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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PST

A Gathering of Comtois in France
A Gathering of Comtois in France

A beautiful example of the breed.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

by Kristina Goetz of Jackson, WY

In August 2004, I once again managed to slip out of the country to return to the splendors of rural France. I had several goals in mind, one of which was to try to get a glimpse into life for the draft horse there.

The origins of many draft breeds lie in Europe: the Belgian of Belgium, the Fresian of the Netherlands, the Haflinger of Italy and the Fjord of Norway, are all European breeds quite popular here in the US, as are several breeds originating on the British Isles like the Suffolk Punch, the Clydesdale, and the Shire. The French specifically have a very long history with horses, and have played a large role in the development of draft horses. France as a single country has itself over 41 breeds, with 10 draft breeds. In a country with over 90 “departments,” or counties, and at least as many cultural identities, it should come as no surprise that there are so many breeds of working horse. These include the Ardennes, Auxois, Boulonnais, Breton, Percheron, Poitevin, Norman Cob, Trait du Nord, and the Comtois. Many of these have been interbred over the ages producing the breeds we know today.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

The gathering was teeming with horses.

Before I left the US I tried to do a little homework. Although difficult to determine, it did seem that there may be several strongholds of draft horse use in France. Unfortunately, my schedule and itinerary didn’t allow me to attend any big events. Instead, I had to seek out something that was being held in one of the areas I was already heading. I had the good fortune to then stumble across a listing of draft horse fairs and events throughout the entire country, which proved a gold mine of information. Of course, this gold mine was all in French, and mine is a little lacking. Nonetheless I was soon planning for a stop in the town of Pontelier, the main hub in one corner of the country I had never been to and was bent on exploring: the Franche-Compte. As luck would have it, this region has its very own breed of draft horse, the Comtois. It was to an “exhibition” of this horse that I was heading, although thanks to my lousy French, I was not sure exactly what kind of “exhibition” I was heading to. But, off I went…

The Franche-Compte is the region just north of the Jura Mountains, in the far east of France, on the Swiss border and not far from the Swiss city of Geneva. This area clearly has a Swiss/German influence, in both architecture and dialect, and is a beautiful, picturesque, and seldom-traveled area. Pontelier itself was a charming town, well kept and filled with friendly people and surrounded by outlying areas of lush meadow and grazing cows. Despite its small size and distance from the big city (Paris was several hours away) it had a very progressive feel. It was also host to a magnificently large organic market! Many footpaths and walking opportunities surrounded the town, and the few visitors to the area often come for the walking. I myself made it to the Swiss border on a morning’s jaunt on a well-marked and beautiful desolate country lane. This is a very popular area in winter for cross country skiers, as the rolling hills, thick forests, and magnificent scenery are perfect for the sport. When I arrived in mid-August, the meadow grasses were tall and flowers in bloom.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

The mane and tail are traditionally braided with straw.

The Franche-Compte is, like many regions in France, very proud of their distinct heritage and unique local flavors. The Comtois, it seems, is a very old breed, perhaps descended from horses brought to the area from northern German immigrants in the fourth century. It is second only to the Breton in numbers in France, and its numbers continue to rise. It is said to be a good-natured, hard working, easy to train horse, with endurance, hardiness, and balance. The Comtois continues to be used for hauling wood from the forest in the Jura, and for working in hilly vineyards. This rural county is also the proud producer to what I found to be another most outstanding accomplishment I must not neglect to mention: it’s own cheese. Compte, with its strict regulations (regarding cows allowed per acre of grass) for production, is the most mild creamy and delicious I came across in all of France, and there was a place right in town where you could tour cheesemaking facilities and gorge yourself on tastings.

But truth be told, upon arrival in this clearly modern town, I was highly skeptical that my sleuthing skills were to pay off. Surely there was no draft horse meet going on here! But after poking around a bit, and with the help of a very kind information clerk, there it was, deep in a long list of Pontelier’s summer events: the working horse exhibition.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

A horse is trotted for the judges.

And so the following morning, a short walk from town to the schoolgrounds led me to a hill overlooking a most lovely sight: a field full of Comtois! Hundreds of these beautiful chestnut workhorses, with flaxen manes and tails, milled about a field filled with spectators. I marched down the drive and into a froth of French-speaking agriculturists, armed with an array of questions in my impressively broken and horrific French.

From the get-go, it was clear this was no plow match or demo; the show was purely for judging each horse’s conformation and gait according to the breed standard. Although I was disappointed not to see them in real action, I was still commending myself on finding the needle in the haystack. Apparently, it seems draft horses for show are more common than in practical use or agricultural matches in France, and so I couldn’t feel too bad. Turns out, this particular meet was an uncommon event and had only been planned to mark the anniversary of the area. The atmosphere was delightfully low-key, the beer flowed, and one could look out over 100 thick rumps gleaming in the sunshine.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

Horses were branded on the spot!

