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 FIVE: Reports from the Field
In the last installment in this series on plowing the market garden we took a look at some of the latest lines of horse drawn plows. As exciting as it is to learn about all the new developments in horse drawn plows – we can also learn so much from those who have grown up working with the old tools and are carrying on an unbroken chain of tradition. In that spirit, to finish this series on plowing in the market garden we will visit with four gentlemen who are using vintage plows and hear their reports from the field on plowing in the good old way.
On our farm we like the old Syracuse plows (this company was eventually bought out by John Deere – who kept going with the designs). We have a two-way plow that was made in 1913. It has 10” bottoms. I can still get shares for it from HD equipment dealer Leon Brubaker of Chapman Hill, Pennsylvania. I have replaced them twice in seven years. Since I am only ever plowing cover crop with it, and no more than a 1/4 acre at one time, I just use it as right-handed plow. I took the seat off it, and walk behind – in our case, there are just too many rocks to feel safe on such a light frame. As I explained in Part Three, we also use a Pioneer walking plow. We started out plowing as novices a bunch of years ago with this Pioneer walking plow. We purchased a plow with 14” bottoms and plowed that way for ten years or so. Again, this points out how important your soil is in determining what model and size plow will work for you. Our Fjords made pulling that 14” bottom through our light sandy loam look effortless. This year, in regard to my best team being composed of aging horses (16 and 20), and my younger team being a pair of slackers by comparison, we replaced the 14” bottom with a 12” (this is a relatively easy swap-out on the Pioneer plow). For most market garden situations a 12” bottom would work well for a general purpose plow. For our purposes of turning cover crop, I hardly noticed much difference in terms of the depth or width of the furrows we were cutting and turning. But by their lively step and renewed endurance, I could tell the horses were liking the smaller bottom. Some farmers favor this new walking plow and some farmers want to stick with the older gooseneck models, but for a beginner plowman it is pretty easy to set up and easy to steer. I like the Pioneer walking plow because it is steady and easy to keep in the ground – but a lot of people will tell you they don’t like it because it is a lot heavier than just about any vintage model plow. And that’s true – I have learned to get the team to be precise bringing it round on the headland so that I don’t have to move it much to start up again – the 12” bottom has definitely eased my burden on that score. The gauge wheel is a big help both in setting your share depth and for keeping the beam riding level. The Pioneer plow comes with a jointer attachment but we have found that in the high trash-high residue conditions of the market garden we can go better plowing without any attachments. For instance, if you try to plow the garden with rolling coulters you may find that they can be tricky to set up to cut effectively through loose trash on the surface without literally balling it up and lifting the share out of the ground. However if you have some sod to turn over, a correctly positioned jointer will really help to flip it over into the trough, and the rolling coulter can help give a clean looking furrow wall in sod and spare the relatively dull plow shin from all of the task of splitting off the ribbon of soil. In Sam Moore’s comprehensive book IMPLEMENTS FOR PLOWING WITH HORSES AND MULES, he strongly advocates for the coulter-jointer combo for plowing sod. We put about 3/4 acres of sod into garden a few years ago. We mostly used the Pioneer walking plow, which did a pretty satisfactory job of it. I was actually amazed at how easy the Fjords made it look – but again we have that sandy loam which I guess made all the difference.
We found that putting a chain with a swivel between the evener and the plow helped us play around easily with getting correct draft simply by adjusting the chain length and it also acts as a bit of a shock absorber between plow and horses when we strike a stone. This is a well-built plow, easy for even the beginner to adjust, and it can get the job done.
When you first start out trying to plow on the walking plow, if at all possible, start out with someone you trust on the lines and you working the plow handles. That way one person can school the horses to get them to understand what is being asked while you can focus entirely on learning how to steer the plow. Once the two of you and the team have got all that working reasonably well it won’t be such a big step to handle the horses and the plow by yourself. In my book THE NEW HORSE-POWERED FARM and in Lynn Miller’s now classic HORSE DRAWN PLOWS AND PLOWING you will find detailed coverage of the subject of establishing the correct line of draft when plowing. Another important consideration is establishing the correct evener and yoke length for your particular plow. The following is a common formula for determining correct length for the evener and yoke for a plowing pair: one half the total cut + 1/4 of the width on a bottom (12, 14, or 16) + 1/2 the width of the furrow = 1/2 of the total length of the evener (yoke should be equal to evener). If your plowing pair are hooked too closely you will spend more time cooling them down and this will not make the plowing any easier. The easiest plowing comes when you have no side draft, no pressure sucking the plow down or up, or any other thing else but the draft running as a straight line from tug hames attachment on the collar to center of draft of the plowshare.
