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.