For each horse to be judged, two lanes were set up for the horse to walk, then trot down, led by their handler. Classes were arranged by the horse’s age. All Comtois born in a certain year were given a name that began with the same letter; for instance, yearlings had names that began with M. Two year-olds that were deemed worthy of the breed standard were eligible to be an official Comtois, and were branded with the elegant and historic brand right there after they exited the lane! Tradition also seemed to dictate that the horses manes and tails be braided with straw, and this was indeed a very beautiful and classy touch. Leave it to the French!

A Gathering of Comtois in France

Being in such a rural region, nary an English speaker could I find. So, many of my questions were left unanswered. In my travels following, I did hear vaguely of the resurgence of draft horse use by small farmers. I also heard of a group of farmers in the Ariege region who are promoting the use of the draft horse, forming work groups and giving clinics and instruction in using horse drawn farm tools. I heard just enough to keep me wanting to know more. Guess I will have to return once again to this country that prides itself in its small farms and agricultural diversity.

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden

Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have … “At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked…

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

For those not familiar with this tasty, nutritious weed, purslane can be a real challenge to manage in vegetable crops for a number of reasons. The seeds of this weed remain viable for many years in the garden, and generally do not germinate until hot weather — that is, after many of the market garden crops have already been planted. To make matters worse, this succulent plant often reroots after cultivation. Purslane also grows so close to the ground that it is impossible to control by mowing.

Henpecked Compost and U-Mix Potting Soil

We have hesitated to go public with our potting mix, not because the formula is top secret, but because our greenhouse experience is limited in years and scale. Nevertheless, we would like to offer what we have learned in hopes of showing that something as seemingly insignificant as putting together a potting mix can be integrated into a systems approach to farming.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Carrots & Beets – The Roots of Our Garden

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from issue:

Carrots and beets are some of the vegetables that are easy to kill with kindness. They’re little gluttons for space and nutrients, and must be handled with an iron fist to make them grow straight and strong. Give the buggers no slack at all! Your motto should be – “If in doubt, yank it out!” I pinch out a finger full (maybe 3/4” wide) and skip a finger width. Pinch and skip, pinch and skip, working with existing gaps and rooting out particularly thick clumps.

Peach

Peach

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from issue:

The Peach is a showy tree when in bloom. There are double-flowered varieties, which are as handsome as the dwarf flowering almond, and they are more showy because of the greater size of the tree. The flowers of the Peach are naturally variable in both size and color. Peach-growers are aware that there are small-flowered and large-flowered varieties. The character of the flower is as characteristic of the variety as size or color of fruit is.

Syrup From Oregons Big-Leaf Maple

Syrup From Oregon’s Big Leaf Maple

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from issue:

There is a great potential in establishment of a seasonal “sugarbush” industry for small farmers of the northwestern states, particularly western Oregon and Washington. Five syrup producing species of maples are found mainly east of the Rocky Mountains. The Box Elder and the Big-leaf Maple are the only syrup producing maples of the Pacific Northwest. Properly made syrup from these two western maples is indistinguishable from the syrup of maples of the midwestern and northeastern states.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

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The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

Marketable Cover Crops

Marketable Cover Crops

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Our cover crops have to provide the benefits of smothering weeds, improving soil structure, and replenishing organic matter. They also have to produce some income. For these purposes, we use turnips, mustard and lettuce within our plant successions. I broadcast these seeds thickly on areas where cover crops are necessary and let them do their work.

Planting Calendar and Other Diagrams

From Dusty Shelves: A 1943 calendar for seeding your vegetable garden.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

Cabbage

Cabbage

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from issue:

Cabbage is the most important vegetable commercially of the cole crops, which include cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, collard, broccoli, and many others. It also ranks as one of the most important of all vegetable crops and is universally cultivated as a garden, truck and general farm crop. The market for cabbage, like that for potatoes, is continuous throughout the year, and this tends to make it one of the staple vegetables.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

Lost Apples

Lost Apples

The mindboggling agricultural plant and animal diversity, at the beginning of the twentieth century, should have been a treasure trove which mankind worked tirelessy to maintain. Such has not been the case. Alas, much has been lost, perhaps forever. Here are images and information on a handful of apple varieties from a valuable hundred year old text in our library.

Making Sorghum Molasses

Making Sorghum Molasses

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Growing sorghum doesn’t take much work, according to Buhrman. You plant it in the spring, work it a couple of times and that’s about all that’s required until late in the growing season. That is when the work begins. Before it is cut, all the stalks have to be “bladed” – the leaves removed from the stalks. It’s then cut, then the tassles are cut off, and the stalks are fed through a crusher. The crusher forces the juices out of the plant. The sorghum juice is then boiled in a vat for four to five hours until nothing is left but the syrup.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Follow-Up On Phosphorus

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT