You can’t farm with horses and send men to the moon!
by William Castle of Shropshire, UK
When I first got involved with working horses in the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to work for the late Geoff Morton who used horses for nearly everything on the farm. With the enthusiasm of the novice I was constantly asking questions. What I often thought was a straightforward question would often elicit a pause, and as often as not the answer was preceded by, ‘Well, there’s more about it than you might think.’
On one occasion I remember asking how many horses one would need to pull a particular set of discs. The answer was fairly typical for Geoff, and went something like this.
‘Well, it all depends on what you want to do, and what land you’re working on. On this light land probably two horses would manage it, but if you had the horses and were working long days, you’ d want three, or if they weren’t very fit or you were on strong land, maybe four. Then you have to consider the angle you set the discs at and how much they’re sinking in, because that can make an awful lot of difference to how hard they pull. Really these horse discs were made for working land after it had been ploughed because they aren’t all that heavy, but nowadays when we use discs we use them instead of ploughing, along with cultivators to break up the land after harvest, and that’s a completely different job. When we use six or eight horses on tractor discs, of course the first time over they’re walking on solid land so it’s easier for them, and you probably have the discs set straight to cut into the ground which makes it a bit easier too. Then second time over, with the discs set at an angle to move the soil, it’s a lot harder work for them so you might want eight horses on, whereas you’ d have managed with six the first time over. Of course, when the ground conditions are right they do a good job, and you cover a lot more ground than when you’re ploughing.
It’s the same as with all these things, if you have got good horses and know how to use them, you can do a lot of work with them, and do a good job too, but it’s not the same thing as all this big tractor machinery and all the power that they have. You can’t farm with horses and send men to the moon!’
For someone who was particularly interested in the day-to-day practicalities of working with horses, and with a fairly literal turn of mind, this last turn in the conversation took me aback; after all, I had only been a child when the first man went to the moon so the idea was normal for me, certainly more familiar than doing farm work using horses. But there I was in my late twenties, working on a farm with horses, so that was obviously possible too. Of course, what Geoff was saying was that although you can farm well with work horses, it is not for someone who is always in a hurry or who wants to get rich quick; or, in a wider context, it is not a way to have enough surplus to afford the heights of extravagance, such as sending people to the moon. He might equally have said you can’t be a bee keeper and run a private jet, or a carpenter and live in a penthouse apartment, but by choosing the examples of working with horses and moon travel, he hit upon what many people considered to be the epitome of backwardness, contrasting it with mankind’s most impressive technological achievement, the triumph of science over nature, of man over nature. Although that might be a common assumption, it does not take many moments to realise that the massive quantity of materials used to get astronauts free of the Earth’s gravity are all products of the earth, and no matter how big the fanfare for shiny technology may be, whilst the astronauts are in space their hold on life is tenuous. Then when they have eaten all their food, which was originally grown in some farmer’s field, they have to come back down to Earth.
Nonetheless, the concept that we humans can, and should, escape the hold which the Earth has upon us, has not diminished since the first men landed on the moon. For instance, the new presenter of a scientific programme on the BBC last year promoted the idea of people living on Mars as a solution for our overcrowded planet, and NASA is working on the technology to enable astronauts to do just that. However, there is never any mention of the high radiation levels and the storms of carcinogenic dust which block out the sun for more than a year at a time. Then there are far distant planets that may be a bit like Earth, which are also suggested as possibilities for human habitation as we exhaust our own planet’s resources. If some future technology did allow us to travel deep into space in search of a new planet or other life, one can imagine some intelligent alien life form in some far-off galaxy, after hearing of Man’s plight, asking the space travellers whether they had ever thought of looking for intelligent life on their own planet first!
