Fjordworks: Cultural Evolution Part 2
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 – Part Two
“There are places in this world, and in human hearts too, that are opposite to war. There is a kind of life that is opposite to war, so far as this world allows it to be.” — from the novel Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
After two long and harrowing years of trekking for thousands of miles through the uncharted west most every man in Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery looked forward with unbridled anticipation to their imminent return to civilization. However, John Colter, an intrepid young huntsman from Kentucky, had not yet had his fill of wilderness. When the expedition encountered two trappers on the lower reaches of the Missouri in the spring of 1806 they were a mere six weeks out from St. Louis and near the end of their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean and back. Private Colter requested and received an early and honorable discharge from the Corps so that he could join ranks with the trappers. It would be another four years of hair-raising adventure among Indians and mountain men, lonely vigils through rocky mountain nights at -50 degrees, and sojourns into strange lands of boiling mud pits and geysers, before Colter (who nearly lost his scalp on several occasions to his longtime nemesis the warriors of the Blackfoot nation) finally made his way back to St. Louis.
Why did Colter leave his compatriots and return to the wilderness when every other man in the Lewis and Clark party yearned to return to the white man’s world? Did he have a sense of how quickly these wilds would be subjugated by the Americans and did this drive him to want to drink in as much of its pristine and untamed purity as he could? Meditating on the adventurous life of John Colter puts me in mind of another question: Why would anyone of the twenty-first century choose to “go back” to farming with horses? Unlike Colter, we modern small farmers have no pristine wilderness to escape to. We have to face a world of degraded eco-systems and a technocratic culture that is most often hostile to the honest challenges and simple gifts of the small farming way of life. Our choice to “go back” to utilizing animal traction cannot be understood as an escape or a retreat, but rather as a new corps of discovery that seeks pathways to a more sane, just, and sustainable civilization.
Just as Lewis and Clark needed to find the Shoshone tribe in order to trade for horses to make the crossing over the Great Divide, so too, do we small farmers require our horses to help us restore our land, to repair the fabric of our local communities, and to heal our human spirits. Those of us who have taken up driving lines to manage our fields and forests have the power within our hands to help steer the course towards a new cultural evolution. With the help of our horses we can begin to envision a society which utilizes power sources that will be a mix of renewable energy, the best of green technology, combined with the time-tested efficiency of draft animals used for traction.
How We Use The Riding Cultivator At Cedar Mountain Farm
For more than ten years we cultivated our market garden with the walk-behind cultivator. This past season (2012) we made the transition to the riding cultivator. I really enjoyed using this amazing implement. Our current team of Fjords are now mature animals (14 & 18 years old) and have been working together for 11 years, so they were certainly ready to work quietly and walk slowly enough to be effective with this precision tool. We decided to take a second look at the riding cultivator after we increased the size of our market garden from 3 to 4 acres and we were gratified to discover how effective (and pleasurable to work with) the riding cultivator can be for weed removal and for throwing dirt into the row to cover tiny weeds in the crop row. Last time we tried to use one was about ten years ago when my relative inexperience as a teamster and our young horses made it impossible to do any finesse work — I only managed to cultivate very mature crops and as we were finding the single horse cultivator to be quite adequate, I soon gave up on it. But I would take it out and use it as a secondary tillage tool now and again, keeping the horses somewhat familiar with it, and keeping the potential alive for its future use.
A couple of years ago, inspired by my visits to Natural Roots Farm in Conway, Massachusetts where I observed David Fisher’s extensive use of the riding cultivator, I brought both McCormicks we had on the premises into the shop before winter set in and dug into them. I took things apart and cleaned, oiled, replaced rusted out bolts. As I worked I gradually began to get a sense of the marvelous complexity of possible adjustments on these machines. Both cultivators required a lot of penetrating oil and on one the master lever was bent and needed to be heated to be straightened, but overall they were in remarkably good condition.
Typical of most of these models that are still in use, there was some degree of sloppiness in the wheel hubs resulting in odd numbered measurements when we endeavored to re-set the wheel-base, but not enough to affect their performance in any appreciable way. Eventually, we discovered that when the hub caps are removed (they are threaded, so don’t try to pry them off) there are three options for the linch pins on the axle that allow you to tighten up some of the sloppiness due to wear. The axle hubs on these old models do not have any type of bearings, so keeping them well-greased becomes doubly important. There are grease caps affixed to the axle hubs. These are the predecessors of zerc points and grease guns, and have the same function of forcing grease into the moving parts of the machine. The grease caps are on top of a tapered tube, you force grease down this tube and into the hub by filling the cap and screwing it tightly back into place.(1)
The McCormick cultivators have a tilting lever that can adjust the tilt of the tongue in relation to the frame. This is very handy for adjusting the tool to accommodate different sized teams; the shorter the horses the greater the slope of the tongue and the greater the need to compensate with the master lever and particularly with the two independent depth levers that control the angle of the gangs. For hitching our draft ponies to the cultivator we need to have the tongue adjusted to slope downward from the implement to the yoke. This is worth mentioning because this is one of the few hitches in which this configuration will normally be seen. Our Fjords stand at just about 14 hands. We have the tilting lever set on its 2nd to furthest back setting and that does the trick for then allowing us to adjust the depth lever gangs so they meet the ground evenly with full penetration of the shanks front to back. Without the ability to make this tongue slope adjustment, hitching to a team with shorter legs would cause the gangs to tilt and result in inadequate penetration of the rearmost shovels. I imagine the ideal situation is to have horses of a height that allows the tongue to stay more or less level to the ground.
The length of the neck yoke and evener on a cultivator should be relatively close to the row width (in this way you can set things up so that horses, wheels, and track rippers all travel along the center line of the row paths). On the McCormicks the standard issue evener is 38”, but the way the single trees are attached from below (with three holes to adjust for different horse heights), and with an additional tie-rod anchoring them to the front of each corresponding gang, they have plenty of wiggle room to work well with whatever wheel-base setting fits your planting system. Most teams of horses can manage to walk side-by-side down to about 30” rows. Most gardening systems set up for horses use 32”, 36”, or 42” row widths. However, many vintage riding cultivators were built for 42”- 48” rows, which were common corn row widths in the early 1900s when most of these cultivators were built. The McCormick’s wheel base can be brought in to a 36” wheel base which allows for cultivating rows set as narrow as 32” without having the wheels cut into the crop rows to either side (initially we were using our McCormick with a 40” wheelbase but we found that for late season cultivation we were having some problems with riding over the outer leaves of leafy crops in adjacent rows, so this season we have brought the wheel base in to 36” to better match our 32” row spacing).
Our market garden setup — with only 4 acres total under cultivation and with our longest rows only about 220’ — is perhaps not ideally suited to the scale for which this tool was originally designed. Cultivating a ten acre field of a single field crop would be a very different experience for both teamster and horses than the typical contemporary horse-powered market garden, where the total acreage is often less than 10 acres and the cultivation requirements of various crops within a rotation seldom necessitate cultivating more than a few acres at one time. Even so, we found that this tool was very effective for cultivating our 1/4 acre sections, that it was more effective at weed eradication and saved us time in comparison to our use of the walking cultivator. We also found it advantageous for keeping the team well-occupied with regular work throughout the growing season.
Our garden is shaped more like a wedge than a rectangle with the result that the shortest rows are 120’. The riding cultivator can be practically utilized in rows as short as 50’ but this would effectively mean that your combined turnaround space on the head-lands would nearly match the length of your rows. If the longest rows in your garden are 50’ the single horse walk behind cultivator might be the more practical choice of tool. Rows planted at 400’ seem closer to the ideal setup for the riding cultivator in regard to its use in the market garden. The horses can get into a good groove cultivating on the 400’ rows, but at the same time this row length is not so long that farmworkers are psychologically daunted when it comes time for hand weeding, hoeing, or harvesting (hand-weeding a 400’ long row of baby carrots is daunting enough!).
We are evolving a system of strategic use of the wheel hoe and walk-behind cultivator for preliminary cultivation of some crops. We are also figuring out how to adjust for very shallow early tillage by placing goosefoot sweeps with the inside wings cut off on the innermost shank position rather than straight shovels. This has allowed us to get in for a first cultivation right off the bat with the riding cultivator on many crops. The half-goosefoot sweeps can slice through the top couple of inches of soil close to the young crop without throwing too much dirt towards the crop and without worry of under-cutting the root system. The rest of the shanks are also set up with regular goosefoot shovels with a spring trip mechanism. We shifted to using the goosefeet over straight shovels because they tend to skim and undercut weeds in the top most layer of soil whereas as the straight shovels stir the soil a little more aggressively which can burn up more organic matter and potentially bring up more weed seeds. The spring trip attachments are a great feature to have in our stony soil as one often hears the trip mechanism snapping back without anything breaking as we hit yet another stone.
One success in early cultivation last season was in three rows of transplanted beets that did not have to be hand weeded or hoed because they put out enough leaf right away to shade weeds out in the row and the cultivator did the rest. The key to getting in early with the cultivator lies in adequate seed bed preparation. If the soil receiving seed or transplants is level, pulverized, and relatively free of crop residue, you will be more likely able to get in for a first cultivation with the riding cultivator. In a rougher seed bed, say in one that still has a lot of surface residue from a previously planted cover crop (and if the weather conditions favor a quick bloom of weeds) we may have to resort to the wheel hoe followed by the walk-behind cultivator for the first and second cultivations.
Based on innovations that we have seen on other farms, for this season we have fabricated an attachment that spans the gap between the two gangs to act as a central shank. We are planning to use a furrowing shovel (an attachment originally designed for a walk behind cultivator) on this central shank to open up a deep channel for planting potatoes. This furrowing attachment on the riding cultivator will replace the single horse walking plow to accomplish this task. Once the spuds are laid out in this deep furrow we will cover them over with a cultivator set up with disc hiller attachments.
This past season we found that potatoes hilled with the disc hiller attachments on the riding cultivator saved us hours of labor, with no hand hoeing required — which in our situation (of heavy weed pressure) is a big relief. For hilling potatoes, leeks, and sweet corn, we have a 2nd cultivator set up with the disc hillers. The potatoes are planted in rows 36” apart to accommodate our digger (which has a 36” wheel base). For this coming season we have this cultivator set up with a matching 36” wheel base and are setting the disc shanks on the gangs at 24” (any wider than this and they will scrape the wheels). On subsequent hillings where the discs are set wider we move them further back on the gang frames (behind the wheels) to avoid this problem.
How The Cultivator Is Used On Other Contemporary Horse-Powered Farms
The riding cultivator is an implement that wears many hats at Beech Grove Farm in Trout Run, Pa. It is used not only for its stated purpose of weed control and moisture retention, but also as a highly diversified tillage tool, bed former, row marker, ridge-tiller, furrow maker, and more. Eric Nordell estimates that more than 25 percent of the 400-plus teamster hours he logs with his horses each season are on the cultivator, but only a few of these hours are devoted to weed control.(2) To this end, the Nordells maintain a small fleet of four cultivators, each with a specific lineup of tools and tasks, so that valuable time is not spent at the height of the season switching out attachments.
One of the more remarkable features of the Nordell’s method is that almost all the implements they use are vintage horse-drawn pieces of equipment that they have figured out how to adapt to new uses. For instance, they have converted cultivators into rotary hoes for close up cultivation of seedlings and new transplants. These rotary hoe attachments stir and aerate the soil very close to the young plants, allowing for better moisture retention and infiltration but without disturbing the root systems. Another cultivator is set up with disc hillers and a mini-cultipacker for creating ridges (pre-seeded with cover crops for a no-till application). More recent innovations on the farm have found them experimenting with no-till and ridge-till variations that use these cultivator innovations to take advantage of the mulch residue of cover crops.(3)
At Natural Roots Farm in Conway, Mass. David Fisher uses a cultivator with a 32” wheel base outfitted with a central shank (which serves as a leader for all the shanks set up in a “Flying V” formation) and a trailing board for smoothing the soil in order to form raised beds. These beds are created for the purpose of marking out rows and for creating the ideal conditions for early cultivation of emergent crops (a smooth level bed). A central shank furrowing attachment is also employed for creating a deep planting furrow for potatoes and for larger transplants such as tomatoes.
At Orchard Hill Farm in St.Thomas, Ontario, along with using a central shank for the purposes stated above, Ken and Martha Laing set up a cultivator with outward facing disc hillers on the rearmost portion of the gangs in order to prepare beds that can then be easily covered with Ag plastic. Once the beds are formed the plastic is rolled out and the loosened dirt shovels easily to tuck in the edge. They also employ split rolling shields (available from I & J mfg.) that allow for very early close up cultivation of seedlings or new transplants. These split shields are a great improvement over the original sheet iron stationary shields because with their mini-Lilliston-weeder-like edges they do far less damage should the operator inadvertently steer into the crop. Stephen Decater at Live Power Community Farm in Covelo, Ca. attains a similar effect by using disc hillers for early cultivation. The discs are set in straight rather than angled and are placed on the innermost brackets with the discs facing outward.
The farmers at Orchard Hill and also at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Oasis in Dorena, Oregon have come up with the idea of mounting a Lely Weeder onto a cultivator frame for an effective means of pre-emergent blind cultivation of crops such as potatoes and for very shallow early cultivation of transplanted crops like onions.
