I will probably never get a chance to sit at the throttle of a steam engine heading up some winding mountain grade and feel the romance of the rails as the lonesome sound of a steam whistle echoes off canyon walls. Nor will I sit and watch out over the bowsprit of a schooner rounding Cape Horn as the mighty wind and waves test men’s mettle and fill their spirits with the allure of the sea. It is within my reach however to draw a living from the earth using that third glorious form of transport – the horse.
I’ve come to the north of Scotland this October almost by accident. And I find myself standing on the windy, rocky point of land that is northernmost on the isle of Great Britain. The sea lies before me: the flooding tide from the Atlantic pours in on my left where it collides with the North Sea pouring in from the right, the opposing currents whipping up a frenzy of white capped, tidal confusion: for sailors past and present, treacherous waters indeed. Straight ahead, across the seething waters of Pentland Firth lie the Orkney Islands, my ultimate destination.
The project went according to plan and without a hitch. The cider was ready to drink in a month or so and tasted passably delicious, though rather uninteresting and far from extraordinary. I was still troubled by the expert home brew store pronouncement that making natural cider was impossible. After all, haven’t people been making alcoholic cider for centuries?
We are blessed who are active participants in the life of soil and weather, crops and critters, living a life grounded in seasonal change. This talk of human connection to land and season is not just the rambling romantic musing of an agrarian ideologue. It is rather the result of participating in the deeply vital vocation that is farming and knowing its fruits first hand.
It was at this moment that I became aware of a certain menace behind me and an instant later felt something engage my back. There was a violent flapping of wings and the stabbing pain of talons. It was Rex, the barred rock patriarch of the flock. I twisted and stood up quicker than I thought possible, throwing him off in one motion. Naturally I was alarmed, and not at all pleased. I chased him around the pen and snatched him up. Staring into his beady little rooster eyes, I spoke to him words that he would clearly understand. I told him that he may be a grande and beautiful rooster, full of might, but that I am a grander and far more powerful rooster, full of greater might even than he. My message delivered, I gently set him down. He skulked off to a far corner of the coop to think things over.
Due to my surprising, and for the moment ongoing status as amateur agricultural columnist and full time horse farmer, I am short of time and so find myself scribbling these notes from the seat of the forecart as I rest the horses while harrowing the waterfall pasture. To be here, dragging this field at this time of early, and perhaps false spring, seems to me an undeserved bit of grace. In this singular moment I am almost hyper aware of my own good fortune. I have the rare privilege to enjoy a beautiful and perfectly perfect way of spending ones life: stewarding a lovely piece of countryside with horses.
Money can’t buy local knowledge. Here I was trying desperately to get some of that good succulent young June grass made into hay and the weather just wouldn’t support it. The old timers knew this. They knew to wait, to be patient. The sun will eventually come out. Besides, there is plenty else to do in June.
There is a certain set of skills and knowledge that tend to fall through the cracks of your average farm how-to book. Books of a more specialized nature are also abundant but often seem to take a fairly simple subject and make it seem daunting in scope and detail. What follows are a few tidbits of knowledge that I have found useful over the years – the little things that will inevitably need to be learned at some point in the farmer education process.
Why horses? We are knee deep in threshing oats and rye when I find after lunch that the tractor won’t start. Press the ignition switch — nothing; not even a click. I cancel the day’s threshing and drive thirty miles to the tractor store and pick up a genuine-after-market IH part. Come home, put in the new ignition switch and still nothing. When we need the horses they start right up, without complaint — every time.
One pleasant afternoon a fortnight ago I sent my new part-time farm hand Chris out to open the gate so we could haul a load of loose hay from the barn out to the loafing shed. Ole stood harnessed and a generous pile of hay waited by the open barn door when I heard Chris shout, “What should I do with the bull?” Or so I thought he said. I was sure he had, like so many cattle neophytes before him, mistaken one of our dexter cows for a bull because of her horns. I answered, “There’s no bull in there!” “No, the foal!” he hollered definitively. I knew in an instant that I was about to get a taste of organic, sustainably harvested humble pie. Turns out Josie, the 21-year-old Fjord mare had a surprise foal sired by Donald the young Suffolk stallion.
