Most of Howell Farm’s kitchen garden is now covered by a blanket of green – it's the annual ryegrass cover crop Farmer Rob planted in the early fall. The garden appears to be a garden at rest. In many ways it is. Except for some carrots still in the ground and a few other odd plants, the garden's vegetable productivity for the year is over. But of course much is happening above and below the surface. The hardy cover crop is growing, doing its job of preventing soil erosion and keeping out weeds. Degrading plant material is adding organic matter. Worms and other insects are feasting, pulverizing and digesting.
Toward the end of the farming year and the beginning of the holiday season, I’ve made it personal tradition to read at least two works of literature that I find help put me in the proper spirit. The first is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The second is the letter Inez Howell wrote upon donating Howell Farm to Mercer County in 1974.
March 10, 1974
I am offering the farm as a gift to Mercer County in memory of Charley. To be used as a Living History Farm, where the way of living in its early days could not only be seen but actually tried by the public, especially children -- milking a cow, gathering eggs in a homemade basket -- helping to shear sheep, carding wool, spinning and weaving.
A farm has always been a great place for exploring. Perhaps 4-H groups and others could help people learn by actually doing. There could be tree plantings, riding a donkey, cleaning out a stable, and saving the manure to go back into the earth. Girls can do most of these things too. There would be ploughing and sowing and canning and pickling. And don't forget rainbows and swinging on wild grape vines.
Could volunteers build the way they built in the early days with similar tools? And let the public watch and lend a hand?
Older people could teach the young how to sew a fine seam, or find hickory nuts to crack with a stone on the hearth, or find wild herbs for curing the miseries, or just go off fishing with a hickory stick pole. And what grandmother doesn't like to rock the cradle with her toe while her knitting needles and her spinning wheel prepare for winter?
And the barn. The rugged old individualist, pigeons in its belfry, and bats, too, and barn swallows swooping in and out - because life lives on other life -- wooden plough and oxen, treasured manure, sowing and reaping -- Harvest Home and fiddlers - swing your partner and steal a kiss. Sleigh bells and up before dawn, fragrance of mint as you herd the cows up from the meadow, with the sun slanting across the Delaware. And church. And spring again.
Now what else can you think of?
Inez Howe Howell
Residents of the Pleasant Valley in the year 1900 had their own holiday traditions, many not so different than traditions we still practice today. Here's an article on howellfarm.com that gives a glimpse into how the holidays were celebrated a century ago:
Maggie, Howell Farm’s farm dog, is usually an excellent and diligent geese chaser. But today she had an appointment with the vet. Instantly, the word spread through the bird community. As I walked down the farm lane, I saw that the round pasture next to the barnyard was already flooded with Canada geese.
Canada geese (Branta canadensis) have become an agricultural pest in much of the Northeast. According to the USDA, “Agricultural damage caused by Canada geese includes crop depredation to sweet and field corn, soybeans, winter wheat, rye, clover, sod, vegetables, and other crops. This damage reduces yield and may increase erosion.” Plus, they leave lots of feces.
When Maggie is on duty, she's been known to run football-field-length sprints after flying flocks of Canada geese, convincing them to not even bother thinking about touching down at Howell Farm. Maggie is also an excellent predator of groundhogs, able to capture and dispatch a groundhog with just a few shakes. Years ago, as a Howell Farm intern, I would go for a jog most days around the back acres. On almost 100% of my jogs, Maggie left my side to run into the woods and then return with a dead groundhog.
Am I misremembering Maggie's brilliance as a groundhogger with nostalgic overstatement? Was it really every day? I don't know, but that dog sure killed a lot of groundhogs.
Here's a report on how Hurricane Sandy impacted Howell Farm. Sorry for the delay!
The wonderful news following Hurricane Sandy is that all of Howell Farm's animals passed the storm no worse for the weather. The horses, I'm told, were ecstatic to leave their stalls after several days stuck inside. They practically galloped in circles once they hit the open pasture.
Many of the trees on and around the farm weren't so lucky. Up near what we call "the green barn" -- the large storage barn closest to Wooden's Lane -- a stand of white pines is destroyed. Farmers have been throwing around the phrase "war zone" to describe the carnage. No official count has been taken, but it appears that at least 100 pines litter the ground here. The farm's hay elevator (which was outside the barn) took a direct hit from a number of falling trees, and so did some other equipment.
