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.
TITUSVILLE, N.J.Skip to next paragraph
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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.