by Katie Navarra
Born and raised on a dairy farm in Iowa, Howard Stoner traveled around the world working for a non-profit organization establishing schools, agricultural systems, safe drinking water systems, infant care and more in isolated villages in remote corners of Alaska, Japan, Australia and Zimbabwe. When it was time to settle down, he and his wife chose inner-city Troy, NY, nearly 20 years ago.
Once in Troy, Howard accepted a professor’s position teaching mathematics at a local college. As he neared retirement, he began to consider the possibility of returning to his farming roots. “People were talking about food security and what they could grow for themselves,” he recalled. His goal, included growing grains and milling it into flour. He approached a neighbor and worked out an agreement to use a portion of their lot to grow grains and other vegetables in exchange for keeping weeds and other invasive plants from consuming the small plot of land.
When most people learn that Howard farms the first question they ask, is how many acres? “That is really the wrong unit of measure,” he explains, “I farm in square feet.” Currently, he is using seven strips of land, each totaling 350-400 square feet. There he experiments with diverse varieties of grains, vegetables and even a miniature rice paddy.
Each year he also plants a 75’ long strip of pole beans. “In the beginning we were picking three to four pounds of beans a day,” he said, “then it built up to 18-22 pounds each day. After a good rain everything blossomed again and we picked 43 pounds in one day!”
While he is not currently taking his products to market, he has developed a niche milling the grains into flour for the local community. “I have one lady who wanted rice flour, so I milled rice for her,” he explained, “another lady prefers a mix of four grains. I keep a bucket with the grains pre-mixed so that when she calls I can mill it quickly for her.” What he cannot provide from the grains grown on his land, he purchases from an organic farmer.
His growing space is not the only work area constrained by size limitations. The space he has available for processing his grains is also limited to his backyard and basement. He has manufactured his own tools for removing the hull from the grain and has repurposed an old exercise bicycle attached to power the a small mill for grinding the grains into flour.
Though considerably smaller in scale, Howard faces many of the challenges larger farmers face. Open land is scare and becoming more expensive every day. He is limited in the quantity he can grow because access to open land is limited.
Controlling weeds and planning crop succession can also be a challenge. This fall he is trying a new approach to managing weeds without pesticides. “I tilled the strips by Sept. 1 and waited for a nice rain to germinate the weed seeds,” he explained, “then I will till it two more times this fall so that in theory I will have two less weed crops next spring.”
Similar to the plight farmers face from neighbors who do not appreciate livestock perfume, Howard too has challenges to contend with when bringing home new chickens. “Roosters aren’t allowed in the city,” he said. He must be diligent in selecting only hens to avoid violating city codes or disrupting nearby neighbors. “We thought we bought all hens this year, but found out we had a rooster,” he said.
by Katie Navarra