Fjordworks Cultural Evolution Part 1
Fjordworks Cultural Evolution Part 1

Fjordworks: Cultural Evolution Part 1

by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance provided by Kerry Gawalt, both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT.

Meditations on the Amazing McCormick-Deering Riding Cultivator

“Now, with a span of horses and one of our best riding cultivators, 15 acres can be accomplished, and this with almost as much ease and comfort as a day’s journey in a buggy.” – 1870 report from the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture


We are living in times fraught with dangerous portents. Melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels, extreme weather events, world-wide shortages of fuel, food, and fresh water: it certainly seems as if “The end of the world as you know it” has already arrived. And yet, these are also times of dynamic cross cultural pollination and unbounded fertile imaginings that carry potential for positive transformation. Twenty years ago most of us “modern farmers” who were working with horses labored in isolation. The Small Farmer’s Journal shone as one beacon of inspiration and connectivity to a larger community of like-minded dreamers with real dirt under their fingernails. But oftentimes there might have been someone just a few villages down the road that was also trying to figure out how to piece together an old leather brichen harness or was busy cutting an Oliver walking plow out of the roots of the hedgerow, and we wouldn’t have had any way of knowing it. Of course, draft horse and oxen clubs did exist, but folks struggling to keep a farm afloat often don’t have much time or energy left over to attend events and meetings.

Now, while most any sensible person can see that 99.9% of what transpires as “information sharing” on the internet is thinly veiled self-promotion and advertisement, there are a few authentic venues for networking and information sharing on the subject of live animal power that can greatly benefit the draft animal-powered farmer of today. The sense of connection to a wider community and the exchange of practical ideas in these forums is helping to accelerate the pace of transition to live power farming in North America. For the novice horse farmer nothing can replace the hands-on guidance of a good mentor, and for any of us farming in proximity to other live power farms a single afternoon visiting another operation can feed our souls and stimulate innovation for another year’s worth of work. But as an auxiliary to “real time” face-to-face exchange virtual networking offers wonderful new opportunities to share experience, gain access to tools, learn about upcoming events, and in general foster the movement of “re-skilling” that holds so much promise for a renewal of agriculture and society.

Discovering An Old Tool Anew

We might posit that there are three basic components to successful horse farming; 1) The horses 2) The equipment & systems 3) The crops.

Some teamsters are endlessly intrigued by the schooling of horses, some may be drawn to the intricacies of mechanical and systems approaches, and still others may focus on the cultivation and harvest of marketable crops. Whatever our inclinations, to be successful as horse farmers we must have some measure of balance in our approach that has us paying due attention to all three of these components.

Fjordworks Cultural Evolution Part 1

The vintage McCormick-Deering No. 4 riding cultivator is a tool that has something for everyone. For the teamster who first and foremost just plain loves driving horses, hitching the team to a fully restored and well-oiled cultivator and gliding easily up and down the straight lines of a field sown to row crops is a wonderful way to spend time with horses. For those intrigued by the intricacies of machines and systems, the riding cultivator offers endless opportunities for tweaking and innovation (see the Cultivating Questions Fall 2012 article of Eric and Anne Nordell for information on the many purposes to which this tool can be adapted). And for those interested in herbicide free, ecologically produced vegetable and field crops, the riding cultivator is a practical and precise tool for successful cultivation.