I left her to her thoughts and busied myself sweeping the tack room, putting some buckets away, and generally puttering about setting the barn in order, Bristol fashion. After a time I came back, nippers in hand, whereupon she picked up her foot and stood there like a farrier’s poster child while I trimmed that last hoof before putting her back in her stall. What a curious thing is the mind of a horse. It will give you wondrous opportunities to practice patience and maybe just give you that excuse you’ve been looking for to tidy up the barn.
My starting every column with a discussion of the weather set me to thinking about that old clichéd idea of talking about the weather; how it is all old men talk about downtown at the local coffee shop; how they sit for hours telling endless lies about how the snow was deeper, the nights colder and the hills steeper when they were young. However, clichés have basis in truth, and it is true that weather is a wonderful conversation opener.
As I look back and consider the little successes and failures of the week, I note with a smile that the tractor remains broken in the shed, refusing to start, while the horses have willingly and predictably started every day and put their hearts into the good work of making their own feed. Bravo! I say, let’s do it again next week. Maybe I’ll get that old tractor fixed next winter…
Farming never fails to dish up one lesson in humility after another. Despite having all the weather knowledge the information-age has to offer, farmers will still lose hay to the rain, apple blossoms to frost, winter wheat to drought… If we are slow to learn humility in Nature’s presence we can be sure that another lesson is never far off.
After long experience a person can develop an almost innate understanding of the fundamental nature of the horse. This is what I think of as horse sense, a term that seems to have fallen out of use in recent decades. But I like very much what the development of horse sense entails: that of a lifelong inquiry into the mind of the horse, his habits, behavior and natural tendencies. It is almost impossible to teach horse sense, or to learn it from a book. It is rather something learned from many years of daily interactions between horse and man. Horse sense is being able to read the body language of a horse, to anticipate what he will do before he does it, or at least to anticipate what he’s most likely to do.
From time immemorial farmers in our region attended the 4th of July festivities and began cutting hay the next day. And it is truly amazing how our weather pattern does noticeably shift right around the first week of July: out with June gloom, in with actual summer. This year was different. June started off hot and dry with none of the usually persistent marine cloud layer in sight. I wondered if I should start cutting hay early. I hesitated, not trusting the sun. Finally my cautious reluctance melted away and I had to join my neighbors and begin dropping some hay. Once I started I didn’t stop until the whole crop was tucked away in the barn. I finished this year before I would have usually even started.
Ask anyone who has more than one child, and they are sure to tell you that each of their children is unique. You may hear something like, “we raised ’em the same; certainly didn’t treat one any different than the other. So why are they each so different?” So it is also with horses. I have two 2-year-olds born within a week of each other, Frankie and Luna, both sprung from the loins of Donald, yet they couldn’t be more different. I started the two youngsters on the same winter’s morning in the same round corral with the same routine. As of this writing I am working Frankie single, daily feeding cows, hauling hay to the loafing sheds and other odd chores. On the other hand, Luna has yet to calmly pull a single tree dragging a log chain without serious jitters.
Farmers in our day tend to be an isolated bunch and we don’t ever seem to get enough good old fashioned farm-talk. So it is that when I travel to another farm to buy or sell, the visit often extends for significantly longer than the required time to make a transaction. I have spent countless enjoyable hours perched atop fence rails or with feet dangling off the lowered tailgate of a pick up engaged in pleasant conversation. Indeed, throw two farmers together in a muddy barnyard somewhere and the conversation seems to flow almost automatically from one topic to the next: animal genetics, breed characteristics, the rise and fall of livestock markets, pasture management, land prices, troubles with neighbors, debt and tractors, brand inspectors, regulations and the raw milk gestapo, and everything in between.
It seems odd to write about the end of last year’s tomato crop while sitting here on the cusp of a new planting season. But that’s what comes of diving into seed catalogs in late winter. One is reminded of crops past and future. There is nothing like that yearly ritual of ordering seeds to invigorate ones agricultural spirit, to renew excitement for the coming season.
