Wednesday, April 16 – With the help from a friend who made the mistake of volunteering to help out this morning, we cut up 350 lbs. of seed potatoes and then handplanted the early crop of Dark Red Norlands, Kennebecs and Carolas in seven rows along the north side of field 6. This was the first time we had tried ridge-tilling potatoes and it worked slick, using basically the same procedure as we used for ridge-tilling the peas except making the planting furrow deeper.
The structural management of a clay soil is not such a simple problem as that of sandy one. In clays and similar soils of temperate regions the potential plasticity and cohesion are always high because of the presence of large amounts of colloidal clay. When such a soil is tilled when wet, its pore space becomes much reduced, it becomes practically impervious to air and water, and it is said to be puddled. When a soil in this condition dries, it usually becomes hard and dense. The tillage of clay soils must be carefully timed. If plowed too wet, the structural aggregates are broken down, and an unfavorable structure results. On the other hand, if plowed too dry, great clods are turned up which are difficult to work into a good seedbed.
One reason the no-till garlic may have been able to produce such a massive root system was due to the undisturbed soil being riddled with earthworm holes. Not wanting to destroy the beautiful soil structure created by the earthworms, we prepared the harvested garlic patch for planting a cover crop by fencing in our small flocks of laying hens to shred-and-spread the mulch of wheat straw in the no-till pathways. The birds also lightly tilled all this moisture conserving organic matter into the surface of the soil so a pass or two with the springtooth harrow was all that was necessary before seeding the winter cover of rye.
Thanks to the many resources available in the new millennium, it is relatively easy for new and transitioning farmers to learn the business of small-scale organic vegetable production. Economic models of horse-powered market gardens, however, are still few and far between. To fill that information hole, I asked three experienced farmers to join me in tracking work horse hours, expenses and labor over a two-year period and to share the results in the Small Farmer’s Journal.
We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.
Market gardeners who already have an up and running tractor-powered operation and think they might want to explore transitioning to live horse power are often attracted to the idea of starting with a single horse. The single horse can also be a viable option for creating a mixed power system where the tractor is used for heavy tillage and the horse is used for secondary tillage, cultivation, and other light draft tasks around the farm. And for the complete beginner looking to get started in market gardening and working with horses, a single horse has a lot of appeal.
Primary tillage is the first step in readying land for the reception of seeds or transplants. Just as the gardener breaks ground with a spade, and then breaks up clods with a hoe, and finally levels all with a rake, so does the farmer have a basic armory of tools to perform these functions on a larger scale in order to create a seed bed. Our primary tillage begins with the moldboard plow.
These days I call myself a farmer. However, I was not born into the farming life. In my late teens and early twenties, I began to have the creeping suspicion that my privileged upbringing in a first-world household, my secondary education and suburban lifestyle had left me completely bereft of any useful skills with regard to the fundamental situation of being a human animal on the planet. When I came of age I had this gnawing suspicion that in the first eighteen years of my existence on earth I had learned next to nothing of the kind of skills that would allow a person to survive in the natural world.
After plowing and then spreading the fields with compost, the next step in our method of primary tillage is to roll out the disc-harrows. The disc harrows have traditionally followed the plow because they do an excellent job of breaking up any clods and of further turning and incorporating any surface trash that might not have been fully turned by the moldboard. The weight of the disc also has a leveling effect on the soil in preparation for seeding.
Arriving at Higher Biddacott Farm, after driving through the quiet enclosed lanes which wind their way up and down the hills of North Devon, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happens here. But Higher Biddacott is a hive of purposeful activity, with horses coming and going, dogs running about, and people arriving for Bed and Breakfast, or to enjoy the Devon landscape from the back of a horsedrawn wagon.
As the years continue to roll on, as busy as ever, I have had plenty of time for considering the pros and cons of farming. So many people have asked me why in the world I would even want to, let alone like, a farm lifestyle. It’s definitely not easy, but I guess my only answer would be that I just plain love it. No noisy things. Peace and quiet. Lots of hard work. Time with the family. Oh, and there’s stress, too! Like when everything is coming in at once and the days aren’t long enough. But there’s also a great satisfaction of making it on your own. I do understand that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Only people who are crazy like we are, who are for simplicity and hard work over convenience will enjoy it. I do!
The decision to depend on horses or mules in harness for farm work, logging, or highway work is an important one and should not be taken lightly. Aside from romantic notions of involvement in a picturesque scene, most of the considerations are serious.