Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 3
by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont. Photos by Carla Kimball.
“There must be some way out of here said the Joker to the Thief. There’s just too much confusion, I can’t get no relief. The business man drinks my wine, the plow man digs my earth. And none of them along the line knows what any of it is worth.” – Bob Dylan
Once when I was fourteen years old my best buddy and I got the idea to go over to a local riding stable and ride ourselves a horse. The night before we had been to the theatre and seen a film called “Winterhawk” which featured some fantastic scenes of Native American warriors galloping their war ponies through the snow fields of the Dakotas. When we arrived at the stable there was fresh snow from a late winter storm blanketing the landscape. We had a peaceful ride up the forested trail into the gentle hill country and as we rode we transported ourselves back to pioneer days. We were two adventurous mountain men heading out from Fort Laramie to do some trapping and escape the choking confines of civilization.
As we headed the horses back towards the stable the situation went downhill too. It started when, all of their own accord, our horses quit off walking and broke into a canter. I guess they could “smell the barn” and were anxious for oats and rest. The fast riding was fun enough at first, the trouble was that the cagey nag I was riding began to try and peel me off her back by heading straight for every low branch that extended over the pathway and I swear she had memorized where each potential guillotine was positioned and she aimed for every one of them. I somehow managed to dodge and duck all those branches so my untrustworthy mount pulled out a new tactic to do me in. We were charging down the path at breakneck speed when she suddenly banked a sharp right turn onto an intersecting trail. She took that turn so hard that I remained airborne on the main trail while she tore off down that side trail back to the barn. There is nothing much worse in the horse world than showing back up at the stable on foot.
A few years later I took a road trip up to Vermont. I stopped in to visit friends at the Farm & Wilderness Camp and I happened to see the farm manager driving his team of draft horses up to the barn on their way back in from the fields. He was a robust bearded fellow in a broad-brimmed hat and big black boots tromping behind his well behaved team of feathered-footed giants. All my attention was suddenly caught up by the sight of those working horses; the smell of their sweat, the jangling of the trace chains upon their heavy leather harness. And standing there contemplating that scene there was planted in my mind the improbable seed that someday I should have a team of horses and a farm of my own.
The accident happened fast, as most accidents do, and like most accidents, while it was happening time seemed to come to a standstill. We had been working our young mares, Mari and Cassima, together in harness since the previous summer. After moving to a farm in New Hampshire in the fall of 1996, we began driving the mares in earnest, but still all ground driving; no carts, or sleds or farm implements involved. In the late fall we skidded out some small blow-downs from the wooded edge of a pasture and the mares did quite well. I was beginning to feel confident that we could have them team working in the market garden by the following summer. Meanwhile, I built a new stone boat with steel runners.
The snow came early that year — a full foot of it the week before Thanksgiving — and then it turned cold and the snow cover held. After that though, there wasn’t much more snow. I was anxious for some deep powder to try the horses out on the sled for the first time. I figured some deep fresh snow would slow them down and dissuade them from running if they should get nervous with all the new sensations of being hitched to an implement with a tongue.
Cassima had done a limited amount of team driving with a tongue hitch when we were in Idaho. I had driven her on a dump rake with Becky the mule and also on the stone boat a few times. However, she was still very new to the experience. During those early training sessions if it hadn’t been for the tempering presence of the old molly mule the young horse might have panicked. Mari, on the other hand, had not yet been introduced to the tongue hitch at all — this was to be her inaugural drive.
Two weeks into January we still hadn’t received any more significant snow fall. In fact, the “January thaw” had left what snow there was granular. I grew impatient and broke my vow to wait for a foot of powder before hitching up the mares. Kerry came along to assist me. I towed the sled by tractor to a 2 acre paddock that was surrounded with a double plank fence. This field had a level bench and then sloped steeply up to the forested ridge. I left the sled parked at an angle to the fence and then went up to the barn to harness up the horses. As I was driving the horses down to the field my apprehension grew about the condition of the snow. A part of me wanted to turn around and keep my original resolve to wait, but having come this far, I obstinately pushed on.
