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.
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.