Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

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

PART ONE

Introduction

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses. The first year that we graduated from being apprentices to managing our own market garden we employed two Haflinger horses to the best of our greenhorn ability. On a 1/2 acre plot of potatoes the Haflingers helped to prepare the ground for planting by pulling a spike tooth harrow, and later they each took turns pulling a single horse drawn middle buster-type implement to hill the crop. This relative early success utilizing horse power inspired us on a quest to achieve 100% horse and human power to manage our market garden. This proved to be a long road with many exhilarating leaps forward and some daunting set-backs. The evolution of our potato growing method (still a work in progress) is a case in point.

The potato is a preeminent member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae). The only edible portion of the plant is the starchy, nutritious tuber. The potato was first cultivated in the Andes region some 7,000-10,000 years ago where it became a staple food of the Incan Empire. It is now an essential staple food across the Americas, Europe, and increasingly in Asia, with nearly 1/3 of the world’s annual crop being grown in China and India. The leaves, shoots, flowers, and berries of the potato plant contain noxious alkaloids that can cause severe poisoning and even death when consumed in sufficient quantities—but as long as the tubers are not exposed to direct sunlight (greening) they contain insignificant amounts of these toxins. In the Andes hundreds of regional varieties were developed. When the potato was brought to Europe a relatively limited number of cultivars were introduced. The potato quickly became an important crop and was partially responsible for the accelerated population boom that occurred in Europe between 1700-1900 (although it may not be ideal, a combined diet of potatoes and cow’s milk contains enough protein, starches, vitamins and minerals to sustain a healthy human). However, the limited number of varieties initially introduced left the crop vulnerable to disease, particularly fungi such as the late blight that was the ostensible cause of the horrific famine years in Ireland beginning with a near complete crop failure in 1845.(1)

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Single horse plow (original oak beam was replaced with tubular steel)

Planting Potatoes with a Single Horse Plow

Most, if not all, commercial growers buy in seed potatoes to grow their crop. Seed potatoes have been cultured to insure your crop will be disease free (and more resistant to disease) at the outset. In other parts of the world farmers still save their own seed potatoes, with the advantage of developing regionally adapted varieties. Home gardeners and some commercial growers cut their seeds into pieces (with two or three “eyes”—sprouts—per piece) and cure them spread on tarps or a barn floor for 24 hours prior to planting. We have found it economical and time-efficient to plant uncut potatoes. We feel the plants get off to a better start with the extra energy boost of a whole seed. Within our annual garden rotation potatoes follow onions. The onions are usually harvested by mid-late August which gives us plenty of time to establish a catch crop of oats or rye in what will become the potato ground. In the spring we will give this ground a moderately deep plowing to make the soil friable for spuds and then after discing we spread it with finished compost at a rate of about 9-10 tons/acre (in actuality for this season the field was spread at this rate in both the fall and the spring for a total of 18-20 tons/acre—we applied at this rate because we had so much rain—9” from Hurricane Irene in a 24 hour period on August 29th, followed by a very wet fall—that we were concerned about excessive nutrient leaching in our highly porous soils). Next, the field was disced again, harrowed with a spring tooth, and smoothed with a flex harrow.

For moderately deep plowing we hitch the Fjords to a 14” Pioneer walking plow. For the discing we use a 6’ single action disc pulled behind a forecart, and for harrowing we also pull a single 3’ spring tooth section and a 5’ flex harrow behind the cart. For delivering the compost we are using a John Deere “H” series single axle spreader (again, hitched to the forecart) which has an approximate 60 bushel capacity.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Basic forecart pulling spring-tooth harrow.

At this point the plot is ready to be marked out with rows. Although in general our row crops are planted at 32” we plant the potatoes on 36” to account for the wheel base of our digger. The basic recommendation for spacing for potatoes is 18” between rows and 18” between plants in the row. On 36” row spacing we reduce the space between plants in row to one foot. We used to mark out the rows by hand—using a Gallagher reel and polywire to create a guide for a first straight row followed by a human pulled three-tined marker to trace out the rows. This method insured uniform rows but was quite human labor-intensive, taking one person at least one hour to accomplish. This year we came up with a system for marking out the rows with the horses by using a tool bar mounted on a manual three-point hitch adapter on the forecart. The tool bar is set up with two shanks as markers and a third “boom arm” out to the side of the near-horse in order to trace a mark for the off-horse to follow for marking out successive rows. With this method the rows in a 1/4 acre section can be marked out with the team in about 1/2 hour. Often times in the spring during the big push to get the crops seeded or transplanted it is practical to mark out two or more sections at once, greatly enhancing the efficiency of the horse drawn marker.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Disc hiller attachments at work in potato patch at Orchard Hill Farm, photo courtesy Ken Laing

Once the rows are marked the next step is to create planting furrows. About eighteen years ago we acquired a vintage single horse plow with a 10” bottom that was just the right size for our smaller draft horses. It is stamped as a Hillsdale no. 19 from a foundry that once existed in Columbia County, New York. For plowing smaller acreage the single horse drawn plow still presents a viable option. The single plow can also find utility on the farm for working up ground in tight spaces such as inside a hoophouse, or close to its outside walls, and alongside fence lines, perennial plantings, etc. A heavy draft horse can pull a 12” bottom plow and handle the work of a small to mid-size market garden (1-5 acres). The majority of plows specifically designed for the single horse are in the 8”-10” bottom range. The beam of the plow is centered slightly more over the share than in a team plow (on many single plows this is an adjustable factor that will affect furrow width). The single horse will walk on the unplowed ground directly ahead of the plow. Our oldest mare works on both the single horse and team walking plow. There is a bit of irony involved in training a horse that is used to walking in the furrow to step out and walk ahead of the plow, but a good work horse will have the mental agility to deal with the switch. I always keep in the back of my mind that if one of our horses should be temporarily side-lined with lameness or illness, I could still get out and do some plowing with this single horse plow, rather than having to resort to the tractor.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

SmallFarmersJournal.com 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: Livestock

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.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows

Big Logs at Tarn Hows

by:
from issue:

Simon and his elder sons Simon, Keith, and Ian, with their Belgian Ardennes horses, work good timber in bad places. The felling and extraction operation at the Lake District beauty spot of Tarn Hows was done in often appalling weather, and in the full glare of publicity. It must rank as one of the most spectacular pieces of horse logging, or indeed of commercial horse work done in these islands in recent years.

Oxen Experiences

Oxen Experiences

by:
from issue:

Some things I have learned about working with oxen as with any other living thing is to treat them with some respect. Especially hump-backed cattle which I prefer. Be firm and gentle, but consistent, realizing you could be seriously injured if they chose. Be patient while teaching them what you want them to do, and then insisting every time that they do what you want them to do every time.

Interpreting Your Horse's Body Language

Interpreting Your Horse’s Body Language

by:
from issue:

The person who works closely with horses usually develops an intuitive feel for their well-being, and is able to sense when one of them is sick, by picking up the subtle clues from the horse’s body language. A good rider can tell when his mount is having an off day, just by small differences in how the horse travels or carries himself, or responds to things happening around him. And when at rest, in stall or pasture, the horse can also give you clues as to his mental and physical state.

Horseshoeing Part 1B

Horseshoeing Part 1B

Since the horse is useful to man only by reason of his movements, his foot deserves the most careful attention. The horse-shoer should be familiar with all its parts. Fig. 3 shows the osseous framework of the foot, consisting of the lower end of the cannon bone, the long pastern, the two sesamoid bones, the short pastern, and the pedal bone.

Work Bridle Styles

Work Bridle Styles

Here are fourteen work bridle styles taken from a 1920’s era harness catalog. Regional variants came with different names and configurations, so much so that we have elected to identify these images by letter instead of name so you may reference these pictures directly when ordering harness or talking about repairs or fit concerns with trainers or harness makers. In one region some were know as pigeon wing and others referred to them as batwing or mule bridles.

Horseshoeing Part 1C

Horseshoeing Part 1C

The horn capsule or hoof is nothing more than a very thick epidermis that protects the horse’s foot, just as a well fitting shoe protects the human foot. The hoof of a sound foot is so firmly united with the underlying pododerm that only an extraordinary force can separate them. The hoof is divided into three principal parts, which are solidly united in the healthy foot – namely, the wall, the sole, and the frog.

Haying With Horses

Haying With Horses

If the reader is considering the construction of a barn we encourage you to give more than passing thought to allowing the structure of the gable to be open enough to accommodate the hanging of a trolley track. It is difficult or impossible to retrofit a truss-built barn, which may have many supports crisscrossing the inside gable, to receive hay jags. At least allowing for the option in a new construction design will leave the option for loose hay systems in the future.