The practical everyday working of horses and mules in harness has always been at the heart of what the Small Farmer’s Journal is about. And like the Journal, a good horse powered farm keeps the horses at the center: the working nucleus of the farm. All the tractive effort for the pulling of machines, hauling in of crops, hauling out of manures, harvesting and planting is done as much as is practicable with the horses.
Every beginning horse farmer at some point will find himself in need of procuring that first team. After land, this is certainly one of the most critical purchasing decisions you will make in the development of the farm. The animals you choose can make your farming glow and hum with moments of blissful certainty, or contribute to frustration, bewilderment, loss of resolve, and God forbid, horses and people hurt and machines wrecked.
I was mowing a thistly, gnarly patch of pasture last August on a rubber tired number 9 mower that, despite a new seal was leaking oil like tears from a widow’s eyes. The Waterfall field is irregular in shape with one corner that comes to a point, necessitating at each pass a hard swing gee in order to come around on the other tack. At this juncture, on one particular pass, the cutter bar pinched in a slight depression in the ground. The mower began to fold up at the inner shoe as we came around. The bar was solidly wedged and was not responding to my pressure on the foot lever. Meanwhile the horses were doing exactly what they knew to do — swing gee and go. Everything hung in the balance for a bit less than a nanosecond, but something had to give, and suddenly, give it did — crack! the tongue burst in two.
The horse drawn mowing machine is a marvel of engineering. Imagine a pair of horses turning the energy of their walking into a reciprocal cutting motion able to drop acres of forage at a time without ever burning a drop of fossil fuel. And then consider that the forage being cut will fuel the horses that will in turn cut next year’s crop. What a beautiful concept! Since I’ve been mowing some everyday I’ve had lots of time to think about the workings of these marvelous machines.
It was late April, the snow had only just melted, and I was putting the finishing touches on a wood framed greenhouse when a friend stopped by. We fell to talking about gardening and farming and I spoke of my interest in someday trying my hand at doing some actual field work with a team (I already had a number of years experience driving horses on dude outfits, but nothing in the way of farming). My friend Don said, “well you know there’s a guy, a writer from Tennessee who farms with horses and writes books about it. You should check him out.” Turns out you were from Kentucky, not Tennessee, as I was soon to learn after rounding up a copy of The Gift of Good Land, which I greedily read in just a couple of days. My life was changed forever.
It’s all too easy living in America, where the supermarché was invented, to forget that food actually comes from farms, that there is a direct link from the soil to table. Jesus’ last earthly act was to break bread and share wine with his friends. Even at that famous last supper the bread and wine did not appear miraculously. The bread and wine were indeed the “work of human hands.”
Walk with me for a moment to the edge of the Waterfall Field. We can lean on the gate and let our gaze soak up the mid-summer scene: a perfect blue sky and not a breath of wind. Movement catches your eye, and in the distance you see a threesome hard at work in the hayfield. Two Suffolk horses, heads bobbing, making good time followed by a man comfortably seated on a mowing machine. The waist high grass and clover falls steadily in neat swaths behind the mower. What you can’t help but notice is the quiet.
Before we began farming in earnest, and while I was still teaching school, we bought a house in a little country town on an acre and a quarter of land with a beautiful willow lined canal running through it. We put up a greenhouse and planted a big garden. Someone gave us a lamb in the spring of the year, and when he grew up and the time came to butcher him, my wife Liz said to me “You can’t kill that sweet thing.” I said “Okay,” after all he had looked up at me that morning with such innocent eyes, “but if we are not at peace eating an animal we know and have raised, how can we, in good conscience eat animals we know nothing about.” We decided that we needed to be in full accordance with all that eating meat entails, and so began our brief foray into vegetarianism.
Contrary to the bucolic notion of the “simple” country life, farming is anything but simple. The operation of a successful farm involves a complex array of decisions involving crops, livestock, weather, markets, strict planting and harvesting windows, life and death, pests and weeds. The challenge is to successfully navigate these turbid waters through the seasons and profit economically, biologically and personally.
