Living Off the Land
Drew Conroy '86, '01G believes oxen can make small farms sustainable

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They could hardly have been more different, the nomadic Masai tribesmen from East Africa and the college professor from New Hampshire. Yet, as they sat around a campfire on a remote African savanna, it soon became clear that they all spoke the same timeless language: cattle.

Lisa Nugent/UNH Photographic Services

The Masai learned that Drew Conroy '86, '01G, a professor of applied animal science at UNH's Thompson School, grew up on a New Hampshire farm and bought his first pair of oxen when he was 13. They marveled at pictures of Conroy's current team working the land and dragging huge saw logs out of the woods.

In turn, Conroy was fascinated to see how every facet of Masai life revolves around cattle. They kept talking—about hoof care, cattle diseases, breeding and grazing—and before they knew it, they had passed an entire night around the fire, discovering how much they shared in common.

During summers from 1995 to 2002, and again for all of 2008, Conroy "conversed in cattle" across Africa —with nomadic herdsmen, farmers, government officials and university students—gathering data for his research, and driven by his conviction that oxen can transform lives.

"I'm passionate about using ruminant animals to feed the world," says Conroy. For his dedication to helping students and farmers learn about animal care, land use and agricultural practices, he was awarded both the Alumni Association Excellence in Public Service Award and the university-wide Excellence in Teaching Award for 2011.

In New Hampshire, where Conroy is known as "the Ox Man," it's easy to view his work through the sentimental lens of county fairs, living history museums and New England folk traditions. He has, after all, exhibited his oxen at Old Sturbridge Village and taught actor Daniel Day Lewis how to drive oxen for a movie.

Yet worldwide he's better known for his painstaking research and his advocacy for living off the land in a way that offers renewed hope for communities in developing countries. He is the author of three books and nearly 100 articles, and his video "Training Oxen" is a cult classic in the draft-power community, according to The New York Times.

Farming with oxen is affordable and practical in remote, rugged areas, he says, where resources are scarce and modern farm machinery is nearly impossible to service. He believes oxen are also the most environmentally and economically sustainable way of tilling the land.

"If you go back in history, you can see that oxen changed the world," Conroy says. "Africa is one of the many examples of how agriculture, and especially livestock, means the difference between life and death."

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