Horse Progress Days 2013: A View from Both Sides of the Clouds
by Stephen Leslie of Hartland, VT
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of heaven.” – Luke 9:62
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Horse Progress Days, held this year in Arcola, IL. Horse Progress Days is an annual event (now in its 20th year) which is held the first weekend before July 4th, with the aim of showcasing the latest in horse-drawn farming and logging equipment and techniques. It rotates locations among Pennsylvania, Illinois, North and South Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. To readers who are not familiar with this event I think I can best describe it by saying that, for horse farmers HPD (as it is called in acronym) is the Mecca of our world. For anyone interested in seeing firsthand the most recent innovations in applied animal traction HPD is the ultimate destination. This year’s two-day event was attended by an estimated 14,000 (at past venues it has drawn more than 20,000). And yet as exciting as it was to see all the new equipment demonstrations and the dozens of skilled teams and teamsters, for me there were other aspects of this event that unexpectedly struck even deeper chords. To try and explain, I will back up a bit to my moments of flight in a jet plane over central Illinois as I traveled to the event from my home state of Vermont.
Gazing out the window as we approached the airport at Champaign, IL, I saw a vast checkerboard of agricultural sections (each a square mile) planted to corn and soy. Corn and soy have been paying very well recently (and Farm Bill insurance subsidies for crop failure continue to sweeten the deal), with the result that more acreage is being devoted to these two crops this year (2013) than ever before in the history of humankind (the acres devoted to corn alone are at their highest since 1936). Windbreaks and shelter-belts established after the dust bowl days have been removed, more land has been drained with tile to make it suitable for planting and marginal and flood prone acres have been planted on the sure wager that if the land doesn’t yield a profit then crop insurance will.
Looking down from the clouds on this table flat land (the common saying around here is that you can see for 20 miles and if you step up onto a bucket you can see for 40) that was once a paradise of tall grass prairie cut with meandering streams and intermittent wetlands and teeming with flocks of migratory birds and wall-to-wall herds of buffalo, you can still spy the old farm houses with their outbuildings scattered onto some of the sections, but the corn and soy are planted right up to the back stoop, as if even the human beings must cede all ground to the economic imperative to plant more.
Once on the ground the most striking thing about the monoculture is the absolute absence of animal life – on these “farms”, each one encompassing thousands of acres of some of the richest topsoil on the planet, there is not a single farm animal to be seen – not a horse, nor a cow, not a pig, or a laying hen. In regards to animal life, this place has become as barren as a desert.
Now as I drove south in a rental car from Champaign to Arcola, and began to transition into the landscape stewarded by local Amish communities, subtle shifts began to appear in the land use patterns. Of course, the first noticeable change was that the farms had horses – and lots of them – big drafts for work in the fields, saddle horses, trotters for the buggies, and minis and ponies to haul the kids around in carts and to give first lessons in the joys and responsibilities of horsemanship. Many of these farms also had significant acreage planted to soy and corn, but most of them also had pasturage occupied by beef and dairy cows, fields planted to small grain and forage crops, and one could often spy housing for hogs and chickens in the copious farm yards. The farm houses here also spoke volumes, in that the commodity crops had not edged them into marginal corners of the sections, rather they were surrounded with kitchen gardens and shade trees and spreading lawns for family life and play, with room for such things as picnic tables, laundry lines, and bicycles. So, while the plain farmers are not immune to the pressure to “get big or get out” the fundamental choice they make to farm their land with horses has enabled them to retain a landscape that still operates on a human scale, that still retains a good measure of diversity and so still exudes the atmosphere of a living and breathing farm.
Once on the ground at the event itself I was immediately drawn into the cavalcade of horses and implements at the field and produce demonstrations. Yet even here with all the sounds and sights and excitement of the teams and multiple hitches and the amplified banter of the announcer introducing the equipment and the teamsters as they rolled on by working up the black prairie dirt, subtler undercurrents were beginning to make themselves apparent to my senses. A comparable experience to this event might be any county fair in America, but today at the county fair most of the young people and even many of the older ones will be taking in the sights and sounds accompanied by some kind of hand held device. At HPD what was striking was the absence of personal electronics, here even the youth were enjoying a direct unmediated experience of the present moment – no iPods, iPads, ear buds, or smart phones were in evidence, hardly even any cameras. What I also noticed about the hands of most of the people I observed is that they were farmer’s hands, men and women alike, possessed hands attached to thick wrists that were large and work-hardened, and when you shook them in greeting the grip was firm and the eyes that gazed upon you were still and penetrating and deep.