Elsewhere on the farm, signs of the storm are easy to find. Most numerous are the pine needles which have blown into every corner. A gutter hangs off the visitor center barn. A large pine, split in two, blocks the farm lane. Two shutters are detached from the windows of the farmhouse.
And then there's what happened to the historic outhouse. Flattened would be an understatement. It was torn to pieces by the wind. When I first arrived at the farm to start surveying the damage, Farmer Gary told me to take a look at what the kids on mischief night had done to the outhouse. He was joking.
Some good news is that by the time you read this, the Howell Farm cleanup will be well underway. When I left Howell Farm on the Wednesday after the storm, the farmers were already out with the chainsaws. As for all those white pines, Farmer Gary was looking on the bright side: Next year's saw mill program will be well stocked.
Farmer Jeremy and Howell Farm historian Larry Kidder tended to the manure pile today. The task requires strong arms and a good pitchfork, but I’ve learned from my own manure spreading days that this is a ritual that frees your mind for conversation -- educational or idle is up to you.
When I strolled by the pile this morning, conversation was of the educational variety. Larry and Jeremy were discussing the famous Battle of Trenton, in which George Washington routed the Hessian garrison and turned the tide of the American Revolution. The simple version of the story we learn in school is that Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas Day night and took the drunk, sleeping Hessians totally by surprise. What Larry had to tell Jeremy was that the true story is more complicated and more interesting too. The Continental Army and American militia had been skirmishing with Hessian patrols in the region for week’s prior, so by no means were the Hessians unaware of the threat. (Although Larry seemed to think the Hessian commander rather inept for not establishing outposts that would have warned of a coming assault.) On the fateful night, it seems that the Hessians had in fact heard rumor of an attack, and then encountered a band of American militia unrelated to Washington’s surprise. Washington was furious when informed, but his anger might have been misplaced. It may be that the Hessians thought this smaller militia was the rumored attack, and let their guard down to the real attack that would soon arrive.
Now, if I muddled any of this retelling, don’t blame Larry! As with all manure pile history recitations, he was speaking from memory and now I’m retelling from memory. But what today’s conversation reminded me is that Howell Farm and the Pleasant Valley is no static place. It is of course the year 2012, and we farm here like it’s the year 1900. But some of our buildings pre-date the American Revolution, and this part of New Jersey was the crossroads of that revolution. Layer upon layer of history has added to the intrigue of this place.
Later I was telling Farmer Rob about all this and he said he heard the Hessians had been bogged down in a huge pile of manure...
It was October 25 that Farmer Jeremy planted this year’s spelt crop. Now that electricity is back and life on the farm is starting to resume its normal routine following Hurricane Sandy, I was able to check in again with its progress. As hoped and expected, the crop is up and doing well. Its growth likely benefited from some warmer than usual November days.
Spelt is a close relative of wheat and was an important crop in Europe from the Bronze Age to medieval times. Spelt was introduced to the United States in about 1890, exactly the period at which Howell Farm’s historical interpretation begins. So a farmer planting spelt at Howell Farm in 1890 likely would have been considered an innovator. Or at least an experimenter.
What spelt production there was in the United States would eventually be replaced by bread wheat. Not only did wheat offer higher yields than spelt, it also proved easier to thresh. (Spelt has a closer-fitting husk.) Of late, however, spelt has been making a modest comeback, in large part because of the health food movement as well as the sustainable agriculture movement. Spelt seems to cause less problems for some people who are allergic to wheat and also requires less fertilizer to grow than wheat.
At Howell Farm, the spelt we produce will be fed to our livestock, hull included. According to Farmer Gary, having that hull around the grain is actually good for horses, because it helps slow down the digestion process. The spelt, which grows taller than modern wheat, also yields a good harvest of straw, which we use for animal bedding.
The Furrow is the online newsletter of The Friends of Howell Living History Farm. We will be updating this site about once a week with crop reports and other insights into life on a horse-drawn living history farm.
|THE FURROW: The online newsletter of Howell Living History Farm