by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
I Raised ‘em All the Same
Ask anyone who has more than one child, and they are sure to tell you that each of their children is unique. You may hear something like, “we raised ’em the same; certainly didn’t treat one any different than the other. So why are they each so different?” So it is also with horses. I have two 2-year-olds born within a week of each other, Frankie and Luna, both sprung from the loins of Donald, yet they couldn’t be more different. I started the two youngsters on the same winter’s morning in the same round corral with the same routine. As of this writing I am working Frankie single, daily feeding cows, hauling hay to the loafing sheds and other odd chores. On the other hand, Luna has yet to calmly pull a single tree dragging a log chain without serious jitters. She acts surprised every day by the fact that there is a harness on her back, a crupper under her tail, breaching around her rump. Realizing that there is harness jangling around back there, she tries to fold herself up, hind end hunched under, tail tucked. It is as if she has no memory of the previous day’s lesson, how she finally walked peaceably in circles, clockwise and counter, without fear – I insist on ending each session on a positive note if possible. But her memory is short and she can’t seem to overcome the wild-animal-running-from-hungry-predators-on-the-Steppes-of-Mongolia fear native to the mind of every horse.
Every new task I set Frankie to, he willingly tackles, giving his best effort. He is trusting and levelheaded and decidedly easy-going. So easygoing in fact, that some might accuse him of being dopey and dull. But really, what qualities of mind do we want in a farm horse? The breeders of old selected for honest farm stock that kept a cool head under pressure. They did not want a horse prancing and dancing down through the carrot patch.
This is not to say that Luna has no place on the farm, or that she is a hopeless case, or that I should send her to the racetrack to fritter around with a bunch of high strung, bred-up thoroughbreds. She’ll come around. Sometimes the most difficult horses in the early-going make the finest working horses in the long run.
Tack Room Insurance
I came down to the barn early in the morning a little while back and was horrified to see the door to the tack room left open, the light on. A few hundred pounds of oats were in the bin, sacks of chicken feed stacked against the wall. There is nothing more horrifying to a horseman than the sight of a loose horse with his head down in a grain sack, freely indulging. Acute laminitis (founder) is ugly and can happen in the blink of an eye. Yet, it is completely preventable. Mr. Littlefield still tells the story, from before my time on the farm, when a big shire mare got into a trash can full of grass seed. She ate as much as she could hold and quickly succumbed to the profound changes in the gut that eating so much grain quickly brings: a rotation of the coffin bone against the sole of the hoof, rendering the horse lame, uncomfortable even standing. This mare never was able to work again. That morning at the barn I said a little prayer of relief that no horse got loose in the night and that all was well. Nevertheless I hurried straight away to the shop, retrieved a stout screen door spring that I had bought some time ago for the purpose, and installed it on the tack room door. The spring fairly slams the door shut behind me now, a small bit of inexpensive insurance against the forgetful and often distracted mind of the busy farmer.
We had a lot of wind last fall, more than usual. In fact the wind normally blows over the top of us from hilltop to hilltop leaving us untouched here in our little river valley below. I mulched the garlic and bare garden areas with big leaf maple leaves in October as usual, but within a week or two, with the presence of strangely incessant winds, the leaves had all blown away. It’s the first time this has ever happened. By the time I got around to restoring the mulch, leaves were hard to come by and I had to buy some straw. Then one afternoon while coming home from town, I noticed that one of the two movable greenhouses was not where it should be. It lay in a crumpled heap a few feet from its previous location, torn plastic flapping in the breeze. Upon closer inspection, I was surprised to see that the whole greenhouse had lifted-off into the air, and subsequently slammed down some distance northeast of its former location, destroying most of its framing. The crop growing inside, three tidy, once sheltered rows of late planted salad greens, lay bare, exposed to the bitter November winds. Strangely, not a leaf was torn, crushed or otherwise damaged. I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and deduced that a powerful gust of wind must have gotten underneath the greenhouse, lifting it straight into the air, set it to flying, only to pitch it earthwards suddenly and unceremoniously, completely destroying it. Ground anchors, so necessary during my Wyoming farming days, have never been needed here. I think I’ll reconsider.