When I opened the kitchen door early this morning I was met by warm humid air and the sound of torrential rain. A monsoon, I thought. It’s what North-westerners call a “Pineapple Express,” a warm atmospheric river that follows the jet stream straight from Hawaii. The moisture laden clouds stack up against the Olympic and Cascade Mountains and the sky lets loose. It’s not uncommon for mountain areas to receive 5-10 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. Littlefield Farm sits in the foothills of the North Cascades and is a mighty wet little corner of the world. With 60 or more inches of rain at the farm annually, we are in the midst of only a handful of temperate rain forest regions of the world.
To my great delight a sizable portion of the general eating public has over the past few years decided to begin to care a great deal about where their food comes from. This is good for small farmers. It bodes well for the future of the planet and leaves me hopeful. People seem to be taking Wendell Berry’s words to heart that “eating is an agricultural act;” that with every forkful we are participating in the act of farming.
I take my hat off to catch a bit of the welcome breeze which has just come up and wipe my dripping forehead with the sleeve of my already sweat-soaked shirt. I lean down, stretch out as far as possible, grope around until I find the end of the trip rope, give a firm tug, and hear the satisfying sound of the hay loader hitch fall to the ground signaling a successful disengagement. I holler out, “To the barn!” Way down below and out of sight, beneath a mountain of hay, I hear Nathan say, “Let’s go, kids,” and the wagon begins to lurch across the hayfield in the direction of the barn.
They say to preserve them properly, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place in a sealed, dry container. Yet the circumstances under which seeds in a natural environment store themselves (so to speak) seem so far from ideal, that it’s a wonder plants manage to reproduce at all. But any gardener knows that plants not only manage to reproduce, they excel at it. Who hasn’t thrown a giant squash into the compost heap in the fall only to see some mystery squash growing there the next summer?
If we agree that quality of plowing is subject to different criteria at different times and in different fields, then perhaps the most important thing to consider is control. How effectively can I plow to attain my desired field condition based on my choice of plow? The old time plow manufacturers understood this. At one time there were specific moldboards available for every imaginable soil type and condition.
I’m thinking of Mr. Morton’s words as I continue the daily work of training our young Suffolk stallion Donald. In my travels to farms I have yet to see a working stud horse. It always struck me as a bit sad to see a magnificent Suffolk Punch stallion, bred for a life of work in the fields, standing in a pen alone, hooves splayed out, his tremendous muscles lacking the tone that only a life of work can provide. How much more fitting to see him put to the plow, or at work in the woods displaying the very characteristics we wish to see passed on in his progeny: a gentle disposition and a willing work ethic. And if we are breeding for work, what can we know of a horse who has never stood a day in the furrow?
Our modern era has been described variously as post-industrial and post-modern (whatever that means). It seems to me that we are now entering a post-biological world, or perhaps a post-natural world or maybe a post-experiential world, certainly a post-agrarian world. We live in a time where children no longer play outside, where people, even in restaurants, look at their smartphones instead of each other. And when they do communicate it is through the untested medium of a digital screen.
This summer has been a season of abundance. If I was the type of person to keep meticulous records, I’m sure this would have been a record-breaking year for almost every crop but blueberries, which for some inexplicable reason were almost a complete failure. Did the birds sneak in when my back was turned and eat them all? Was the soil not acidic enough? Was it too wet or too dry at a crucial time during fruit formation? Were the heavens out of alignment for the celestial needs of the blueberry plant?
During the summer of 1991 I went to work for a Montana outfit called the Bozeman Trail Wagon Train. For a youth coming of age in the late 20th century it was high adventure. At such an impressionable age I learned a great deal about the nature of horses, of men, and of myself. It is said that truth is stranger than fiction, and those summers of my youth, especially the one spent on the Bozeman Trail, while not necessarily stranger than fiction, were certainly on par with any fiction I have read.
They say nostalgia kills. But I don’t for a moment believe it. Nostalgia is story, remembrance, the past cloaked in a warm fuzzy warmth, and what is ours to keep if not our story? And is it a problem if we color our story rose and dwell there from time to time? The truth is, most stories from most days for most people are mostly forgettable. Mine included. We all have a few though, that stick, that are tarred and feathered with the stuff of adventure, heroism, tom-foolery, tragedy, sadness, loss, heartbreak.