In our first report Donn Hewes reminds us of some of the fundamentals of getting started on the walking plow.
Report from the field: Just Wave and Keep Going
Donn Hewes, Northland Sheep Dairy, Marathon, New York
I have less experiences plowing, and less demand, than farmers that produce vegetables or grains for sale, but I have been building the skill and tools for the last few years on small plots. Last year I did about three acres. I imagine that many of us are plowing with the plow we have versus a distinct preference. At least that is true with me.
I have a 14” Syracuse walking plow. While I don’t think it was originally intended as a three-horse plow (the beam would be shifted a little to the left), I often use it that way. I have plowed a lot of sod as I have worked into old pastures, and I find the extra horse makes the work easier. In the last couple years I have upgraded new handles and last Spring Sam Rich (Connecticut horse farmer and Plow Champ) rebuilt the point on the plow.
There is a funny thing about making the work easier. When you start plowing for the first time your horses may well be all over the place. It is very hard to get your plow adjusted right and to learn how the basic movements steer the plow while this is going on. The horses may also start and stop as the work seems heavier than they are used to (also because you are distracted by the plow). Each of these problems is potentially a positive feedback loop for the others!
Making the draft lighter will help reverse one of those feedback loops. Soon, your horses will start and not stop so readily while you are figuring out steering of the plow. Once that happens you will start to get the plow bridle adjusted so it runs straight and takes the right amount of furrow bite with each pass. Finally the horses will walk a little slower without stopping and that will help you learn how to tip the plow left and right to make it go where you want and help it navigate around rocks.
This is when some smart aleck comes along and says, “That plow only needs two horses”! I just wave and keep going.
Farmers who have worked the land over a long and fruitful career may find their choice of favored plow evolves as the shape of their farm business and the availability of labor shift and change over the decades. Such is the case with Klaus Karbaumer, who explains how, after many years of trying different set-ups and plows he has also settled on walking with the riding plow.
Report from the field: Plowing from North to South and South to North
Klaus Karbaumer, Karbaumer Farm, Kansas City, Missouri
When I started farming with horses in the United States, I couldn’t find the familiar cart plow of my younger years in Bavaria. So I purchased a walking plow and with the help of my son Ben plowed the initial narrow strips of land for our vegetables. I was driving the horses which were new to this work and my son worked the plow handles. Later on, Ben got busier with his farrier clients and became less available. At the same time I was expanding the vegetable operation so I switched to a John Deere riding plow. The advantage is obvious: Due to the wheeled frame construction and a pole, the plowman doesn’t need to hold any plow handles; he just holds the lines and can focus on driving the horses in a straight furrow. However, I didn’t find riding that convenient. I had to turn side to side and even backwards to watch the flow of the turned soil. So I removed the seat and have walked behind the plow ever since, with no regrets. (For more in-depth information about plowing, one may consult Lynn Miller’s excellent book, “Horsedrawn Plows and plowing.”)
I usually disk before and after plowing which improves the tilth of the soil. Every time a vegetable crop gets harvested on a strip of land, I plow down the remaining residue. This enriches the soil with organic matter. The normal depth is 4 to 6 inches. Since I do not want to throw the soil the same way every time, I alternate the direction. For example, if I plowed that strip from north to south the last time, I would next plow it from south to north.
In the following report we’ll hear from a farmer who recently made the adventurous transition from farming with horses over to mules. This teamster also gives us a picture of a vintage plow that is still serving him very well today. At one time the Vulcan plow was as well-known and respected among farmers as anything being manufactured by John Deere, Oliver, or other major players in the Ag implement industry. Originally this plow was manufactured by the Heilman Plow Works, which was established in Evansville, Indiana in 1847. In 1890 the company was renamed Vulcan (after the Greek god of the forge). By the turn of the century the Vulcan Plow Company had bought out another Indiana-based chilled iron works and was producing such a prodigious number of plows that they could truthfully boast: “In the Vulcan Line can be found a plow for every purpose and the most up-to-date and satisfactory of its kind in the field.”
