Small Farmer's Journal

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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.

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Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

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The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

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Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.

An Introduction Into Plant Polyculture

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

Starting Seeds

From Dusty Shelves: A WWII era article from Farming For Security

How to Grow an Acre of Potatoes

How to Grow an Acre of Potatoes

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Heretofore potato production in this country has been conducted along extensive rather than intensive lines. In other words, we have been satisfied to plant twice as many acres as should have been necessary to produce a sufficient quantity of potatoes for our food requirements. Present economic conditions compel the grower to consider more seriously the desirability of reducing the cost of production by increasing the yield per acre.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

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The old way of selecting seed from open-pollinated corn involved selecting the best ears from the poorest ground. I have tried to select perfect ears based on the open-pollinated seed corn standards of the past. I learned these standards from old agricultural texts. The chosen ears of Reid’s average from 9 to 10.5 inches long and have smooth, well-formed grains in straight rows. I try to select ears with grains that extend to the end of the cob.

Mullein Indigenous Friend to All

Mullein: Indigenous Friend to All

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Mullein is a hardy native, soft and sturdy requiring no extra effort to thrive on your part. Whether you care to make your own medicines or not, consider mullein’s value to bees, bumblebees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, who are needing nectar and nourishment that is toxin free and safe to consume. In this case, all you have to do is… nothing. What could be simpler?

Farm Manure

Farm Manure

Naturally there is great variation in manure according to the animals it is made by, the feeding and bedding material, and the manner in which it is kept. Different analyses naturally shows different results and the tables here given serve only as a guide or index to the various kinds. The manure heap, by the way, is no place for old tin cans, bottles, glass, and other similar waste material.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden

One of our goals when we first started farming here was to develop the farm as a self-contained nutrient system. Unlike the almost complete recycling of nutrients which can take place on a livestock operation, we are always amazed – even a little disturbed – to see how many tons of fertility and organic matter leave the market garden each year with so little returned to the good earth.

Winter Production of Fresh Vegetables

Winter Production of Fresh Vegetables

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Any claim about winter production of fresh vegetables, with minimal or no heating or heat storage systems, seems highly improbable. The weather is too cold and the days are too short. Low winter temperatures, however, are not an insurmountable barrier. Nor is winter day-length the barrier it may appear to be. In fact most of the continental US has far more winter sunshine than parts of the world where, due to milder temperatures, fresh winter vegetable production has a long tradition.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Wild Potatoes and Calcium

Wild potatoes bring increased calcium for better tubers.Have you ever cut into a potato to find a dark spot or hollow part? Early research shows that these defects are likely the result of calcium deficiencies in the potato — and that tuber calcium is genetically linked to tuber quality.

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.

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.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Follow-Up On Phosphorus

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

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.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

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