Several years ago I bought a John Deere model 192 16” walking plow from a local fellow who was selling off his horses and machinery. (Unfortunately, I have acquired too much equipment from ex-horse farmers – I would prefer that these machines were still in use on their farms instead of mine.) Finally after a few years of sitting in the corner of the machine shed, I decided to drag the old plow out and give it a try. At first glance I thought I could gather up an evener, a clevis and some horses and be off plowing in no time. The first problem though, was that somewhere along the line I must have needed a single-tree. I had apparently robbed (borrowed) the middle tree of my three abreast evener for use elsewhere.
Owing to a clear and present need, and due to the distance to town, combined with the time required to go there and back again, farmers often resort to the age old practice of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” This practice usually costs us in the end, and I can’t help but think it would’ve been better to do the task right to begin with (what that task was exactly, I now have no idea). Once I located another single tree (not the actual missing one, of course) I took a close look at the plow. It appeared as if it had been purchased at one point by someone who, wishing to make a quick buck at auction, slapped on a coat of paint and threw it in the sale ring. The rolling coulter and depth wheel were mounted incorrectly and the yoke was on the wrong side of the beam. None of these things was by itself a big problem, but removing rusty painted-on bolts takes time, and to do the job correctly, I figured I might as well ream out the bolt threads and replace the rusted nuts. I put a flap disc on the angle grinder and shined up the moldboard and landside, which though pitted some by rust, were not bad.
I’m glad I took the time to put the old plow back into condition. It was a real pleasure to use. Though I have spent many days behind a fine next-generation walking plow from Pioneer Equipment, and though I appreciate its design and utility, and have not been shy about singing its virtues, I have to say that I really enjoyed the way the old John Deere handled. It’s lighter weight, due to the geometry, and the nature of a cast iron beam make fixing mistakes and positioning the plow at the headlands quite a bit less cumbersome.
Unlike during the days of my hard scrabble beginning, nowadays I certainly don’t have to use a walking plow. After all, I have a perfectly good John Deere two way plow and a very nice Pioneer footlift sulky with KV bottom. Rather, I choose to use the walking plow, quite simply, because I enjoy it. There is a kind of one-to-one ratio to the whole affair that I enjoy, a direct and purposeful contact with the land, the plow, the team: footsteps on soil, feel of horses mouths through lines across my back, movement of soil and sod keenly felt through wood of plow handles to calloused hands. To me this represents the essence of why we are drawn to farming in the first place, especially horse farming. I make the choice to sometimes walk behind a plow instead of comfortably riding on it. We likewise make the choice to use horses in our fields instead of the far speedier, and certainly physically easier way of the tractor.
Once a year or so we Northwest horse farmers try to get together for an event we call Farmer-to-Farmer. As the name implies we do not bring in fancy university types to impart their learned wisdom at a downtown convention center, but rather pass on our little bits of experience and wisdom one to the other. This year we were all set to host the event at Littlefield Farm. Expecting over 50 people, we had sessions planned on topics ranging from making loose hay with horses to small farm economics. We were planning a slideshow featuring photos of the farms of those attending. We would likely have scared up a bit of music and dancing down in the shop, which I had cleaned and polished to the point of resembling a hospital operating room.
