Fjordworks: Plowing the Market Garden
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 Art and Science of the Moldboard Plow
PART THREE: Reports from the Field
In this series of articles we are taking a look at how contemporary horse-powered farmers are making use of the moldboard plow, with an emphasis on the use of the moldboard as primary tillage in the market garden. In this installment we will hear “Reports from the Field” from two small farmers who favor the walking plow and a report from one farmer who farms tens of acres of forage crops and is decidedly in favor of the sulky. But first, we’ll dig into the SFJ archives to get a little perspective on the evolution of the manufacture of the walking plow from the late 19th century to the present.
One of the most striking features of the new walk-behind plows manufactured by companies such as I&J Mfg. and Pioneer Equipment is the straight beams on their plows. These straight beams stand in sharp contrast to the elegantly curved “gooseneck” beams that adorn most vintage plows manufactured in the (1st) golden age of draft horse farming. In this next section we hear from a person who brings both a historical perspective and an engineer’s working-knowledge to the subject of how and with what materials the vintage and contemporary horse drawn plows were and are manufactured. Mr. McKinster reflections were originally published in the Letter’s section of the Summer 2010 edition of the Small Farmer’s Journal (edited here for brevity). When I first read his letter to the editor I gladly stood corrected – sometimes eating “humble pie” is easy – when it means learning new and exciting information about a subject that is dear to us. There is a prevalent “myth” that keeps circulating which holds that the quality of modern steel is inferior when compared to that which was produced at the height of the Industrial Revolution. I know this firsthand, because it was told to me enough times by people who I assumed knew it to be true, that I went ahead and repeated it in an article I wrote on how we plow at our farm (SFJ Winter 2010). Now let us set the record straight.
Report from the Field: Quality of Steel
by Scott McKinster, Salol, MN
I read an article on plowing in the Small Farmer’s Journal by Stephen Leslie. In discussing the differences in design of older plows, with their beautiful goosenecks, as compared to the newer plows built up from tubing and plate he writes; “An Amish farmer once told me that the reason that gooseneck (walking plow) beams are no longer produced is because of the quality of steel now available is so degraded that it can no longer support the form of the old designs.” In truth the quality of the steel available today is far superior to that available in the past and has nothing to do with the change in design.
I’m a Mechanical Engineer and my wife is a Metallurgical Engineer, both of us with many years of experience in our fields. I believe this gives me a good understanding of the reasons for the different designs. Fundamentally the difference in the designs of old and new plows is a matter of production volume. Those beautiful goosenecks are forged. But while forging makes a great part, to do it requires a forging press, and to make a part as large as the gooseneck takes a really big press – perhaps 25 feet tall, with a foot print of 15 by 20 feet. These presses are very expensive as are the dies to make specific parts. When a manufacturer was turning out tens of thousands of these parts it made sense to forge them; but, today, with the total annual production of animal pulled plows in the hundreds or low thousands the price of a forged part is simply too high. It could be done of course, but the final product might cost $10,000.
Modern designs also take advantage of factors not available to the designers of the older equipment. These include a large selection of steel bar stock in an array of sizes, and vastly superior welding technology.
Bar stock can be had in an amazing array of sizes and shapes from I-beams, and pipe, to square and rectangular tubing, to T and Z beams, channels, and the list goes on. This bar stock is available in bulk at very low prices, and it’s fairly easy to cut, drill, and combine to make the desired product.
And finally this bar stock is easy to weld so the desired product can be built up from several pieces of bar stock. In the old designs you will see very few welds because the welding technology of the day was basically gas torch, which is very inefficient in a production environment, and let’s remember that this equipment was not made by your local blacksmith but by very large companies who were looking to make money. The older steels also tended to be high in carbon. Such steels, when welded, tend to become brittle, which is why it’s generally a bad idea to weld forgings unless you have the knowledge and the correct welding rods to do so. Modern steels on the other hand have very tightly controlled compositions and weld very well although you often need a specific welding rod to do it correctly. Still, most bar stock used in the current production of farm equipment is 1008, 1010, or 1020 steel that readily welds.