It took a bit of coaxing to get Cassima to step over the tongue, but finally she nervously skipped into her spot and we hitched up the yoke and traces to the sled and Kerry asked me; “Are you ready?” and I took a deep breath and nodded “Yes.” We started out going up a slight grade and for about 50 paces or so it seemed like everything was going to be fine. Then as we approached the head of the field and I said “Gee” and began to give them line pressure to begin the turn, Cassima stepped a back leg over the tongue and began to panic and speed up. Within seconds both mares broke into a gallop and I had a full scale runaway on my hands. We banked a sharp turn and started heading on a downhill trajectory in the center of the field. The granular snow offered little resistance to the steel runners and we picked up speed. What was worse, at that speed the sled began to shimmy back and forth. I hauled back on the lines as hard as I could and then tried see-sawing but to no avail — there was no stopping them.
When we reached the middle of the field the mares turned right and then we were heading straight towards the fence. I considered jumping off then but before I had a chance they banked so hard to the left that I was hurled forward off the sled. I landed hard on one knee and then rolled and got back to my feet just in time to look up in horror at the sight of Kerry further down the fence line scrambling to climb through the planks of the fence. She must have thought she wasn’t going to get through in time so she turned and stood to face them, believing they would swerve and not hit her. But they did not swerve. Frozen in time I watched transfixed as the horizontal pipe of the hitch struck her ankles and she crumpled into the headboard of the sled. She was just outside of the off-horse and she was carried that way ten feet or more before falling off to the right as the mares turned left and headed up the hill again still at a gallop.
Witnessing her being struck by the sled was like falling off a cliff into a nightmare dream. I screamed but my voice sounded weirdly distant to my own ears. As I tried to run to her my legs felt leaden. At that point, I didn’t know if she was alive or dead. When I got to her and found her conscious and breathing I was still scared sick but I felt gratefulness and love well-up from the depths of my soul. I didn’t have much time to bask in it though, because those horses were still running wild in that field and there was the awful chance that they might run right at us again.
Our housemate Mary had come up to watch us working the horses and she shouted that she was going back to the house to call 911. The horses ran into the far south end of the field which was overgrown with brush. As they charged through the scrub the sled started to bust up. They turned up hill and back down hill again towards the wooden gate — which was closed.
The horses seemed to have decided that there was no way to out run the thing that was chasing them and the only thing left to do was to get back to the barn. They ran into the wooden gate at full speed. Boards cracked and splintered as horses plowed on through, but the gate did not give way entirely and their harness got hung up in the broken boards and this finally stopped them. They stood wild-eyed and gasping for air — but they stood.
After a short eternity the EMT’s arrived and began to assess the damage. Kerry was incredibly stoical throughout all this. By now she could feel that the pain was in her lower legs. One of her snow boots had been torn clean off. The rescue workers removed the other boot and quickly determined that both legs were broken at the ankle. The workers were great at attending her, but one of them commented; “Whose idea was it to hitch up those horses anyway?” That cut me to the core. I guess those words stung me so much because they were partly true; I had no business driving those horses on that day. I tried to push the river by asking them to do something that neither they nor I was ready to do.
The ambulance finally arrived and they carried Kerry away in a stretcher and drove off. That left me alone in the field with my horses. I’d already assessed that they appeared to have no broken bones. Horses are tough as nails but even so we were lucky that day. They had just slammed full speed through a wooden gate and I could hardly find a scratch on them. I got them unhitched from what was left of the sled and then untangled from the gate and drove them down the road and up the lane to their barn. I was operating on pure adrenaline.
I had to drive myself the twelve miles to the hospital — not knowing the extent of Kerry’s injuries; not knowing if she’d be crippled for life or suffered internal injury. When I reached the emergency room the Doctor had already had time to revise her case — both fibulas broken in both legs. He laid out the choices of full leg casts or surgery with pins. He said casts would take longer but would be far less invasive. We chose casts — big mistake. The casts didn’t work and a year later Kerry had to have pins put in and then later removed — all in all eighteen months to heal her legs. The important part though, is that her legs did heal; so well that fifteen years later she walks with no trace of a limp.
