Fjordworks: Primary Tillage at Cedar Mountain Farm Part 1
by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT
FOR THE LOVE OF HORSES
“The destiny of every nation is eventually determined by the manner in which they care for their soils.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The first time I ever rode a horse I was twelve years old. There was this girl that lived up the road from me that I was sweet on and her family was in the habit of going out to a riding stable on the north end of town for recreational outings and one time, probably because I was hanging around their house so much, I was invited to come along. I’ve always been partial to wearing hats. I had one in particular that I wore almost all the time until it got burned up in a house fire when I was twenty-two years old. I’d found it in my grandparent’s attic and I’d been granted permission to take it home. It was my grandpa’s World War One cavalry hat. It was a broad-brimmed Stetson, made of beaver felt, and sporting a four-pointed crown like that of Smokey the Bear. I didn’t fancy the crown much so I gave it a creased flat-top to make it look like any ordinary old cowboy hat.
Well, I don’t know what somebody wearing any ordinary old cowboy hat had ever done to that old nag I was supposed to ride at the riding stable, but when I approached her to step up into the stirrup for my first ever foray onto the back of a horse, she took in one big eyeball of that hat and whirled round as quick as lightning and shot off a double back-kick and split the board-rail fence into splinters about six inches from my head. The lady holding onto the horse’s reigns looked at my stunned demeanor and said, “Guess she don’t like that hat.” Now you might think that a sensible young fellow might not have wanted to climb aboard the back of an animal who had so recently attempted to stove in his hat-bearing skull, but remember, the girl that I liked was looking on all the while. Needless to say I left the hat with the stable manager and thereafter had a very enjoyable first time experience in the saddle.
As with any craft, one of the key elements to becoming a successful teamster is repetition. Just as the skilled pilot must log many flight hours, building confidence through dealing with the unexpected contingencies, so does the teamster require the refining fire of hours spent practicing with a team of grounded sensible horses on the other end of the driving lines. This kind of practice and repetition involves a degree of kenosis —- the emptying out of self. It’s like the old Zen parable about how you have to empty a cup before you can hope to receive anything new into it. This kind of practice can have a leveling effect on the personality so that the more effective we become at the task of driving horses, the less invested is our ego-force in the outcome. There is, of course, a big difference between letting go of excessive ego and giving away your own power. As we come into our own as teamsters a power of a new kind might be sensed — a power of relationship and connection to a living reality.
On a sparkling autumn morning not long ago I was standing beside my harnessed team of horses as I addressed a group of twenty or so third graders from the local elementary school. Minutes before they had finished the task of broadcasting rye seed out of buckets onto the section where we had grown cucurbits (we apply about a 25% higher seed ratio when employing child labor). The horses were hitched to the disc-harrow so that after speaking I could give a demonstration of how we use the disc to cover the seed on rougher sections like the squash beds that still had a lot of dispersed mulch material and surface trash. I was busy extrapolating on the non-polluting, non-compacting, natural fertilizing, and self-replicating abilities of the horses in contrast to tractors. When I had finished, the young farmer, Steve Blabac, who was working with us that season, pointed at me and as he did so I became aware that I was leaning against the gelding with my arm draped in a casual embrace across his broad back. And Steve smiled his wide infectious grin and said, “Besides which, you can’t hug your tractor!”
If we are moved to treat the animals under our care with gentleness and respect, if we allow ourselves to be open to the small chance moments of rapture that the intimacy of our farm landscape holds up daily to our senses, if we are through with chasing the dollar and instead are inspired with a vision of attaining wholeness in our lives and fostering wholeness in the lives of our children — then we must finally admit that what ultimately drives our farming enterprises is not money, or fossil fuel, not composted manure nor even sunlight — but simply and entirely the love we hold in our hearts for the farm. This true love is like a fire that does not burn out, it is like that faithful and abiding flame that Moses witnessed on the branches of a bush high up on a mountain—the fire that does not consume.