To learn more about the processes necessary to sustain human life, in part to enable long distance space travel, an experimental project was started in Arizona in the late 1980s. Named Biosphere 2, this experiment involved a series of interlinked giant greenhouse type structures, sealed to the outside world, each containing areas mimicking natural ecosystems, along with areas for people to live in and to grow food, and for two years from 1991 it was occupied by six people. The whole project attracted huge attention and much criticism. The biggest criticism was that in this supposedly sealed and self sustaining environment, at one stage additional oxygen was pumped into the biosphere because there had been an unexplained drop in oxygen, preventing the people from sleeping properly and functioning effectively. It turned out that some of the carbon dioxide breathed out by the people and other organisms was reacting with the concrete walls to produce calcium carbonate, [limestone] so the oxygen contained in the carbon dioxide [which would usually be released into the air by the plants] was no longer available. Another problem was the extinction of many species, and the explosion in numbers of others such as cockroaches and ants which they did not even know were inside the bubble.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Biosphere 2 was the growing of food. With limited space, the food growing area was like a domestic garden, relying on mixing cropping and a considerable amount of work to grow and process the food. In such a tight closed system where anything applied to the plants might well be drunk or eaten by the people within a week, the use of synthetic chemicals was avoided. Instead they used biological and mechanical controls, and the natural processes within the soil to provide nutrients. Nonetheless, the press was largely damning of the whole venture: after all, it did not succeed in sustaining life as had been planned, but I suspect the root cause of the antagonism stems from the fact that the experiment fundamentally contradicted and confounded the prevailing assumption that we humans are separate from and superior to nature, and as such, we can do anything we like. For those who believe that science can solve all our problems, it is profoundly uncomfortable to confront the reality that we are not as clever as we think we are.
Fortunately for us, nature in the outside world is much bigger and is capable of absorbing and straightening out many of our mistakes, and although we seem intent on pushing that capacity for forgiveness to an alarmingly arrogant degree, there are also other experiments, small scale and down to earth, which show how working with natural processes brings benefits well beyond the immediate sphere of activity.
One such experiment is the work of a group of neighbouring farmers from the Pontbren river catchment area of mid Wales, who came together to work out how they could do something about their falling profits whilst securing their farms for the future. On their upland, semi-marginal farms with heavy rainfall, sheep were the main enterprise, and following the usual trend to push for greater output they were using cross-bred sheep rather than the hardy traditional breeds. Although the farmers were getting more money for each lamb sold, the local environment is so severe that they needed to buy in more feed, and keep the sheep inside for longer, whilst the prices for everything they bought were increasing faster than their incomes. To decrease their costs they wanted to go back to the tougher mountain breeds, so the sheep would need less feed and could stay outside longer; but to provide enough shelter they knew that they would have to improve and renew hedges which had been neglected or pulled out years ago in the drive for greater “efficiency”, the hedges running along the contour having been the first to go. Over the following years the farmers reinstated hedges and planted new shelter belts, with woodland strips alongside the streams, often working together and buying fencing materials and saplings collectively. Unlike when planting for timber production, the trees were planted close together with a high proportion of shrubs to slow down the wind, which in winter time often carries the rain horizontally. The new plantings increased the wooded area from 1.5%, most of which was neglected, to 5%, so the land is still predominantly under pasture. The effects of the Pontbren farmers’ actions have been many – the provision of shelter has indeed proved positive for the livestock, there has been an increase in wildlife, and the farmers have discovered a sense of community through overcoming difficulties and working together. Other outcomes, however, were not expected. Perhaps most significant has been the change in movement of water through and on top of the soil. This was noticed by the chairman of one of the partner organisations, Coed Cymru [Welsh Woodlands] who observed how during heavy rainfall the water ran in sheets across the surface of the fields, but this movement stopped at the shelter belts. This prompted a series of studies by a number of universities, which amongst other things, showed that the peak flow of the river was reduced by a quarter. They also found out that the wooded areas have sixty times the capacity for absorbing water compared to the adjoining grassland, and that this effect starts to occur after only two years.
A similar phenomenon has been observed in Yellowstone National Park, where since wolves were reintroduced, there has also been a reduction in the peak flow of the rivers, typically during snow melt. Although some of you may be thinking, ‘boy, those wolves sure must get thirsty running through that melting snow,’ it is actually their predation of the deer, and the deer’s reluctance to stay in the steep sided valleys and gullies where they are more likely to get eaten, which has allowed more trees to grow. Under the trees more water soaks into the soil so the runoff from these areas has been reduced, and the increase in tree numbers has in turn encouraged the beaver, whose dams further slow down the water.
