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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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“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.