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.
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.