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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. is a live, ever-changing subscription website. To gain access to all the content on this site, subscribe for just $5 per month. If you are not completely satisfied, cancel at any time. Here at your own convenience you can access past articles from Small Farmer's Journal's first forty years and all of the brand new content of new issues. You will also find posts of complete equipment manuals, a wide assortment of valuable ads, a vibrant events calendar, and up to the minute small farm news bulletins. The site features weather forecasts for your own area, moon phase calendaring for farm decisions, recipes, and loads of miscellaneous information.

Spotlight On: Book Reviews

Work Horse Handbook

The Work Horse Handbook

The decision to depend on horses or mules in harness for farm work, logging, or highway work is an important one and should not be taken lightly. Aside from romantic notions of involvement in a picturesque scene, most of the considerations are serious.


Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

One Seed To Another: The New Small Farming

One Seed to Another

One Seed to Another is staggering and bracing in its truths and relevance. This is straight talk from a man whose every breath is poetry and whose heartbeat is directly plugged into farming as right livelihood.

Barbed Wire History and Varieties

Book Excerpt: The invention of barb wire was the most important event in the solution of the fence problem. The question of providing fencing material had become serious, even in the timbered portions of the country, while the great prairie region was almost wholly without resource, save the slow and expensive process of hedging. At this juncture came barb wire, which was at once seen to make a cheap, effective, and durable fence, rapidly built and easily moved.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 4

Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.

Book Review Butchering

Two New Butchering Volumes

Danforth’s BUTCHERING is an unqualified MASTERPIECE! One which actually gives me hope for the furtherance of human kind and the ripening of good farming everywhere because, in no small part, of this young author’s sensitive comprehension of the modern disconnect with food, feeding ourselves, and farming.

Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide

How to Store Vegetables

Potatoes may be safely stored in bits on a well drained spot. Spread a layer of straw for the floor. Pile the potatoes in a long, rather than a round pile. Cover the pile with straw or hay a foot deep.

Old Man Farming

Spinning Ladders

You die off by passing away. You live on by passing on. I want to pass the culture of my life on slowly, over the ripening time of my best years.

How To Prune a Formal Hedge

How To Prune A Formal Hedge

This guide to hedge-trimming comes from The Pruning Answer Book by Lewis Hill and Penelope O’Sullivan. Q: What’s the correct way to shear a formal hedge? A: The amount of shearing depends upon the specific plant and whether the hedge is formal or informal. You’ll need to trim an informal hedge only once or twice a year, although more vigorous growers, such as privet and ninebark, may need additional clippings.

Why Farm

Farming For Art’s Sake: Farming As An Artform

Farming as a vocation is more of a way of living than of making a living. Farming at its best is an Art, at its worst it is an industry. Farming can be an Art because it allows at every juncture for the farmer to create form from his or her vision.

Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing

Setting Up A Walking Plow

Here is a peek into the pages of Horsedrawn Plows and Plowing, written by SFJ editor and publisher Lynn R. Miller.

Old Man Farming

Old Man Farming

Long after his physical capacities have dwindled to pain and stiffening, what drives the solitary old man to continue bringing in the handful of Guernsey cows to milk?

Retrofitting a Fireplace with a Woodstove

How to Retrofit a Fireplace with a Woodstove

Because the venting requirements for a wood stove are different than for a fireplace you need to retrofit a stainless steel chimney liner. A liner provides the draft necessary to ensure that the stove will operate safely and efficiently.

Horse Sense for Plain Farming

Horse Sense for Plain Farming

Book Review – The New Horse-Powered Farm by Stephen Leslie: Working with horses is not something you can learn exclusively through watching DVD training videos and attending workshops and seminars. These things and experiences can be very useful as auxiliary aids to our training, but they cannot replace the value of a long-term relationship with a skilled mentor.

An Introduction To Grasslands Farming

From Dusty Shelves: A World War II era article on grassland farming.

Livestock Guardians

Introducing Your Guard Dog To New Livestock And Other Dogs

When you introduce new animals to an established herd or flock, you should observe your dog’s reactions and behavior for a few days. Since he will be curious anyway, it is a good idea to introduce him to the new animals while he is leashed or to place the new animals in a nearby area.

How To Prune

From Dusty Shelves: Pruning Guide from 1917

"Work Horse Handbook, 2nd Edition" by Lynn Miller

Draft Collars and How To Size Them

It is difficult to accurately measure a horse’s neck without fitting. In other words, there are so many variables involved in the shape and size of a horse’s neck that the only accurate and easy way to size the neck is to use several collars and put them on one at a time until fitting is found.

Journal Guide