Such a One Horse Outfit
by Robert Wright of LeRoy, MI
Like so many people during the sixties and seventies I was motivated to live a more simple and basic lifestyle. I bought forty acres of wooded land in northern Michigan and moved north in pursuit of self-sufficiency. Encouraged by Mother Earth News I was confident that with all that wood I’d never go cold and surely it couldn’t be all that difficult to grow most of what we needed. Little did I realize the vast variety of skills and knowledge needed to even come remotely close to self-sufficiency!
Growing up, I had always wanted a horse and with all that land what better time to own one. Purchase one saddle horse, new saddle and a little bit of hay. Yup, you guessed it, a whole new learning process. For a couple of years that old horse and I rode many miles on the trails of the State Forest adjoining my land. After a while it started to get boring riding alone over the same trails day after day. I certainly was getting experience with my partner and the responsibility of caring for him, but I felt a need to accomplish something practical with him. I needed justification for owning a horse.
One day my stepfather brought over a magazine he had recently subscribed to. It was called Small Farmer’s Journal published by a guy named Lynn Miller. That issue had a short story about an old man that used a single small mule to garden and skid firewood with. I was totally fascinated with the prospect of having a horse and him earning his keep. It sorta seemed like having your cake and eating it too.
Shortly thereafter I sold the saddle horse and purchased a team of Welsh out of Morgan from a horse dealer. I took them for a short test drive and was satisfied they could do anything I asked of them. The day after the dealer delivered them I harnessed up with great anticipation and was shocked to discover that during the past couple days they had developed two speeds, wide open and stop!!! Whoa wasn’t all that easy to accomplish a lot of the time. I plowed my first two furrows with that team! I hitched to a small poplar stump one day and when they popped it out of the ground they got all buggy eyed and drug me and the stump across the yard at a dead run with me hanging onto the lines screaming whoa and leaving two furrows where my elbows drug through the earth. One horse on the North side and one on the South side, they tried their best to take down a maple tree. I spent a week trying to get that harness back in shape! A neighbor of mine just had to have them and was sure he could work it out of them. A couple months later one got tangled in a rope and killed himself; the other was sold immediately,
A while later I approached an Amish farmer that had recently moved into our area. I visited him one afternoon and explained my inexperience and inquired if he had a good horse for a novice to learn on. He said he had just the horse but she won’t go cheap. A little Belgian mare that was broke the best and was due to foal the following spring. That Belgian mare taught this greenhorn a new lesson each and every time I hitched her. How excited I was every time Maude and I accomplished a new task. It didn’t matter how small or trivial the task, it made me feel that I was making progress without the fear of loss of life or limb! That old mare demonstrated more patience than should ever be expected from any animal. As time passed I became more and more attached to her and she to me. We slowly came to know each other and my skill and knowledge increased with each day. Without Maude and The Work Horse Handbook I don’t think I would have kept on. But a broken marriage resulted in the sale of Maude and her filly foal, but I had been bitten. It would take years for me to fully realize just how badly! Maude had engraved something into my soul that could never be erased.
I ended up moving to Hawaii and landing a job with the military. I was working for the government, living in Hawaii, making fairly good money. Had a very small apartment on the third floor and drove an acceptable car. I suppose just the Hawaii part would fulfill a lot of folks dreams but to me it had become just another big city complete with all the negative social problems and stigma that lifestyle comes packaged with. The worst of which I was living in a small apartment building that reminded me of a bunch of rabbit cages with neighbors passing each other every day but never getting to know each other. If one got too friendly they were treated with suspicion.
I’m not sure why we humans cling to what we know, what we are comfortable with, when we are taken from that comfort zone. It has been said that it is a sense of survival, but I know it is a slight nudge from the loving hand of my Lord trying to guide a lost old man down a previously chosen path. In fact there have been a few times it was a bit more like a push. But whatever the explanation, I continued to cling to the few country things that were available in the city of Honolulu. Things like the fair where the locals were fascinated by a real cow or baby chicks. Most importantly, the Small Farmer’s Journal! But there were times when even that was depressing as it gave me something very similar to home sickness!
