Putting the Horse Back Into Horsepower

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Grass-Powered Agriculture


june bugFrom a gentle rise overlooking an apron of floodplain along the Santiam River, Greenleaf Farm is laid out in long, straight rows alternating brown and green. Heavy, low-slung clouds drop a cold mist on Eric Pond as he points out the boundaries of his recently-acquired 67 acres, over two-thirds of which he has planted into blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries for the organic processing market. After years of working for wages managing other farms, including a 1,000-acre Christmas tree operation, this view from the knoll has been a long time coming. “It’s been my dream to have my own farm forever,” he says, nodding out to the fields. “Ever since I was old enough to realize I had dreams.”

Parked behind Eric is a Kubota tractor specially rigged with state-of-the-art hydraulics to cultivate the berries. A little ways off is a computerized moisture monitoring system installed on the farm for precision irrigation.

But Eric has another quiver of tools as well: Next to the Kubota is a string of cherry-red farm implements best described as his two-horsepower collection. The names roll off Eric’s tongue like lyrics: straddle-row cultivator, springtooth harrow, single-bottom plow, and forecart. He gets animated as he describes what is at once the simplicity and versatility of each implement, all of which are pulled around the farm by Josh and Riva—his team of chestnut and buttermilk Belgian draft horses—and made by I & J Manufacturing, an Amish-owned business in Pennsylvania that designs, builds, and sells new horsedrawn equipment.

Greenleaf is a mixed power farm, meaning it relies on both tractors and horses to get the work done. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: A futuristic-looking mechanical berry harvester is parked idle in a field next door, while in the foreground two workhorses nibble at winter pasture. Eric explains that regardless of what his skeptical neighbors might think, his team of drafts is as much about practicality as it is about a passion for horses. “It’s a rejuvenating experience to drive a team,” he reflects. “That connection to horses, it’s calming.”

And for Eric who loathes the roar of the tractor, he’s able to perform a wide array of jobs with the horses—from cultivating, to plowing, to harrowing—in both the berry fields and his few acres of vegetables, all without burning up diesel or exacerbating soil compaction. With another team and the right equipment, he figures he could manage the entire farm with horsepower alone.

Except for one problem: finding people who can drive the horses. Those known as teamsters.

Less than one hundred years ago, an average of 10 horses were at work on every U.S. farm. At that time, every aspect of our food system—production, processing, and transportation— depended on horses, mules, and oxen. Horses in harness were commonplace, as were the people who drove them.

In addition to serving as society’s literal workhorses, those animals played a quiet and under-celebrated role contributing to the ecological balance of the farmscape. Draft animals required pastures and hayfields, i.e. grass, which, by way of photosynthesis, turns the sun into protein and fiber that 50 million years of symbiotic co-evolution has enabled the species Equus to miraculously convert into 1) raw energy (the ability to do work), and 2) horse manure.

The value of the first—horses as living solar energy converters—is probably obvious. But to ignore the second is to overlook the role draft animals played in elegantly closing the nutrient loop on farms. By turning sunshine (rather than petrochemicals) into fertilizer, draft horses nourished crops to feed people as well as the pastures where the cycle started all over again. An ingenious zero-waste system.

Despite the brilliance of the whole thing, it couldn’t compete with cheap fossil-fuel energy and the religiosity of the machine. The invention of the internal combustion engine in the early 20th century sparked a mania that ultimately displaced some 26 million horses and mules in American farms and cities, most of which were sold for slaughter. With the horses went the pastures and hayfields, which over time were converted under the squeal of steel and government policies into ever-larger acreages of commodity monocrops, so that now one person in one day can drill in 500 acres of corn from the air-conditioned cab of a satellite-steered tractor while listening to an iPod.

And so went the teamsters, forfeiting their title to a new generation of long-haul truck drivers on the nation’s freeways. During this era, the term “horsepower” as it now applies to tractors and other vehicles was pulled into use as a social marketing tool to coax the cultural transition from horse to machine. And though it was recorded as but one more step in America’s much-celebrated march of progress, this shift from “ecological technology” to “mechanical technology,” as described by researchers in Sweden, represented a profound turning point for agriculture.