Options for Multiple Row Cultivation
For larger-scale farming, two- and three-row cultivators designed to be pulled by a three or four-abreast hitch of horses are available in currently manufactured models. The new models of riding cultivators can be modified to a wide team hitch that can straddle beds of Ag plastic or BioTelo (made from biodegradable corn polymer) to cultivate the row paths in between the plastic mulch. There are also at least two manufacturers that make four-row cultivators for use with horses; I&J Manufacturing in Gap, Pa., and Miller’s Repair Shop in LaGrange, Ind. However, there are no contemporary manufacturers of straddle row cultivators that replicate the vintage cultivator design with foot pedal steering and round shank attachments held on to the gangs by shank clamps with set screws. The new Homesteader multi-tool carrier from Pioneer Equipment is patterned after the old McCormick riding cultivator in terms of its frame design and pedal steering, but this machine has its own unique quick-release mechanism for carrying a variety of tillage tools including a cultivating attachment.
An alternative strategy to the riding cultivator is to have a forecart outfitted with a three-point hitch adapter that can carry a tool bar. There are many types of three-point-hitch mounted tool bars manufactured for cultivating with a tractor that can be adapted to draft horse power. The benefit of the horse drawn cultivator over a rear-mounted set-up is in the handling and precision; the tool is in front of you and it has an easy steering mechanism. The riding cultivator also has greater clearance and it is lighter and more evenly balanced than a forecart/ toolbar setup, plus it has the adjustable wheel base to custom fit to your garden design.(4)
In this article we have seen how some of the best early-20th-century technology and design was wedded to an ingenious non-motorized machine. The invention of the riding cultivator made raising produce with draft horse power a highly effective and economically viable pursuit. In the first two decades of the 20th century even farms that had gone over to tractors still retained a team or two for row crop cultivation. Then around 1914 Farmall developed the first prototype for a lightweight row cultivating tractor. By the early 1920’s the Farmall system became widely adopted and the last niche for the workhorse was inevitably superseded by the relentless mechanical efficiency of fossil-fuel-powered machinery.
Even as the development of tractors and mechanized farm implements that ran on cheap and abundant fossil fuel signaled the eclipse of the draft horse epoch, we now find ourselves situated in the early part of this new century facing mounting evidence that the age of fossil-fuel powered machines is rapidly coming to a close. At the time that tractors were first manufactured in this country crude oil was literally bubbling up out of the ground in places like Texas and Oklahoma. It was during the second Nixon administration that American domestic oil production officially hit its peak and began to decline. Even so, in that era it was inconceivable that humans would ever become so oil-starved as to expend energy to extract oil out of tar sand, but now our insatiable thirst for oil has driven the Canadian government to declare regions of its pristine taiga as “national sacrifice zones” and for the American citizenry to acquiesce to having this highly corrosive form of crude shipped south through thousands of miles of pipeline. Even worse, much of our most productive farm land is being poisoned by the shale oil “Fracking” industry. We all must now daily face the future shock and consequences of the ways in which carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are changing our climate. Endless warfare has become an accepted fact of the human condition as world powers vie to control the last oil-producing regions.
Given these realities, we take very seriously the responsibility to farm with as low an impact on the environment as possible. Every time we use our horses to accomplish a task that we used to do with a tractor, we are one step closer to a more just, peaceful, and sustainable future for humanity. Our small farm may seem insignificant in the broad scheme of things, but the power of many small farmers making similar choices should not be underestimated. The ingenuity, functionality, and elegance of the McCormick-Deering horse-drawn riding cultivator is a monument and signpost pointing to the best of what the human spirit can achieve when we choose to work with rather than in opposition to the forces that govern the natural world.
1. We were lucky to find two McCormick cultivators locally that were in reasonably good condition. These implements often appear at auctions for draft horse equipment. In addition, Crossroads Cultivators is a resource for rebuilt McCormick cultivators and parts. Contact: Crossroads Cultivators, Jonathan L. Beiler 1697 Furnace Road, Brogue, PA 17309 (717)-927-1697 (see ad in SFJ).
2. For a complete study comparing workhorse and teamster hours on four contemporary horse-powered produce farms see the Cultivating Questions article in the Summer 2012 edition of SFJ.
4. The original Operator’s manual for the New 4 McCormick-Deering Cultivator is available from the Farm Equipment Manual Reprints service offered in the back pages of SFJ.