Their bottoms were sore, their throats dry, the high elevation robbed their sea-level lungs of breath. They felt acutely each bump and jolt of our authentic springless farm wagons. Most folks however, took it in stride, and immensely enjoyed the challenge and adventure of it all. That’s why they had come to Montana in the first place, to experience a bit of unvarnished reality. We made it as comfortable as possible, but there is no getting around the fact that traveling 12 to 15 miles a day across open dry country by horsepower alone requires a certain determination and grit no matter the era. Mostly things went along quite well, but there were yet a few mishaps that summer that are worth the retelling.
It’s hard to believe I’ve been scratching out this column now for something close to 11 years. You, dear readers, have been kind, indulgently suffering my random agrarian musings and generally not tossing too many rotten tomatoes. When I cast about for ideas for an upcoming column, I am often struck by a sense of panic – I have nothing left to say! Alas, I fear that my witicisms (so few) are used up, my best stories told, my romantic, sappy sentiments worn out, (these, I imagine, grow especially thin for those of you who want more about how to troubleshoot knotter problems on a 24T converted ground drive John Deere baler, and less about how I profited by watching a covey of ducks fly at 60 miles an hour up the river on a sultry early August afternoon while pausing from my work on said baler).
I would fix it but it ain’t broke yet, or more to the point — it ain’t completely broke yet. But that is the way of most of our lives isn’t it? We so often have to make do with a two-legged stool. That is until one day the cow will suddenly shift her weight and in response you will shift yours and you will hear a crack and suddenly your two-legged stool will have become a one-legged stool. And no one, not even a stubborn “ain’t completely broke yet” farmer, can abide a one legged stool.
A few weeks ago I started training Stella, our two year old Fjord-Punch (Norwegian-Suffolk). She is of a sweet disposition and has since birth been around harnessed horses jangling in and out of the barn. So it came as no surprise to her when one day I picked up the harness and instead of putting it on her mother, I put it on her. She just stood there — barely flinched. One of the big advantages of raising and training home raised foals is that you know their history first-hand.
This issue I am going to invite you to lean over the fence rail and listen-in to a conversation that took place via email between myself and Ben Saur, whom I visited with last fall at the Farmer-to-Farmer gathering in Dorena, Oregon. Ben is just getting started farming with a team of Fjords in Hood River, Oregon. Following Farmer-to-Farmer Ben emailed with several farming related queries. The questions Ben asks get right to the heart of what it takes to get started in farming.
It was with surprise and humbled excitement that I agreed to Lynn Miller’s suggestion that I write a column for this, our treasured Small Farmer’s Journal; this agrarian guidebook that so many of us have come to rely on and savor over the years. I have always said that if I had to choose between buying food or renewing my SFJ subscription I would go hungry. This magazine truly has had a profound impact on my life over the years. It has always been amply endowed with matters of practical know-how joined with a philosophical wisdom that has never been afraid of romance and poetry. It really is a place to come for reassurance, for consolation, for hope.
In the Fall 2013 issue Journal reader W.D. Cooper of Fayetteville, Pennsylvania respectfully took me to task for plowing with the lines tied behind my back while using the walking plow. Mr. Cooper put it this way, “Any one whose ever plowed knows that you never put the check lines around your waist. I don’t care how quiet your team is. If they plow up a nest of yellow jackets they’re fixin’ to blow up and run. Needless to say, trapped.” That got me to thinking about all the different aspects of safety while farming with horses.
Despite its rough framing and minuscule size, I have tried to make my garden shed office homey and comfortable. I installed a light fixture, cast off from the house, that gives a nice light, plugged in a small electric heater, stocked some reference books, notebooks, seed catalogs and such. Liz found me a comfortable canvas director’s chair so I can sit up at the workbench (desk). I also have a few meaningful pictures and cards hanging on the walls. One of these is a photocopy of an old black and white photo of George Hjort standing in front of the most impressive corn crop you are ever likely to see. George was of Dutch origin and moved to this farm with his family in 1918.