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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 PDT

A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses

A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses

by Paul Birdsall of Penobscot, ME

INTRODUCTION

I must give credit to George Frangoulis, founder, publisher, and later editor of Farmstead Magazine for encouraging me in having Small Farmer’s Journal reprint the following article which originally appeared in the first issue of Farmstead, Spring/Summer 1974.

In this issue, George stated that “Farmstead is a magazine for all of Maine’s gardeners and Farmsteaders. (It) discusses new gardening methods as well as the good old ways of farming.” In short, this timely publication enabled those of us in what some will recall as the back to the land movement to educate each other in the many issues and problems involved in developing a sustainable and locally based agriculture.

Appearing when it did, “A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses” is evidence of a redeveloping interest in draft power, following its precipitous decline from the mid-1940s on. Early draft horse publications were starting up such as the Draft Horse Journal and Small Farmer’s Journal. In stating that the New Idea spreader was the last piece of horse machinery being made, I did not realize that Amish shops were already, or soon would be providing equipment for non-Amish horse farmers. We have come a long way when we consider events such as Horse Progress Days, or if we examine the contents of draft horse publications then and now.

As further background, anyone knowing me before my late wife, Mollie, and I moved to Maine in 1972 would have found me an unlikely candidate to become a horse farmer. I had no great liking for or interest in horses, probably because of some bad experiences as a child. Once I was on a horse which was being led, when my little sister, wearing a white dress, darted from behind a bush in front of the horse. Enough said, for me, horses were large and dangerous.

Also, I have to confess that we at Horsepower Farm represent “mixed power” now that we also have a tractor. This in no way diminishes the fact that horses supply almost all the power for farming and field work, their manure, composted with seafood waste, provides most of our crop fertility needs, and almost all their hay and some of their oats come from the farm.

Horsepower Farm involves three generations. My son, Andy, and his wife, Donna, operate the farm, and grandson, Drew, and his wife, Meghan, are also involved. It is with their help and encouragement that I continue to work on the farm.

More articles from Farmstead will be coming, and the next, “My First Team of Workhorses,” will feature my first horse, “Lady” and “Trixie” who had been used on the farm by a neighbor from whom I later bought her. However much you may benefit from these ramblings, hopefully the struggles of a would be teamster will provide some entertainment. In any case you will find a postscript in which I will try to bring some of my thinking in 1974 up to date.

A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses

A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses

We have tried a workhorse, and for our needs he has proven quite satisfactory as well as satisfying to use. Thus we feel it is possible for someone with little or no experience to learn to care for and use a horse or a team for farm and woods work, although, obviously, this is not a process to be undertaken lightly.

Why bring back the workhorse when the tractor has come to be generally accepted as more “efficient” for farm tasks? One of the basic aims of the farm operation for us is self-sufficiency, and we thought that the horse would be more efficient than a tractor in achieving this aim. The horse supplies a considerable amount of fertilizer every year, and can be fed on hay and grain raised on the farm. In addition, a mare can produce an occasional foal for profit or as a replacement. We would also be spared mechanical breakdowns of tractor and equipment; horsedrawn equipment and harness is easier to repair. Related to this was the thought that a horse would fit in better with the farm environment than a tractor, and would be pleasanter to use.

Admittedly, a tractor can perform some farm tasks more rapidly than a horse, but we thought that a horse would give us greater flexibility as far as farm and woodlot operations were concerned. With a horse we can get to almost any part of our farm at almost any season of the year. This is important in Northern New England where the snow depths may be great and there is always a mud season to contend with in the spring. (Needless to say, there are wet spots where you can mire a horse, too, but there are fewer of them.) At the same time, we did not feel denied absolutely the use of a tractor, for arrangements could be made to swap labor with a neighboring farmer for such tractor work as might provide occasionally necessary. For example, last summer we were not set up to mow with a horse during haying season, but a neighbor cut much of the hay we needed with his tractor in return for several occasions on which we helped him get in his hay. From our standpoint, such spreading of tractor utilization is far more efficient than for everyone to own his own tractor, which in most cases would be underutilized, and would thus represent at least to some extent unnecessary capital investment.

Such ideas look good on paper, and it is probably safe to say that they are shared by a small but increasing proportion of the population, but obviously it is the practice and not the theory which should determine whether or not there will be a workhorse or a team in your future. In this respect our experience may prove helpful in showing to what extent we have found horses practical on the farm and to what degree the greenhorn may become competent and comfortable in using and caring for them.

