Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont
by Stephen Leslie and Kerry Gawalt of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill Co-housing in Vermont
An Overveiw – The Farm and The Community
We are farmers, Kerry Gawalt and Stephen Leslie and our daughter, Maeve Rose. We have been farming together since we first met as apprentices at Hawthorne Valley Farm in upstate New York in 1992. We worked together at that farm for a total of 3 years learning how to tend dairy cattle, raise vegetables for market and work with farm machinery. We also spent nearly 2 years out west in Montana and Idaho learning more homesteading skills and how to work with draft animals. Finally, searching for a stable situation in which to build up a farm of our own, we joined forces with Donella Meadows in the fall of 1996. She was a famed “systems thinker” and environmental writer (The Limits of Growth was her groundbreaking book forecasting the environmental effects of unchecked population on the planet), teacher and activist, who was forming a co-housing community in Vermont. The community was intended to showcase “green” architectural design, sustainable living and organic farming as a centerpiece of community life.
Even though we lost Donella to a sudden illness in 2001, a core group of us carried on the co-housing project. New members have joined and today Donella’s dream has become a reality. We live in an eco-village of 23 households clustered on a hillside and surrounded by woods, pasture and agricultural fields. All the homes are heated in winter by a single wood-burning furnace and have solar panels for hot water. The houses are super-insulated and situated for maximum solar gain. They each have composting toilets to minimize water use.
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 (community supported agriculture) 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. We are now looking forward to expanding the research and education potential of our farm and community by partnering with the Sustainability Institute (a ‘think’ and ‘do’ tank) founded by Donella Meadows and also located on this land. Through sponsorship with the Institute we are hosting groups of school children and developing workshops, publications and other forms of educational outreach for adults.
Our market garden is a 4 acre mix of vegetables, greenhouses, flowers, fruit trees and cover crops (our cropping system is a loose adaptation of the bio-extensive garden and cover-cropping outlined by Eric and Anne Nordell in the pages of the Small Farmer’s Journal). Our dairy currently consists of 40 registered Jersey cows and assorted heifers, calves and steers. Our crops are marketed primarily through our 86 member CSA, and secondarily through an on-site farm stand, 2 local restaurants and a nearby food coop. Kerry provides personal chef services to private groups utilizing farm and local ingredients in all the dishes. The 270 acres of farmland and forest are now in a permanent conservation program with the Upper Valley Land Trust. We own our own business and lease the acreage and farm buildings that we utilize from Cobb Hill Co-housing. We currently have 2 fulltime employees and enjoy the help of several committed volunteers who help out in return for bartered farm products. By joining with Cobb Hill Co-housing with its commitment to keeping this land actively farmed, as new farmers we were able to gain access to otherwise unaffordable ag-land in a region with sufficient population to sustain a vibrant spectrum of local organic and/or sustainable producers. As with any human community, there are conflicts and tensions that arise here. Plunking a village of mostly non-farming professionals down in the middle of a working farm produces plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings. Our situation is not perfect, it is a work in progress, but what the community does have is a solid commitment to resolving these points of friction and a wider commitment to trying to be part of the solution in addressing our societal ills.
Sharing the Harvest
Our CSA is involved with helping to feed the local community with the help of a grant from the USDA and donations from our CSA members. Old Windsor Village Senior Housing receives food from our farm for over twenty low income households each year. The Haven, a shelter for homeless families in White River Junction, VT., receives weekly baskets from the farm.
Neither of us were raised in farm families so learning the skills of commercial farming has been an arduous and at times, daunting process. But we have had good teachers and sought out mentors in each location we found ourselves in. Early on, we were sparked with the dream of doing our farm work with horses and we bought our first horse in 1994, a weanling Fjord mare, Cassima. Our journey to becoming adequate teamsters has been long and fraught with successes and tragedies and the tale of it is beyond the scope of this article, but one thing for sure, we look back with no regrets because of the fulfillment that working with the horses brings to our present days.
From spring to fall our team of Fjord horses, Tristan and Cassima, work in all aspects of the garden, spreading compost, plowing, discing, harrowing and cultivating. We feel strongly that the draft horse can provide a cost effective and non-polluting alternative to tractor-powered modes of food production. Our current farm system is one of mixed power, utilizing a 30 and a 50hp Kubota tractor for manure handling, barn scraping, hay making and forestry work. However, our long term hope is to integrate the horses into the haymaking operation as well. We also have a third (brood) mare and her foal within the herd.
The Fjords are small draft horses from the steep mountain region of Norway. Sure-footed and hardy, the Fjord is an excellent work and riding animal. First bred by the Vikings, the Fjord shares its roots with the Asiatic wild horse. The breed is dun colored, ranging from brown to gray to the rare white and yellow phase. They stand between 13hh and 15hh and weigh 900-1100lb.
We employ a variety of vintage and new horse farming equipment. Our two-way riding plow is a circa 1913 Syracuse, whereas our 14″ walking plow was purchased new from the Pioneer Equipment Co. We utilize a Pioneer forecart to pull a variety of tillage tools; disc and spring-tooth harrows and a drag-harrow for final seedbed preparation. We use a vintage McCormick-Deering riding cultivator as a tillage tool, but do all our actual cultivation of row crops with a single-horse walking cultivator. We make this a two person job, with one of us on the lines to guide the horse and the other steering the implement. Even though this might seem inefficient in terms of man hours, we find that we can get in early and make precision work of it. For spreading we have a 40 bushel McCormick-Deering spreader which works fine with a finished compost, but we hope to upgrade to a 100 bushel spreader. We are currently in the process of trying to restore a No.6 mowing machine, with hopes of utilizing it to clip cover crops which is currently done with the bush hog, and perhaps eventually to take part in mow- ing the hay.
From one point of view it is true that working with horses takes more time than with a tractor, but looked at another way what horses do is give time back to us. They help us slow down and reawaken to the life of the senses.
Before moving to our present site in the fall of 1999, we spent 3 years raising vegetables, horses and calves on land belonging to Donella Meadows just across the river in New Hampshire. At that time we were certified organic by the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture. When we moved across the river to establish our current operation in Hartland, VT, the USDA was engaged in the process of creating the national organic standards and like many small organic producers we questioned whether the new industrial-sized regulations were relevant to us any more. Sure, we were glad to see corporate farms moving away from chemical farming to cash in on this expanding market, but in the trade off we wondered what would become of the locally based grass-roots movement that had been doing the right thing all along? Since we sell directly to most of our customers, we did not feel we needed to be certified. Our farm is open to visitors and their questions about our farming practices.
In addition, once we started milking cows, we found ourselves at odds with regulations that seemed more concerned with consumer-driven fears about food safety than about assuring the highest quality care for our cattle. It seems that legitimate concerns about the routine feeding of antibiotics to feedlot beef cattle has been misconstrued in the public mind to mean that dairy cattle are treated in the same way, which is a fallacy. We believe whole heartedly in the preventive medicine of good nutrition and a healthy environment for our cows, but we would no more deny them a necessary treatment of antibiotics than we would to a horse or a sick child. The corporate organic farms can always shift a sick cow over to their conventionally managed operations to be treated for mastitis, but for a micro-herd like ours that is not an option. We feel animal health and welfare to be foremost in our farm management plan. Our methods emphasize the building up of healthy soils as the basis of sustainable agriculture. Composted manures from our horses and dairy cows along with cover crops feed the land. We do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Our Fjord horses provide the power for the market garden. All our farm products are sold within 12 miles of the farm.
Our Jersey cows graze the hill pastures and produce milk for our raw milk customers (the state of Vermont allows us to sell 12 gallons a day at the farm) and fluid milk for our business partners, Cobb Hill Cheese, who make alpine style and Caerphilly, a welsh cheddar. Both cheeses are made and on site. Our surplus milk is picked up by Agri-Mark Coop for the Grafton Cheese Plant, a most jersey cow milk cheddar maker. The cow manure is turned into compost to feed the soils of the farm. All our cows are registered and we use sexed semen for most of our cows and heifers. This has given us a boost in the number of heifers we have for Vermont’s semi-annual breeding stock sale. We have had animals go to California, Maine, Texas, Kentucky, New Mexico and New Hampshire. A bred heifer sells for $2500 to $3500. These fawn colored Jerseys are the smallest of the Dairy breeds and make the richest milk. Jerseys come from the Channel Isles off the coast of England. They have been a long-time favorite of Vermont farmers and have held their ground here even through the modern domination of the Holstein. Our herd thrives on pastures, organic grains, and hay produced here on this farm and by our neighbors. The herd has a nutritionist, who balances the ration after testing all our forage. They average 16,000-19,000 lbs of milk each annually. Our star cow make 25,000 lb per lactation.
We believe it is profoundly relevant in our times, both from the perspective of personal health and planetary well being, that we strive to return to a rhythm of eating with the seasons, which implies harvesting from our own homegrown sources, or purchasing produce from local sustainable farms. North Americans now expect to be able to buy any type of food in every season, from any part of the world. How much energy was spent, what degree of sacrifice was required to deliver that fresh head of lettuce to our table in the middle of February? What good purpose does it serve if our dietary choices are only concerned with keeping our own bodies healthy even at the expense of the environment?
In an effort to help novices grasp the concept of interconnectedness, the Buddha would direct their attention to the matter of the food that they consumed. He put it in the form of a simple question and answer; “How do we know for certain that all beings are one, that all are interconnected? We may know this by contemplating the most basic fact of life — all beings must eat!” On our farm, we raise the bull-calves that are inevitably part of the yearly crop of calves born to our dairy cows. We strive to handle these steers with love and respect during their 2+ years as residents of the farm, and delight in watching them grow healthy on our rolling pastures. We are deeply saddened when it is time to end their lives, but we honor the sacrifice and are truly thankful for the gift of continued life they offer to us and the community of people who buy products from our farm. This thankfulness stems from the certain knowledge revealed to every attentive farmer that we are all bound up together in this circle of life and death and renewal.
As small independent farmers, we are not interested in waiting for the government, or science, or corporations, to come up with solutions to the array of threats to the human species and to the natural environment. Seeking to act as responsible “global citizens,” we’ve decided to try to take matters into our own hands, and to see if we might fashion a sustainable culture on the basis of a healthy agriculture. Our basic goal is to promote an agriculture that is both ecologically and socially sustainable.
You can change the world by changing what you eat. For us farmers, farming is not a job per se, it is a direct form of social action, maybe the most important “grass-roots” activism possible. In our current social context, how and where you procure your food is both a political act and a gesture of the spirit. A large measure of our hope for transforming our culture depends on beginning at the base by creating a renewed and truly healthy “agri-culture.”
As in any practice that involves a lot of repetition, looked at from the outside, farm life may appear to be dull. Yet, it is just through this intimate daily contact with living systems, through the experiential dynamic of immersion in the cycles of the seasons, that the farmer is enlivened. Developing our own powers of observation is what this practice of farming is all about. The daily care and interaction with plants and animals takes us outside of an exclusive focus on ourselves and opens us up to a sense of connectedness with the larger patterns of life. This connectedness is the basis of all authentic spirituality. The crops and the livestock provide a continuous link to those who came before and they lend the farmer a sense of shouldering a precious gift and a weighty responsibility to carry forward a link in this chain so that it will remain unbroken for those who are yet to come. When we stay close to the land, and the real life of the senses—mind, heart and body stay awake.