Poor quality steel does exist and does show up and become a problem. This is especially a problem in the area of bolts where counterfeit parts, for example those marked as grade 8, but really are grade 5, are a major problem for many industries. But to explain changes in design over the years as attributable to the “degraded” quality of modern steels is simply foolish.
In our next report modern horse farmer, Dris Abraham, tells us his preferences for harnessing and hitching horses to the plow the extensive acreage of his Belgian breeding farm and for managing The Farm at Prophet’s Town.
Report from the Field: We Plow with the Sulky
by Dris Abraham, Chief Operating Officer at The Farm at Prophet’s Town and owner of RX Acres Belgians, Battleground, Indiana
I have used about every plow over the years until the foot-lift plow from Pioneer Equipment came out. We plow with a 12 inch Oliver bottom using a rock tip with a coulter. When we plow we use two-abreast no matter what type of soil/field/cover crop we encounter. Proper alignment and adjustment and proper points for soil conditions are a must. The number one reason for failure or for suffering through plowing is something out of adjustment and alignment with the hitch, the evener, or the neck yoke, or wrong placement of the breast strap or other harness components. Another cause for failure is poorly conditioned horses. Having a great furrow horse is an essential key to success.
For farming I do not like the walking plow at all. I guess garden work would be a different story. We plow with the sulky around the field and never take the plow out of the ground. We have no compaction on the headlands and frankly, if you have to walk round to the next furrow why not plow it instead? We plow at about 8 inches to cover trash/cover crop and have no hard pan issues plowing with horses. We are constantly looking for the most efficient use of horse time in the field. A two horse team can easily do 2 acres a day. We rest every round. My first horse job was logging for Alvin S. Miller in Charm, Ohio, he taught me the more you rest the team the longer and more productive they will be. The foot-lift plow is one of the greatest items to come along and truly makes horse farming safe and productive. I have trained over 1500 people to plow and can say with complete faith I do not know why anyone uses old unsafe metal-fatigued plows. Safety and productivity is worth way more than any cost to this outfit.
In this next section veteran horse-powered market gardener, Paul Hauser, presents us with an illuminating tale of his quest to train a young horse to walk in the furrow. Of the many very interesting points Paul raises, a couple stand out for me. First, Paul found unworkable the model of walking plow that has served as our mainstay for years here at Cedar Mountain Farm. How to explain this? Well, in the first instance, I think it demonstrates very clearly how important soil type is in regards to which tools will be serviceable on any particular farm. If we had landed on a place with heavy clay, most likely our team of Fjords would have balked at trying to pull our Pioneer walking plow with a 14” bottom. Too, in our stony soil, the weight of the plow that Paul found frustrating, serves to keep the plow steady and on track. Also, prior to buying this plow, I had limited experience of other plows and older models, so I was not put off by the weight of our new one – though I did quickly figure out how to gauge my turns on the headlands so that the horses would stop the plow where I would hardly have to move it to get started cutting the next furrow. Through twelve seasons of working with this plow I have also figured out where its center of gravity lies, so despite the weight, I can locate its tipping point and move it around pretty easily.
In regards to training young horses and avoiding runaways, Paul’s story underlines the fact that, no matter how many horses we have started in the past, each one is different, and we have to expect the unexpected. And sometimes, even for the most experienced, skilled, and customarily cautious teamsters – everything goes south – and then you just do your level best to contain the damage and immediately start rebuilding. For most of us, it is easy to share our success stories. In my estimation it takes a particular courage and humility to relate the stories about when things go wrong.
Report from the Field: Plowman’s Progress
by Paul Hauser, Maple Hill Farm, Lincoln University, PA
Last year, inspired by a report I had read about the Pioneer walking plow, I decided to try out some different plows. It all started when I purchased an unbroken 3½ year old colt in February. I planned to break him in on the right side of the tongue. I also wanted to get him started on the plow. I think plowing is a great place for a young horse. It teaches him to work slow and steady. You can stop frequently to let him catch his wind – which teaches him to stand patiently in the field.