I grew up watching Westerns on television and in the movies so I was well acquainted with the notion that when a cowboy is thrown off a horse he had best climb right back on or he might lose his nerve and never be able to ride again. I drove the horses again (on the ground) within a few days after the accident and I never let up on the training program I’d set out to accomplish with them. It would be another half year before I would try them on a tongue-hitch again. It took me about four or five years to get over my jitters. It wasn’t so bad with ground driven implements, but for those several years after the accident, every time I hitched to a riding implement my stomach would be all a flutter and I could feel the adrenaline coursing in my veins. I had pause then to remember something my father had told me about his years as a Marine Corps pilot. He said that every single time before he had to go up in a jet he’d feel so scared he’d have to run to the bathroom to vomit. Now, he worries at some level that this makes him some sort of a coward, but I consider it a mark of bravery (and maybe a touch of hard-headedness) that being that scared he flew as much as he did.
What I most feared was that I might be failing in my quest to become a horse-powered farmer. I knew myself to be capable of farming organically with a tractor or two, but my heart was no longer in doing only that, I’d gone too far down this road and paid such heavy dues that there was just know way I could quit on being a horse farmer. But the way forward was not at all clear. More than once I wished I still had that old Becky mule who had worked so well for me years ago.
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. The point of telling this story is not to present a cautionary tale for other idealistic greenhorns and so perhaps discourage them from taking up the reigns of a draft horse team. To the contrary, 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.
However, anyone reading this account might justly come to the conclusion that working with draft horses is inherently a dangerous undertaking. It isn’t so. It is probably true that I have had more than my share of mishaps and wrecks, but this is due to the fact that my early relationship to working with horses was a case study of the worst possible combination; a green teamster with an over-abundance of impetuous courage working unsupervised with green horses.
In the old days, and still today in places where the culture of working horses yet thrives, old timers teach the youngsters how to drive and old horses help train young horses to harness — all in an unbroken chain of tradition. Under such circumstances accidents are undoubtedly rarer than on modern machine powered farms. The greatest danger presented to those who still rely on the horse for transportation is from the reckless conduct of people behind the wheel of automobiles.
The current batch of back-to-the-land teamsters like myself, who have learned to drive horses by surviving the school of hard knocks and reinventing the wheel, are just preparing the way for the next generation of horse-powered loggers and farmers who will be skilled and innovative teamsters beyond our measure.
My intent in relating this account of our near fatal wreck is to declare that we survived this disaster, picked ourselves up, took stock, harnessed our horses and started up again. And the horses and the humans, wizened and tempered by surviving the accident, persevered and ultimately prevailed in their quest to farm with horse-drawn power.
After the accident we sought out the help of skilled trainers and teamsters in our region to do some remedial training with our mares and to increase our own skill set. This was time and money well spent. I think that if I had quit working with horses at that moment I might have wound up feeling as my Dad did about flying jets after he had to bail out at ten-thousand feet and then chose to give up flying — always wondering if it was a rational decision or if he had simply lost his nerve. And I would have taken Kerry’s grievous injury and long recovery as even more of a blow if our dream of working with horses had been smashed as well.
The following growing season after the accident we established our CSA, we also worked three farmer’s markets, and began wholesaling produce at a local food coop (where Kerry also worked part time in the produce dept.). I found part time work at a neighboring farm. We did all this despite the fact that both of Kerry’s legs were broken in the training accident with our young horses. I will never forget carrying Kerry into the truck and driving her down to the market garden where she then proceeded to drag herself along the rows with her legs in casts, seeding, weeding, and harvesting.
We have been successfully farming with horses now for more than a decade. Despite the early dire setback, in its totality, my relationship to horses has helped to save my life by being the aegis of connection to a livelihood rooted in reality — by reality I mean to say an immersion in how things really work here on planet earth. For me, knowing reality has come to signify gaining knowledge of how to blend and weave and nurture one’s life within the fabric of the natural world — to seek to become a part of it.