Early one morning back in 1998 I was sitting in my office and was supposed to be preparing for the arrival of my crew. I was feeling depressed, out of place and unfulfilled. You see, I had just received the latest copy of the SFJ and that issue opened a floodgate of memories, smells and sounds of trace chains and Maude. For those of you that have read “Henry and The Great Society”, I was Henry and I didn’t like it one little bit. At that very moment I decided to write Lynn Miller a letter. I briefly explained my situation and asked if he and any readers thought it was feasible to farm ten acres with a single. My letter ran in the Summer 1998 issue. It wasn’t long and I started receiving letters from all over the United States and Canada. All were using or at one time had used a single for a wide variety of farm work. Every one emphatically stated it was not only possible but all were, or had at some time, farmed with a single horse. I did not receive a single letter that discouraged my dream. It was then that I realized that I had not only subscribed to a magazine, but had joined a family of like-minded people. Plain, simple people that were not only willing to help a greenhorn but eager to do so! It was a real good feeling at a time when I needed it the most.
Just a short time later Clinton started making cutbacks and reorganizing the military. I was informed that my job would be eliminated but would be given an opportunity for a buyout. None of my co-workers could comprehend why a man could be so elated that he had just lost his job and career. But it was so very obvious that the hand of God had once again intervened in my life and my prayers had been answered.
My wife, daughter and I caught a plane that fall and returned to Michigan to find some land. I was shown some of the finest cedar swamps in northern Michigan. One day we accidentally drove past a ten-acre plot. We were running out of time and had to return to Hawaii, so we bought that ten acres of poor hilly soil. Not really what I had envisioned, but it would be home. In 1999 we moved back and started building our home. We were then and still are determined to avoid debt so we build as we are able to afford.
It was late March, there was snow and the ground was frozen. It would be months before we could start building and we were all starting to feel a bit of cabin fever. We all needed some diversion, some activity. One night I came across an ad for a draft horse sale in southern Michigan. I asked the wife if she would like to go to her first horse auction and we were on our way! Before the sale was over I was the proud owner of a Belgian gelding! We didn’t have a house, but we sure did have a horse. We didn’t have any harness or equipment, but we had a horse. Mark is a mixed breed horse 18 hands and close to 2000 lbs. Just like his owner, not too pretty, no special blood lines, a bit smooth mouthed, but when asked, he’ll get the job done or break something trying!
That day began my never-ending search for equipment. The first piece was a work sled I saw in SFJ. The local High School welding class put it together as a project. Next I purchased a small fifth wheel wagon that had been a luggage wagon at a small airport. It was a perfect size for a single and required minimal work to attach a set of shafts. Best of all, it only cost $100.
Later I purchased a Pioneer forecart with snow blade from Gateway Mfg. located in Clare, Michigan. Because we get our share of snow here in northern Michigan, I knew this purchase was almost a necessity. I was a little concerned if Mark would be able to plow a heavy snow with a six-foot blade but when the time came, he could roll snow over the top of that blade like it was nothing.
The following summer I was talking with my neighbor and he offered me a small field of wild grass that I could cut for hay if I wanted. I explained that I didn’t have any haying equipment. A cousin of his told me that his children had been asking for a rabbit. He had an old John Deere side delivery rake he would trade for two rabbits. I told him he’d better get home because I was on my way with two rabbits. After a day’s work and a couple tubes of grease I had a rake. Unsure about how heavy the draft, was I hitched Mark in the forecart and hooked to the rake. Once in the field I adjusted the rake so the teeth just knicked the ground and kicked it in gear. It seemed old Mark was trying to show me that this was a joke as he kept wanting to trot out! He left no doubt that he could easily turn over a windrow!
