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).