The territory that came to be known as Vermont was wrenched out of a mish-mash of competing land grants handed out by the royal governors of New Hampshire and New York. The Green Mountain Boys, an obstreperous band of pioneers who haled mostly from Connecticut, waded into the fray and claimed the land as their own. Vermont was a newly formed independent republic during the Revolutionary War. The Vermont Republic had its own money system, its own sovereign government, and a constitution that forbade slavery — nearly 100 years before slavery was outlawed in the United States. It wasn’t until 1791 that her citizens agreed to join the original thirteen colonies and only did so with a guarantee written into the state constitution that they should maintain the right to succeed should the federal government become too onerous in its administration.
Many of the first farms that were carved out of the Vermont “wilderness” by the early European settlers were established on what were called “old fields”. These fields were the agricultural lands of the Abenaki people where they had cultivated their corn, squash, sunflowers, and beans. In pre-conquest New England, agriculture accounted for 85% of the foodstuffs consumed by the native peoples. Growing food was the domain of the woman. They were also the principle gatherers of wild edible and medicinal plants. The men for their part, hunted, trapped, fished, and went to war — not necessarily in that order.
In its early years the new state of Vermont was mainly characterized by subsistence farming communities. That all changed in 1830 with the importation of a flock of Merino sheep from Spain. By 1840 over 1.5 million sheep were pastured over the newly cleared hills and valleys of the state. Water-powered Wool mills all along the major rivers of New England hummed with production supplied by the sheep farms of Vermont. However, with the opening of lands to the west and the reduction of tariffs on woolen imports, the industry began to decline even before the outbreak of the Civil War. After the war many young people decided to head west themselves and the state began to experience a decline in population that wasn’t arrested until the first quarter of the 20th century.
With the coming of the railroads, Vermont farmers turned toward dairy production. Soon every town had a creamery and a rail depot to send fresh butter and cheese to the Boston market. With the advent of pasteurization, refrigeration, and highway transport, fluid milk became the main product of the Vermont dairy industry.
The Jersey cow has a long history in the green mountain state. At the time when ?the farmers were making the transition from sheep to cow, the hardy little ?denizens of the Channel Islands were imported in sufficient numbers to become ?the predominant breed here. Our breeding program at Cedar Mountain Farm focuses on the traits for which the Jersey cow has long been prized; production, conformation and longevity. This creates a cow that has enthusiasm for grazing, calving ease, soundness of feet, shallow healthy udders and high milk components. As a result of working with pure bred cattle from top genetics most of our cows have received ratings of very good to excellent in the annual herd evaluations conducted by the American Jersey Cattle Association. Two of our cows are ranked within the top 1.5% of cows nationally and one of our heifers recently ranked 96th in the nation. This ranking is based on the Jersey performance index which weights protein and fat production, along with physical conformation and longevity.
Today, Vermont remains the leading dairy state in New England, providing 60% of the total volume consumed in the region. In theory, Vermont farms produce enough milk to supply all its own dairy needs. All the fluid milk, butter and cheese, ice cream and yogurt that Vermonters consume could be supplied by farms currently operating in the state. The federal pricing system and the domination of the fluid milk market by multi-national corporations fosters chronic instability in our dairy sector. A regional pricing system and return to local supply could pave the way for more food security for consumers and better economic viability for farmers.
In 2010 it was estimated that two dairy farms were shutting down every week in Vermont. In 1950 there were more than 11,000 dairies here. By the end of 2010 the number was down to just over 1,000. Of course, in 1950 a good Jersey cow was producing 6,000 lbs. of milk in a year, whereas nowadays she is producing 16,000-24,000 lbs. or more. But everyone from cow to farmer to field is working harder to make that milk and getting less recompense for it as time goes by. An alarming consequence of the crisis in the dairy sector is that, as these farms shut their doors, the land is too often turned over to non-agricultural purposes. It is estimated that in the state of Vermont 41,000 acres (including 11,000 of prime agricultural soils) was sold off to development in the last 30 years.