So off to plow we go; starting on my right-handed Pioneer sulky plow. Since I wanted to make the colt into a furrow horse, placing him on the right side of a right-handed sulky was ideal. But I also wanted him to progress into work on the walking plow. On a sulky plow you have more constant contact on the bit, while on the walking plow there is less tension. As your hands are on the handles, you have to depend on that furrow horse to walk straight and keep a steady pace. My walking plow is a left-handed Syracuse model. I did not want to confuse this young horse by shifting him in and out of the furrow. He needed to learn to walk in that furrow – straight ahead all the time. Why did I want him to progress to the walking plow? Well, I use a walking cultivator a lot – obviously for that task it is absolutely essential that the horse learns to walk slow and straight – and there is no better way to teach him than on the walking plow. We use the walking cultivator more than our riding one. With all that in mind, I set out to buy a right-handed walking plow.
Inspired by a picture I saw of Stephen Leslie with his Fjords in the Small Farmer’s Journal using a Pioneer walking plow, I thought that might be a good model to start with. Sure enough, soon after I saw a 12” right-handed Pioneer walking plow advertised at a local farm sale. You never see these for sale in this area. I bought it for $130.00 – what a mistake! As much as I like the Pioneer sulky plow – I thought this walking plow was just plain unworkable. It was so heavy that I had a difficult time setting it up at the start of every row – and if I had to slide it one way or the other – well, forget it! I’m not that old or weak but I have no idea how a person of smaller stature could handle it. Additionally, it pulled hard – much harder than the riding model – the horses just struggled with it. I am amazed that Stephen’s Fjords handle it so easily and that he likes this particular tool.
We parked that plow and continued looking. In April we purchased a Wiard 526 at a farm sale for $15.00. Once again, this was a right-handed plow. Of all the walking plows that exist, Wiard is the only one that has some value and is still used, albeit rarely, and only by a few plain groups. The Wiard 104 is the 12” model. The Wiard 106 is 14” and was made for three horses. I don’t know if the 526 is an older or newer version than these others – it appears almost identical.
Anyway, by the time I got this plow ready to use our plowing for the season was nearly done. I did a ½ acre on it with my young horse and I felt so-so about the performance of the plow. It was much better than the Pioneer but I found it a little hard to guide in the furrow.
So now we jump forward to the approach of winter and it is time to start plowing again. Since these other plows did not match up to my left-handed Syracuse, I decided to revisit that plow. One of the problems with an older walking plow is that the handles are too low for me. I’m over 6’ tall and I find I get a sore back from bending over using a plow with handles set low. So my first step was to find a way to raise the handles. After fooling with it some, I came up with a way to raise them quite a bit, so that I could now stand up straight and the handles were above my waist even when the share was set in the ground.
After that, we started in on our fall plowing. It is called “fall plowing” until there is frost in the ground – once the frost breaks, it becomes “spring plowing”. I began by plowing with the Pioneer sulky. I plowed for two afternoons with that plow. The following week we transitioned over to the left-handed Syracuse walking plow, but this time we switched the youngest horse over to the lead-side so that he would walk in the furrow (his teammate was also a relatively young 6 year old). Everything was going so well – we now had the handles at the proper height – and the young gelding had no problem switching to the left and he never stepped out of the furrow. All continued to go well until the 2nd day of using this walking plow. We had been out in the field for about 1½ hours with everything going just smoothly. I had fairly loose contact with the horses since I was experiencing no trouble from them. We were about 15’ from the end of the row when all of a sudden the young horse really picked up his speed. Before I ever had a chance to pull him back he got into “I’m ready to go!” mode. Then a rabbit ran out in front of us and he took off. If I have horses that want to go – or are going – I try to turn them in a circle until I can regain control of them. Unfortunately in this instance, I just could not hold them and they were off and running.