The following day I was telling some of my co-workers about the rake incident and put the word out that I was looking for a mower. My supervisor told me that there was an old mower back in her woods that her father had used and if I could get it out, I could have it. When I checked it out it turned out to be a No. 7 and seemed to be in fair shape. Except for the fact that a small tree had grown between the bar and pitman and the seat was actually embedded in the trunk of a maple. It took half a day to cut and dig that mower out. It took almost two weeks of cleaning and greasing. I didn’t really want to put any more time into it than necessary because I was skeptical a single could pull a mower designed for a team. The mower had a seven foot bar so I reasoned that seven for a team, one half of that for a single. I cut it off and ended up with a really short 3 ½ foot bar. In fact one Amish gentleman that had passed my house made a comment about that cute little mower! Regardless, I pressed on and attached a set of shafts only to find the tongue weight so heavy I could hardly lift it. After a brainstorm, I decided to purchase a tongue truck to keep the weight off Mark. I attached the shafts from my wagon to a cross member bolted to the tongue. Again old Mark amazed me with the ease he pulled that mower. Partly because I had never operated a horse drawn mower and partly because the bar was so short I had a tough time mowing a full cut without leaving a strip standing. After that summer I put on a six foot bar and Mark still was able to handle it, but I give him a breather every few rounds. That first summer haying turned out to be filled with a constant stream of lessons and experience. Lynn Miller’s book Haying With Horses turned out to be my most valuable asset as well as my textbook for Haying 101.
I started that first summer by forking the windrows onto the wagon. This made for a long, hot sweaty day! One morning I was headed home with my first load for the day when I met a friend, Bill Failen, dragging a hay rake behind his truck. We stopped and visited for a while and he asked how I was loading the wagon. When I told him I was forking it on he responded that what I needed was a hay loader and he knew where one was stored in an old barn that was about to fall in. I didn’t know if ole Mark could pull a wagon and a loader. Bill was sure he could; hay loaders don’t really pull that hard. Just keep an eye on him and don’t try to get too big a load on the wagon. Later that afternoon I went to check it out and met with the owner. We talked a bit about the Case loader and I asked if he would sell it. He responded “would you give fifty bucks for it?” Next morning I was dragging my latest prize home. Now you gotta understand I had never seen one of these things work much less ever use one! But by golly I was going to get that thing working one way or another. A splice on one of the arms, a patch on a hole in the slide, a tube of grease and one can of WD-40 and I was ready to try this machine out. Not knowing just how much noise this machine was going to make I decided that maybe the first test run around the drive would be made behind the old Chevy. As I slowly pulled the loader around the drive I was totally amazed at all the action behind me. Try as I may, I just couldn’t drive and get a real good look at the way it was working. My wife doesn’t drive but I was able to convince her to pull that loader around the drive just so I could watch the arms and pickup rake work. To say it was impressive would be an understatement.
The next morning I mustered enough courage to hitch the loader to the wagon and get Mark’s opinion on the matter. Nothing! He acted like he had been raised pulling one. I headed for the blacktop and when the wheel lugs started jarring the loader, my heart stopped for a few seconds as it sounded like a High School drum corps. Still no reaction, so on to the field. As I was going to the field one old fellar had to stop and take in this sight out of the past. He promised he would be back to watch that old Case pick up hay. Another car literally ran off the edge of the road watching us go by!
Once in the field and lined up with a windrow I jumped off the wagon and engaged the wheels. I don’t remember having ever experienced so many emotions all at one time. Watch Mark! Keep an eye on the loader, make sure everything works ok! A couple deep breaths and ok boy, let’s give it a try. Giddup Mark! The old boy stepped out with no effort. The arms started their osculation and it all sounded almost like a big Maytag washer. I was unable to see what was going on but went only a short distance. No hay was coming up the slide. I jumped off the wagon and went back to see what’s the matter. I saw the hay just approaching the top of the slide so I got back on the wagon and clucked to Mark again! Suddenly hay started belching out of that loader so fast I could hardly believe my eyes. We had only gone a short distance and I had to stop Mark so I could start a stack and tromp it down. Two rounds later I had a load high enough to unhook and head for home. All the way home I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. That rusty iron was the most fascinating piece of equipment I had ever hooked to. Certainly it was more enjoyable and faster than forking on a load. But most of all, I just could not express the pride I felt for that old horse and the accomplishment we both had just made! Since that first loader I purchased an International loader and completely refurbished it. I have put up hay the past two summers with it but I keep the ole Case just in case.
