Live Horse-Powered Subsoiling
by Joel Miller
We are Joel and Annalisa Wild Miller, of the Wild Miller Gardens. This will be our 5th season of market gardening; all of our farming is accomplished with the traction power of 5 horses. Two of our own and three that belong to Chuck Cox, Annalisa’s father and our next door neighbor at Tuckaway Farm.
From day one, when we started trying to figure out how horses would fit into our gardening, and how our gardening could be shaped to fit in the horses, we have been inspired and fascinated with some of Anne and Eric Nordell’s dry land farming techniques. We’re very grateful for the work of the SFJ and all of the people who contribute to this great publication for making such valuable material available. It can be very helpful and inspiring for us young farmers to see all the innovative and interesting things people are doing out there on their small farms. After years of reading and being inspired, we felt we might now have a story or two about horse powered market gardening that might be of interest to the rest of the SFJ community.
So this story starts with non-irrigated vegetables. A shallow well necessitates this for us and has helped us build our gardens around this management. That and the fact that in the North east we should receive plenty of water from the sky each year that only needs to be taken advantage of. So we decided we wanted to build our market gardens to be drought/flood proof for the times when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Through the use of carefully planned cover crop/vegetable rotations, homemade compost and intention, we focus on minimal tillage and maintaining high organic matter in our soils to retain as much of that soil moisture as possible.
Recently we have realized that our plants may have come up against it in this quest – up against a hard pan, that is. Our old soils have been worked since this farm was homesteaded in 1720; over those years it’s seen lots of farming through the generations. In the market gardens we tested for subsoil compaction with a penetrometer, and at 8-12 inches deep this was stopped by the hard pan. With a hefty push, it would punch through and penetrate freely again below this compacted layer. Well to really drought proof the gardens, we wanted to allow the roots of our vegetable plants to be able to penetrate deep into the subsoil moisture reserves in dry spells. This hard pan would stop those roots in their tracks. Since we have already decided that we are only interested in working horses on the gardens, this posed a bit of a problem when all we could find about subsoiling shows the need for a lot more diesel horses than we had interest in. We could have hired this job out to a neighbor with a big tractor, but we decided to be stubborn and stick with the idea that if there is a job to be done in the market gardens, then the horses should be able to do it, or maybe we were approaching it from the wrong angle.
While browsing “Horsedrawn Plows, and plowing” by Lynn Miller, we came across the pictures of the old horse drawn subsoilers, meant to be run in the furrow sole. Ideally it would be pulled by a team walking the furrow behind another team doing the plowing to be most time efficient. Well, we had a walking plow that we use regularly in the gardens and access to the horses to pull it, we only needed a subsoiler. We waited a year or two to see if we would happen to come across one, in the way that things seem to magically happen sometimes when your patient. Without any luck, the idea was sort of on the back burner until one day while moving some equipment around in the barn we took a second look at our old horse drawn potato digger. It was a walk behind design with a heavy steel beam that had a shovel and tray bolted to the bottom of it. With closer inspection, the whole shovel apparatus came off with two bolts, leaving us with a heavy steel beam that looked robust enough for the job, but without any sort of point on it to keep downward suction.
A little brainstorming and scrap pile browsing, and we found just what we needed, the handle-less head of an old pick ax! We cut off the flat sided pick from the ax found that we could weld it onto the bottom of the beam and still be able to bolt or unbolt the potato shovel when we wanted to. So there it was, we welded it on and played with the vertical clevis adjustment on the beam until we suddenly had that beam buried 14 inches deep and two horses didn’t really want to pull it. Turns out that the angle we welded this point on was a bit too shallow and to make the tool run deep enough we had to remove the gauge wheel from the beam and run it with the tip of the beam just scraping the ground. This worked fine in practice, it only left the beam looking a bit funny while working. Without being sure, it did seem that this may have been adding some unnecessary draft for the team. Before working this tool again, we plan on cutting off the point and making a steeper angle to have the beam run a bit more parallel to the ground.
Well our team of 3 year old Suffolks had just finished their initial plow training with one of the older and more experienced mares hitched with them for guidance. So if we could plow with the young team that would leave the three older mares to follow them and do the heavy subsoiling work. We planned a date for some friends to come out and help with the driving and one Sunday afternoon we set to it with 5 horses in the field together for the first time, what a sight for a small farm in New Hampshire!
The young team and I worked out front with the plow set as deep as we could cleanly plow, and had the three abreast following behind. The three abreast hitch made it easy to pull the subsoiler straight behind the middle horse who walked the furrow. This also put one horse on the land and one on the plowed ground. We felt we were able to justify this since we were using our small hillside plow and at each headland we were switching the plow from right handed to left. That meant each outside horse took turns walking the plowed ground.
The subsoiler was running consistently 11-12 inches deep in the bottom of a 5-6 inch furrow leaving a channel ripped at least 16 inches deep, and spaced every 10 inches across the field, the width of our plowshare, center to center in each furrow sole. We could see that we were certainly ripping through compacted layers, as chunks of it were occasionally popped up to the surface and this was work enough for three horses! Bless their stalwart effort, they pulled willingly but were happy enough for a breather at each headland.
We did choose our battle somewhat here by picking the most stone free garden we had for this test. Even so, we did find quite a few stones when running that deep. The good team would stop calmly when they felt that sudden resistance of a stone, though we found that mostly when a stone was hit, it simply popped up and out. If not the first time it was hit, then on the next pass down the field. On the following pass with the plow I would stop the team at these stones and pull them up on the surface before burying them with the next furrow.
After the job was done we did a little stone boat work to clear the field of these bigger stones. Though we brought up some beauties, the hardened point of the pick ax handled them with ease, none the worse for wear. The best of them was about the size of a hay bale! This in a field I had never hit a stone before with the plow! By digging it out a bit on one side and standing the stone boat on edge in the hole we were able to roll the stone and stone boat together up onto the surface to remove it from the field. At this point we were reminded of a quote by an anonymous farmer that we had read in Carl Schwenke’s book “Build Your Own Stone House” that read, “If you can pick it up, it’s a nice stone. If you can’t pick it up, it’s a doggone boulder!” There was a satisfying sight watching that bugger leaving the field and to find that we were able to accomplish this whole job after all, by relying on live horse power, creativity, and possibly some stubbornness. Fun was had and by all, and for all we could have asked for, we considered it a success!