For many men and woman who farm with horses, the realization that love is at the heart of what they do may never even dawn on them as a consciously explicated theorem or practice — but it will be evinced in their kindness, their care and concern, and in the reciprocal pride and joy with which they engage their draft animals. This love for our animals is also most essentially a love of beauty and a love of life and a love of the earth itself, but it even includes a love of this, our most imperfect human proposition — with all its brilliance and all its tragic folly.
The horse is a highly sensitive and intelligent animal. Somewhere in the back of its mind every domesticated horse remembers that it is a prey species and that we two-legged creatures are a weird yet formidable sort of predator. It’s our job to convince them that all that hunting business is in the past and that horse and human can now be partners in work. Mind you, the human must assert its position as a lead horse in the herd. But amazingly — real partnership is possible. Once their confidence is gained and once they are rightly trained, and when they are treated with kindness and only asked to do reasonable tasks; the horses want to work. For the teamster, a balance of a firm hand, a consistent and steady presence, and an enduring concern for the horse’s well being, all are a must. It’s not that the horse has no forgiveness, but there is a fundamental trust which must not be broken. What we are really trying to do is not so much master the horse, as to master ourselves.
Primary tillage is the first step in readying land for the reception of seeds or transplants. Just as the gardener breaks ground with a spade, and then breaks up clods with a hoe, and finally levels all with a rake, so does the farmer have a basic armory of tools to perform these functions on a larger scale in order to create a seed bed.
Our primary tillage begins with the moldboard plow. At the end of each growing season as we head into winter, we like to have as much of the market garden as possible either sowed to a cover crop or turned with the plow. We stop sowing cover crops in the garden around the 15th of October, at which time we would be planting winter rye. Weather permitting, we will continue to plow the ground as the fall crops come out right up until the ground freezes. We leave this fall plowed ground as it is so that the ridges can catch moisture and the frost can work on mellowing those ridges as we settle into deep winter and snow cover.
We usually begin in the spring by plowing down an over-wintered cover crop. Some of the cover crops, such as oats and field peas are entirely winter-killed and only require discing to be incorporated, but anywhere we have rye or clover that is not slated to be under cover for the coming season it is turned as soon as possible. If plowing is clean and the soil well pulverized and settled then we simply let that turned-in crop digest for a week or two. However, if the section still has some clods or partially turned green matter, we will disc soon after plowing. We then spread compost over the section and disc that material in as soon after spreading as possible. Because we usually spread a finished material, immediate incorporation is not as critical as it would be for a more raw application, as the nutrients are more firmly bound, but we still like to mix it in to the top few inches of soil. We follow the disc harrow with a flex (pasture) harrow for final seed bed preparation. At this point, we get by without a culti-packer, but such a tool would definitely help ameliorate some of the rolling and ridging left behind by any less-than-perfect efforts at plowing and discing, and aid in firming up the planting zone for increased capillary action to the seeds or seedlings. Depending on the timing of the crop, we will return for repeat passes with the flex harrow once or twice before planting to effect a stale-bed preparation — knocking out those early blooms of weed seed. The very shallow but thorough tillage of the flex harrow is ideally suited to this task.
To plow the ground in the market garden, we use either our old Syracuse two-way riding plow or the new Pioneer walking plow. The plow we choose depends on whether the section to be worked requires deep or shallow tillage. The riding plow has twelve-inch bottoms and is well suited to skim plowing soft ground, whereas, the walk behind plow, with its fourteen inch bottom and heavy steel beam, is perfect for a deeper turning of the soil.
We acquired the Syracuse S-12 in 2006 when we were attending the World’s Fair in Tunbridge, VT. We were strolling about the fairgrounds somewhere in the vicinity of the racing pigs and nearby the show lot for heavy farm equipment when we spied the newly painted green and yellow two-way riding plow on display. This plow was manufactured in 1913. It rides on two wheels and has hand-lift levers for raising or lowering the shares. It has six possible settings for depth. The plow was brought to the fair by the owner of the Acme Carriage Company of Braintree, VT. , who, besides occasionally dealing in antique equipment, is a master craftsman of wagons, carriages, and sleighs. We purchased the plow for $350.00 dollars delivered.