With such an accomplishment still fresh in my mind, I realized it still took me longer to fork off a load and attempt to master the skill of building an acceptable stack (something I am still working on). Anyhow, I started studying the hay derricks in Haying With Horses and how they were set up and trying to understand just how they worked. I was able to pick up one hay sling from an auction and another from an Amish friend. I made an attempt to build a derrick but the pole broke. Later I rescued an old utility pole from a power company that was installing new poles. Success!! Everything worked just as advertised.
In 2005 another landowner offered me another field of alfalfa, clover and grass for a couple dozen eggs once in a while! I was able to feed Mark all last winter with surplus eggs!
Other equipment conversions are an International manure spreader altered to accept shafts. If the manure is not too wet I am able to fill it but with a wet load I keep it to a short load. After a discussion of how I could get it to work behind a single, I purchased an International riding cultivator from my dear friend and neighbor, Melvin Byler. I welded a set of shaft holders similar to the one on my forecart and bolted that to a stub tongue. That retained the angle adjustment for the shafts. I also shortened the spreader rods on an International cultivator to pull each side to the center so the shovels would cultivate between rows like a walking cultivator while still giving some adjustment for width. I then extended the wheel width adjustment to full width to straddle the rows.
Several years ago I was reading a letter to the editor in SFJ from an old gentleman in Texas. In that letter he gave his opinion of what it took for a small farmer with minimal acreage to become successful. He stated that small outfits must avoid all the exotic high profit crops. His advice was to grow what you use and sell the surplus. That short simple statement made more sense to me than anything I had ever read or heard. Everything we need to purchase actually costs at least 30% more than the retail price just by taking in to account all the taxes involved in earning and spending our cash. Since that day it has been my goal to raise as much food for our family and feed for our livestock as possible. In that same line of thought, it seemed reasonable to also exclude seed and fertilizer companies from my profit margin. So the past two years it has been my focus and goal to raise only produce and feed. Last summer I planted one quarter acre of Whapsie Valley open pollinated corn. I had tried another variety but our season was too short for it. As the summer progressed I watched with high hopes Whapsie could survive a northern Michigan summer. The stalks shot skyward and by September the ears had filled out. Out of that small patch I was able to save 55 lbs. for seed, feed my thirty-five hens for four months and feed some to Mark during the coldest part of the winter. While feeding it to our chickens, egg production went up 20% to 30%. This summer I plan on planting about an acre. That first plot was planted in hills with a hoe. This year I will plant with a John Deere Model 999 with a tongue truck and converted to a one-horse setup.
Last winter we purchased a Diamont grain mill so we are able to grind our own corn meal and flour. We purchased wheat berries from the local bulk food store. Initially my wife used a recipe calling for half white and half whole-wheat flour. The bread was outstanding compared to the stuff we were buying at the store, but to me, it just seemed self-defeating to have a mill and wheat but still be dependent on the store for flour! There just had to be a recipe for home baked bread using 100% home ground whole-wheat flour. I won’t even try to explain her method but after several loaves of hard, heavy bread she eventually did her magic and I am blessed with two loaves of pure ambrosia on a regular basis!
Raquel’s success made me recognize that we were still dependent on an outside source for our wheat. Wonder if it would be possible to plant a small patch of wheat just big enough to support a family of three for a year? What would be the best variety and where would I get the seed? One day last winter my eyes fell upon our bag of spring red wheat and the obvious struck me! Why not plant the wheat that we were using! The worst that could happen would be to lose a few pounds of berries; the best that could happen would be success!
As spring approached I was more excited about the experimental patch of wheat than I was about the rest of the garden. As soon as the ground could be worked I tilled the soil and broadcast the seed. Never having any experience, I simply guessed on how heavy to seed. All accomplished I would just have to wait and see. I did say a little prayer to bless my endeavor because if I have as much success with our wheat as I had with Whapsie Valley corn it would be a huge step forward to self-sufficiency for my family!
As the warm days of June came, the wheat sprouted and grew with great vigor! Checking it every couple days I became impatient as there were no seed heads yet but one day I spotted several heads emerging from the plants. Now, I had to wait and see if the grain would mature before warm weather ran out.
The first week of August the wheat was a golden color ready for harvest! I made an attempt to make a cradle to mount on my old scythe. The teeth were made of steam bent willow. The first few cuts ended with a tangle of wheat straw in the wire bracing. The last cut ended with a broken tooth. Left with no alternative, the wife and I began to cut the wheat with hand sickles while my daughter Amity tied them into sheaves. The task started as a hot backbreaking job, but eventually became a memorable day of quality time together.