There are many proposals out on the table for fixing the broken federal milk pricing system. One of the most promising is the institution of a milk quota system. There is pending legislation in Washington to craft reforms that would include making dairy farmers commit to production quotas. This would be a means to keep surplus milk from entering the market and depressing prices. This legislation acknowledges that bigger ain’t always better.
When the price is up the temptation is to expand production to capitalize on the favorable market. The trouble is, when enough farms do this the market is flooded and the price begins to drop again. When prices drop it would seem reasonable to expect that the farmers might reduce their herd size but often times the small to mid-size farms feel compelled to buy in even more cows in an attempt to reach an economy of scale that will make them more competitive. Many farms in New England are hanging on by their fingernails. The farmers themselves are an aging population and a lot of them are in the situation of having the banks paying their monthly feed bills plus the interest charge. Even the organic sector is not immune to the crisis. With a slow down in sales, the organic dairy coops are already imposing quotas on their producers.
At Cedar Mountain Farm we have placed a self-imposed quota by building farm infra-structure designed to maintain a herd of 20 milking cows (this translates to about 45-50 head total accounting for youngstock and steers). What if voluntary quotas required farmers to base their herd size on the carrying capacity of the land? For most, if not all farms, this would require a radical rethinking in our system approaches. For our farm this would require that either we reduce our already micro-sized dairy herd, or we acquire more tillable land and labor. Neither option is particularly appealing; we could not make a living off a smaller herd — and we’re not too keen on the idea of managing more land and workers (this year we have taken on an additional 20 acres of hayland, leased from a neighbor, to nudge us towards greater feed self-sufficiency). Our compromise solution is to not exceed the grazing capacity of our property, but to buy in the extra hay and grain we can’t produce ourselves. Even so, as a benchmark to aspire to—actual carrying capacity is the high mark to measure ourselves by. It is conceivable that the twin pinchers of climate change and exorbitant fuel costs may soon force our hand.
On another front, a coalition of Vermont Dairy Farmers in alliance with other producers from the northeast, took on Dallas, Texas based industry giant Dean Foods in an anti-trust lawsuit. A preliminary settlement was reached in December 2010, but it remains doubtful as to whether any significant structural change in the distribution system will come out of this litigation. Small farmers everywhere are under economic siege. There are global forces allied against the small-scale producer. These multi-national conglomerates know no borders, retain no regional loyalties, and uphold no ethical standards beyond the increase of the corporate bottom-line.
In the face of these Goliaths, we the small farmers, even as we strive to rebuild local food systems and local economies, need to stand in solidarity with farmers of every land. At our own peril do we turn a blind eye to the displacement of whole farming villages in China to make way for new plastics factories to supply our Walmarts. At our peril do we ignore the plight of beleaguered cotton farmers in India driven to suicide so that their starving families can collect a compensation check. At our peril do we ignore the anguish of Mayan farmers in Chiapas who are forced at gunpoint by narco-trafficantes to sow marijuana in their fields instead of their sacred seeds of corn, squash and beans. At our own peril do we distance ourselves from the farmers laboring under the shadow of leaking cooling towers in northern Japan. We need to stand with them and with each other and continue to fight for and believe in a better way.
Our government could be doing more now to help small farmers everywhere stay on their own land. International development aid should stop trying to integrate subsistence farmers into the world market of free trade by coercing them to grow and export monoculture crops and focus instead on helping them build local self-reliant and diversified food systems.
Can we feed our families and our local communities and at the same time nourish the soil and carefully steward a working landscape? On the other side of those supermarket shelves there is a world of pain being inflicted on land and animals and farm workers in order to deliver our cheap food. In North America the average household spends 10% of its earnings on food. In Asia and Africa the amount is 60% or more. In this country, the farmer receives just 16% of every dollar spent on food crops. But even here the era of cheap food is swiftly drawing to a close.