When we got the plow home we found it to be in perfect working order. Even the points of the shares appeared to be in pretty good shape. Even so, I got the serial numbers off them and ordered a set from Mr. Leon Brubaker of Trevorton, PA. (A horse-drawn machinery specialist who has advertised in past issues of SFJ). A few weeks later I received a package in the post containing two “new” shares still in the original manufacturer’s box and an invoice for the very reasonable total. This piece of antique equipment that we are utilizing on our farm in the first decades of the 21st century was manufactured almost one-hundred years ago! What a tribute to the deliberate craftsmanship and practicality of that time is wedded into this implement — a craftsmanship aiming towards functional durability and completely alien to the concept of “planned obsolescence”.
The walking plow that we use on the other hand, is an example of how that durable craftsmanship has persisted in tiny pockets of sanity where honest workmanship has not acceded to or been trammeled by mass production. We paid $350.00 for our new Pioneer plow (delivered) back in 1998. This general purpose plow weighs over three-hundred pounds and features a heavy straight steel beam to support the share. An Amish farmer once told me that the reason that gooseneck beams are no longer produced is because the quality of steel now available is so degraded that it can no longer support the form of the old designs. Nonetheless, these new plows are reflective of that same durability and elegance that so characterized the implements being manufactured during the height of the horse-drawn farming epoch in this country in the years just prior to the First World War.
To avoid unnecessary wear and tear on the walking plow, and especially on the wooden handles, we travel this implement out to the field with our smaller bucket-loader tractor. This task could be more ecologically accomplished by constructing a small sledge for the horses to pull (note to self: good winter project).
We vary medium-depth tillage with skim plowing depending on the condition of the section to be worked and taking into account what type of cropping is to follow. There are general principles to follow in making the determination of which depth to plow at and then there is the actuality of what is happening on the ground. In a loose gravelly soil structure such as ours, soil moisture level becomes an important consideration. If the topsoil is too dry the soil simply can’t hold structure enough to properly turn over with a skim plowing unless it has a thick stand of cover crop. If we are intending to create a clean seed bed for direct seeding we will plow to medium depth (six inches), but if the crop to follow is meant for transplants we might choose to plow shallow because the transplants don’t require quite as fine a seed bed. If we are incorporating a fall-planted stand of rye in the spring to be followed by mid-summer buckwheat we will plow shallow to avoid anaerobic digestion of the rye.
Some years we can begin plowing in our garden as early as the end of March and continue with fall plowing as late as early December. It all depends on the weather — and the only thing you can depend on about the weather in Vermont is that it will be variable. There is an intersection of confluences that make the climate in Northern New England more changeable than just about anywhere else on the planet. Each growing season is an unpredictable but assuredly wild ride (global warming has only increased the multiplicity of extremes). As long as the summer doesn’t turn too droughty, we will employ the plows right on through the season — plowing down cover crops for succession planting, and occasionally turning in spent vegetable beds where the weeds or the crab grass might have taken the upper hand and where discing and harrowing alone would not prove adequate. Any newly plowed ground is then composted and made ready to either grow another vegetable crop or else be seeded down to another cover crop.
We think that we inadvertently brought in the crab grass seed by using brought in mulch hay for mulch applications in our cucurbits, nightshades, and garlic instead of straw. We have had three successive wet summers and when the top three inches of top soil are perpetually saturated the emergence and persistence of crab grass will inspire an admixture of admiration and horror. We used to buy in oat or rye straw, but over the last several years the cost has become prohibitive ($9.00/bale as opposed to $3.00/bale for hay mulch). With the wet summers putting a damper on square bale production and more and more farmers turning to round bales and ensiled bales, even the cost of mulch bales has tripled in the last ten years. Because we make some of our own hay, we sometimes find ourselves in the unlucky position of baling up our own mulch hay — hay down and rained on in the field. This past year we set aside a few of our brought in dry-wrapped round bales that were of poorer quality for the purposes of mulching. But in the long view, none of these solutions feels satisfactory. Clean straw is decidedly the best mulching choice and would also make a good bedding material for our dairy cows (not for the Fjord horses — they eat everything!). The problem is, hardly anyone is growing small grains in our region anymore. Gone are the days when every dairy farm was self-sufficient in feed production. Gone too, are the sundry regionally adapted varieties that once thrived in New England. By way of contrast, I once read that there are over three-thousand varieties of soy bean grown in China — a bean for every micro-climate (let’s hope that the “new China” doesn’t dispense with all of that).
