I don’t remember exactly when and how my interest in draft power first started. It has been, I think, a slow series of small events and realizations about who I am and how I like to farm/work/live. This year has been good for me in so many ways—I have learned immense quantities from mentors, co-workers, roommates, and friends, as well as from the cows, the steady rhythm of the work, and the constant negotiations with my own body about how hard to push and when to step back. Draft power makes sense for me in a lot of ways; driving, whether in a car, a tractor, even a go-kart, has always made me nervous, and the use of fossil fuels leaves me uneasy. The noise, the smell, the vibrations of the tractor all go against my sensibilities, but at such a low level that I don’t notice the discomfort except in its absence. The first time I realized just how much more pleasant it could be, farming without a tractor, I was on a visit to Natural Roots, a horse-powered farm in Conway, MA. Natural Roots is part of the CRAFT program, which is a group of farmers who give tours and lectures to farm apprentices in an effort to enhance our educational experience over the course of our farm season. One of the things I have loved the most about CRAFT visits is being able to see what different farmers are most passionate about and the way that expresses itself in the way they farm. David Fisher, the farmer at Natural Roots, so obviously loved not only the idea of working with his horses but also the day-to-day minutiae of it. What I loved was the silence. Watching him mow and plow that day with simple horse-drawn implements, I was struck by how different it felt to be doing those tasks without an engine roar, when the only sounds were the birds, the steady hoof beats, the occasional passing car, and the slicing of grass or lifting of soil. I am also drawn to working closely with animals in that way, laboring towards a common goal, truly working as a team.
“One eternal farming seduction involves the distinction between labor-intensive and labor-saving processes. Where we suspect we are being offered a false choice, it might be better at the outset to look into the nature of the work. If the job is meaningful and carries intrinsic rewards, then there may be little need to rescue the worker from it. And if it strikes the worker as meaningless, repetitious drudgery, no external incentives may be enough to counteract the detriment to the worker’s self-worth.”—Paul Hunter, One Seed to Another
As my interest in draft power has grown, I have been reading about it voraciously—I have particularly enjoyed Drew Conroy’s Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide and Lynn Miller’s Starting Your Farm, which talks in quite a lot of detail about financing and setting up a horse-powered farm. Small Farmer’s Journal has also been a great resource, as lots of its articles talk about draft power, from training strategies to equipment purchases. This summer, I attended Northeast Animal-Power Field Days in Amherst, MA, which was certainly instructive—I was able to attend workshops with farmers and loggers who use horses and oxen, and saw a nice array of demonstrations, lectures, and farm tours. More than anything, it has been exciting to discover this (perhaps small, but certainly very passionate) community of people who are excited about working with animals in this way, who run their farms successfully using draft power, and who have all of this wisdom and know-how that I desperately want to absorb.
Starting this fall, I will be writing not only for my own blog, but also for the blog at the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, which is an organization that “works for young farmers by strengthening their social networks, helping them hone their skills through the facilitation of peer-to-peer learning, and fighting for the policies that will keep them farming for a lifetime.” I’m really excited to be doing this—it will give me the opportunity to practice and develop my writing, and to get some exposure to a larger audience (which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate anyone who might be reading this now—HI MOM AND DAD!). Perhaps more than anything, writing for NYFC will give me a good excuse to visit farms, attend interesting events, and think in a more structured, intentional way about the issues facing young farmers. I wrote my first article (published today—read it here!), appropriately enough, about some friends who have started a draft-powered farm in Red Hook, NY. It was really exciting for me to see other young farmers excited about draft power and making it work for them.
“The reluctance to examine animal power may also reflect a worry, on the part of scientists, that their efforts to turn biomass into energy through diverse highfaluting systems will prove no more efficient than the digestive systems of biological animals. The resistance of scientists is reinforced by the opposition of economists who view livestock as labour intensive: it takes a skilled man to handle a team of horses cultivating an acre or two a day, whereas the average farmworker these days drives a 140 horse power tractor capable of covering 20 times the area. The social ecologist, however, will view the matter differently. Time may be money, but speed, though lucrative, is disproportionately expensive on energy; people on the land means less people on the streets; and people on land produce energy, whereas people on streets consume it.”—Simon Fairlie, Meat: A Benign Extravagance