Russell’s Workhorse Workshop
Learning to Farm with Draft Horses
Class of November 2012, Poplarville, Mississippi
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
“The educative value of manual activities and of laboratory exercises, as well as of play, depends upon the extent to which they aid in bringing about a sensing of the meaning of what is going on. In effect, if not in name, they are dramatizations.” – John Dewey
“The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” – John Holt
The lessons of farming are no different from those of any other study. In order to internalize a lesson and make it a skill, you have to go through the motions, and more – you have to grab the business end of the pitchfork, and sense cause and effect to know what it consists of in this new setting, how it operates. So when one seasoned teamster says to another that driving the buckrake is counter-intuitive, it’s a caution and a challenge for both men and horses. And a thing of beauty when horses and teamster catch on, and it works.
Then too, everybody has had that problem of studying something but not being able to apply it for months, even years. Which is often how it is with farming. You might have to keep coming back and refreshing what you know in a hands-on way, to be sure you keep knowing it, until it’s ready to be put to everyday use.
So Kenny Russell’s Farming School literally strives to offer something for everyone, at every step along the common path that is feeding ourselves and each other. In addition to their southern charm and hospitality, Kenny and Renee Russell offer some basic safety tips, some harnessing and equine care, ground driving and wagon driving. And then some advanced techniques and specialties: plowing, mowing, raking and baling. And in this incarnation, the opportunity to add a few rare skills – tuning up mowers, building and driving the buckrake, and building and using the pole stacker to put up loose hay.
This sounds like a lot to do in three days that run (and I do mean run) from early to late, and include meals that are mostly nonstop discussions where much humor and wisdom are stirred and practically inhaled. The faculty include nigh onto two centuries of hands-on experience, and it shows. The fundamental element that is taught along with the focus on activities and skills that students may select, is an ample grounding in common sense. How to do it in the most efficient ways, without hurting any innocent bystanders, your horses or yourself.
Over and over I heard several mantras – “There is no one right way,” and “You want to watch your horses.” Dogma was blessedly scarce, and truth was as understated as it was definite. If you signed up and came to find out what Kenny and Lynn and Jimmy and Mike and Jim and Aden and Carey and Barry and Bob thought, you couldn’t escape it if you bothered to ask. But they weren’t about to shove anything down your throat. They were going to show you, calmly and quietly, put the reins in your hands, and let you feel the dimensions and urgencies and pleasures of this kind of work for yourself.
The special treat of the buckrake and stacker pole constructed on the spot came in how they fit together with the other haying techniques being practiced, and allowed everyone a hands-on experience with a common goal: getting a haystack built. That stack, twenty feet high and twenty feet across, made a grand focal point for the week’s efforts, using four teams of horses to mow, rake, load and lift the hay into place. Four or five of us on the rope tried hoisting a couple of modest bites of the hay hook up to see how much effort it would take. Carey’s team easily doubled our uptake.
There is one further benefit to this kind of learning for these farmers – camaraderie. The shared jokes and after-dinner speeches, question sessions and common projects give the whole group a sense of who they can go to and ask a serious question. With farming for most still a small and all but invisible part of the larger society, that has concentrated in some places and emptied out some others, especially when working draft animals it’s important to have a neighbor who can also act as a mentor. And if you don’t have that essential advisor who lives nearby, such classes give us all an extended sense of neighborliness. There were a lot of business cards and numbers exchanged over the week. If you call or email one of these experts, with a niggling doubt, maybe needing a reminder of something you knew but forgot some key part, you will be remembered and more importantly, answered.