Our feed grains are being grown in Canada, the mid-west, and some of the organic grain is even being shipped up from South America (how sustainable is that?) Some local enterprising farmers are cutting immature rye, wheat, or oat crops specifically for hay production — the cost is high and most of their customers are owners of pleasure horses — surely our Yankee forebears would have looked on such a practice as wasteful and absurd. Some market gardeners are also growing immature crops of small grains for straw as part of their rotation — this has the advantage of being done in-house —- but basically amounts to harvesting one’s cover crop.
The way forward would seem to suggest the time has come for the sustainable small farmer to resume sowing small grains (and field corn and dry beans to boot!) for both livestock and human consumption. To this end, we are preparing to conduct field trials this year to begin research on which varieties will prosper best in our location. We have designated 1/10 of an acre for this purpose, and to begin with most of the labor will be done by hand. The future dream includes a vision of more acreage and a four-abreast hitch. It remains to be seen whether or not it will be economically viable for us to produce our own grain — but then again, if we were to let such thinking hamper us overmuch we would never have set to farming in the first place.
The most often heard criticism of the moldboard plow is that its repeated use results in the formation of a hardpan, an impenetrable floor just below the maximum depth of the share. This criticism needs to be balanced by considering the alternative methods of tillage. Anne and Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA, are demonstrating an innovative method whereby the requirements for the moldboard are reduced through the implementation of a no-till facet to their rotation of market garden crops. Of course, their methodology is on the far side of the spectrum away from the conventional no-till practices which have a heavy reliance on herbicides and chemical fertilizers. The most common tillage tool used on conventional and organic market gardens is the rotovator — a tractor mounted rototiller. When we started up our operation in 1996 neither we nor our young horses were yet up to the task of working the horse-drawn plow. We purchased a rotovator to form our garden beds.
Over the course of several years of practice and training with the horses, we gradually weaned ourselves away from the rotovator and put it into semi-retirement, maintaining the bedded pack in the cow barn, but it wasn’t easy, that machine can become as addictive as tobacco. In one or two passes it can turn a weedy bed of bolted lettuce into a perfect seedbed for waiting transplants. This is not to suggest that the rotovator is not a valuable tool — just that it is a mindless mechanical efficiency which can be easily abused.
Once we dispensed with the tractor powered tools and made the transition to all horse-drawn implements in the market garden — the difference in soil tilth was quite palpable. Now a section of the garden that is plowed, spread, disced and harrowed with the horses is so friable you can plunge your hand deep into the loam, whereas in our tractor-powered phase, anywhere the tractor wheels had rolled — three inches below the ground was like pavement — seedlings did not like it much. In addition, the soil flora and fauna are not as nearly disturbed by the horse drawn implements as they are by being run through the rotovator, which is the mechanical equivalent of running your soil through a blender. And without the intermittent use of a chisel plow, the rotovator will form its own species of plow pan. On the balance, we feel that the field work accomplished with the horse-drawn implements is far gentler upon the ground.
Because of the permeable gravel base below our topsoil, the danger of creating a permanent hardpan with the moldboard is not as relevant an issue here as it would be for the farmer working a clay or silt loam. Here, the soil would have to be completely saturated before there could be any danger of causing a “smearing” effect with the plow. One might even argue that in a dry year deeper spring plowing might help reduce the percolation of moisture back down through to the parent-rock as the dry of summer comes on. However, as on any farm, varying the depth of successive plowing on any given section only makes good sense.