Another aspect of this event that soon became evident was that this was a welcoming and friendly congregation. For me, as a lone stranger to those parts, one of the pleasant surprises of my time was found not only in the warm welcome I received from the event organizers, but also in the many spontaneous conversations that I had with fellow farmers, equipment manufacturers, draft horse enthusiasts, people of all stripes who share a common love of the working horse.
On Friday afternoon I sat under the shade of a big tent to attend the International Meeting which is designed to give welcome to all foreign national visitors to HPD. Northwest horse farmers Lynn Miller and Ryan Foxley were there, along with a representative from the State Department, to help host and guide a delegation of filmmakers from South Sudan. These Sudanese gentlemen explained that in their country, recently liberated from 50 years of civil war, almost all farming was subsistence farming, and 30% of that was done completely with human labor. They explained that they had the land and human resources and even the animal resources (in the form of cattle and donkeys) to improve their ability to feed themselves, but the social disorder had prevented any development in agriculture. Now at this hopeful juncture in their history they had come to the United States, not to learn from the agricultural industrialists how to get on the bandwagon of progress and plant more GMO soy and corn, but to the plain farmers to learn of current trends in applied animal traction and how to succeed with community based, small, diversified farming operations.
For equipment demonstrations there were three main categories: 1) field work, 2) produce, 3) hay making. Field work and produce were held simultaneously in adjacent strips each morning (and of course had some overlap in types of equipment, differentiated mainly by scale). Hay making took place in the afternoons.
The field work began with the traditional running of the manure spreaders, followed by ground driven slurry tanks, and boom sprayers of all sizes. These demos then featured many plows and culti-mulchers, including two and three bottomed plows with multiple hitches of horses utilizing the rope and pulley systems. White Horse Machine brought a fleet of new plows including low-lift frameless plows that feature a shock absorber to cushion the horses against impact when the plowshare strikes an obstruction, and a two-way plow with hydraulic lift. There were also a number of motorized forecarts with tillage tools, like a two-axle motorized cart pulled by four-abreast and powering a rototiller that I estimate was about 6’ in width. There were new corn seeders on display and even drills for no-till planting. I got the impression that the HPD in Illinois perhaps leans to the big hitches and the power carts because even the plain farmers are drawn increasingly into relatively larger scale commodity cropping. On the positive side, we must say “Hurrah for them!” for finding a way to hold onto their land and keep their families in farming and farming with horses.
Now, as the main application of live horse power on my own farm is in the market garden with tow-behind and ground driven implements, my observations are certainly not un-biased, but I found myself most excited by what was going on over in the produce field where there was plenty of equipment for the small farmer with many implements designed for single horse and teams on display. There were single horse culti-mulchers for seed bed preparation, and tillage tools like the Pioneer Crumbler – a 3’ section of spring teeth followed by a roller/crumbler, that works well for a single or small team, and can be ganged into multiple sections for larger hitches. Boom sprayers for applying conventional sprays or for organic pest controls and foliar feeding ranged in size from a single horse cart (and also a backpack sprayer with tanks that sat like saddle bags mounted behind the saddle of a riding horse with a suspended mini-boom trailing behind) up to hitches of four-abreast with what looked to be about a 20’ boom sprayer arm. There were ground drive machines for laying down drip tape and plastic mulch, and ground driven implements for lifting them up again. Also, water wheel transplanters to set out starts once the plastic has been laid. The teamsters showed a variety of walk-behind and new riding cultivators that worked the row paths between the mulch and also demonstrated traditional row-cropping cultivation. A tine weeder for blind cultivation or scratching through such crops as young onions or corn was pulled by a team of draft ponies.
There were three new multi-tool carriers brought to the field. The first one I got a chance to see was the Pioneer Homesteader, which is a riding implement based on the design of the McCormick-Deering straddle-row cultivators (including the foot pedal design for steering the gangs). I had been hearing the buzz about this tool for awhile but it was a treat to finally see it in action and I was impressed at how the disc attachment of this multi-tool carrier was very effective at working up prairie sod. In a small-scale market garden, with its array of attachments, the Homesteader could potentially replace a whole equipment shed full of singular implements.
Next came the Anny’s All-In-One, a new tool being fabricated by Ann Siri and Mike Holmberg of Philo, CA. On this day it was being used with a team with a middle buster attachment to unearth some very new potatoes. The All-In-One is a walk-behind implement that can be used with single or team, it has an array of quick detach tools, and it can be off-set for bed cultivation.