The United Nations has projected that in 2020 we will have 50 million environmental refugees on the planet. These displaced people will pour into the global north, fleeing food shortages sparked by climate change. When people can no longer find sustainable conditions in which to live, they will migrate. Climate change is already impacting the amount of food available. The unrest currently rocking the capitols of the Arab-speaking world cannot be separated from the wheat export shortages last year in Russia and Australia caused by extreme drought and rain events respectively. The military regimes that are toppling have been propped up by the developed nation’s insatiable thirst for oil. Carbon emissions from these same oil-consuming countries are driving climate change.
Everything on this planet is connected and every action must come full circle. Small farmers everywhere are planting the seeds of hope for a sustainable world. In the future true food security will be founded on a return to human-scale farming communities. It may take some time to convince young North Americans to abandon their play stations and return to farming. It will take time to re-skill our citizenry as well. Absorption of climate change refugee populations will no doubt place severe strains on host nations. However, many of the displaced people coming from the middle latitudes already possess agricultural skills and a work ethic and value system that honors the opportunity and security inherent with access to arable land. For instance, here in New England many of the so-called “boat people”, the Hmong of Cambodia, have done very well as market gardeners catering to the rising demand for locally grown fresh produce.
Out there on the edges of American thought — this republic founded on noble ideas — there is this persistent proclivity towards an ethos of ethical and moral authority as being inherent to the land itself; an ethos that can only be known by coming to know the land. In the end, America is not ideas, nor is it mere commerce or music or myth or fables — it is land and people’s relationship to that land.
These days there is an increase in the numbers of young people yearning to farm sustainably. The biggest challenge they meet as they seek to actualize their farming dreams is difficulty in affording access to arable land. It is not that the land doesn’t exist. Here in Vermont for instance, there is plenty of good farm land around. It is simply locked up tight, often in the possession of the super-rich. And even in an environmentally progressive society as this, arable land continues to be gobbled up at an alarming rate by unchecked urban sprawl. In addition, there are thousands of fallow acres being held by retired or bankrupt dairy farmers, municipalities and states, prisons, hospitals, universities, and religious organizations, to name but a few.
Today in the United States 50% of the land being farmed is leased land and 38% of all farm landlords are not themselves farmers. Much of this leased acreage is commodity crop land in the mid-West where even the right to lease has become an inheritable value to be passed from one generation of farmer to the next. But given the inherent injustice to the producer in the technocratic commodity trading system, this “right” is often hard to distinguish from medieval serfdom. As various new models emerge for new farmers to gain access to land that they do not own outright, it is important that they are given legal securities, that they are pledged to mutually beneficial and equitable rights and responsibilities, and that they should have some means of redemption of equity should the agreement with the land owner be terminated.
The etymological history of the words farm and farmer actually refer to a person who rents land for agricultural purposes. Land tenure is commonly understood to signify the owning or leasing of land. The word tenure derives from the Latin teniere; meaning to hold. According to this root meaning, to have land tenure is to hold the land. To hold the land is to embrace it, to nourish it, to steward it faithfully, and ultimately; to be upheld by it.
Access to arable land is a foundational principle of this republic, and yet we citizens seem to stand evermore divided in our alienation. We despair that the forces of government and commerce are just too large to change. We cannot undo the tragic history that has befallen the original inhabitants of this country (Turtle Island) who were driven from their land. But in the present hour the best recompense we can offer is to rise up and protect and artfully steward the unspoiled land that remains and even to reclaim the wastes of urban desolation.
The air we breathe in now is composed of the same molecules that once formed the air inhaled by our grandparents, or an Egyptian farmer laboring along the banks of the Nile thousands of years ago, or a dinosaur millions of years ago. The atoms moving through the carbon cycle that currently make up the composition of the skin covering our hands, may once have been part of a leaf, a mammoth hide, or the limestone sediment at the bottom of an ancient inland sea. What power of the people might be felt, and what mercy of the commons might be gained, if every small farmer and every young person who aspires to farm sustainably were to unite our collective voices in a call for a just and fair redistribution of arable acreage to any and all citizens who stand ready to farm it faithfully? What kind of place would this world be to live in if we all acted on the premise that; land is a gift from the Mother Earth and food is a gift from the hand of the Creator?