Living History in a time of crisis
“Food Security” wasn’t a well-known term when I visited Howell Farm in 1982, but it was the reason I was there. I was scouting places to train Peace Corps volunteers for a project in Togo, West Africa, where the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) was funding a project to increase protein levels in people’s diets through improved animal production. The goal was to teach farmers how to use their beef and dairy cattle for pulling plows and carts, and help reduce the country’s 40% infant mortality rate, which was linked to malnutrition. I knew the story well, having been an “animal traction” volunteer in next-door Dahomey a decade earlier.
The training wound up elsewhere, but the visit gave me a profound appreciation for historical farms and farm museums, and what they could contribute to a world in need. When I returned to Howell a few years later as its director, we included animal traction internships in the operating and interpretive plans and soon added internships in sustainable agriculture. With the help of the area’s Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, we grew potatoes for local soup kitchens… inviting the public to help plant and harvest the crop. Those programs continue today, reminding me that there was never a time when “history applied” wasn’t part of the farm’s mission… or when I could forget why.
In the village where I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer, farmers used hand hoes to grow corn, yams and millet, as well as government-subsidized crops like peanuts and cotton. There were no roads, no utilities, no doctors and no sources of outside news except for the radio owned by the village chief. It was a rural community filled with good and generous farmers who struggled against the same odds that all farmers face… and more. There, daily survival was the goal: it was clear to everyone, each waking day, that life offered no guarantees.
In early November of 1973, the chief of the village came to my house with his drummer and a young girl with a gourd full of millet beer balanced on her head. Because my Bariba wasn’t very good, he spoke to me in French – a language he learned as a boy, when his country was still a French colony.
“Pierre,” he said, “There has been a coup d’etat chez toi… and Nixon has been thrown out.”
To make sure I got the picture, he yanked an imaginary knife across his throat. The drummer got ready to do something with his drum and the girl put the beer on the floor near my feet.
“I have come to open my granary to you,” he said. “Because, Pierre, your paycheck will no longer come.”
The drummer sent out the news with his drum, and we drank the beer. The chief told me he had seen three such coups in his lifetime and that in each case government workers like me suffered greatly. The bicycle that came with the mail would no longer bring my paycheck. He had come to give me access to the village granary – a communal silo made of clay with a thatched roof – which was filled by people who knew about, and planned for, the uncertainties of farming… and life.
This year on St. Patrick’s Day, I sat with another group of farmers who had just been reminded of those uncertainties. The place we so faithfully and skillfully farmed would close at the end of the week. Only the caretaker would stay on, so that the animals could be fed. Sixty-five acres of crops were going to be lost. So would the jobs that went with them, it seemed. Farming – and most definitely the kind we did – wasn’t on the “essential” list released by the governor’s office when the COVID-19 emergency first began.
Employed or not, there would still be corned beef on the table when I got home. There were places in the world it wouldn’t. Places where there was no food at all, or where people shared a meal scratched from the fields of a subsistence farm. A bowl of rice or a few pieces of yam. Some fingerfuls of millet paste you’d dip in a bowl of leek sauce. Meat only if there was a wedding, a funeral, or the good and bad luck of a chicken hit by a truck. I thought of the day I got home from the field to find three little boys under the mango tree in my yard. They were roasting a mouse, and they invited me to come and eat. Everyone knew that food, even a little, was better if you shared it.
My cell phone rang as I drove home on an eerily empty road, and the director of a food pantry flooded with new and unexpected clients asked me if we had any surpluses to spare. She knew that we grew potatoes for soup kitchens, had plowed vacant lots for city gardeners, and had once given ice cut from our pond to a trucker hauling food for hurricane victims. I offered her the wheat flour we had been saving for school programs, and the eggs we would no longer be giving to volunteers. I explained that we were closing at the end of the week, and that she should come soon.
The next day as our staff sat discussing the logistics of shutting down operations, we wondered what else we could give the food pantry. After calculating our feed needs, we decided to take our remaining oats and ear corn to the mill, where we would trade them for oatmeal and cornmeal. 2019 had been a good year, and we would have a ton of each to spare. Enough, perhaps, to help more than one food pantry.
It turned out there were 82 of them in our area – more than anyone thought, or could imagine.
There was nothing to lose by proposing that we help. In an email to the park commission that runs us, we explained that our winter wheat would be ready to harvest in July, giving us additional flour for our community’s food banks and pantries. The oat field we had just finished plowing was ready to plant and could mean more oatmeal. Our gardens could be expanded and produce vegetables all summer long. Egg production could double if we used an offsite chicken coop to increase our flock. We could do more if we could continue to farm.
We were asked to do all of it.
Six tons of flour, cornmeal and oatmeal have reached food pantries so far… along with 450 dozen eggs. Last month we harvested wheat; this month oats, spelts and rye. Deliveries of beans, collards and okra have started. Cabbage, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and sweet potatoes will be ready soon – followed by field corn, turnips and winter squash in November. In between there will be eggs, potatoes, sweet corn and a few hundred hanks of yarn that volunteers will knit into scarves, hats and mittens.
The operations are not done with the circa-1900 methods we normally use, but with a mixture of old and new and things in between. Hand tools, horse drawn equipment and tractors are often used together in the same field. Without visitors present, there is no need to wear period clothing or take time to synchronize farming operations with programs. No one is needed for interpretation, so there is more help for planting, hoeing and harvesting… and more time for sharing and documenting the skills we’re using – the ones we must pass along.
Sometimes you have to taste or otherwise evaluate the condition of crops before sending them to market. Are these cucumbers that are showing a little yellow color suitable for consumption or are they bitter with hard seed, and is the pest damage on the potatoes superficial enough to trim around. The cucumbers and potatoes made cut for distribution.
The moment is as historical as it is historic. Six feet apart, in masks and modern clothes, we are closer to working the farm as a family than we have ever been. Doing everything we can to ensure a successful harvest has never mattered more.
Pete Watson, Director Howell Living History Farm & Pleasant Valley Historical Park, Titusville, NJ
Pete is a past ALHFAM president and Schlebecker Award recipient