By Helen Vaskevitch
Increasing fuel prices and environmental concerns have created new interest in animal-powered farming.
Farming with draft animals has many advantages. Horses are less compacting on the soil than tractors, they’ll help you grow their “fuel” onsite and will obligingly turn it into fertilizer, and they renew themselves in the form of wobbly legged babies.
The advantages are many and might tempt the casual inquirer to a simplistic comparison of horse versus tractor, but the truth is, beyond statistics of acres plowed per day or the cost of a well-trained team, the investment is fundamentally different. A new tractor, maintenance bills and gasoline require a steep monetary investment. A team of horses, the training of yourself and them, daily care and work, time spent in the field; the biggest investment a farmer makes in her horses is sheer time and energy.
With a tractor, the cost of fuel and maintenance is directly proportional to amount of use. With horses, the opposite is true: they’re going to eat whether you work them or not. This means the more you use them, the more cost efficient they become. More consistent work also leads to healthier animals.
And so, the farm best suited to using horse power is one that has consistent amounts of work throughout the season. Laura Masterson of 47th Avenue Farms in Portland says, “For us, for a really diverse market garden, a market farm with row crops where you’re always getting more ground ready, doing lots of succession plantings, not trying to open up huge amounts of ground at one time but sort of always little bits and pieces of things to do all through the summer, that is the kind of work that they are very good at.”
The flipside of this is, “You really have to budget your time because things happen slower. The farm has to be set up so you don’t have too much work on any one crop throughout the season,” says David Mader of Horsepower Organics in Halfway, Ore. David and Deborah Mader have a market garden, and they grow enough hay and alfalfa to feed their herd of 35 horses as well as sell dried alfalfa leaf for herb. This mix of crops lends itself well to horse work, but there is that time of year when the haying cranks up and competes with time in the market garden, it can be hard to spread the labor efficiently.
All the farmers I spoke with solved this challenge by using mixed power on their farm: they do as much as they can with the horses, but if they get in a pinch or just need to plow that field before it rains, they bring out the tractor for that job.
“For me part of the challenge is I have a lot of employees and it’s a lot easier to teach somebody to use a tractor than to teach about the horses… in a way that’s kind of a limiting factor and probably one of the reasons I won’t ever give up my tractor completely,” says Masterson.
And it does take a significantly longer time to learn to work with horses than to learn to drive a tractor. Walt Bernard is an experienced teamster and educator; he hosts workshops at his farm Ruby and Amber’s Organic Oasis in Cottage Grove. According to Walt it takes eight years to fully understand the nuances of the craft. But he adds, “I’d say you’ll get good enough with the right animals, the right team and the right basic trainingto do most of the basic field and farm work in a year or two.”
Another effective way to learn is to apprentice with a master teamster. At Horsepower Organics, “We attract interns or apprentices to work on our farm because they want to know how to start a green draft horse and train it and farm in a number of different positions, we do both row crops and field crops,” says Deborah Mader.
Part of the reason it takes so long to become competent, is that you are learning to collaborate with a teammate whose brain works differently than yours.
Everyone I speak with who works with horses credits their intelligence. As David Mader puts it, “They will take an interest in the work and they will make your job easier. If you had to steer every moment when you’re running a straddle row cultivator you couldn’t keep it where you wanted it all the time. A good horse will understand the work and put the machine and you in a position to succeed.”
Working with an intelligent animal also brings the responsibility to maintain their health through good living conditions and a conscientious diet, so they feel safe and cared for. As Lynn Miller writes in The Workhorse Handbook, a bible on the topic, “it is a complex and subtle business of which the teamster must know everything. If he does not, it quickly becomes a dangerous business.”
The responsibility and required state of mind can be seen as either a chore or a great gift; the key to the difference is having a real love for the work. Susan Richman works three horses at Belle Mare Farm in Willamina, Ore. She says, “When you work a tractor, you’ve got earplugs on, you’re not talking to people. Working horses instead of a tractor, you have to operate in horse time, you have to put your ego aside, you have to put your head where the horse’s head is, and you gotta be focused on the task. It brings me right down to the moment. I suddenly become aware of the beauty around me. That’s the benefit I can’t give up now.”
This benefit is subjective, yet what Richman’s words demonstrate me is a specific mindset facilitated by working with horses, a mindset very relevant to renewable energy. With horses, your fuel comes from the land, and it is returned back to the land, all in front of your eyes. When your inputs and outputs are coming from your immediate surroundings, it’s much harder to continue using technologies that drain the environment of natural resources. When this status quo is no longer attractive to us, our vision of a new energy system will be truly creative.
Helen Vaskevitch is a writer based in Ashland, Oregon.