Farming interns sow their sustainable oats
A New Jersey farm teaches developing-world farmers and Americans with a desire to get back to the earth.
On my first visit to Howell Living History Farm, Rob Flory led me directly to the manure pile – a formidable mountain of dirty straw bonded together by the odorous excretions of horses and oxen.
“Time to fill the spreader,” Farmer Rob explained as he handed me a long-handled pitchfork and
pointed toward the empty wagon.
My suspicion was that “The Pile” was my first test, intended to dispel any romantic illusions surrounding agricultural labor. As a prospective farm intern, I needed to demonstrate my willingness to stand ankle-deep in it five days a week. I wanted the job, so I got dirty quick.
Experience has since taught me that the goal when shoveling manure is just the opposite – try not to get dirty, and don’t pitch into the wind. But I did get the job.
I’m one of those young adults you hear about who comes down with a sudden, unshakable yearning to grow some vegetables. After graduating from college in 2005 and completing several tours of duty in fluorescent-lit offices, I decided I needed to get back to the earth. A slight difference in my case is that I went way back, about 100 years or so.
Howell Farm, located on 130 public-owned acres in Mercer County, N.J., is both a real farm and an active museum, dedicated to the preservation of American farming practices circa 1900. For the past six months I’ve had the opportunity to guide old-fashioned walking plows, seed drills, and cultivators through the fields behind 1,800-pound draft horses or one-ton oxen.
Through its internship program, the farm is an outdoor academy – a training ground for farmers from developing countries and sustainability-minded Americans who see value in using hay-powered draft animals over gas-powered tractors. Interns have come here from as far as Ecuador, Kenya, and Nepal, and from all walks of American life. The job of an intern involves rising at 7 a.m. and occasionally working to dusk in order to feed the chickens, muck the horse stalls, and complete all the daily barnyard tasks and fieldwork.
One thing that drew me to Howell was the idea that lessons in historic farming might provide unique insight on important modern issues: global warming and peak oil, the safety and quality of our food, and the movement toward sustainability and self-sufficiency. Essentially, I wanted to travel back in time and see for myself if the good old days were as good as advertised and perhaps worth returning to.
I moved into Howell’s moldy, drafty farmhouse in late February. I started blogging about my daily experiences, using my laptop computer and the Internet connection available at the farm’s visitor center. In one of my first posts, when the nostalgia of it all was still fresh, I wrote this:
“Every act is intimate. Need breakfast? Fry an egg from the henhouse. Need firewood? Harvest a dead tree and then get to work sawing. Fertilizer for the fields? Put on your boots and start shoveling. I don’t think any animals get slaughtered for meat at Howell, but if they did, it would be an intimate affair, and the people who ate that animal would know where their burger came from.”
One of my readers posted this reply: "Sometimes I wonder if glorifying these tasks is a luxury. I think about my grandmother, who CAN grow her own food and find edible mushrooms in the forest and wring a tom turkey’s neck and gut a hog and can her own raspberries. For most of these things, she doesn’t see the point in doing it herself when you can get the same result for cheaper at the Sharp Shopper.”
My season at Howell has helped me realize that the choice between hard-earned sustainability and modern abundance is not a simple one.
The ideal of a closed system of agriculture, where even waste is not waste, is attractive to me because it seems so intuitively sensible. Howell Farm’s ever-growing pile of manure gets spread over the fields as fertilizer in a wooden wagon pulled by the same horses and oxen that make it. Months later, the animals that work these fields – providing the power to plow, plant, cultivate, and harvest – will be fed by the same hay and corn crops they helped grow. And then the cycle starts all over again. No oil or tractor parts required.
The small farm is already a relic in this country. One consequence of our industrial food production system is a widening disconnect between people and their appreciation of where food actually comes from. I’ve observed it most strikingly in the questions of school children who visit the farm on class trips, often from inner-city areas of Trenton, N.J., and Philadelphia.
“Wait, you mean chicken is a chicken?”
“Where did you get all the dirt from?”
The strange questions kids ask are usually good for a chuckle when they’re retold during coffee breaks around the farmhouse kitchen table. But, there’s something tragic lurking behind the joke.
One of Howell Farm’s most important missions is outreach – children leave knowing that vegetables grow in the ground. For some, it’s the first chance they’ve had to see them growing.
And yet, as much as working on an old-fashioned farm has reinforced for me the many virtues of a simpler, agricultural lifestyle, I’ve also been surprised by how much the experience has made me appreciate oil-powered progress.
Here’s a truth about Howell Farm: When time is short and there is fieldwork that must be completed, the farm turns to its hidden stable of modern tractors. I’ve had many opportunities to witness animal power measured up against tractor power, and there’s really no comparison to be made. Next to a hitch of even the strongest draft horses in the world, a John Deere 5420 tractor is an iron-muscled labor-demolishing monster.
Everything from plowing to cutting fields to moving around dirt has been revolutionized by the combustion engine. I learned this lesson while working on hay wagons in 95-degree F. heat. For two guys stacking hay by hand behind a modern hay baler and tractor, the job may be every bit as grueling as stacking it loose behind an oxen-powered version of the machine. The big difference if you used a tractor is that, at the end of the day, the hay field is empty, and the job is done. If you used animal power, you’re not even close.
Oil is a valuable, increasingly rare commodity, and when you use it up it doesn’t come back. But so is time. If I knew I was going to be farming for the next 30 years, it would be a life-altering choice indeed to trade thousands of hours for the very real but less tangible benefits I see in sustainable farming. I’m not sure I could.
But my fellow intern, Tom Paduano of Clark, N.J., came away feeling different. Though we worked side by side and learned all the same lessons, he’s convinced he does want to farm with horses.
“I think horses will make my life harder,” he admits. “It’s more labor, and more time, and one more skill I have to learn.”
Tom graduated from Boston University in 2003 with a degree in computer systems engineering. He worked in information technology for a few years and found it unfulfilling. He decided to make a big change in his life and that was to grow food for people while embracing sustainability.
Tom has helped me understand why someone would make the choice to use horses. His reasoning isn’t the same as that of Howell Farm, which exists primarily to preserve history. Neither is it the same as the Amish farmer, who does so for cultural and religious reasons.
It’s simple. He does it because he likes it. And he likes it because he finds it meaningful.
“When I first told my parents I was going to be a farmer, they said, ‘That’s crazy; that’s hard work,’ ” Tom remembers. “When I first told them I wanted to farm using horses, they said, ‘You’re crazy; they’re hard work.’ But if I was in it for it to be easy, I’d be a computer engineer.”
As for me, I probably won’t end up a farmer, and if I were one, the first thing I’d buy would be a small, used tractor. But that doesn’t mean I’m turning away from embracing more sustainable living in a way that makes sense to me. As many philosophers have advised through the centuries, I will definitely tend my own garden.