Pulling their weight
Natural Roots’ workhorses feature in book on small-scale growing
Natural Roots farm apprentice Rachel Hestrin mows at the Conway farm.
David Fisher of Natural Roots farm in Conway tills his land with draft horses.
David Fisher, owner of Natural Roots farm in Conway, with his son Garbriel
CONWAY — Pat was feeling his oats as he easily slid a log from one small pile at the edge of a field and toward another that was more out of the way. Or more likely, the 1,700-pound Belgian workhorse was feeling the call of the weeds near the second pile, which he was content to snack on while farmer David Fisher and two helpers rolled the log into a neat pile.
Instead of the piercing chirps of a warning whistle to cut across the serenity of the South River landscape when the workhorse went into reverse, there was just the quiet “back-back-back” from Nate Kraus-Malett, one of two Natural Roots Farm’s interns as he drove the horse patiently. And then a simple “Whoa, Pat” to brake the 16-hands-high Belgian, whose ears were covered with a fashionable orange material to keep the gnats out.
“They’re so versatile,” Fisher said of Pat and his four other work horses, which are among the draft animals featured in a new book, “The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale Sustainable Market Grower,” by Hartland, Vt., farmer Stephen Leslie. “They’re not just a replacement for a tillage machine. They’ll do most delicate cultivation, heavy tillage, logging, making hay. We have five separate units in these different horses and we can gang them up or separate them out however we need. I think that’s a pretty unique feature to fit those different niches on the farm.”
For all of their heft, the Natural Roots draft horses — the four Belgians who answer to Pat, Lady, Tim and Gus, as well as the percheron, Star — can be gentler on the land by not leaving ruts and by causing minimal compaction, according to a summary that Fisher includes in the book. “Horses are essentially solar powered,” he writes. “With an adequate land base, all their fuel needs can be raised on the farm in the form of pasture, hay, and grain crops.”
What’s more, he adds, “Horses are very pleasing to the senses and can be kid-friendly.”
Fisher, with his wife, Anna Maclay, have the generous assistance of the gargantuan animals as they run their 190-share Community Supported Agriculture farm on about 130 acres, of which seven are tilled for growing vegetables. And Fisher says their customers enjoy seeing the animals working the fields as part of their experience when they visit.
“They seem to love it,” he says.
The horses are used for heavy tillage, light cultivation, and for hauling, haying, harvesting, logging and even digging.
When he decided to move back in the fall of 1996 to the Northeast from the Northwest, where he’d been doing subsistence-scale gardening, “I really wanted to live on a farm, and no one’s hiring farm apprentices in October except for one guy I found who had a small homestead in the Catskills.”
That farmer had a team of Norwegian fjord horses, and while Fisher had realized that work horses could be part of a small farming operation, that gave him his first hands-on experience.
“They really spoke to me,” he remembers. “The first time I went to visit this fellow, we went out with a wagon in the woods to gather up some firewood for the winter, and we had to cross the creek to get out of the forest, and plowed out a row of carrots for winter storage. The sensory experience was so striking: the sounds and the smells and the feel of the horses. It was all really appealing and got me all excited. Maybe I would have found my way to work horses some other way, but I wasn’t oriented in that direction until I landed in this place.”
After a year’s apprenticeship at Horse Power Farm in Blue Hill, Maine, Fisher arrived in Conway in 1998 to begin market gardening, and after a couple more years bought his first team of Belgians, Bobby and Jerry.
Since then, Fisher — who will take part in a panel discussion tonight at Pothole Pictures for a showing of the 1975 documentary, “Root Hog or Die,” featuring the last generation of Franklin County horse-powered farmers — has seen a resurgence of interest, especially among small vegetable farmers who want to get away from fuel-thirsty farm equipment.
“As I understand it, after World War II, there was a shift in technology and a shift in resources, and all of a sudden, tractors became widely available and more affordable for the small farmer. Initially, I think people saw it as a tremendous way to save a lot of labor and a lot of effort. There’s so much time you can spend on chores and mucking stalls and spreading manure and making hay just to feed the animals, every day of the year, that the idea of having a tractor that you can just shut off and park when you don’t need it was pretty appealing.”
Even though most farmers still prefer to click the ignition key and start up the tractor when there’s heavy work to be done, Fisher says, “There’s a strong growing movement of animal- powered farmers to animal power, but I think it’s proven to be practical for a lot of people. More and more all the time.”
He’s also seeing plenty of applications for internships each year — some from candidates around the world — interested in learning how to work with draft horses.
Yes, each of the horses eats on the order of a bale of hay a day — except for the season when that’s halved because they pasture — and there are maintenance expenses like stall mucking, grooming and veterinary care. But they’re also great at making farming a closed-loop system once again, especially by growing their feed and using their manure as nature’s own fertilizer.
Fisher, who figures there are dozens of New England farmers who make their livelihood by farming with draft animals, is a member of the Draft Animal Power Network, which held its Northeast Animal Powered Field Days at Natural Roots in 2011.
“There are so many people who have a team of horses or oxen, who nobody knows is out there,” he said.
The renewed interest in sustainable agriculture is getting many farmers to look at animals to power their small-scale operations, Fisher said, and Leslie’s book — which caught the attention of The New York Times this week — should help more who are interested in getting started.
“I think Steven’s book will be a huge, huge asset to horse-powered farmers,” Fisher says. “I know of a lot of farmers who are interested in working with horses, and it seems like the new horse-powered farmers I’m aware of, a lot of them are oriented toward vegetable production.”
At Natural Roots, which is still accepting CSA customers for this season, Fisher says, “I really enjoy that so many customers come here and see what we’re doing, see the animals at work, and it’s very accessible. People come out to the fields, whether we’re plowing or cultivating, or whatever, and they’ll bring their kids up and get a real sense of what we’re doing. Unlike a loud, noisy tractor, it’s real easy for me to stop, turn around and rest the horse for a minute, and people can approach and pet the horses and not feel like they’re making the farmer in a tractor stop and turn off the engine.”
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