Report from the Field: Mules are Doing Their Part
Jerry Hicks, Flemingsburg, Kentucky
I just got my mules the year before last but I really like them. I have always used horses for the most part other than for a few small mules my family kept when I was a boy. I am actually thinking pretty seriously about selling all my horses and buying one more mule!
We had those mules at home when I was young but I didn’t like them much then. I guess we didn’t keep them long enough. We worked them just long enough to get them to where they could be used then we’d sell them and buy a new team and start over. It seems like it took two years for me and those mules just to begin to get used to each other.
Last year plowing with my new mules I had some trouble. Well things sure have changed in a year! I have worked them all winter feeding cattle and when I took them out to plow they worked at it like they had done it all their lives! Until today I would have sworn there was no better plow than a Vulcan 12 but I took the advice of a respected friend and tried out a Vulcan 13. I sure do like it! It needs a little work but it does a nice job plowing. Also it could use a jointer in my opinion. Those mules don’t know it yet but there is six more acres waiting on them to practice in!
The Vulcan plows are a vintage model plow. I know they were made in Indiana but don’t know much more about their history. I do know I really like them and have bought several trying to put together a full line up. I have a Vulcan 10 hillside plow, a Vulcan 12, a 12 Rose Clipper, and a 13. But as to the plowing, the soil is turning nicely and breaking up well. I love plowing and it is likely just exaggeration but it seems like every year I plow I say it is the best and prettiest job I’ve done yet, and just maybe it is. But it also helps that somehow a switch got flipped and the mules suddenly recall what they’re here for and are doing their part. I have a cousin who has a Vulcan 50 riding plow that is small enough he can pick it up and set it in the back of his truck by himself. It has a nine inch bottom. The guy he bought it from used a pair of pony mules weighing about 700 or 800 pound to pull it. The Vulcan walking plow I use, it is light enough that I can pick it up and set on the sled by myself. It runs well though and I can usually just walk beside it and hold to one handle. We have pretty good soil even though it’s clay. We don’t have a lot of rock except in the creek bottom land. That is a big help!
For our final report Don McAvoy graciously provides us with a window on a world that once was – where men and women (and children) lived and breathed horsemanship as if their lives depended on it – because it did.
Report from the field: Ten or More Acres
Don McAvoy, Jamestown, North Dakota
Ground or soil types vary and this will determine the best-suited plow. Most old timers round here liked a Moline or P&O “IHC” (in 1909 International Harvester contracted with P&O an operated it as a subsidiary, the P&O “Little Chief” sulky was a particularly valued plow that came out of this line and was manufactured for almost twenty years). They used to use two horses on a 14” inch walking plow, three-abreast on a 16” inch sulky unless breaking sod, then it would be five head – a lead team in front of three. On cropped ground an acre a day per horse was normal as long as the horses were hardened-in to the work and well fed. The advantage of a sulky was you didn’t walk another 20 to 22 miles a day. On cold days it didn’t matter, the plow levers drove horses while the teamster walked behind just trying to keep warm.
As far as soil compaction, any implement operated at the same level can cause a hard pan. Sweeps on a digger; a plow or a disc can do it. In tillage you need to vary the depth and action. I have used a case walking plow to plant taters. It does a good job. This is the same plow my uncle was using back in the 1930’s to try to stop land from blowing. He said he stopped the team to wipe his eyes out of the dirt and they went home! Took out the new door sill on the barn and he got a mile walk home and a butt-chewing!
I can remember my Dad having 2 sets of plow lay’s for each plow – one at the old blacksmith for sharpening and the other for plowing. They heated the share and then pounded it out to a new point and edge. Don’t sell a dull share for scrap!! Depending on soil conditions, a 16 inch share could give you 10 or more acres before sharpening.
Here we conclude this five-part series on the use of the horse-drawn moldboard in the contemporary market garden. I hope you have enjoyed these stories and that some of the information contained in these reports will prove useful and inspiring to you, my fellow SFJ readers, as you pursue your dreams of turning ground with draft animals to raise crops to support your household, nurture your community, and feed your soul.