Haying With Horses

Hitching Horses To A Mower

When hitching to the mower, first make sure it’s on level ground and out of gear. The cutter bar should be fastened up in the vertical or carrier position. This is for safety of all people in attendance during hitching.

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Cheese

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Cheese

by:
from issue:

Yogurt making is the perfect introduction into the world of cultured dairy products and cheese-making. You are handling milk properly, becoming proficient at sanitizing pots and utensils, and learning the principles of culturing milk. Doing these things regularly, perfecting your methods, sets you up for cheese-making very well. Cheese-making involves the addition of a few more steps beyond the culturing.

Expanding the Use of the Heavy Draught Horse in Europe

Expanding the Use of the Heavy Draught Horse in Europe

“La Route du Poisson”, or “The Fish Run,” is a 24 hour long relay which starts from Boulogne on the coast at 9 am on Saturday and runs through the night to the outskirts of Paris with relays of heavy horse pairs until 9 am Sunday with associated events on the way. The relay “baton” is an approved cross country competition vehicle carrying a set amount of fresh fish.

Black Pigs and Speckled Beans

Black Pigs & Speckled Beans

by:
from issue:

As country pigs go the Large Blacks are superb. They are true grazing pigs, thriving on grass and respectful of fences. Protected from sunburn by their dark skin and hair they are tolerant of heat and cold and do well even in rugged conditions. Having retained valuable instincts, the sows are naturally careful, dedicated, and able mothers. The boars I’ve seen are friendly and docile.

Boer Goats

Boer Goats

by:
from issue:

The introduction of the Boer Goat has stirred up a lot of interest in all sectors of agriculture. The demand for goat meat exceeds the supply; goat meat is the most consumed meat in the world. One of the main points about South African Boer Goats is that out of all meat goat breeds the Boer is the top meat producer whereas in the cattle business you have over 100 breeds of beef cattle that all compete for the beef dollar.

New York Horsefarmer Ed Button and his Belgians

New York Horsefarmer: Ed Button and his Belgians

In New York State one does not explore the world of draft horses long before the name of Ed Button is invariably and most respectfully mentioned. Ed’s name can be heard in the conversations of nearly everyone concerned with heavy horses from the most experienced teamsters to the most novice horse hobbyists. His career with Belgians includes a vast catalog of activities: showing, pulling, training, farming, breeding, and driving, which Ed says, “I’ve been doing since I was old enough to hold the lines.”

On The Anatomy of Thrift Fat & Slat

On the Anatomy of Thrift Part 3: Fat & Salt

On the Anatomy of Thrift is an instructional series Farmrun created with Farmstead Meatsmith. Their principal intention is instruction in the matters of traditional pork processing. In a broader and more honest context, OAT is a deeply philosophical manifesto on the subject of eating animals. Fat & Salt is the third and final video in the series. It is the conceptual conclusion to the illustrated, narrated story that weaves throughout the entire series, and deals instructionally in the matters of preserving pork.

The Mule Part 1

The Mule – Part 1

by:
from issue:

There is no more useful or willing animal than the Mule. And perhaps there is no other animal so much abused, or so little cared for. Popular opinion of his nature has not been favorable; and he has had to plod and work through life against the prejudices of the ignorant. Still, he has been the great friend of man, in war and in peace serving him well and faithfully. If he could tell man what he most needed it would be kind treatment.

Fjordworks Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 3

By waking up so fully to the tasks at hand we are empowered to be more present, more available, and thus able to offer a compassionate and skillful response to the needs of our horses even as we ask them to accomplish heavy work on the farm. It is not up to the horses to trust us; it is up to us to prove ourselves worthy of their trust. What the horses can offer to us are new avenues to freedom and resilience, sustainability and hope.

Harnessing the Future

Harnessing the Future

by:
from issue:

En route to a remote pasture where the Belgian draft horses, Prince and Tom, are grazing, we survey the vast green landscape, a fine mist hovering in distant low lying areas. We are enveloped in a profusion of sweet, earthy balance. Interns and other workers start their chores; one pauses to check his smart phone. Scattered about are many animal-powered rustic implements. This rich and agriculturally diverse, peaceful place is steeped in contrasts: modern and ancient.

Journal Guide