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Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2
Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Cultivator set up with disc hillers.

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


On our farm all the crops in our 4 acre market garden are planted and cultivated on the flat (no bed or ridge forming). This simplified approach allows us to cultivate crops with very few changes necessary to the set-up of attachments on the riding cultivator. This kind of streamlining is important because we are a diversified farm, managing intensively grazed dairy cows and extensive hay land, so the labor pool can sometimes get spread pretty thin. We have a second riding cultivator that is set-up for hilling corn, leeks, and potatoes. We commit a 1/4 acre section to potatoes each year (this year 18 rows in a plot measuring roughly 60’ x 180’). In the past we found that a potato section of this size can be very effectively hilled with a single-horse drawn hiller (variously known as a middle-buster or potato plow). More recently we shifted to using disc hiller attachments on the riding cultivator. The advantage with this set up is that the attachments can be set at successively wider spacing for a second and even third hilling. Our potatoes are planted on a 36” row spacing to accommodate our horse drawn potato digger. The cultivator that we use for hilling the potatoes is set up with a 48” wheel base which gives us an ample comfort zone to work in by allowing a 24” margin on either side of the row of potatoes upon which to set up the gangs of the cultivator with discs, shovels, and sweeps. At the end of Part One we had completed our first disc hilling with the riding cultivator. This was followed up by two more successive hillngs at 7-10 day intervals. For the 2nd and 3rd hilling we adjusted the shanks of the disc hiller attachments from the upfront and innermost position on the gangs to the further back middle position (from 24” to 32”) to accommodate the burgeoning foliage and to insure that the discs were not cutting into the root zone.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Disc hiller attachments in the potato patch at Orchard Hill Farm – photo courtesy of Ken Laing

A week or so after the final hilling a weed bloom sprouted in the trough between rows. We thought the riding cultivator might be too aggressive and undo the sides of the hills, so we went through the patch with the single horse walk behind cultivator set to its narrowest width (about 15”). This tool did a good job of cultivating the trough without disturbing the hills or “pruning” the root zone of the spuds. At this point we had done all we could to create optimal growing conditions for the potatoes. Now it was up to the vicissitudes of weather to determine the success of our harvest.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Ann Siri’s “All-In-One” tool used to hill potatoes – photo courtesy of Walt Bernard


It is pretty remarkable to consider that even as nutritionally concentrated a food staple as the potato is it is about 90% water. Typical of most vegetable crops, potatoes require about 1” of rain (or supplemental irrigation) per week to maintain optimal growth. Ideally this water will be applied incrementally rather than in one (potentially soil eroding) blast as in a 1” per hour thunder shower. With our limited irrigation capacity we struggle to keep our market garden adequately watered in a dry year. Such was the case this season, by mid-July we were in the throes of a mini-drought with prospects for a good 2nd cutting of hay beginning to appear dim, pastures looking scorched, and vegetable crops limping along with just barely enough soil moisture (except for our 1/2 acre of cucurbits and night-shades on plastic with drip who were loving all the heat and sunshine).

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Cultivater setup with Lely weeder for blind cultivation – photo courtesy of Walt Bernard

Within the growth cycle of the potato the most critical point for insuring adequate watering is shortly after the plants flower because it is at this junction that they begin to put their energy into tuber development. This season we got lucky to catch just enough intermittent thunder showers to augment our overhead irrigation and deliver sufficient water to the spuds (unlike so many farmers who suffered under intense drought conditions). In other dry years we have brought in drip irrigation after the final cultivation. We do not have a line for every row, but instead manually lift the lines over one row to the next. The biggest factor affecting potato yields this year was higher than “normal” temperatures from the very start of the season and continuing on through the summer.

Potato Digger

An old tool that is still commonly used for digging potatoes on many contemporary small horse powered farms is a middle buster designed to be pulled by a team. Many farm museums have fine examples of such tools for digging spuds in which the double-sided share rides behind a set of depth gauge wheels and is trailed by long tines for catching the lifted spuds and depositing them on the surface free of dirt. These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers. As discussed in Part One, besides the walk-behind version, the middle buster attachment is often seen nowadays on a tool-carrier cart designed to be pulled by two horses and to straddle the row. 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

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

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Timing the Bounce

Timing the Bounce: Resilient Agriculture Meets Climate Change

from issue:

In her new book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, Laura Lengnick assumes a dispassionate, businesslike tone and sets about exploring the farming strategies of twenty-seven award-winning farmers in six regions of the continental United States. Her approach gets well past denial and business-as-usual, to see what can be done, which strategies are being tried, and how well they are working.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wheel Hoe

The Wheel Hoe: A Tool For Shallow Tillage

When we bought this little farm I soon realized I needed a wheel hoe. The size of the horse and tractor dictated space wasting wide rows in crop production and, to some degree, so does my two wheeled tractor.

Work Horse Handbook

Work Horse Handbook

Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.


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.

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?

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 3

What goes with the sale? What does not? Do not assume the irrigation pipe and portable hen houses are selling. Find out if they go with the deal, and in writing.

An Introduction To Farm Woodlands

The farm woodland is that portion of the farm which either never was cleared for tillage or pasture, or was later given back to woods growth. Thus it occupies land that never was considered suitable, or later proved unsuitable, for farm enterprises.

Storey's Guide to Keeping Honey Bees

Storey’s Guide To Keeping Honey Bees

It is well known that the value of pollination and its resultant seed set and fruit formation outweigh any provided by honey bee products like honey and beeswax.

Woodstove Cookery at Home on the Range

An Illustrated Guide To The Wood Fired Cookstove

Illustrated guide to the wood stove and it’s accoutrements.


Driving Fence Posts By Hand

Where the soil is soft, loose, and free from stone, posts may be driven more easily and firmly than if set in holes dug for the purpose.

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

Art of Working Horses – A Review

from issue:

Over 40 years Lynn Miller has written a whole library of valuable and indispensable books about the craft of working horses. He has helped beginners acquire the basics of harnessing and working around horses, and has led those further along to focus on the specific demands of plowing, mowing, haying and related subjects. But, in a fitting culmination, his latest book, The Art of Working Horses, raises its sights and openly ponders secrets at the heart of the work that may over time elevate it to an art.

Journal Guide