We may tend to think that before the advent of the tractor there was a static era of farming with draft animals that extended back to antiquity, but agricultural revolutions have been occurring at a steady drumbeat from the time the first Neolithic farmer decided to save a seed. Horse-powered agriculture in North America was in a dynamic process of evolution throughout the industrial age. Innovation and improvement of implements was a constant in that golden age of horse power. Up until the mid-nineteenth century the farmer’s first line of defense against weeds in the garden and in field crops was the hoe. Even today, on many small farms around the world the hoe remains the principal garden tool not only for weed removal, but for bed forming, furrowing, and hilling crops. In corn growing regions the single horse (or mule) plow was sometimes used to cultivate the young crop in three successive passes, first throwing the dirt away from the crop, next hilling it in towards the crop, and finally throwing the dirt in to the center of the row again (row cropping of this type was often done with corn planted in hills within a grid — so that row paths could be worked alternately cross-wise as well as up and down). By the 1850’s the first single-row walk behind cultivators had been introduced and a walk behind straddle row cultivator soon followed. The first riding cultivator was produced by Robert Avery in the late 1860’s. Avery had begun designing various agricultural implements on paper as a way to pass the time and keep his mind occupied while he endured the horrors of internment in the notorious Confederate Andersonville prison. After the war he and his brother, Cyrus, purchased a 160 acre farm in Illinois. Robert took winter employment in a machine-shop and soon after put the money earned and practical experience gained into realizing his implement designs. His first product was a cast steel single row riding cultivator. The business got off to a shaky start, but then he came out with a dependable corn planter and a spiral corn stalk cutter. These implements were well received and sales began to take off. Robert and Cyrus formed a company that went on to have a successful run manufacturing everything from stationary threshing machines and corn planters to some of the first steam-powered tractors. Robert Avery’s riding cultivator served as the prototype for successive iterations that eventually culminated in the New No. 4 from the McCormick-Deering manufacturing company. This superlative machine made its debut shortly before the First World War and was the state of the art in cultivation for decades.

Fjordworks Cultural Evolution Part 1

Benefits of Cultivation

Weed management is one of the biggest challenges facing the organic farmer. There are many avenues of weed control open to the ecological producer, such as the sowing of weed suppressing cover crops and the implementation of stale-bed tillage prior to planting, but once the crops are in the ground most organic farmers use some kind of mechanical cultivator. A cultivator is an implement that is used to stir the soil in the paths between row crops to eliminate weeds. In addition, the cultivator is useful for aerating soil that may have become stale and compacted due to heavy rain. Infusing air into the soil stimulates biological activity and makes nutrients available to the roots of the crops. However we should avoid cultivating any more than is absolutely necessary because the stirring and aerating action will also cause organic matter and nutrients to be burned up more quickly.

Another benefit of cultivation is that it can help retain soil moisture levels. This is an especially important consideration for the dry land farmer (operating without a source of irrigation). Through capillary action the soil constantly releases moisture to the air. After a good rain, the shallow tillage of the cultivator can be used to cut off this capillary action by creating a crumbly mulch on the surface, retaining more of the soil moisture bank for use by the crops.

Fjordworks Cultural Evolution Part 1

The various tool bar attachments employed with cultivating tractors on contemporary organic produce farms are designed for multiple-row tillage (typically three rows per 5’ bed). The cultivating attachments for the belly-mounted hydraulic systems of such models as the Allis-Chalmers G, the Farmall Super C and Cub tractors (as well as the Saukville and other new lines of cultivating tractors) generally require a relatively pulverized, residue- and stone-free seedbed. The tractor-mounted rototiller is the most common means for laying out such beds. The standard spacing for row crops to be cultivated with a straddle row cultivator was traditionally in the range of 36”–48” rows. By adjusting the wheel width to its narrowest setting (generally 36” for most vintage Springtooth attachments models) rows can be cultivated to as narrow as 28” spacing.

Although the wider row spacing required by traditional horse drawn cultivators will mean a reduction in plant density there are many benefits to this system that may offset the loss of productivity per acre. One major advantage of the wider spacing of the horse-drawn cultivators is that they can handle a seedbed that may contain more cover crop residue, and also the irremediable condition of working in stony ground. An important consideration for dryland farmers or those with limited irrigation capacity is that rows planted on wider spacing means more soil moisture will be available to the crop. Wider rows can also stimulate more upright plant growth and improve air circulation (which can potentially reduce the incidence of disease).

