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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

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

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The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 4

Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.

Birth of a Farm

Birth of a Farm

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“Isn’t it nice?” I offer to my supper companions, “to see our beautiful horses right while we’re eating? I feel like I’m on a Kentucky horse farm, with rolling bluegrass vistas.” I sweep my arm dramatically towards the view, the rigged up electric fence, the lawn straggling down to the pond, the three horses, one of whom is relieving herself at the moment. “Oh, huh,” he answers. “I was thinking it was more like a cheesy bed and breakfast.”

Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden

Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have … “At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked…

TMAHK Tripod Haymaking

The Milk and Human Kindness: What I’ve Learned of Tri-Pod Haymaking

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I have no doubt that when the time comes we are going to need to know how to make hay this way, whether it be this Proctor Tripod method, or the French rack method illustrated in André Voisin’s great book “Grass Productivity” or the Scandinavian “Swedish Rider” method of tightly strung wire “fences” for hay to dry on. Each method has its pros and cons, and it’s my belief that the “Swedish Riders” is the easiest to learn and the Proctor Method may be the most difficult.

Congo Farm Project

Congo Farm Project

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I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.

English Sheaf Knots

English Sheaf Knots

Long ago when grain was handled mostly by hand, the crop was cut slightly green so seed did not shatter or shake loose too easily. That crop was then gathered into ‘bundles’ or ‘sheafs’ and tied sometimes using a handful of the same grain for the cording. These sheafs were then gathered together, heads up, and leaned upon one another to form drying shocks inviting warm breezes to pass through. In old England, the field workers took great pride in their work and distinctive sheaf knots were designed and employed.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 5

You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

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Our farm, here in the center of New York State, consists of 101 acres, about 90 in grass, the rest some woods and swamp. It is inhabited by forty-six jersey cows, twelve breeding ace heifers, one bull, and because it is calving season — an increasing number of calves. Also, four Belgian mares and a couple of buggy horses. Last, and possibly least — the farmer, farmer’s wife, and five grown children.

Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

The Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

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In the winter of 2011, Daniel mentioned a fourteen-year-old student of his who had spent a whole month eating only foods gathered from the wild. “Could we go for two days on the hand-harvested food we have here?’ he asked. “Let’s give it a try!” I responded with my usual enthusiasm. We assembled the ingredients on the table. Everything on that table had passed through our hands. We knew all the costs and calories associated with it. No hidden injustice, no questionable pesticides. We felt joy at living in such an edible world.

LittleField Notes Farm Log

LittleField Notes: Farm Log

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My starting every column with a discussion of the weather set me to thinking about that old clichéd idea of talking about the weather; how it is all old men talk about downtown at the local coffee shop; how they sit for hours telling endless lies about how the snow was deeper, the nights colder and the hills steeper when they were young. However, clichés have basis in truth, and it is true that weather is a wonderful conversation opener.

Cultivating Questions: Alternative Tillage & Inter-Seeding Techniques

Our intention is not to advocate the oddball living mulches we use with this single row inter-seeding system, but just to show how it is possible to utilize the between-row areas to improve insect habitat, reduce erosion, conserve moisture, fix some nitrogen, and grow a good bit of extra organic matter. If nothing else, experimenting with these alternative practices continues to keep farming exciting as we begin our twentieth season of bio-extensive market gardening.

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

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Let’s assume the beginning ‘farmer’ has absolutely nothing. Nothing but a will to farm and a reasonably normal body. The very first thing you must do is search out a farmer, preferably a farmer who farms close to the way that you want to farm. You must watch him, ask questions, do as you are told and learn everything you can. Very shortly you will be on your own and you will find that the more you learn now, the better you will be when you have only yourself to rely on.

LittleField Notes Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

LittleField Notes: Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

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To my great delight a sizable portion of the general eating public has over the past few years decided to begin to care a great deal about where their food comes from. This is good for small farmers. It bodes well for the future of the planet and leaves me hopeful. People seem to be taking Wendell Berry’s words to heart that “eating is an agricultural act;” that with every forkful we are participating in the act of farming.

Journal Guide