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A Tour of Various Draft Farms
A Tour of Various Draft Farms

Three-abreast on the spreader at Northland Sheep Dairy.

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

by Tim Biello of Cazenovia, NY and Nathan Henderson of Essex, NY
photos courtesy of Donn Hewes, Ken Laing, Tony McQuail, and Karma Glos

From how you set up your farm’s infrastructure to accommodate the use of draft animals to the ways in which you actually work them on a day-to-day basis, there are many different systems one can develop to farm with live power. Now, if you ask around enough, you’ll likely be able to find folks who will tell you how it ought to be done. But the truth is there is no one way to do it. Even though there are fairly consistent conditions that using live power presents — daily care such as feeding and watering, particular equipment needs, pasture and manure management, and so on — they yield an incredible variety of responses. This is why we set out to tour draft powered farms, to see the variety firsthand.

At the time of our tour, in the fall of 2011, Nathan and I were farming at Essex Farm in Essex, NY. Nathan came to Essex Farm in the fall of 2010, after farming for two years in Ontario, Canada at Meeting Place Organic Farm. Having worked and managed there for two years, Nathan was searching for his next step, which he thought might be finding his own land and starting his own farm. While returning to New England, he visited Essex to see their horse systems and to learn about their full diet CSA. The visit turned into employment and he decided to stay there and work for the year. That’s how we met. I had been at Essex Farm since 2009, working variously as a dairy manager, vegetable manager and teamster. In 2011, I had gone to a part-time schedule so as to keep up with farming and stay near to my horses — I’d purchased a team in 2010 and they were worked and boarded at Essex Farm — while using my off-farm time to search for land. Nathan and I became immediate friends and spent a lot of time talking about the various farms we’d worked on, visited or knew about. We both had plans to get our own farms and we enjoyed comparing ideas. After a lot of storytelling, and some fact checking, we decided that instead of only talking about the different ways to set up and run a draft powered farm we should go visit some.

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

Cultivating strawberry beds at Orchard Hill Farm.

We wanted to see how others were farming using draft power. What tools are they using and how have they set up their farming systems to work with their draft animals? We also wanted to connect with other teamsters. And we wanted to spark ideas for our own farms. (Sure, technically, we don’t have these farms yet, but we plan to!) So we set out to visit draft powered farms and farmers, ranging from Ontario, Canada to Western NY to Pennsylvania. In the end, we traveled more than 1,500 miles, which took us more than 30 hours of driving, and at every home we were greeted with warm smiles and great food.

The common thread for the farms we visited was the use of draft power. From there the business models and life styles varied significantly. We saw farms that earned their income from CSAs, farmers’ markets, direct marketing and wholesaling. Many used a combination of these marketing strategies. Some farms grew only vegetables, some focused on animal husbandry and others combined multiple aspects of diversified farming. We saw the ubiquitous horse drawn tools — such as manure spreaders, plows, harrows and cultivators — as well as unique horse equipment, like an implement designed to deliver round bales in the winter or a homemade power forecart. In a way, the diversity in the farms we visited is a testament to the flexibility of the draft horse model.

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

Discing with four-abreast at Meeting Place Organic Farm.

At every farm we visited, we saw both similar systems as well as unique combinations of infrastructure and systems to complement their use of draft power. While it makes sense, for example, to try to store your hay in a close and convenient location to where you will be stabling and/or overwintering your horses, exactly how you do that depends on your goals and your farm’s set up. At Meeting Place organic farm, the McQuails store round bales in the field, stacked and covered in a manner that allows them to be removed as needed, then drawn to and spread in the desired location using their homemade round bale implement. In this way, they spread the fertility of the hay and feeding-animal’s manure to targeted areas with lower fertility in their fields. Others, such as Michael and Karma Glos of Kingbird Farm, store their hay as well as their grains above their horse’s stables to let gravity do some of the work. Or, at Orchard Hill, Ken and Martha Lang store their hay in the barn adjacent to their horses’ stables, which are themselves adjacent to the pig pens that are set a level below the horse stables. With this set up, the horses are easily fed and their manure and bedding is easily pushed into the pig pens. From there, once the manure is made ready by the rooting pigs, it’s loaded into a spreader. These are just some examples of different ways to organize one’s barn. The variations between farms, in systems and infrastructure, seem to be endless, even though so many of the fundamental reasons (i.e. the horses need to eat in the winter!) are the same.

A farm is an expression of the farmer, and visiting a farmer’s farm is to begin to know that farmer more intimately. With each farm we visited, we not only saw the agricultural choices they made, but they invited us into their lives and shared their time and homes with us. We were able to see how their farms have been tailored by their varied land base, infrastructure, access to capital, production systems, personal beliefs, farming values and quality of life values.

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

Feeding out round bales at Meeting Place Organic Farm.

For example, many of the draft powered farms that we saw made the choice to have a small tractor with a bucket loader. This tractor could stand in for horses in the field or operate PTO driven machines, as well as use the bucket to move manure or other heavy things. On the other hand, some draft farmers consciously choose not to use any tractor power. Instead, they had developed other systems to take the place of the tractors. We saw the adaptation of team implements for use with a single horse, for when one horse is lame; we saw the use of pig composting systems to turn and stir compost without a bucket loader; and we talked about loose hay systems to avoid the use of PTO driven hay-baling systems. There were also farmers that had tractors but who avoided using them when possible.

It sometimes helps to remember that caring for draft horses and running a farm that uses live power is a responsive, creative and on-going process. It is present in the keeping of the horses. It is present in the equipment that draft farmers buy and modify. It is present in the ways that their barns are built and utilized. It is present in the systems they institute so as to be able to take time off (sweet, sweet time off!). Learning about this variety, and the different reasons for each similar and unique set up, helped us to think about our own plans and how we might set up our own farms in the future. Seeing this variety also relieved some of the stresses of needing to have everything figured out upfront. It became more manageable to “figure it out” because it became less predefined and more personalized, less certain and more adaptable, less requisite and more up to us.

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

Cultivating in the hoop house at Kingbird Farm.

On our tour, we connected with a host of friendly farmers ready to share their lives and experiences, to demo their equipment and their infrastructure, to explain their farm decisions and always ready to swap ideas about farming with us. It was fun. It was friend-filled. It was inspiring. It reminded us that we all have different skills and different interests and different life goals that ultimately make our farms different from one another. And this is good. This variety continually creates new designs, new tools and new ways for succeeding on our draft-powered farms. Amidst all of the possibility that is out there, all of the options and uncertainties, it helps to remember that there is also a strong community in the draft-farming world. There are a great many like-minded yet still diverse people working with draft horses and ready to share their experiences. What will serve us well within this great variety of farms and farmers is to keep in touch, to learn from one another’s good ideas and mistakes, to share what works and what doesn’t and, last but not least, to keep on farming with draft power.

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

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