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

Harnessing the Future

Harnessing the Future

Harnessing the Future

by Donna McClurkan of Kalamazoo, MI

The word “teamster” carries meanings both modern and ancient. In current day usage, we associate the term with truck drivers moving freight, fuel, and food across the continent. Originally, a teamster was someone who drove a team of draft animals — typically horses, oxen and mules — to transport heavy loads by cart and for agricultural tillage. This practice dates back to 3000 B.C., originating in Mesopotamia (Iraq), Turkey and Egypt.

Gina Wertz is a horse and ox teamster. Her animal-powered market vegetables and herbs are grown at Under the Stone Garden on the grounds of Tillers International, a Kalamazoo County working farm and learning center dedicated to the preservation and training of inexpensive methods of food production in rural areas around the world.

Gina’s operation is part of Tillers’ farmer incubation program, and she’s one of 456,000 “beginning farmers” defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as having less than a decade of experience, many of whom are choosing to leave established careers to live a hands-on life. It can be a tough row to hoe, literally, given the staggering costs of land and capital for equipment, intense physical labor requirements, and a host of uncontrollable variables such as market volatility and climate variability.

What would compel a young woman to choose farming, and why “revert” to animal power?

Very early on a recent muggy morning, the temperature inching toward a triple digit heat index, her story unfolds over coffee in the Cook’s Mill Learning Center high on the grounds of Tillers’ 430 acre farm and pasture. Schooled in social work, Gina found her way to farming in 2008 after reading The Party’s Over, Richard Heinberg’s portent of epic proportions: modern industrial societies are completely dependent on finite fossil fuel-based resources, the inevitable and dwindling supply of which is having increasingly catastrophic, global economic and political consequences. She finished the book a week before the collapse of Fanny Mae, and resolved to become more self-reliant by growing her own food, starting with apprenticeships on sustainable farms in Maine and Indiana.

Harnessing the Future

Ken Lamson of New Beat Farm in Maine was Gina’s first animal power mentor, and the experience was profound and transformative. “As I learned to understand horses,” Gina says, “it was deeply satisfying to develop the focus, discipline and attentiveness required to manage the land with these animals.”

As for risk, “yes, it can be dangerous for the teamster, the horses and anyone in the vicinity of the soil being plowed and cultivated. Horses evolved to flee if they feel threatened, even if they’re attached to heavy equipment.”

She pauses a moment, then describes a traumatic, close call in which her two horse team suddenly broke into a full-on sprint and would not stop. They were attached to an eight-foot-wide double (2 row) gang disk. In those few terrifying moments, she imagined getting sucked under and dragged behind the heavy, steel equipment. She dropped the lines and dove off. Ken jumped in front of the rearing horses and grabbed their bridles to regain control. The next two months were spent getting comfortable around the horse team before draft animal training resumed. Today, Gina knows there is still much to learn but she’s confident and eager to demonstrate her skills.

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. An open barn rafter window reveals hay stacked for winter. All manner of poultry — chickens, roosters, ducks, turkeys and guinea hens — coo and caw, hunt and peck adjacent to the intern’s lush, productive garden. Sheep and goats lounge in shade. A donkey is taking a dust bath. 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.

Harnessing the Future

Gina leads Prince and Tom from pasture to watering station to grooming area where they are brushed, harnessed and hitched to an implement for working the soil. This ritual is repeated every time, Gina says, for consistency and to strengthen the bond between human and animal. Honoring animals as partners on the farm and fostering trust ensures their willingness to work under the safest possible conditions. With assistance from 15-year-old helper, Jehra Smith, Gina deftly directs Prince and Tom in the creation of a furrow at the far west end of the garden into which beets and carrots will soon be planted.

I return in a few days to photograph Gina with the oxen. Five gentle giants parading in from pasture lumber past me toward a galvanized drinking trough. One stops to inspect my outstretched hand, snorts, and resumes his journey. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating to be in close proximity to these beasts weighing in at 2000 pounds and more.