Given that in any plowing situation in the market garden we are typically incorporating surface trash (stubble), we have discovered that our plows function more effectively with the jointer attachment removed. With the jointer on, no matter whether it is set close to, or at some distance forward of the share, and regardless of the high or low of its placement, the surface trash inevitably binds up between the jointer and the share, causing the plow person to have to “whoa” the horses and pull apart the tangled mess. We find that plowing with just the depth wheel gauge out in front of the share works just fine in our soil type. If we ever implement our dream of incorporating a small grain and field corn crop rotation into our hay fields — no doubt the jointer (and coulter) will come back into play. Again we conclude that every teamster must take the basic equipment and then decide for themselves what makes sense — what configuration actually works — in their particular situation.
Of all the functions we ask the horses to perform in the market garden, they seem to like working on the riding plow the best. Once the crown furrow is established, the horses get into a rhythm and the relatively easy pull through soft ground never sets them on edge. We usually plow no more than one 50’ x 200’ section at a time (roughly a quarter acre). For our horses this translates into about a two-hour work session (not accounting for harnessing and hitching and their reverse). Given the nature of our stony ground, when I use the riding plow I walk behind it rather than ride, with the lines looped over one shoulder and tied behind my back as if it were a walking plow.
This past spring a neighbor who was working in his garden nearby came over to watch me work the horses just as I was starting out on the riding plow. He asked why didn’t I ride up there on the seat and wouldn’t that be a lot easier? I explained to him that I had experienced the plow breaching out of the ground like a porpoise out of the waves when the share struck a big rock and I was uneasy about being up on that perch if such were to happen again. He nodded and stood ready to watch us go and I started the horses and I hadn’t gone but thirty paces when we hit a boulder and the share jumped and the old plow rode up on one wheel and the horses involuntarily lunged forward because all the draft of the plow was suddenly gone. I leaned back into the lines and got the horses to stop. My neighbor came over and tried to help me lift that rock up and out but it was too big (it took the bucket loader and a couple of pry bars to do it), and he said, “I can see why you wouldn’t want to be riding on that thing when it hits one of those.”
At our local plow meet (first Saturday in May at Billings Historical Farm, Woodstock, VT ) I have heard old timers and younger teamsters debating the issue of whether or not to ride on the sulky while plowing. Clearly, the sulky was designed to be ridden and for the farmer in Iowa busting up tens of acres of flat prairie land the tool was a blessing. But for the hill farmers of New England on steep and stony ground, riding on the plow was not always the most sensible choice. Some of the old timers claimed they only ever rode on the plow to get out to the field. In our stony soil that has become my choice.
Recently a farmer colleague of mine — an accomplished teamster who cut his chops as an apprentice with master teamster Paul Birdsall of Penobscot, Maine — related to me that Mr. Birdsall desisted from riding on the sulky after an incident in which striking the share on a stone unseated him and led to a near disaster with his team. I found vindication in this story and yet also concede that if we should ever choose to increase the acreage to be plowed on our farm, we may reconsider the option to ride. And too, we might consider the purchase of one of the new three-wheeled plows being manufactured by companies such as White Horse and Pioneer which provide greater stability and ease of action in the foot-lifting and setting of the shares in the ground and come with many features such as ground-driven hydraulic lift and trip mechanisms to help keep the share from jumping.
Back in the winter of 1992 when I was starting out my two year apprenticeship at Hawthorne Valley Farm in upstate New York, I came across a short article in an old edition of the Co-Evolution Quarterly (the follow-up magazine to the Whole Earth Catalogs) which extolled the virtues of the Norwegian Fjord Horse as an all-around useful alternative source of draft power in the woods and fields of the small farm. The article included a photo of a single Fjord in harness. Somehow that photo and brief description really captivated my attention. At the time, I was learning how to drive big tractors and work with all kinds of farm machinery and I was eating it all up, but the revolutionary thought that at some future time I might be able to perform all those same functions with a team of horses set something alight in my soul.