To thresh the wheat I had made a flail as described in one of my books, but when I tried to use it I realized the areas I had to work in was too small and confined for such a tool. Plan “B, I ended up inclining a 2 X 8 and placing a handful of wheat on it then using a hickory stick 24” long as a flail. Slow process but effective. I have read about and have seen pictures of a small hand powered family size grain thresher but have been unable to locate one or plans on one. If any reader out there could help, I would certainly appreciate it!
During my little experiment with wheat there was a single reward that made all the work worthwhile! That is the sweet smell of two loaves of whole wheat bread fresh out of the oven and whole wheat waffles for breakfast on a cold winter morning! Best of all, knowing we did it from seed to table!
In an effort to protect my right to farm as well as my chosen lifestyle, last year I tried to have the zoning on my ten acres reclassified from residential to agriculture. After three attempts, our Township Zoning Board and Zoning Review Board refuses to recognize my little ten-acre place as agriculture. They have reclassified most open land to residential in an effort to increase their tax base. I suppose this was necessary to support a group of parasites that cost more in tax dollars to maintain than is generated by all their permits, fees and fines. While they gather in their monthly meetings struggling to develop some draw to outsiders, barns once filled with herds now succumb to decay; field and pastures that once produced crops now revert to a wild overgrown state. During that period, this whole area produced its own economic foundation that for the most part remained locally. Now, self-employment is not only discouraged but also prevented by local zoning and ordinances. Ordinances that were never voted on by the residents of this township, but were enacted by four board members. These same politicians voted that 80$ of all fees and penalties would go into their pocket with only 20% going to the township.
Just this past week, two Zoning Board members approached me about participating in a farmers market that would be starting this spring. This market would be set up in a township facility. Both members stressed that this was not a township-sponsored event though several of the seven founders are township officials. Their proclaimed goal was to encourage residents to buy local produce and provide a location for local growers to market their crops. All this for 7% of gross sales. Now assuming a small farmer operates on a 25% profit margin that 7% of gross becomes 28% of profit margin. That figures out to be 28% of the participants profit margin of growing a healthy, naturally (can’t use organically) grown crop to be sold at a facility operated by people who refuse to even recognize any small operation as agriculture. Foolishly, I declined such an opportunity.
I am unable to understand how Federal, State and local politics fail to recognize the enormous waste of a potential resource that sits unused in every state. Even if it is a One Horse Outfit, we pay our own way! We do it without any subsidies. Unlike the big box stores all our profits stay in the local economy while making a contribution to our community. The end result: a fresh, economical, healthy and safe source of food. Unlike the contaminated lettuce, spinach or strawberries that are displayed at the chain stores that have been the focus in recent news reports.
Despite those who do not recognize the fact that this is a small farm, I will continue to be a small farmer that strives for sustainability. No local, state or federal politician can change that short of eliminating it and me. That is exactly what appears to be the goal. A process of local ordinances, animal tagging, registration, permit requirements, fees that will eventually erode the ability, much less the desire, to exhibit any semblance of nonconformity. For the time being, I will continue to improve my methods, crops and expand. I will hope that my example will one day speak for itself. In the future I will pray for new faces, with more open mindedness and compassion for their community and less motivated by the petty monetary greed. But rest assured, I will voice my opinion with an X on the ballot at every election and pray that one day the silent majority will no longer remain silent and the complacent will become aware of the hand they are being dealt from the bottom of the deck. If nothing else, I will have provided for me and mine!
As each year passes I am able to reflect on all the skills I have gained and all the lessons learned. With each new piece of equipment we come one step closer to that ultimate goal of self-sufficiency. At age sixty-three I am closer than I have ever been and never have I accomplished any goal that has been as satisfying with such a feeling of security. But most importantly, I just enjoy it all! I have only one regret, I regret not having the foresight to start this lifestyle when I was twenty-five.
It is my desire to communicate with any like-minded folks. Perhaps each of us will benefit from shared knowledge or experience.