STEP AHEAD: 23rd Annual Horse Progress Days 2016
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
photos by Paul Hunter & Jerry Hunter
“There is no barn without flies.” – Laura Hunter
I had only been to Horse Progress Days once before, at Mount Hope, Ohio in 2008. It had been an eye-opener, showing how strong and in touch with sustainable farming values the Amish are, and how innovative and sensible their efforts could be. So at the 23rd annual event in Howe, Indiana, I was there partly looking for signs of continuity, and partly for signs of change.
Right off I spotted an Amish man with a Blue Tooth in his ear, talking as he walked along. There was a new posse of young mounted riders directing traffic and parking cars. Among novelties was a special program of demonstrations aimed at market gardening and small-scale farming, with equipment designed for single horses and small teams. There were systems to prepare soil, lay dripline and black plastic weed and moisture barrier all in one pass. For applications large and small there seems to be considerable emphasis on reducing the number of passes down the field, to help the farmer make more effective use of his and his draft animals’ time and energy.
There was a strong set of demonstrations focused on logging and wood products, demonstrating tree pruning high in several old trees adjoining the fields, with chainsaw work, and portable wood mills. There was even an automated firewood processor that spat out an endless heap cut and split to size, that it did everything but stack, and a noisy machine from Montana that drilled holes and pounded fence posts in the ground on demand.
Notable among exhibits new this year was a demonstration of dogs to herd cattle, which alongside traditional sheep herding drew a large and appreciative crowd. Part mind-reading and part skillful maneuvering, the dogs were clearly appreciated and valued at their tasks.
There is a trend in miniature horses everywhere in evidence, as small hitches were used to pull both grownups and children all over the fair grounds in a variety of carts and wagons, along with the traditional larger and more comfortable people-movers.
Indoors a huge 3.4 acre facility sheltered upwards of a hundred booths, that offered an impressive range of the latest energy-saving and planet-saving technologies, as well as round-pen demonstrations and talks that drew large audiences. Exhibitors were not shy about making use of solar and wind power, and showed how many Amish farmers and manufacturers are now employing computers to manage their marketing, accounting and other needs.
Yet outdoors in the field the big horses are still the stars of the show, just as strong and well-mannered in large hitches as I recalled from eight years ago. There was more mechanization, more choices and refinements of sturdy ideas, like White Horse Manufacturing and Pioneer’s new plowing and cultivating systems, and Miller’s Machinery cultimulchers. The biggest no-till drill in 2008 had been pulled by six horses, and cost around $23,000. This year the biggest no-till drill was pulled by eight horses, and cost $32,000. The homemade ice cream was every bit as delicious as ever, churned by little “hit-or-miss” John Deere irrigation pump engines that had been lovingly restored.
But I was also looking for other clues of health and longevity for small farmers. And maybe I was expecting faint signs of trouble, at least a few edgy looks in the angry and thin-skinned election season that prevails outside Amish communities. I thought I’d hit upon something when I saw groups of Amish teenage boys wearing stocking caps instead of their usual straw hats. Could these be signs of incipient rebellion? But when asked, these boys said they were bicycle riders, and that they had hit on this solution for the windy roads in Northern Indiana, where gusts snatched off their straw hats and blew them all over.
One notable new offering was a contest for amateur auctioneers, that drew an attentive audience of 5,000 around the main arena. The 18 contestants were each given three items to sell to the crowd, with the proceeds donated to charity. One particularly effective young auctioneer sprinkled a strangely memorable and jolly phrase throughout his patter. No matter what he was selling (mostly rakes and shovels and other small items) he’d chant “Buy-a-hen, buy-a-hen, Buy-um, buy-um, buy-um.”
Finally, though, farming isn’t just a show full of diverse entertainments, it’s a living and a business grounded in a modest belief system, informed by a subtle science capable of great refinement. I was enormously cheered to see the Amish spirit still active and innovative in the farming arts and crafts, still deeply committed to the enterprise.
As we were leaving I went past the picket line of lean brown horses favored by the Amish for their everyday buggies. Among the hundreds of horses waiting, socializing, I spotted two that had no harness or bridles, who were tied in halters. If character is what you do when no one is looking, here was a mark of character, of someone taking the small extra care to make his animals comfortable while they waited out the day, as long it took for their turn, to make the long trot home.