The building of leaky dams made from branches is also being trialled in Britain, (without the aid of beavers), to protect the flood-prone town of Pickering, not far from my childhood home. This trial and the Pontbren ‘discovery’ come at an appropriate time, because in recent years the weather in Britain has become more unpredictable and more extreme, with heavier rain storms causing flooding to farm land, houses and businesses; and bridges which in some cases have withstood natural forces for hundreds of years have been swept away. The authorities’ policy is to use concrete and steel to build up embankments and barricades to get the water downstream as fast as possible, which in turn causes greater flooding downstream, an approach mirrored by many farmers who keep their ditches clear but without maintaining the porosity and water holding capacity of their soils. But it is no longer working. The flooding situation now, as with the weather, is becoming more similar to parts of America, and the conventional ‘wisdom’ of water management is proving to be as ineffective, destructive and foolhardy as it was in the US seventy years ago. –
‘ ..taxpayers, property owners and insurance companies have spent billions of dollars in repairing damages and in constructing, maintaining and repairing vast dams and levees at the mouths or halfway down our great rivers, when all the time it must have been easily evident even to a kindergarten child with a pile of sand and a watering can that one does not stop floods at the bottoms of rivers but high up on their tributaries and in the forests and cow pastures.’
These lines were written by writer and farmer, Louis Bromfield, whose farm scale experiments he recounted in his Malabar Farm books. After living abroad for two decades, much of the time in France, in 1939 he returned to his native Ohio with the intention to farm. Part of his plan was to reclaim and rejuvenate land which was considered to be farmed out after three generations of careless farming. The cornerstone of his approach was to use legumes, lots of legumes, mostly alfalfa, to increase the stability, fertility and productivity of the soil. As the soil improved, the yields increased, and it also allowed water which once would have run downhill, carrying some of the soil and nutrients with it, to soak into the soil and percolate downwards. After a few years, springs which had stopped running in the summer once again started to flow all year round, providing a constant supply of fresh water for the livestock, and in so doing, demonstrated how good farming benefits not only the farmer whose land it is, but also everyone in the locality who benefits from refilled aquifers, and an ameliorated climate facilitated by the availability of moisture during the summer.
The last experiment I want to mention is from Hof Hollergraben, a biodynamic farm in Germany, where researchers from Kiel University carried out trials on two adjacent plots growing vegetables. Having been under biodynamic management for a number of years, the soil at Hof Hollergraben is likely to have been in good heart and with a good organic matter content. Both plots grew the same crops each year, and all the activities, the planting, the cultivations and harvesting, all happened on the same day, using similar machinery. The only difference was the motive power; on one plot a team or a single horse was used depending on the job in hand, and a tractor on the other plot. After six years under this regime the soil of the horse drawn plot was found to have 40% greater pore space than the tractor powered plot. Many horse farmers will not be surprised at this difference, though being able to put a figure on it adds weight and credibility to the anecdotal evidence. But what is remarkable is that the results were obtained using a tractor which weighed 1.5 tons – only a fraction of the size of the tractors commonly used nowadays, and less than the combined weight of the two horses. One can only imagine how much more difference there would have been had a larger tractor had been used.
But there is another aspect to the compaction story, and that is in its relation to the production of nitrous oxide. The significance of N2O is the effect it has on climate change, because it is nearly 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide, and as such it is the most important greenhouse gas produced by agriculture. Nitrous oxide is produced by soil micro-organisms as a normal part of the nitrogen cycle, but it also comes from manures, liquid slurry being the worst culprit in this regard, and from artificial nitrogen fertiliser, especially when it is applied to excess. However, the amount of nitrous oxide released into the air is not just dependant on how much nitrogen is there, but also on the condition of the soil, more being released in anerobic, and in waterlogged conditions – the very opposite conditions to that found on the horse-powered plot at Hof Hollergraben.
What these experiments don’t tell you is how much working horses would effect a change in the structure of soils under different cropping, or to what extent the open structure of a humus rich soil decreases nitrous oxide emissions. Neither do they tell you how much flooding or droughts could be prevented in my soil conditions or in your climate, nor in turn how much it might translate onto the farmer’s or a nation’s bottom line. There is, as Geoff Morton would have said, “more about it than we might think.” Still, given the connections and similarities between experiences from different parts of the world, and the cumulative effect of positive measures as they impact upon each other, I can’t help thinking that if we all farmed with horses we wouldn’t feel the need to send men to the moon.