For us the transition from ignorance and inexperience to ownership and use was helped along by our good fortune in being able to borrow a team for six weeks or so last summer. The experience in itself was not particularly successful, and in fact some might have been discouraged by what happened. We tried the team with an old mowing machine which we found difficult to use because the cutter bar could not be elevated properly to avoid obstructions. Moreover, in our ignorance we rigged the reins improperly and were forced to control the horses by leading them. Finally, the harness was not up to the requirements of this job, so we had to give up the idea of using the team. All was not lost, however, for we learned to care for the team, became accustomed to harnessing them, and got used to having them around. We also learned from “Charlie” how adept some horses become in escaping from almost any kind of enclosure, with disastrous consequences to the oat supply and the new corn.

The outcome of this experience was to convince us that horses might prove satisfactory for our needs, but that we needed more favorable circumstances in which to try out the idea. Thus we resolved to have “as new” harness, because to do otherwise would endanger the experiment. We decided that one horse would be better than a team because one would be easier to hitch up and manage, and even a beginner can work a well-trained horse on simple tasks, provided he is careful. Also the chances of acquiring one good horse are better than those of getting two good ones at once. Most older, experienced horses have generally been worked double at some time or other, and with care and patience it should be possible to find a mate if you decide that a team is really what you want. (Of course, there is the serious objection to this approach that you will have to switch from single horse harness and equipment to double horse equipment, if you decide on a team eventually.)

The prospects looked pretty discouraging when we actually tried to find a workhorse in the late summer of 1973. It seemed clear that whatever we found, we would have to make a very quick decision because others were beginning to want workhorses, too. So when my son Nat told me of an ad in the Bangor Daily News for a “gentle farm horse with some equipment,” we wasted no time in following up. A number of others had already expressed an interest in buying, and we decided that we would take her while we could in spite of a bunch, or swelling, on her rear hock. We paid $325 for her, and an additional sum for the farm equipment. This price might be low today. We thought the risk slight that we would not be able to get our money out considering the interest in workhorses and their scarcity. As a greenhorn, I was taking a real chance in not bringing along someone who knew workhorses.

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Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Bamboo A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

Bamboo: A Multipurpose Agroforestry Crop

by:
from issue:

The bamboos are gaining increased attention as an alternative crop with multiple uses and benefits: 1) domestic use around the farm (e.g., vegetable stakes, trellis poles, shade laths); 2) commercial production for use in construction, food, and the arts (e.g., concrete reinforcement, fishing poles, furniture, crafts, edible bamboo shoots, musical instruments); and 3) ornamental, landscape, and conservation uses (e.g., specimen plants, screens, hedges, riparian buffer zone).

An Introduction Into Plant Polyculture

An excerpt from What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden
Companion Planting for Beginners

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

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from issue:

The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

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.

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

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from issue:

We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

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from issue:

The old way of selecting seed from open-pollinated corn involved selecting the best ears from the poorest ground. I have tried to select perfect ears based on the open-pollinated seed corn standards of the past. I learned these standards from old agricultural texts. The chosen ears of Reid’s average from 9 to 10.5 inches long and have smooth, well-formed grains in straight rows. I try to select ears with grains that extend to the end of the cob.

Walki Biodegradable Mulching Paper

New Biodegradable Mulching Paper

Views of any and all modern farming stir questions for me. The most common wonder for me has been ‘how come we haven’t come up with a something to replace plastic?’ It’s used for cold frames, hotbeds, greenhouses, silage and haylage bagging and it is used for mulch. That’s why when I read of this new Swedish innovation in specialized paper mulching I got the itch to scratch and learn more. What follows is what we know. We’d like to know more. LRM

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.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

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.

Mullein Indigenous Friend to All

Mullein: Indigenous Friend to All

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from issue:

Mullein is a hardy native, soft and sturdy requiring no extra effort to thrive on your part. Whether you care to make your own medicines or not, consider mullein’s value to bees, bumblebees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, who are needing nectar and nourishment that is toxin free and safe to consume. In this case, all you have to do is… nothing. What could be simpler?

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

Ginseng Culture

Ginseng Culture

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941 — The evident preference of the Chinese for the wild root and the unsatisfactory state of the general market for cultivated ginseng have caused grave doubts as to the future prospects of the industry. These doubts will probably be realized unless growers should strive for quality of product and not for quantity of production, as has been the all too common practice in the past.

Apple Cider Autumns Nectar

Apple Cider, Autumn’s Nectar

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from issue:

While autumn’s beauty is food for our souls, autumn’s harvest provides food for our tables. Along with the many hours and days of canning and freezing our garden produce, harvest time also means apple cider making for our family. We have been making apple cider, or sweet cider as it is commonly called, for six years. Beginning slowly, the demand for our juice has resulted in a production of over six hundred gallons this year.

Onion Culture

Onion Culture

The essential requirements of a soil upon which to grow onions profitably are a high state of fertility, good mechanical condition, properties – that is, if it contains sufficient sand and humus to be easily worked, is retentive of moisture and fertilizers, and is capable of drainage – all other requirements can be met.

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.

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