Through December and January we had been coasting along enjoying mild temperatures and unusually dry conditions. Mostly it didn’t even feel like winter. However, as much as a week and a half before our planned event, the second weekend of February, forecasters were calling for snow – and lots of it. As the date for the event fast approached the forecast only became more certain and more dire. On Tuesday morning before the Friday event, while looking at several inches of snow on the ground, schools closed and the really big storm forecast to arrive on Friday, I made the difficult decision to cancel the event. Not only were people coming from hundreds of miles away on snow and icy roads, but the road into the farm can be utterly treacherous, if not impassable with much more than a couple of inches of snow. It is in shade, very steep, and lists the wrong direction toward a gully. Growing up in the snow country of Wyoming I am no stranger to bad roads, but snowy roads in Western Washington can at times be the nastiest, slickest, soupiest, sloppiest roads I’ve ever seen. With temperatures usually hovering just a little above or just a little below freezing there is always the potential for a layer of slush on top of a layer of ice, a layer of ice over a layer of slush, freezing rain, or any other deadly combination you care to think of. In addition to the challenging conditions, when one considers driving in snow in this part of the world, one must also take into account a large urban population who knows nothing of driving in such conditions, and county road departments that are woefully unprepared to handle a large snow storm. It’s not their fault – our region simply doesn’t routinely get enough snow to justify the expense of maintaining a large fleet of snow plows and sand sheds.
Turns out I made the right call. The weekend of the event we lost power overnight and there was a 50 car pile up on I-5 not far from the farm. Brendan missed seven straight days of school. Nearly every day I hitched up three horses and plowed the county road between the lower and upper parts of the farm. Trees burdened by the enormous weight of heavy wet snow were falling like dominoes all around.
And it just continued, like Narnia it was “always winter but never Christmas.” All month temperatures were 10° or more below normal. Alas, we had some days where the high temperature was lower than the normal low. And always snow, snow and more snow. For a place that can sometimes go a whole winter and not see a single snowflake, the whole month of February felt entirely surreal.
Then spring arrived. One day we were locked in an arctic jetstream that had been with us for a month and the next day the cold air was chased off by warm southwesterlies and it’s been springtime ever since. And what a lovely spring it has been, featuring above normal temperatures and abundant sunshine, which we normally don’t get much of this time of year. Plowing and planting have progressed rapidly. I am once again lulled to sleep at night by the massive chorus of frogs singing in the bottom land below my attic bedroom window, and being awakened early next morning by a lovely choir of songbirds.
The weather continues to confound, to derange itself with consistent inconsistencies. We know this, we who walk about on the land day in and day out, season after season. We know this in our hearts and in our heads, from the evidence of our senses, from our ceaseless informal observations. Those with the money and the power in the halls of government, and in the towers of the global-petroleum-industrial-complex sell the idea that this business of a changing climate is simply a matter of belief, like the way a child professes a belief in Santa Claus. But what farmers know, we see unfolding before our very eyes. We believe our senses, we trust our crops, and we trust our cumulative knowledge of the little corners of the world which we steward.
What gives me pause, and indeed great consternation, is the rapidity with which these changes are taking place. There have indeed been great changes in climate, topography, geography and species distribution over the epochs of history. This is well established. But the pace at which nature works should not be evident within the space of half of one human lifespan. Geologic time is immense, measured in hundreds of thousands, or millions of years, beyond human comprehension really. But what we are observing is happening in tens of years, not tens of thousands. The change that I have seen in my blink-of-an-eye 47 years, is quite staggering when put in the context of geologic time. When I first moved to the Northwest, when making hay, I lived and died by the tedder. It’s use was imperative due to the region’s typically cool moist maritime summer conditions. The last few years though, have featured big expansive periods of dry heat such that I have all but quit using the tedder. Last winter my garlic grew up through the mulch in the fall and sat there happily through the whole winter rather than waiting until spring, like every other year in memory. How many 500 or 1000 year weather events have we seen in the last 10 years, from floods to tornadoes to hurricanes? It is worrisome to think of what the next 47 years will bring. In what kind of world will my children and grandchildren live?
The meek can only inherit the earth if the wealthy and powerful don’t destroy it first. And if, in the end, the meek do inherit the earth, it will be because we have planted our crops, saved our seeds, hitched up our horses, helped our neighbors and lived well upon the earth; it will be because we will have carefully guarded the knowledge and wisdom of ripening, fertility, simplicity, independence, resourcefulness and hard work. When the drones fall from the sky, and the robot tractors sputter into silence in vast and lifeless fields, the seeds of renewal will only be found preserved in the rich fabric of the small independent farmsteads of the world.