Fjordworks Cultural Evolution Part 1

Description of the Tool

A riding cultivator (also known as straddle row cultivator) passes over one row of crop at a time and stirs the soil of the two row paths to either side. It is designed to be pulled by a team of horses. These cultivators were mass produced in North America from the late 19th century right up until the advent of World War II. These implements were well built and ingeniously designed. They have a number of available cultivating attachments to suit different crops, conditions, and cropping systems. The basic template of a riding cultivator consists of a frame mounted on two large wheels. On a one-row cultivator the frame supports a single arch to which two gangs of cultivators are attached, effectively joining them into a single unit. The McCormick-Deering riding cultivators (and other models) have both wheels mounted on pivots controlled by foot pedals (stirrups for each foot) that are also linked to the respective right- and left-side gangs of shanks and allow the operator to do precision work by steering the gangs laterally and account for crooked sections in the crop row and also to counteract gravity when cultivating on sloping ground.

Fjordworks Cultural Evolution Part 1

The gangs consist of beams, shanks, and couplings that can be adjusted for multiple configurations. The depth and pitch of the shanks can be adjusted by the master depth lever, and the two independent depth levers that control the right and left gangs. There is also a lever to adjust the angle of tilt of the tongue in relation to the frame which will also affect the level of the gangs, and help in accommodating teams of different sizes. The center width between the two cultivator gangs is adjustable and the couplings that hold the shanks onto the frame can also be moved to alter the shanks width and configuration on the frames. These couplings also allow for raising or lowering of the shanks depth. The shanks have bolt holes for receiving the various attachments. Later model cultivators feature spring trip shanks that allow them to give when hitting a large obstruction (typically a stone) and then spring back into position once the obstacle is passed.

An important factor to consider with the riding cultivator is that it requires a turnaround space at either end of the rows that is at least equal to the total length of the implement and the hitch of horses (about 16’ with our team of Fjords — at least 18’ for full-sized drafts — with 21’ being a common headland margin on many contemporary horse-powered farms). This space is necessary to get clear of the crop in the row just finished and to get cleanly back on the next row. This is an important factor to consider when laying out the design for the garden, particularly if your garden site is going to require fencing around the headland to keep out livestock or deer.

Fjordworks Cultural Evolution Part 1

The vintage horse-drawn cultivators came with a catalog of attachments for tilling the soil: hoe sweeps and half hoe sweeps, goosefoot sweeps, double-pointed shovels, spear point shovels, spring teeth, discs for hilling, shields to protect the crop from thrown dirt, and furrowing and bed-making attachments. These tools have application both in the market garden and for the cultivation of field row crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans. A whole science developed around the techniques for cultivating different varieties of field and vegetable crops with a horse-drawn straddle row cultivator. According to soil type, moisture availability, and stage of growth, differing attachments were chosen to suit the job. In general terms, this would involve deep tilling and hilling of crops in the primary cultivations, and later shallow tillage directed more toward moisture conservation by the final cultivation.

Fjordworks Cultural Evolution Part 1

For simplicity’s sake a riding cultivator can be outfitted with standard double-pointed shovels (when one point gets too worn the shovel can be flipped around to use the second point). These straight shovels are the all-purpose attachments and work quite well for cultivating most vegetable crops. The traditional strategy is to move from deeper to more shallow tillage as the season progresses so as to avoid root pruning and place more emphasis on moisture conservation. A very simple adjustment can be made on the riding cultivator to allow for cultivation of small seedlings and transplants. Replace the inner two shovels (on either side of the crop) with half goosefoot sweeps to lessen the chances of burying small plants and to ensure that the spreading roots of the crop are not pruned in the act of cultivating. If half sweeps aren’t available, a standard goosefoot attachment can be modified by cutting off the opposing sides of the two sweeps that pass closest to the crop. Most models of riding cultivator also have an easy lever adjustment for adjusting the width of the central gap between the two separate gangs of shanks. As the season progresses, in addition to moving the shanks to wider spacing, you can widen this setting to open up the central gap where the row crop passes through to accommodate the growth of the plants.

If you wish to keep your cultivator running like a “well-oiled machine” then you must keep it well-oiled. The McCormicks have two covered oil ports and then many other obvious points where regular application of grease or oil will reduce friction and maintain smoother operation. For a non-motorized machine, this is an implement with many moving parts and it is best to store it under cover when not in use (see the Cultivating Questions Fall 2012 article of Eric and Anne Nordell for information on alternatives to petroleum products for oiling machinery).

End Of Part One