Two oxen, Herschel and Walker, are led to the grooming station where they are brushed and placed in a neck yoke. Great, horned heads sway and nod away flies. I open gates and close them behind us along the way to the garden, where Herschel and Walker are hitched to a bright red culti-mulcher with rollers and teeth used to break up the soil. Teamster Gina stays within view of the oxen, walking and commanding “Get up” (go), “Whoa” (stop), “Gee”(turn right), and “Haw” (turn left). A new plot is tilled.

I leave Gina’s garden thinking how much easier it would be to mount a tractor, turn a key and just go … and knowing easy isn’t the objective.

A book by Richard Heinberg set Gina on a path to sustainable, low fossil-fuel intensive farming. May many millions like her find their way.

Harnessing the Future

Donna McClurkan’s many outlets for local food advocacy include crafting occasional articles about the ways in which farmers’ markets, small scale, sustainable farmers and gardeners are transforming the way we eat. She lives in Kalamazoo. Photos by Donna McClurkan.

This article originally appeared at http://swmichigan.secondwavemedia.com

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

An Introduction Into Plant Polyculture

An excerpt from What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden
Companion Planting for Beginners

Swallow

Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

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.

Making Sorghum Molasses

Making Sorghum Molasses

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Growing sorghum doesn’t take much work, according to Buhrman. You plant it in the spring, work it a couple of times and that’s about all that’s required until late in the growing season. That is when the work begins. Before it is cut, all the stalks have to be “bladed” – the leaves removed from the stalks. It’s then cut, then the tassles are cut off, and the stalks are fed through a crusher. The crusher forces the juices out of the plant. The sorghum juice is then boiled in a vat for four to five hours until nothing is left but the syrup.

Ginseng Culture

Ginseng Culture

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1184 Issued 1921, Revised 1941 — The evident preference of the Chinese for the wild root and the unsatisfactory state of the general market for cultivated ginseng have caused grave doubts as to the future prospects of the industry. These doubts will probably be realized unless growers should strive for quality of product and not for quantity of production, as has been the all too common practice in the past.

Onion Culture

Onion Culture

The essential requirements of a soil upon which to grow onions profitably are a high state of fertility, good mechanical condition, properties – that is, if it contains sufficient sand and humus to be easily worked, is retentive of moisture and fertilizers, and is capable of drainage – all other requirements can be met.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

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.

What We've Learned From Compost

What We’ve Learned From Compost

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Our compost piles will age for at least a year before being added to the garden. We have learned that the slow aging is more beneficial to the decomposition process as well as not losing nearly as much nitrogen to off-gassing as happens with the hot and fast methods. Another benefit is the decomposition is much more thorough, destroying weed seeds, pathogens and any unwanted chemicals much better in a slower composting setup.

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…

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

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We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.

Lost Apples

Lost Apples

The mindboggling agricultural plant and animal diversity, at the beginning of the twentieth century, should have been a treasure trove which mankind worked tirelessy to maintain. Such has not been the case. Alas, much has been lost, perhaps forever. Here are images and information on a handful of apple varieties from a valuable hundred year old text in our library.

Apple Cider Autumns Nectar

Apple Cider, Autumn’s Nectar

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While autumn’s beauty is food for our souls, autumn’s harvest provides food for our tables. Along with the many hours and days of canning and freezing our garden produce, harvest time also means apple cider making for our family. We have been making apple cider, or sweet cider as it is commonly called, for six years. Beginning slowly, the demand for our juice has resulted in a production of over six hundred gallons this year.

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

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After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Prairie Grass: A Jewel Among Kernels

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Years ago, my brother advised against plowing the patch of prairie on the back forty of our Hubbard, Iowa farm. “Some day,” he predicted, “that prairie will be as valuable as the rest of the 40 acres. We know how to grow corn; but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” Left untilled by generations of my family, the troublesome treasure has now become a jewel among a cluster of conventional crops on the farm.

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.

Peach

Peach

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The Peach is a showy tree when in bloom. There are double-flowered varieties, which are as handsome as the dwarf flowering almond, and they are more showy because of the greater size of the tree. The flowers of the Peach are naturally variable in both size and color. Peach-growers are aware that there are small-flowered and large-flowered varieties. The character of the flower is as characteristic of the variety as size or color of fruit is.

Small Farmer's Journal

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