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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 PDT

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: People

Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

The Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

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In the winter of 2011, Daniel mentioned a fourteen-year-old student of his who had spent a whole month eating only foods gathered from the wild. “Could we go for two days on the hand-harvested food we have here?’ he asked. “Let’s give it a try!” I responded with my usual enthusiasm. We assembled the ingredients on the table. Everything on that table had passed through our hands. We knew all the costs and calories associated with it. No hidden injustice, no questionable pesticides. We felt joy at living in such an edible world.

Traditional Agriculture in Siberia

Traditional Agriculture in Siberia

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The agricultural system of the Old Believers has long been one of hand labor. Their homesteads (hozyastvas) were not intended for tractors or horses, with the possible exception of their larger potato fields. Traditionally the small peasant hozyastva has its roots in hand labor, and this has helped maintain the health of the land. Understanding the natural systems is easier when one’s hands are in the soil every day as opposed to seeing the land from the seat of a tractor.

Mayfield Farm

Mayfield Farm, New South Wales, Australia

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Mayfield Farm is a small family owned and operated mixed farm situated at 1150 m above sea level on the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range in northern New South Wales, Australia. Siblings, Sandra and Ian Bannerman, purchased the 350 acre property in October, 2013, and have converted it from a conventionally operated farm to one that is run on organic principles. Additional workers on the farm include Janette, Ian’s wife, and Jessica, Ian’s daughter.

Rope Tricks

a short piece on rope tricks from the 20th anniversary Small Farmer’s Journal.

Sustainable

Sustainable

Sustainable is a documentary film that weaves together expert analysis of America’s food system with a powerful narrative of one extraordinary farmer who is determined to create a sustainable future for his community. In a region dominated by commodity crops, Marty Travis has managed to maintain a farming model that is both economically viable and environmentally safe.

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…

Expanding the Use of the Heavy Draught Horse in Europe

Expanding the Use of the Heavy Draught Horse in Europe

“La Route du Poisson”, or “The Fish Run,” is a 24 hour long relay which starts from Boulogne on the coast at 9 am on Saturday and runs through the night to the outskirts of Paris with relays of heavy horse pairs until 9 am Sunday with associated events on the way. The relay “baton” is an approved cross country competition vehicle carrying a set amount of fresh fish.

Honoring Our Teachers

Honoring Our Teachers

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I believe that there exist many great practicing teachers, some of who deliberately set out to become one and others who may have never graduated from college but are none-the-less excellent and capable teachers. I would hazard a guess that many readers of Small Farmer’s Journal know more than one teacher who falls within this latter category. My grandfather, and artist and author Eric Sloane, were two such teachers.

UCSC Farm & Garden Apprenticeship

UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden Apprenticeship

UC Santa Cruz is thrilled to welcome applications to the 50th Anniversary year of the UCSC Farm and Garden Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture. The 39 apprentices each year arrive from all regions of the US and abroad, and represent a wide spectrum of ages, backgrounds, and interests. We have a range of course fee waivers available to support participation in the Apprenticeship.

Farm To School Programs Take Root

All aim to re-connect school kids with healthy local food.

LittleField Notes A Trip to the Auld Country

LittleField Notes: A Trip to the Auld Country

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I’ve come to the north of Scotland this October almost by accident. And I find myself standing on the windy, rocky point of land that is northernmost on the isle of Great Britain. The sea lies before me: the flooding tide from the Atlantic pours in on my left where it collides with the North Sea pouring in from the right, the opposing currents whipping up a frenzy of white capped, tidal confusion: for sailors past and present, treacherous waters indeed. Straight ahead, across the seething waters of Pentland Firth lie the Orkney Islands, my ultimate destination.

Cuban Agriculture

Cuban Agriculture

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In December of 1979, Mary Jo and I spent two weeks traveling in Cuba on a “Farmer’s Tour of Cuba”. The tour was a first of its kind. It was organized in the U.S. by farmers, was made up of U.S. farmers and agriculturally oriented folks, and was sponsored in Cuba by A.N.A.P., the National Association of Independent Farmers. As we learned about farming we also learned how the individuals, farms, and communities we visited fit into the greater social and economic structure of Cuba.

Feeding Elk Winter Work for the Belgians

Feeding Elk: Winter Work for the Belgians

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Doug Strike of rural Sublette County is spending his second winter feeding wild elk in nearby Bondurant, Wyoming. Strike is supplementing his logging income as well as helping his team of Belgian draft horses to keep in shape for the coming season. From May to the end of November he uses his horses to skid logs out of the mountains of western Wyoming. I found the use of Doug’s beautiful Belgian team an exciting example of appropriate technology.

Cindys Curds & Whey

Cindy’s Curds & Whey

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The Burgess dairy farm and cheese factory are sustainable operations, meaning that nearly every by-product is re-used or recycled. For example, the usually-discarded whey goes to feed their own pigs, producing an exceptionally tasty, lean pork. Whey is the liquid portion of milk that develops after the milk protein has coagulated, and contains water, milk sugar, albuminous proteins, and minerals.

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

I am certainly not the most able of dairymen, nor the most skilled among vegetable growers, and by no means am I to be counted amongst the ranks of the master teamsters of draft horses. If there is anything remarkable about my story it is that someone could know so little about farming as I did when I started out and still manage to make a good life of it.

In Memoriam Gene Logsdon

In Memoriam: Gene Logsdon

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Gene didn’t see life (or much of anything else) through conventional eyes. I remember his comment about a course he took in psychology when he was trying to argue that animals did in fact have personalities (as any farmer or rancher will tell you is absolutely true), and the teacher basically told him to sit down and shut up because he didn’t know what he was taking about. Gene said: “I was so angry I left the course and then left the whole stupid school.”

Great Oregon Steam Up

Great Oregon Steam-Up

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I went to the Great Oregon Steam-Up over in Brooks, Oregon, near Salem. Lynn has been invited and has wanted to attend for years, but this time of year might very well be the busiest time of year for him. He’s always farming or writing or editing or painting or forecasting or businessing or just generally fightin’ the power, yo. It’s nuts, I don’t know how he does it all. So, when I told him I was going to go, he was very interested and wanted a good report.

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