Between the Rows – Next Generation Horsedrawn Technology?
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
With the rapid expansion in the small farm sectors around the world we are seeing, not only a return to time-honored, pre-chemical, organic production systems and a marriage of those to the most exciting, deeply thought-out, new organics, but also the intense inquiry into new and improved mechanical systems. At the top of most every new farmer’s equipment query list is a desire for the MOST appropriate technology. Machines which get the work done without forcing or violating the sensitive and all-important philosophies and values of this new agriculture. Machines which don’t holler out that diversity and inter-related crop and livestock programs are too inefficient. Implements that give primacy to the plants and plantations. Machines which don’t scream “give me a hundred acres of tomatoes.” Machines which are justified for the mixed crop and livestock farmer with small acreage in row cropping and perennials. Machines which instead fit exactly the procedures the individual farmer wants done and in just the right manner.
Regular readers of this magazine expect me to insert at this point the observation that horses and mules, as a tractive or motive power source, offer many exciting possibilities for these new small-scale intensive farming approaches. True though that may be, I do have to throw a little cold water on the fiesta. Today, tragically, I know of, or have heard of, a handful of excellent, conscientious, horsefarmers who have, in their market gardens, vineyards, cane fruit plantations, orchards and/or specialty row crop farms who have made the choice to back away from equine power for the simple reason that they could not get the tools they needed to do the job.
Case in point: Recently I have had occasion to speak with four grape growers in three western states who coincidentally have all asked for help in addressing the exact same equipment issue. In their vineyards, between rows planted six feet apart, they wish to grow soiling crops and need to be able to mow these strips with a sickle-bar system. It is their preference to do so with true horsepower and ground-drive systems. The conventional HD mowers are too wide and of course offset. They are looking for an implement which will cut directly behind the horse or horses and ahead of, or underneath of, the teamster. To our knowledge, currently no such machine is being built.
On a somewhat related front; I have recently been asked to comment on an exciting collegiate HD engineering project (will divulge in the future) which had occasion to cause me to think of Buck Rake systems and also the arched framework of the old riding potato digger. This morphed into my wondering what might happen if a machine were built which spanned OVER a row, one wheel in one row and the other in the adjacent row, one horse in one row and the other in the next. I then imagined that either or both wheels might have independent, simple, ground-drive mechanisms which powered a function in that row. Two seats could be mounted, one on each side of the arch and just high enough for the driving lines to clear row tops. This way the teamster would have a choice of which row to sit in rather than be perched way up above. This machine might have to employ four wheels with the hind two being castered for turning depending on weight, balance and function of the machine. Such a framework, a ground-drive, row crop tool bar if you will, might be designed to receive a variety of tools; i.e. cultivators, mowers, pruners, top clippers, sprayers, etc.
I easily imagine that such a tool would not be geared solely for the vineyard market, but applicable and valuable to just about any intensive row crop application including a specially spaced raised-bed setup. With such a system a quiet well-trained team of horses would shine, absolutely shine! And the individual farmer would enjoy that heightened awareness of close proximity to work which some of us continue to believe results in those harmonies that enhance all aspects of the farming experience INCLUDING the fertility of the land and the flavor of the food.
Well, all of this is just so much day dreaming, but I hazard to say it might be important daydreaming because I truly believe that when we address these sorts of needs and come up with new tools, the ranks of horsefarmers will further explode and we will all benefit.
We are at some risk of blinding ourselves to new possibilities in HD implements. We tend to accept that what has been done is all there is. Well, as the illustrations on this page show, go back far enough and you’ll find evidence of exciting form and function society left too hastily behind. Blend the new with the old and add the impertinent and there is more than a chance that we will succeed in a very big way.
Let’s make the tools and keep our farmers farming. The future belongs to us.