Around this time, a companion apprentice of mine named Peter, began subscribing to a curious large format magazine with a cover the color of a brown paper bag. All of us apprentices lived in the “bunkhouse,” a rustic building which was comprised of seven rooms, two bathrooms and a common kitchen situated on the second floor above the cheese and yogurt plant. At supper, while some apprentices were interested in consuming beer and listening to heavy metal music, Peter liked to read aloud to anyone who would listen from pages of books or magazines relevant to our farming experience. I was all ears when he started reading editorials and articles and stories out of that Small Farmer’s Journal. Here was a vision of the kind of integrated holistic back to the roots kind of farming my soul was pining for — with working horses at the heart of it. I could see it so clear, myself heading out into the rising sun from the farmstead, down the mist-laden tree-lined lanes and out to the fields behind a pair of drafts. I had no idea what a wild and dangerous and wondrous and ultimately saving adventure I would be getting myself into.
A couple of years later, Kerry and I were working together at that same farm and we set our intentions to pursue the draft-horse dream. We had asked around to see who might actually be working horses in the area and the name that kept cropping up was Anne Banks. Anne was an ex-farmer, avid homesteader, school teacher, old-time music player, and most importantly to us, a skilled horsewoman. For a very modest fee, she agreed to be our mentor and began to give us harnessing and driving lessons with her trusty old Fjord mare pulling a stoneboat out at her place. After we dove in and bought a team of 11 year old Halflinger geldings, she came over to our farm to help us get started with them. The quick conclusion was that our new horses weren’t quite as well-broke as advertised and we’d best start with driving them singly.
By the time spring rolled around we had made enough progress with those horses that we could drive them singly on a stoneboat, and work them in the garden pulling a section of spike-tooth-harrow and also a single horse drawn cultivator. Later that summer we got them on a potato plow. We also tried putting them under saddle. We had no idea if they had ever been ridden or not. Bill was the leggier, flashier horse of the two, and I could just see myself riding tall up there on his back. Only problem was, Bill was a bit of a nutcase. We got him bridled and saddled and took him out to a small grassy stretch behind the paddock and Kerry held his head while I climbed on board and as soon as my back end touched the saddle he took off like cannon shot and bucked me off to the side and I sailed clear over the woven-wire fence of the paddock which was awfully lucky for me because it was topped with a stretch of barbed-wire. I landed okay (was still young enough to have some bounce in my bones) but I didn’t try to ride Bill again.
His brother Dan was a different sort though. The more I got to know Dan the more I grew to respect him. In some ways I wish I’d never gone and sold him, but you couldn’t separate Dan from Bill, anyhow, I am getting ahead of myself with the story. Dan was solid like a little ox, so broad and round of back that he barely had a withers and legs like tree trunks but short of shank. And yet when I cinched a saddle on him and hopped up he scarcely blinked. I rode him as if I were driving him because that’s all I knew to do —- with a “gee” and a “haw” — and he went right along with it and was actually a lot less bull-headed about it than when I tried to drive him on the ground.
After we had attained a certain degree of success driving each horse singly on the various implements previously described we acquired a nice little antique single horse walking plow with an oak beam. After we had marked out the rows, we attempted to take Dan out with the little plow to lay out the furrows for planting the potatoes, but try as we might we just could not get him to walk a straight line. So we wound up drawing the plow off a chain hitched to the bumper of our four-wheel-drive Toyota pick-up. A fellow who had grown up in that town was driving by and saw us and he called out, “I thought I’d seen everything on this farm!” By which I suppose he meant to say that now he had seen everything.
It took us a few years to really get started plowing with horses. We had some success hitching a mule team to our antique plow in Idaho , but it wasn’t until we had moved back east and made the acquaintance of our neighbor, John Hammond of Cornish, NH, that we really started laying over some furrows. John is a breeder of Suffolk Punch horses and a master plowman. He says of himself that he is a man with, “many irons in the fire,” and sometimes means this literally, as he is also a blacksmith and a farrier (one of the last in our region who will shoe big horses). In addition, he manages a river-running canoe and kayak business.
John willingly agreed to come over to our place and help us hitch the horses to one of his walking plows. He wouldn’t accept any pay for his time. He taught us the rudiments of understanding the line of draft and gave us the opportunity to get our hands on the plow and to get the “feel” of the share in the ground when it was moving as it should. These few mentoring sessions with such an experienced teamster were invaluable for setting a foundation.
