Early in the COVID 19 pandemic, Howell Living History Farm was closed to the public and its employees of the Mercer County Park Commission were sent home with the exception of one farmer who would remain to care for the animals and watch the facilities.
With schools operating virtually and public gatherings prohibited, Howell Farm was not able to fill its usual role as a beloved school trip destination and public place to enjoy agriculture, history, and the outdoors.
The answer that Director Pete Watson came up with to the question, “How can we continue to serve the public?” was to use the farm's skills, equipment, and facilities to grow food for people impacted financially by the pandemic.
Once permission was obtained to bring limited staff back to the site and plans made to operate safely, a program of bartering surplus crops in storage for foodstuffs, and planting vegetable crops was initiated. Donations of the farm's remaining inventory of 2019 whole wheat flour began on March 26, and groundbreaking for a “market garden” occurred April 29. The first vegetable seedlings were planted on May 22.
Education Specialist Sonrisa Crespin was trained up by Rob to be the assistant manager of the vegetable project and she in turn led staff and volunteer harvesting crews. Planting and weeding was done mostly by Rob, Sonrisa, and intern Evan Davis, with occasional help from Farmer Ian Ferry driving a team of horses on a cultivator.
Events and Outreach Coordinator Kim Daly identified a group of food banks and programs whose needs matched the amounts of produce that would be available. Donations of flour began on March 26, followed by eggs on April 9; the first vegetables – 16 lbs. of beans and 24 bunches of collards –were harvested July 4 and donated on July 5. Donations reached more than a dozen food banks, pantries and community organizations.
Howell Farm had a 30-year history of growing potatoes for donation to local food banks, so that was an easy first choice of a crop to grow. Director Pete Watson plowed the field April 7 with horses Bill and Jesse, and further field preparation was done with a 1940 Farmall H tractor. A crew of masked staff and volunteers gathered to plant the potatoes on April 21 with help from Jesse the horse on the plow and we soon had the best stand of potatoes ever planted at the farm.
When it was realized that sources of protein were particularly in demand, an extra flock of chickens was purchased to increase egg production, utilizing a space that had just been opened up for education about chickens. What better way to start that education by putting some chickens to work in the space?
When the farm began limited openings to the public on June 23,, a one-way tour called Share the Harvest showcased the production of food for the visitors. The tour was taken by 1,375 people during the first two months, and continued through the fall for the general public and homeschool groups.
As of Thanksgiving Day, Howell Farm has provided 27,593 lbs. of grain products, fresh produce and eggs to hunger relief programs, with donations through food pantries reaching 14, 887 households.