Isn’t it amazing how life unfolds? Although small-scale sustainable farming has always been a passion of mine, it seemed it would have to settle for hobby status. It didn’t seem possible to make a life farming in an unconventional way. But then a book caught my eye. Draft Horses Today showed pictures and told stories of people actually farming and logging with horses. Not as a hobby, but as a lifestyle; an honest-to-goodness, practical way to work.
Horses have always fascinated me, but on the small land base we had in Stephenfield, Man., we were limited in the stock we could keep. While I worked on a hog farm we started a flock of sheep and raised chickens. For my 30th birthday my wife, Kathleen, arranged for us to go on a wagon ride with a neighbour we had not really met before. As we chatted and drove he asked me if I had ever driven horses before, to which I replied, “No, but I would like to.” I thought he might hand me the lines and give me a brief turn at driving but instead he said, “Maybe I should give you a team for the winter.” We built a manger and double tie stall in our barn and a month and a half later George sat beside me as I drove the team back to our place for the first time. In the next year and a half we drove Patches and Coffee two or three times a week, gradually getting more experience working with horses.
Two years ago we moved to the farm where Kathleen grew up. It has been a transition for us to full-time farm life.
On a property of some size a person needs a source of motive power, the kind that will power an implement to turn the soil or clear the snow. We chose draft horse power and purchased two teams of big black Percheron horses the first year. Since then we have acquired a variety of horsedrawn implements that we use in our work. We plow with five horses on a two-bottom riding plow, use four on the seeder, harrows and disc, and mow hay with a team on a ground-driven sickle mower
It is a challenge to find horsedrawn equipment since most of it is thought of as interesting but useless antiques. Many people however, are pleased with the thought that their father’s, grandfather’s or old neighbour’s equipment will once again see the field.
To me, mainstream farming in 2009 has become unsustainable, and nearly unstartable. It is big business with enormous land bases, large equipment and high input costs of fertilizer, fuel and sprays. Farm stress and financial risk are high and soil fertility, farm income and rural population are low. The costs of conventional farming are pretty effective deterrents to keeping any new farmers off the land. (Count up how many children of non-doctors that you know of who have become doctors and then tally up the number of non-farm children you know who have become farmers!)
Farming with horses does have its challenges: the pace of work demands smaller fields for crops and hay, (at top speed, five horses on a two-bottom plow should be able to cover five acres a day), and a field that is a mile away wastes travelling time. But is it possible to accomplish the work with horses? Definitely yes! In fact, much tractor equipment is simply multiplication of the technology originally designed for horses. Modern swathers, for example, use the same type of sickle blade, guards, reel and belt system as horse-drawn binders.
I enjoy working the land with horses; watching the soil turning over in long ribbons, the quietness and solitude while we pause for a rest at the end of a row, or my boys walking along behind with bare feet, feeling the moist soil of the freshly opened furrow or coming up to visit at a break.
This spring while harrowing last fall’s plowing, a killdeer with a “broken wing” caught my eye, quite obviously trying to lead us away from her nest. Searching the ground while the horses waited I found a shallow scoop in the ground holding four white eggs with brown speckles. We continued on our way, carefully skirting the nest as we harrowed, then seeded, then harrowed again. The evening of the second harrowing we walked out as a family to see the nest, found three empty shells and the fourth, with a claw through the shell, on its way. How beautiful to see and experience God’s creation all around us.
There is no guarantee that we will be able to farm this way until our time is over, but we are grateful for this opportunity. Being stewards of the land and the animals on our small farm is a joy and privilege for which we are thankful.
– Tim Freeman writes from a farm at Wakopa, near