points to a bear:

-Rob also found what he believes to be bear droppings under a nearby cherry tree.

-In the past, black bears have been spotted in the farm vicinity.

I, ever one to question the official story, suggested an alternative: Perhaps a smaller animal with one claw scratched five parallel marks into the dirt.

Now, however, after analyzing the photographic evidence and running it through my crime-solving computer, I believe that Rob is correct. It’s hard to argue with this:

Thursday, August 7, 2008


The fodder-chopper churned outside the barn yesterday. Cornstalk grinding has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first jobs I did at Howell Farm when I visited back in January. You can read about that experience here:

In the pictures below, you can see that a belt connects the chopper to a stationary hit-and-miss engine, which provides the power. The engine runs off gasoline.

Farmer Rob (who is also a trained physicist) says that on the sustainable farm of the future, he thinks stationary engines will still have a place – for jobs like threshing and corn shelling. The difference, from a sustainability standpoint, is that these engines will run off bio-gas processed on the farm from the release of methane from manure.

My first thought on this was, if you’re going to run a stationary engine off bio-gas, why not just run a tractor with a PTO off bio-gas? Rob says that the problem with gas is that it’s diffuse – hard to store in a reasonably sized tank on a vehicle that needs to be mobile such as a tractor.

All true, but I’m still pulling for do-it-all, bio-gas powered tractors. By the time bio-gas engines are ready for primetime, maybe the technology of methane gas compression and storage will also have hit its golden age.

According to Wikipedia:

“If concentrated and compressed, [biogas] can also be used in vehicle transportation. Compressed biogas is becoming widely used in Sweden, Switzerland and Germany. A biogas-powered train has been in service in Sweden since 2005.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Ramchandra, Peter, myself, and my friend Erin traveled to Kimberton CSA yesterday to visit Former-Intern Tom, who has ascended in the world to the position of Kimberton Farm Manager.

I last blogged about Tom and Kimberton here:

Kimberton is located near Phoenixville, Pa., about an hour and a half from Howell Farm. We listened the whole way to Ram’s CD of Nepali pop music, which is distinctive in that many songs run longer than 20 minutes. (Think Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia” times two, or, for older generation readers, significantly longer than "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.")

Tom’s farm is about ten acres, seven of which are under cultivation for vegetable and fruit production. This year the CSA has about 200 members, with an average share price of $750. (At a yearly pledge meeting, some returning CSA members pledge more than $750 in order to subsidize lower share prices for other members.)

I was curious to see what a weekly share at Kimberton gets you, and by my estimation it’s quite a haul. Here is the fresh produce members will receive in their box this week, in addition to U-pick blackberries, beans, and cucumbers:

- 4 tomatoes
- 1 garlic
- 1 cabbage
- 1 eggplant
- 3 beets
- 1 lettuce
- A whole lot of edamame
- 1 cantaloupe
- 1 watermelon
- 2 bell peppers
- 3 zucchini
- 3 yellow summer squash
- 1 rosemary sprig
- 1 lb. of onions
- 2 cucumbers

I asked Tom what are some of his standouts this summer. He said it’s all good, before adding, “The garlic is freaking huge.” He also highlighted his “really good” seedless European cucumbers.

Tom is the guy who first got me really thinking about why someone would prefer to use horses on his farm instead of a labor-demolishing tractor, so I was interested to hear how its been for him using the tractors at Kimberton. Apparently, he broke the first tractor he touched by running it out of fuel and clogging the fuel injectors. I was about to tell him, “Well, your last mistake is your best teacher,” but instead I just let it go.

Tom said he hopes to eventually bring a team of horses to Kimberton, so I also asked him if he thought he’d have the time and ability to accomplish with 4 draft horses all the same work he’s been getting done with the tractor. He sounded optimistic, while realizing the tractor would still have some special duties. More precisely, he said:

“Mostly yeah, except without a front-end loader it would be difficult to do some compositing and stuff. Stuff like moving around dirt when you need to.”

Here are some photos from the visit:

Monday, August 4, 2008


The Mercer County 4-H Fair came to Howell Farm this past weekend. Here are some photos: