Farming Systems & Approaches
Garlic is one of the easiest and most rewarding crops to grow, though often deceptively simple. I’ve grown garlic here in the Finger Lakes of New York since I was a child in my father’s garden and am honored to share the keys to surrounding yourself with abundance.
Many consultants and agricultural experts are trying to impress upon ranchers and farmers that our work should be a business and not a way of life, that in order to survive we must have better plans and become more businesslike: “Agriculture must cease to be a lifestyle and begin to be a business.” But farming and ranching can never really be just a business, for the family unit, as it is for big corporations. Yet, if we were to rely only on the “big guys” for our food, America would starve. We need the family farms.
Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.
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 and to keep on farming with draft power.
In 2012 a comparative yield trial involving 38 cultivated varieties of sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) was conducted by Edmund O. Brown II and Pamela Jean Brown at two locations on their farm, known as New Hope Farms in eastern Jasper County, Missouri. The following is a description of the trial, and of which clonal varieties were found by Mr. and Mrs. Brown to yield better and worse.
Contract grazing involves the use of livestock to control specific undesirable plants, primarily for ecological restoration and wildfire prevention purposes. The landowners we worked for saw grazing as an ecologically friendly alternative to mowing, mechanical brush removal, and herbicide application.
The farm woodland is that portion of the farm which either never was cleared for tillage or pasture, or was later given back to woods growth. Thus it occupies land that never was considered suitable, or later proved unsuitable, for farm enterprises.
“Old timers” are fond of saying that all it takes are lots of long hours in the field, ‘get yourself and the horses sweatin’ and keep them that way.’ It is felt that most training challenges and glitches in the system will work their way out by long hard hours of work. There is certainly something to say for this. However, it is far from the only way. It is my contention, born of a quarter century of experience, that foundation training and good common sense system structure will give us better results. The horse who stands quietly and calmly when needed, regardless of whether he is tired or fresh, is the superior work mate. This is accomplished by well set training and trust.
The artisanal maple producer is passionate and thrills his associates by producing very tasty excellent quality syrup. He never stops innovating in the transformation of maple products and in the use of maple syrup in the kitchen to embellish various dishes. How many maple producers still today collect maple sap in a bucket or with horses or by gravity? Very few you say… well, think again, there are hundreds and hundreds.
Tired of living in a crowded urban environment with its deafening noise and bumper-to-bumper traffic and eager to escape what they saw as an economy bent on destroying the planet, Matt and Tasha left their home in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in March 2014. In doing so, they became modern-day pioneers, part of a wave of Americans who have chosen to go back to the land over the past decade, seeking to reclaim and rebuild their lives and to forge a deeper connection to the earth, the animals that inhabit it, and to each other.
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.
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…
Why bother building a bat house? North American bats have, like bluebirds, suffered serious loss of habitat and are in desperate need of good homes. Bats comprise almost one-quarter of all mammal species, and they form an integral part of a healthy sustainable ecosystem. Bats disperse seeds, pollinate flowers, and are major predators of night flying insects. Rootworms, cutworms, stink bugs, and corn ear worms are among the many favorite meals of the common bat. A single bat can consume up to 500 mosquitoes in one hour! A simple and inexpensive step towards improving bat habitat is to provide bat roosting houses (approximately $15 per house) around your property.
In Honey from the Earth we see the diversity of hives, bees and methods played out to its absolute extreme. There are plenty of the familiar wooden, frame hives here, close to the ground; easy to manipulate and move. But the sky is, quite literally, the limit. Beehives are made of any and every available material that can be fashioned into homes that bees will accept and occupy — lumber, hollow logs, live trees, straw, reeds, bark, mud and plastic are all used according to the unique local situations in which bees and their keepers find themselves.
This old information is all about using larger teams and saving on the human labor factor. These ideas kept on growing and by the 1940’s Wayne Dinsmore and the original Horse and Mule Association of America produced detailed pamphlets and lots of propaganda trying to sell the idea of big hitches of from 6 to 30 head for large scale field work. The basic premise of larger units to save labor jumped the creek after WWII and was used to justify getting rid of those same draft animals and replacing them with tractors.
One weekend I attended a Biodynamic meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm in Dorena, Oregon, in the Row River Valley, just east of Cottage Grove. I always enjoy seeing other food growing operations, as this is such an infinitely broad subject, there is always much to learn from others’ experiences. At this farm, draft horses are used for much of the work.
“Isn’t it nice?” I offer to my supper companions, “to see our beautiful horses right while we’re eating? I feel like I’m on a Kentucky horse farm, with rolling bluegrass vistas.” I sweep my arm dramatically towards the view, the rigged up electric fence, the lawn straggling down to the pond, the three horses, one of whom is relieving herself at the moment. “Oh, huh,” he answers. “I was thinking it was more like a cheesy bed and breakfast.”
A friend had recently purchased 11 acres of ground and wanted to know if I thought that was enough ground to set up a viable farm to support his family. We have a fairly large farm of 24 acres in our area, probably considered nothing more than a garden to large-scale farmers. Yet from this farm we have been able to support our family entirely from our vegetable and fruit production. It was from this background that my friend asked for my input to assess his chances of becoming a farmer. To answer his question I sat down and wrote a letter outlining some points that I considered important for him to succeed in his quest. Following is that letter that I mailed off to him:
Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.
Cornfields in the 1880s were laid out much differently than those seen today. To recreate a cornfield during the time period it is laid out in check rows. The field is prepared and then marked using a marking sled. Afterwards, the farmer moves across the field perpendicular to his markings with an original corn planter. A knotted wire is stretched across the field which when tripped causes a kernel of corn to fall into place in the dirt. Rather than being planted in long straight rows, the field is actually laid out more like a checkerboard. The idea behind this is that the field could then be cultivated in all directions, including diagonally.
This last week has been hot with clear skies and bright sunshine, definitely straw-hat weather. I am a keen and consistent wearer of hats, a cloth cap in winter and a straw hat in summer. In between, there are a few weeks when I’m not sure what to wear, but I do need some head covering as I have got to that stage in life when, if the growth on the top of my head was a cover crop, you’d be thinking about ploughing it up and starting again!
Chagfood Community Market Garden is a CSA supplying 80 shares a week from five acres, on the edge of a small town called Chagford on the northern edge of Dartmoor National Park, in Devonshire, England. Chagfood has been running since 2010 when it was set up by Ed Hamer and his wife Yssy. Having been born and brought up in the National Park, Ed was aware that many of the traditional farming skills and knowledge of the area have been lost as farming has become more intensive. As a result he was keen to use working horses on the market garden from the very beginning, in an effort to keep the skills of working horsemanship alive for the next generation.
A great many small farms across North America keep ten to thirty laying hens for home family supply. Some of those folks might be surprised to discover that with a modest investment they could turn, or grow, that ‘sideline’ into additional farm income – but you need to know that it will take planning, an increase in daily chores, and attention to detail. And of course, to further assure success, it would help if you naturally enjoyed poultry.
Place the dirty and soiled eggs in a wire basket and lower the basket into water usually containing a detergent sanitizer. The temperature of the water should be maintained between 100 degrees and 130 degrees F. Either the basket is revolved or the water is circulated by compressed air. It takes from 3 to 5 minutes to clean a basket of eggs. When the eggs are clean, remove the basket from the machine and dry as rapidly as possible.
I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe.
Whether located in a suburban setting, or a rural one with limited available acreage, small farmers are always facing a perennial problem – not enough room. However, right under a small farmer’s nose, on almost every city lot or nook and cranny of an oddly shaped rural parcel, there’s a home for some fruit or vegetable. Maybe that sliver of ground is only a few square feet, has limited sun, is in a ditch or against a wall or fence, but some certain garden plant or animal would love to call it home.
In December of 1979, Mary Jo and I spent two weeks traveling in Cuba on a “Farmer’s Tour of Cuba”. The tour was a first of its kind. It was organized in the U.S. by farmers, was made up of U.S. farmers and agriculturally oriented folks, and was sponsored in Cuba by A.N.A.P., the National Association of Independent Farmers. As we learned about farming we also learned how the individuals, farms, and communities we visited fit into the greater social and economic structure of Cuba.
Two management directives led us to a bio-extensive design. First, because our staff is small, we required a system that would provide inherently good weed control. Bermuda grass was a particular concern. Our second directive demanded a reduced dependence on outside fertility inputs, particularly industrial poultry litter. Many, if not most, of the organic market farms in our region depend on broiler or layer litter for annual supplies of nitrogen and organic matter. We wanted an alternative that would be more independent and sustainable.
As a matter of convenience, we plant all of our field vegetables in widely spaced single rows so we can cultivate the crops with one setup on the riding cultivator. Row cropping makes sense for us because we are more limited by labor than land and we don’t use irrigation for the field vegetables. As for the economics of planting produce in work horse friendly single rows, revenue is comparable to many multiple row tractor systems.
Market gardening became so much more relaxing for us and the horses after developing a Horsedrawn Guidance System. Instead of constantly steering the horses while trying to lay out straight rows or cultivate the vegetables, we could put the team on autopilot and focus our whole attention on these precision tasks. The guidance system has been so effective that we have trusted visiting chefs to cultivate the lettuce we planned on harvesting for them a few weeks later.
Our intention is not to advocate the oddball living mulches we use with this single row inter-seeding system, but just to show how it is possible to utilize the between-row areas to improve insect habitat, reduce erosion, conserve moisture, fix some nitrogen, and grow a good bit of extra organic matter. If nothing else, experimenting with these alternative practices continues to keep farming exciting as we begin our twentieth season of bio-extensive market gardening.
Although we were excited about being involved in this comprehensive research project, we must admit we had mixed feelings about doing the NEON enterprise budgets right from the start. Our reluctance was not due to going public with the numbers, but because economics has never been a driving force behind the goal setting and decision making we use on our farm. Right livelihood has always been a higher priority than profit. Consequently, most of our management practices have been based on what seems right for the land, for the animals, for our customer, ourselves, and the larger society – realizing all along that, being human, we will never get it absolutely right.
We know all too well the frustration of putting your heart and soul into a crop only to have the wildlife consume it before you can get it harvested let alone to market. Our farm sits next to several thousand acres of state game lands and is the only produce operation in the area. As you can imagine, deer pressure can be intense. Neighbors have counted herds of 20 or more in our pastures.
Wednesday, April 16 – With the help from a friend who made the mistake of volunteering to help out this morning, we cut up 350 lbs. of seed potatoes and then handplanted the early crop of Dark Red Norlands, Kennebecs and Carolas in seven rows along the north side of field 6. This was the first time we had tried ridge-tilling potatoes and it worked slick, using basically the same procedure as we used for ridge-tilling the peas except making the planting furrow deeper.
After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.
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.
Going single did not occur to us until we began receiving questions from prospective teamsters who felt it would be more manageable and economical to get started with a single horse than a team. After 29 years of market gardening with two or more horses, our impetus to try out one-horse farming was not a question of management or economy, but due to the radically diverging horse temperaments on our farm.
For the past 25 growing seasons, we have used the dryland practices described in this article to direct seed and transplant vegetables all season long without irrigation. Of course, rainfall has been necessary to finish out some of our longer term crops, and yields have generally been better in wet weather. Nevertheless, we consistently get good stands of produce without precipitation or watering in the plants, and our income from dryland fruits and vegetables has increased every year without expanding acreage. Although not a substitute for irrigation, the following moisture preserving ideas may possibly be helpful to growers making do with limited access to water or simply desiring to reduce the size of their hydrological footprint.
In the Summer 2008 SFJ we reported on our initial experiment using the fallow field cover crops to generate enough mulch materials for a 380’ row of un-irrigated winter squash. Encouraged by the excellent crop growth and yield despite the dry, hot conditions of 2007, we repeated the experiment the following years, trying to determine the optimum ratio of land in straw producing cover crops to cash crop area. In 2009, we finally got it right: we seeded a 36’ wide strip of rye and medium red clover in September of 2008, then, in April, 2009, we skim plowed a 12’ wide area in the middle of the overwintering cover crops for planting the winter squash.
To weatherproof more of the market garden in 2011, we tried a variation on the grow-your-own mulch system we developed for producing winter squash in the fallow fields. We discovered it was possible to mulch row crops like tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions and leeks by moving windrows of rye into the pathways. Although awkward to handle at first, we soon got the hang of picking up an 8-10’ length of twisted rye straw in our arms and walking it from the fallow lands into the adjacent vegetable field.
Our winter workshops seem to generate a lot of interest in bioextensive market gardening among young growers. However, we sense an undercurrent of frustration because many of the participants do not have access to enough land to fallow half of the market garden. We hope that the following list of speculative suggestions will provide some encouragement to new vegetable farmers who cannot afford to take land out of production but want to take advantage of the bioextensive principles of rotational cover cropping, minimum-depth tillage, and bare fallowing.
We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.
The structural management of a clay soil is not such a simple problem as that of sandy one. In clays and similar soils of temperate regions the potential plasticity and cohesion are always high because of the presence of large amounts of colloidal clay. When such a soil is tilled when wet, its pore space becomes much reduced, it becomes practically impervious to air and water, and it is said to be puddled. When a soil in this condition dries, it usually becomes hard and dense. The tillage of clay soils must be carefully timed. If plowed too wet, the structural aggregates are broken down, and an unfavorable structure results. On the other hand, if plowed too dry, great clods are turned up which are difficult to work into a good seedbed.
One reason the no-till garlic may have been able to produce such a massive root system was due to the undisturbed soil being riddled with earthworm holes. Not wanting to destroy the beautiful soil structure created by the earthworms, we prepared the harvested garlic patch for planting a cover crop by fencing in our small flocks of laying hens to shred-and-spread the mulch of wheat straw in the no-till pathways. The birds also lightly tilled all this moisture conserving organic matter into the surface of the soil so a pass or two with the springtooth harrow was all that was necessary before seeding the winter cover of rye.
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.
This long-term cropping systems project is a collaborative effort between researchers, extension and farmers. Funded by the USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, it explores the essential premise of organic farming, namely, the connection between healthy soil and healthy crops. Specifically, the Organic Cropping Systems (OCS) program, which includes long-term organic grain and vegetable experiments, tries to evaluate how varying intensities of cropping, cover cropping, tillage and compost affects soil quality, nutrient levels, insects, weeds, disease, yields and profitability.
It took several incarnations to come up with a satisfactory design for the bottom heated greenhouse bench. In the final version we used two 55 gallon drums welded end-to-end for the firebox and a salvaged piece of 12” stainless steel chimney for the horizontal flue. We learned the hard way that a large firebox and flue are necessary to dissipate the intense heat into the surrounding air chamber and to minimize heat stress on these components.
Many sustainable growers subscribe to the philosophy of “feed the soil, not the plant.” Our whole farm approach to weed management follows the same line of thinking – we call it, “weed the soil, not the crop.” Instead of relying on the cultivator or the hoe to save the crop from the weeds, we use cultural practices, including cover cropping, bare fallow periods, rotation and shallow tillage, to reduce the overall weed pressure in the soil. One result of this proactive strategy is we no longer depend on the cultivator or the hoe to grow certified organic produce. “Weeding the soil” has also enabled us to use reduced tillage and living mulches without compromising weed management.
Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?
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.
We started hand-milking one cow. Now there are three. We are still milking by hand, and love the relationship with our cows, but will have to begin using the milking machine this spring as we add one more cow to the operation. We plan to milk a maximum of six cows. We purchased a 1940s Surge milking machine and assembled the entire unit from new and used parts we acquired from retired dairies in the area. The equipment we needed for the milk cooling room and the cheese room took an entire year to assemble because many of the things needed were just not readily available. With the help of some small dairy equipment dealers and by finding items on eBay, we managed to put it all together, under close scrutiny of the inspectors.
An old saying states, “Patience is a virtue.” In a society where “instant-everything” is the order of the day, this saying is not practiced by many. Some of those who must still practice patience are owners of pregnant broodmares. With a gestation length of 335-340 days, they just have to wait until the appointed time. You may ask, “Is there anything that can be done to reduce the length of a mare’s pregnancy?”
Long ago when grain was handled mostly by hand, the crop was cut slightly green so seed did not shatter or shake loose too easily. That crop was then gathered into ‘bundles’ or ‘sheafs’ and tied sometimes using a handful of the same grain for the cording. These sheafs were then gathered together, heads up, and leaned upon one another to form drying shocks inviting warm breezes to pass through. In old England, the field workers took great pride in their work and distinctive sheaf knots were designed and employed.
The battle against flies is constant, but there are ways to reduce these costly and irritating pests — without toxic chemicals. There are several types of pest flies, with different habits and behavior, so a combination of tactics is usually most effective when trying to eliminate or reduce flies. House flies and stable flies (the latter are aggressive biters, tormenting horses and cattle) breed in manure and rotting organic matter such as old hay and bedding. Horse flies and deer flies breed in swampy areas and black flies breed in flowing water.
It is a common conception that gully control means building check dams, planting trees, plugging gullies with brush, or directly applying to a gully some other individual control measure. This way of thinking focuses attention on devices that stop gullies rather than on ways of farming that prevent gully erosion. A broad, coordinated attack is in general necessary to keep gully erosion under control. A farmer who wishes to keep his fields free from gullies must give first consideration to proper land use and conservation farming on areas that contribute run-off to the gullies.
Where necessary and practical, run-off should be diverted from a gully head before control measures are attempted within the gully. This principle generally applies to gullies of all sizes except those having so small a drainage area that the run-off is negligible, as for example, a gully with a drainage area of less than an acre. In using either terraces or diversion ditches careful consideration should be given to the disposal of the diverted water. If safe disposal cannot be provided, the water should not be diverted. The disposal of concentrated run-off over unprotected areas may cause gullying.
My apple orchard has only recently begun to bear fruit, but I have learned many things by the “school of hard knocks” which I wish I had known before. Perhaps these remarks may save some time and trouble for others thinking of setting out apple trees in a cold and demanding climate. Northwestern Maine, where I live, appears on the climate map as Zone 3, and area frost pockets even get down to -45 degrees F.
After living in Ohio for twelve years and being very home-sick, I was ready to get home, spend time with my family and friends, and get back to the farm. The question arose, can one really come back home? When I lived in Ohio and asked myself that question the answer was adamantly, yes! Now that I was here… I wasn’t so sure.
Naturally there is great variation in manure according to the animals it is made by, the feeding and bedding material, and the manner in which it is kept. Different analyses naturally shows different results and the tables here given serve only as a guide or index to the various kinds. The manure heap, by the way, is no place for old tin cans, bottles, glass, and other similar waste material.
The whole secret of the growth of these products before the regular season is in the cropping and the soil. Every inch of soil bears at least three crops a year, each of them anticipating the season and therefore producing fancy prices. The soil is regarded by the gardeners as of so much value that, as explained, there is a special clause in the lease that they are at liberty to cart it away to a depth of eighteen inches if they give up the farm at the termination of the agreement. The ground is so precious that no space is allowed for a wheelbarrow path. The loads are all carried in baskets and not a square inch is allowed to go to waste in this rich garden.
Fencing the farm is to a large extent a problem in farm organization. The amount of fencing required on a livestock farm is determined largely by the farm layout–the location of the farmstead, the arrangement of the field system, and the location and extent of the permanent pasture areas. The character of the fencing required will be determined very largely by the kinds of livestock kept. Horses, cattle, sheep, swine, and poultry all have somewhat different fencing requirements.
It was in consequence of reading a little volume called “Ten Acres Enough” — a practical and statistical, as well as, in certain points, a poetical production — that I came to prepare this volume. In that work a charming and interesting account is given of the successful attempt of a Philadelphia mechanic to redeem a strip of exhausted land of ten acres in extent. So useful is the instruction it contains, that no one should think of buying a farm, experimenting in rural life, or even reading this book, without first perusing that one. To be sure, the author forgets occasionally some minor matters — such as clothing, food, and the like, leaving his family naked and unfed for several years — but that is doubtless due to his poetical temperament and intense love of nature.
We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.
I am certainly not the most able of dairymen, nor the most skilled among vegetable growers, and by no means am I to be counted amongst the ranks of the master teamsters of draft horses. If there is anything remarkable about my story it is that someone could know so little about farming as I did when I started out and still manage to make a good life of it.
It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.
Working with horses can and should be safe and fun and profitable. The road to getting there need not be so fraught with danger and catastrophe as ours has been. I hope the telling of our story, in both its disasters and successes will not dissuade but rather inspire would-be teamsters to join the horse-powered ranks and avoid the pitfalls of the un-mentored greenhorn.
A farm is never a static entity, a healthy farming system is something that grows and learns and builds upon itself with experience and time. Any successful farming system is ultimately the summation of an intelligent response of the farmers, eked out through years of trial and error, to the unique characteristics of their particular piece of ground. The farm cannot exist as a fixed point in time but only as the cumulative result of cyclical effort, exhaustion, and rejuvenation.
from issue: 38-3
In this series of articles we are taking a look at how contemporary horse-powered farmers are making use of the moldboard plow, with an emphasis on the use of the moldboard as primary tillage in the market garden. In this installment we will hear “Reports from the Field” from two small farmers who favor the walking plow and a report from one farmer who farms tens of acres of forage crops and is decidedly in favor of the sulky. But first, we’ll dig into the SFJ archives to get a little perspective on the evolution of the manufacture of the walking plow from the late 19th century to the present.
No matter how well your team is matched to the size plow, they are going to have to put in some hard work to pull it through the ground. Plowing represents one of the heaviest exertions of draft power your horses will face in the course of working the market garden. Before you hitch your horses to the plow you will want to get them in shape with lighter tasks. Your horses will tell you if the draft of the plow is too much for them. Your experience of plowing will be immeasurably more satisfactory if your horses can pull the plow comfortably, without wanting to go too fast. If the team is walking too fast they are probably feeling the pull is too hard, as most horses will tend to turn up the throttle (before they balk) when they are feeling over-taxed by the load.
Primary tillage is the first step in readying land for the reception of seeds or transplants. Just as the gardener breaks ground with a spade, and then breaks up clods with a hoe, and finally levels all with a rake, so does the farmer have a basic armory of tools to perform these functions on a larger scale in order to create a seed bed. Our primary tillage begins with the moldboard plow.
These days I call myself a farmer. However, I was not born into the farming life. In my late teens and early twenties, I began to have the creeping suspicion that my privileged upbringing in a first-world household, my secondary education and suburban lifestyle had left me completely bereft of any useful skills with regard to the fundamental situation of being a human animal on the planet. When I came of age I had this gnawing suspicion that in the first eighteen years of my existence on earth I had learned next to nothing of the kind of skills that would allow a person to survive in the natural world.
After plowing and then spreading the fields with compost, the next step in our method of primary tillage is to roll out the disc-harrows. The disc harrows have traditionally followed the plow because they do an excellent job of breaking up any clods and of further turning and incorporating any surface trash that might not have been fully turned by the moldboard. The weight of the disc also has a leveling effect on the soil in preparation for seeding.
Now, after a one lifetime span of almost free energy and resultant copious food, the entire world faces the imminent decline (and eventual demise) of finite, fossil-fuel capital. Without fossil fuels, food can no longer be produced in one area and shipped thousands of miles to market. To suggest that the world will be able to feed the UN projected population of nine billion by 2050 is totally incomprehensible in the face of declining oil.
Leo initiated the circle letter discussion on plowing in their very first letter. Already familiar with turning ground with the sulky, he asked for tips on taking the first steps behind the walking plow. The following advice may not be complete, but it is unique in that it combines the fresh impressions and lessons of teamsters who first put their hand to the plow this past year with the seasoned experience of those who have been walking the furrow half of their lives.
Eating invasive vegetation that compete for the scant water supply and inhibit the growth of grass, goats are a biblical-age solution to a modern-day scourge. To restore the land, 1,300 goats mimic the buffalo herds that once grazed the region – breaking the soil’s crust, stomping decadent grasses, knocking over dead trees, fertilizing with their droppings and embedding seeds. And, all the while, the goats voraciously defoliate and ultimately kill the water-guzzling Tamarisk.
A big focus of tillage for our dryland market garden is improving rainfall infiltration and moisture retention. Beginning with skim plowing in the early 80’s, we have added a half dozen shallow tillage practices to maintain moisture conserving residues in the top of the soil. Recently, we were introduced to an objective method for measuring and comparing these moisture preserving practices, thanks to joining the Soil Health Benchmark Study conducted by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. One of the benchmarks for this research project, which includes over 60 vegetable, grain and dairy farms, is tillage intensity. This numerical index is based on the Soil Tillage Intensity Ratings developed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Grasshoppers, both young and old, injure crops in but one way, that is, by gnawing and devouring them wholesale, and where very numerous they have been known to consume almost every green thing in sight. Even the bark on the tender twigs of trees is eaten by these ravenous insects, which are known to gnaw the handles of agricultural tools, such as hoes and rakes, in order to secure the salt left upon them by the perspiring hands of the farmer.
My great grandfather, William Cooper, owned the family farm just south of Cooperstown during the time when hop production was at its peak in Otsego County. The family was related to the Coopers that settled Cooperstown and of the thirteen siblings raised on the homestead, he took over the farm. He was nearly self-sufficient and marketed a variety of products from his farm, but the profit from his hop yards was so significant that he was known as a hop farmer. His diaries are filled with entries related to his yearly care of the hops.
Feed-handling jobs which used to take hours of time and plenty of back bending are now done in a matter of minutes with little more than a lift of the hand, by means of chutes, augers, power lifts, portable elevators, movable hoppers, overhead catwalks, traveling feed boxes and other ideas similar to the examples shown on these pages. These are the days when feed handling had been powered-up to the point where 100 bushels of shelled corn can be loaded out of a bin into a truck in five minutes, and here’s how it’s done.
Haying season started in early June and just seemed to last all summer in the 1940s and 1950s on the Scheckel farm outside Seneca in the heart of Crawford County. In between first crop and second crop, we cut and shocked oats. After the second crop of hay, threshing was done. After threshing, we often put up a third crop of hay. There was no hay baler on the Scheckel farm. Hay was cut with a No. 9 McCormick-Deering Enclosed Steel Gear Mower with a five-foot sickle and pulled by two horses. Let it cure for a few days, then bring in the siderake to windrow the hay, then the hay loader pulled behind a hay wagon. It was hard, dirty, back breaking work, often in hot and humid weather.
For the most part, up until the past few years, humans and henbit have peacefully coexisted. But in the past decade, farm handbooks and herbicide ads have come out portraying henbit as an enemy, a threat to productivity on the farm. Because of its sheer commonness, do chemical salesmen see in Lamium a potential cash cow?
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.
Holistic Management was developed by Allan Savory who was a wildlife and ranch biologist in Africa who was concerned that the advice he could give farmers didn’t work in the real environment and even when the advice was good it wouldn’t get implemented. He developed a program which helps farms create a clear Holistic Goal and then use the farms resources to move toward the goal while being ecologically sustainable.
Three different parcels of land were committed for a series of tests to directly compare the impact of tractors and horses on the land. One side of each parcel was worked only with horses and the other only with tractors. There were measurable differences between each side of the worked areas; the land’s capacity to hold water and greater aeration were up to 45cm higher in areas worked by horses as opposed to tractors.
This is my third Horse Progress Days, including 2008 in Mount Hope, Ohio, and 2016 in Howe, Indiana. We could note a few trends in a nutshell — how tall draft horses are back, and miniature horses (which are not stocky ponies but perfectly proportioned horses more pleasing to the eye) are being bred to ever more refined and useful conformations. How the current style for most big draft horses is to have their tails severely docked, though the tails of miniature horses are left long. By way of footwear these days there seem to be few of the brightly colored Crocs for the whole family, but gray and black Crocs aplenty. One huge change over three years ago is that here were as many bicycles, with and without baskets and trailers (and some with batteries and motors), as the dark square family buggies drawn by identical lean brown trotters and pacers. Bicyclers include both youthful and older farmers, using this healthy and efficient form of transportation to get around.
Mr. Davis said he doesn’t make any claims to environmentalism, although his business methods might look like it. He uses glass bottles and horse power because they are economically sound. He farms organically, although he is not interested in buying into ‘organics’ or its politics. He doesn’t tout ‘natural’ on the label. “My customers see the farm, they see the milk, they taste the milk, they come back. It’s that simple. I don’t promise them that it will cure cancer or prevent it. I don’t promise them that it is going to put the ozone back,” he said. “And, I don’t promise them that it’s going to make them feel any better tomorrow than they feel today. I just put good, healthy milk on the market at a reasonable price, and I farm in a conservative method that is not polluting.”
If you have ever had a few good days in the woods with your team – those days when you and the horses are right on top of the work, in great physical shape, and the wood piles up on your landing – then you may have thought, “this would be a great way to make a living. I should get a contract on a big chunk of timber.” After all, the opportunities abound: often private landowners want only horses to work in their woods, for reasons both philosophical and practical; forest companies will sometimes look for competent horseloggers to work in niche areas, as much for the public relations value as for silvicultural reasons; governments offer public timber sales with horselogging only restrictions; and I have detailed elsewhere (see SFJ Summer ‘94) how well a portable mill and a team of horses can work together.
Set in the heart of the Lake District National Park, Tarn Hows Wood lies on the eastern flank of Yewdale. The valley is characterized by Yewdale Fell to the west, with Yewdale Beck flowing in headlong rush from its cascades in Tilberthwaite Gill, to its tumbling rapids in the lower reaches of the valley before flowing into Coniston Water. The flat valley bottom is a miniature agricultural patterned landscape consisting of small hedged fields, punctuated by small groups of trees.
Once upon a time, I asked my country cousin, Murray Clapp, “Why do you make maple syrup?” He shrugged and said positively, “How would you know it’s spring if you didn’t make maple syrup?” Growing up in Western Massachusetts I always new it was spring when my parents took my sisters and me to the Hilltowns to breathe the maple scented air, watch the sugaring process and taste the unique, sweet syrup.
One of the most frequently asked questions by aspiring teamsters is “how many horses will I need for my farm?” Judging from the following circle letter responses to this very topic, three horses – a team and a spare – would be ideal for a market garden, and four to eight work animals should be sufficient for a livestock operation, where a significant acreage of hay and field crops are harvested.
The SFJ library owns a lovely old leather volume, “How the Farm Pays” which features a curious and thought-provoking treatise on farming 100 years ago. We offer the introductory remarks, originally presented as an interview of the authors, here for your review. Hope you find this as interesting and useful as we have. SFJ
But to all who really want to farm – to accomplish something in developing a high agriculture along sane and wholesome lines – I would say, “Do not have too large a territory.” Not that I advise a really small one, but simply one within reasonable bounds. For beyond a certain limit it is not the size that counts. Not far from where I am now writing, for instance, is a farm of eight hundred and fifty acres, of which certainly seven hundred are arable land; and at about the same distance in another direction is one of only seventy acres that produces more than the big one.
Let’s assume the beginning ‘farmer’ has absolutely nothing. Nothing but a will to farm and a reasonably normal body. The very first thing you must do is search out a farmer, preferably a farmer who farms close to the way that you want to farm. You must watch him, ask questions, do as you are told and learn everything you can. Very shortly you will be on your own and you will find that the more you learn now, the better you will be when you have only yourself to rely on.
I, like many before me, had just entered that gray foggy area where those more timid, or could it be more experienced, fear to tread. I had a thoroughly terrified horse who had no interest in harness or cart, and many knowledgeable horse people told me I had ruined her forever. To find my way out I would have to reach deep inside both myself and my mare, and in the process discover that no matter what people said, it could be done.
We were objects of much curiosity when we moved to Cape Breton Island in 1971, and people from miles around came to see what we were up to – and to comment thereon. It appeared that everything we were doing was destined to fail: tomatoes would never ripen here, and as for fancy stuff like peppers and celery! They smiled with pity. Jersey cows? Not a chance. Purebred cattle like that were too delicate to stand Cape Breton winters. But the staggerer was their vehement response to our June haying: That stuff is too green! You’ll never dry that! You’ll have to burn it or throw it over the bank!