The third multi-tool carrier was also a walk-behind implement that was originally designed for oxen and intended for development work in Africa, but is also completely compatible with horses. Father and son, Jim & Jay Norton, presented their implement. Jim is a retired engineer. Dr. Jay is a professor in soil science at the University of Wyoming. He asked his dad to develop this implement for small farmers in Kenya. Dr. Jay brought a prototype there and used it with the help of USAID. The implement is called the MFI which stands for Multi-function Farm Implement. It is redesigned and rebuilt at a shop in Iowa. Another reason for designing it was to create a tillage alternative to the moldboard plow – to disturb the soil less in countries where the soil is poor. The manufacturers brought it to HPD to see if there might be interest in this country for this kind of small-scale multi-tillage tool.
2011 was the first year that the produce equipment had its own designated field for demonstrations, which signifies just how important this sector is becoming as a growing trend on horse-powered farms. I have an inkling that the Ohio HPD in 2014 will probably feature even more innovative produce equipment, as there is a lot more of that type of farming going on in the Holmes County region.
A real highlight of the event for me was attending the afternoon hay making demonstrations and seeing the latest version of I&J Mfg’s ground drive cart in action. Watching four horses bale hay with ground drive power felt kind of akin to what I imagine it would have been like to have witnessed the Wright Brothers taking their first flight at Kitty Hawk. It confirmed my conviction that we are on the verge of a new agricultural revolution in North America whose hallmark will be the return of tens of thousands of work horses (mules and oxen) to our fields. Personally, I am drawn to the ground driven technology from an ecological stand point, plus, I find the ground driven implements past and present to be a marvel of smart engineering. It is really exciting that I&J is taking the initiative to move this technology to the next level. It was a wonder to see the baler functioning well even in hay that was probably about 25% moisture content (I was told later that, although four horses are often used for purposes of demonstration, six horses are recommended with the ground drive cart for baling under ordinary circumstances, but less are needed for other applications such as tedding hay). I missed seeing the new I&J belt driven sickle bar mower in action, but by all reports it also performed very well – the newest version has an oil bath for gears, a belt-drive system instead of a pitman arm, and double blade scissor action on the cutting bar (a team was pulling a mower with an 8′ bar).
While the field demonstrations were taking place attendees also had the option of sitting in on educational seminars covering such topics as improved methods for supplemental grazing for livestock and new innovations for growing fruit and produce. Just around the corner from the seminar tent there were round pen demonstrations covering subjects such as correct fit of harness and how to safely trailer a nervous green broke horse. On the way back to the demo fields one could take a stroll through any of several tents and see an amazing array of horse farming related products on display, from harness and hitching hardware, nutritional supplements and curatives for horses, to books and trade magazines, as well as handmade crafts, hats, ironwork, and much more.
In the latter half of the afternoons the crowd gathered round the main arena to enjoy the spectacle of the parade of breeds, which featured 6-up hitches of all the heavy horses pulling fancy wagons in full regalia. Here you could really see the difference between the horses the farmers brought for the equipment demos and those that were brought to parade in the arena. The Belgian and Percheron working horses were much more compact, with shorter stouter legs and a lower center of gravity, and of course, they had normal, nicely rounded hooves, rather than the dinner plate feet with specially weighted shoes worn by the show drafts. There were mini horses and ponies all over the grounds of this event. As mentioned previously, a lot of the folks in that area have minis as starter horses for their children. There were many small carts driven by little boys and girls with even smaller kids on board as passengers. The morning pony pulling event started out with some mighty impressive teams of minis showing what they were made of. The grand finale of the parade of breeds, after all the heavy horses had made their showing, was a cowboy from Wyoming who brought out his six-up team called “Percheron Thunder” and circled the arena while driving the horses with each of his feet planted on the backs of the rearmost team. However, this amazing act was almost upstaged by a local boy of about 13 years old who put a foot on the back of each of his team of minis and “flew” around the arena – to the great delight and cheers of the enormous crowd.
On Friday evening I had the pleasure of being hosted by a local family. I was made to feel quite welcome in their modest and tidy home that could have been anywhere in small town America with the difference that it was off-grid and instead of a two-car garage it had a carriage house for horse and buggy. Saturday morning I woke early, not to the noise of car and truck traffic in the street, but rather to the rhythmic clip clop of hooves passing by on the road as neighbors got started with their day.
Breakfast in the food tent was a sumptuous six dollars for all-you-can-eat affair of pancake stacks, home fries, scrambled eggs and sausage (all the proceeds raised from food sales at HPD goes to aid in the care of special needs children).
I returned home from HPD 2013 feeling very inspired and reinvigorated (which was a good thing because the weeds in the garden and the hay that needed to be cut didn’t take a break while I was away). Although we don’t have any other horse farmers in our immediate neighborhood, I go forward with a sense of being increasingly connected to a widening community of like-minded small farmers. Based on my experience of Horse Progress Days I can say that the future of horse farming in North America looks very bright indeed!
Hope to see you in Ohio next year.