They finally came to a stop when one got caught on a fence post. The good surprise was that we had no broken harness, no broken bones, and no broken plow parts. I believe the worst thing you can do in this kind of situation is to put the horse back in the barn. If you do, you are just reinforcing the idea in the horse’s mind that running is an acceptable behavior. So I hitched him to a post – kept his head up – for about two hours. Then I put him right back out there on the plow again. First though, I did switch bits – going to a Liverpool driving bit that I now use on him to maintain better contact with his mouth – and we went back to the sulky where I would have overall more consistent control over him. Happily, we experienced no side-effects from his little running episode.
I have to admit that having a runaway team at this stage of my career on the walking plow took me quite by surprise. Of all the different pieces of equipment we use on this farm, that is not one I would have expected to result in a runaway. Especially considering that this horse had already been out plowing four times that same week and had been at it that very day for some time prior. So, young or old, we learn from our experiences.
In the closing section of this article, Ryan Foxley gives an account of his experience with the Pioneer walking plow that proves out the old adage: “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.” I have written extensively elsewhere with my own positive review of this model of plow, so I thought it best here to ask a very experienced horse farmer/market gardener to give us his take on the merits of this plow – not to in any way, shape or form negate the legitimacy of Paul’s experience, but simply to provide a balanced picture and to suggest that although an article like this can provide roadmaps you may have to try out some different plows in your own unique situation to discern which plow is right for you, your soil, and your horses.
Report from the Field: How Sweet and Lovely dost Thou make the Furrow
by Ryan Foxley, Littlefield Farm, Arlington, WA
My first walking plow was a nameless affair purchased for $40 at an antique store in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was likely made by a local blacksmith sometime around the turn of the last century. Turns out it had a bent beam and the only share I could conjure up fit poorly at best. To complete this agrarian perfect storm I had never before plowed with horses. And when I set out to do so it was in heavy clay bottomland growing ten year old alfalfa with roots the diameter of small tree trunks. You can well imagine the frustration that accompanied my early plowing endeavors.
So it was with great joy that I plowed my first furrow with a brand new Pioneer 12” walking plow. What ease of adjustment! What delightful balance! What responsiveness! What splendid suction! William Shakespeare would have sat down at the end of his first furrow and amended his 95th Sonnet, “How sweet and lovely dost thou make the furrow.”
Though it has been criticized for being heavy compared to most older plows, I think that for the beginning teamster, the weight is actually helpful because it contributes to its inherent stability. Once the plow is properly adjusted it just hunkers down and stays right where it’s supposed to. If my horses are walking reasonably straight and steady I can balance the thing with two fingers in my right hand. The ready availability of parts is another advantage not to be taken lightly. For some older plows it can be nearly impossible to find a decent replacement share. And good luck trying to find a blacksmith these days who still knows how to properly draw out a plow point.
My only frustration with the plow is that when plowing sod and fields with heavy cover crop residue I have at times wished ardently for a rolling coulter. With the jointer in place trash and chunks of sod readily jam between the top of the moldboard and the beam of the plow. I have somewhat addressed the problem of plowing in these conditions by removing the jointer altogether and discing before-hand.
It is likely that the Pioneer walking plow arriving at my door 15 years ago was more important to my subsequent horse farming success than I realized. It may just have saved my horse farming career. With its arrival I gained confidence and achieved a measure of plowing success that had until that time eluded me. I have plowed now many acres for many seasons with this plow and my admiration for its quality has not diminished. It will continue to be an important tool in my tillage arsenal.
In this installment of our plowing series we have focused on the use of the sulky for large acreage and the walking plow for the smaller market garden. As we have seen, this tool that once so revolutionized agriculture in the Western world, still has great value to the small horse-powered farmer of today. The moldboard plow can be understood in a symbolic sense as well. It mines into the depths of soil to reveal hidden treasures of nutrient and creates tilth for roots to thrive in. The plow share represents both change and renewal. What was – must be turned over – to make room for that which is to come.