It is wonderful and appropriate that so many contemporary teamsters are thinking in terms of their horses as “partners”. Certainly, we teamsters of the 21st century should strive to completely dispense with the harsh economics of the past that ground up horse flesh as an expendable commodity. But it is also important for our fledgling teamsters to remember that what the horses are looking for in partnership with us are the leadership qualities of intelligence, authority, and confidence. Intelligence is a gift from the Creator. Despite what the engineers at NASA or IBM might think; intelligence cannot be manufactured. However, authority and confidence can be cultivated in a prospective teamster through diligence and doggedness and above all, good mentoring. One thing the new generation of teamsters will have to grapple with is that being “nice” just won’t cut it. It is very difficult for “nice” people to muster up the kind of authority and confidence that our horses require of us. But just as truly good parents must set consistent boundaries with their children, so must the teamster summon up the mettle to be a “benevolent monarch” when it comes to such issues as teaching the workhorse that walking always means walking, that “Whoa” only and ever means one thing, and that rubbing one’s head on your teammate’s harness when you are being asked to stand, simply can’t be done.
Being nice seems to be what we are left to work with if we wish to act as decent persons in an increasingly violent and urbanized society where hands grow soft and hearts grow hard. We fall back on being nice because we feel defenseless in the face of monolithic corporate forces that have wrested all but the illusion of choice out of our hands — which hat to buy. We feel compelled to be nice because the alternatives appear so nasty and ruthless and utterly narcissistic. We feel defenseless because all the grit has been socially engineered out of us ever since that time when our ancestors or our grandparents or our parents were either forced or seduced to leave the farm. And grit is what we need to rediscover in ourselves if we wish to make it in our quest to return to the farm. Horses understand grit and they respond to it.
Years ago in the pages of the Small Farmer’s Journal, I read about the practice of “imprinting” oneself upon the newborn foal. I took this advice and held the first live foal born on our farm gently but firmly from stem to stern in the embrace of my arms for a full twenty minutes. I stand convinced that if you can convince horses and cattle when they are very young that you are the kindly but stronger and more dominate animal in the herd, and if you persist in living your life close to your horses and presenting to them a fair and consistent authority, then they will continue to believe this about you and to respect your wishes even as they grow up to attain gargantuan proportion and Herculean strength.
I suppose some farmer boy living sixty or more years ago might not have been so excited, might have been a little bored — might have even been daydreaming about what life away off in the big city is like — such a boy might not have been much impressed with his own God-given moment of driving a team of horses he’d trained himself on a plow he’d fitted and scoured and repaired dozens of times himself. But for a boy like me raised in the suburbs, every time I hitch up my little team, no matter how mundane the farm task at hand, something elemental in my soul is kindled and all my worldly senses and the inner attention of my heart and the dull ministrations of my mind stand ready and are drawn into an awakened coalescence in this present moment of lines connected to horses in my hands.
There are many tangible rewards to farming and many more fleeting sweet and beautiful intangible ones — the ones that make the life worth living. Intangibles like sitting down to a delicious home cooked meal and hearing Kerry say, “All the ingredients in this meal are from the farm.” Intangibles like watching our neighbors from up the street, Joe and Clare and their three little kids, making their weekly visit to the farm to pick up their jars of fresh raw milk and drop off some eggs from their home flock to sell in our farm store and then to linger and stroll about the barns visiting with calves, horses, chickens, and just seeing what a difference it makes in the lives of those kids that this place exists, and to think how empty and sterile this stretch of road would be if our farm were just another sub-division. Intangibles like watching my toddler daughter marvel at the sight and sound of bees alighting on the heavy heads of sunflowers or screeching in delight at the sight of chickens running after the apple core she just tossed into their pen. Intangibles like “whoaing” the horses to let them stop and blow and looking back behind to see the neatly laid over furrows that have followed in the wake of the plow they are pulling, and then turning back again to see them standing with the steam rising off their flanks, the mixed sweet scents of horse sweat mingled with freshly disturbed earth, the sounds of raucous crows up on the hill side and the promise of another season on the far side of this fall plowing.
END OF PART 1