America moved from a farming system that ran mostly on locally generated inputs and renewable resources (sun, rain, grass, and human labor) to one that depended primarily on imported materials and non-renewable resources (diesel, lubricants, tractor parts, and chemical fertilizer). The shift has been so complete that today our modern food system accounts for one-fifth of the total U.S. national fossil fuel consumption and is nearly 100% reliant on oil obtained via a geopolitically fragile global supply system.

When you stop to consider the pipeline connecting our dinner plates to the oil wars in the Middle East, or pause to ponder the inevitable day when petroleum products are no longer cheap and abundant, it doesn’t take long for peak oil to peak one’s curiosity about draft power.

The immediate question that inevitably surfaces is always about practicality: How could we possibly grow all the food we need using draft animals?

Various comparative studies have shown that even in the cheap energy era that we’re currently living in, horses hold their own against their internal combustion counterparts when all inputs and outputs are accounted for (including initial purchase costs, fuel/feed expenses, upkeep and maintenance, capacity for work, the soil fertility contribution of horses, the ability of horses to procreate while tractors depreciate, and so on).

In Amish country, comparative studies showed that the net cash return per acre of cropland on horse-powered farms was up to half again the average of mechanized farms. The United Nations is actively promoting draft power as an intelligent rural development strategy in developing nations, which makes a person wonder what’s not intelligent about promoting it here, in the very least as a backup measure (read: food security during an oil crisis).

Promoted or not, the change from grass-powered to gas- powered agriculture over the last century has not rendered teamsters officially extinct in the U.S. Draft power might even be described as experiencing its own small renaissance in North America. Today, an estimated 400,000 people are using horses or mules on farms in the U.S. and Canada, about 170,000 of whom are Amish.

To ask the people who are farming with horses today the simple question “why?” is to invite a litany of responses ranging from environmentally righteous, to deeply personal, to old-fashioned practical. Ubiquitous among most teamsters is the love of horses, but also: to make a living; because oil wells aren’t bottomless; to reduce soil compaction; because draft animals give you infinitely flexible and recombinant raw horsepower; for the unbeatable smell of leather harness and horse sweat; for homegrown fertility; because engines wear out but equines replace themselves; to bring ingenious farm implements back to useful life; for the gentle jingle of trace chains and the quiet whir of ground-driven mowers; to steward land well; and because—in the words of one unapologetic (wagon) bumper sticker—“every farm needs a team.”

Driving two tons of horseflesh with hooves the size of dinner plates right where you need it—which is between the rows of tender cabbage, not on top of them—is an art. To learn to harness, hitch, gee, haw, whoa, back, step, harrow, rake, mow, plow, disc, and cultivate builds a unique muscle memory into your hands and body, and to go from awkward to intuitive on the lines is a slow process. It takes guidance from an experienced teamster and years of practice.

It also means disregarding the cultural judgments that surface around the decision to use draft animals. To pick farming as a career is one thing, but when you add two words “with horses,” heads start to turn—sometimes in amazed curiosity or wistful nostalgia, but more often in critical disbelief. As a puzzled neighbor so unapologetically put it when he learned of my own plans to farm with a team: “Draft horses? Why in the world would you want to go backwards?” By that, I’m pretty sure he was referring to Webster’s fourth dictionary entry for backwards: “representing a return to a previous or less advanced, and usually less satisfactory, state.”

All of these factors contribute to why Eric Pond is having a hard time finding people to drive his horses at Greenleaf. Fortunately for him, with the resurrection of interest in draftpower it’s getting easier to become schooled in the teamster craft. There are now workshops where you can get your hands on the lines under the tutelage of master teamsters, a growing library of how-to books, and an expanding calendar of driving clinics, field days, and swap meets that give bustling testimony to the fact that horsefarming is indeed alive and well in the U.S., and that draftpower can be at once possible, practical and profitable.

Of course it takes good farming practices—not just a team of horses—to realize such rewards, but the modern horsefarming movement pushes back on the Luddite image surrounding draftpower. It also gives reason to ponder the radical notion that perhaps the horizon-to-horizon fields of this season’s federally subsidized corn harvest—destined for net zero ethanol plants, feedlots, and fast food——might not represent a “more advanced and more satisfactory state.” It’s a blasphemous notion in the American tradition of cheaper- bigger-faster-better, but to watch Eric Pond sight down the tongue between two steady horses, quietly cultivating a riot of berries, is to wonder if backwards is, in fact, part of the way forward.

Zoë Bradbury lives, farms and writes on Oregon’s southern coast.

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