Friday, December 9, 2011

Draft-Powered Farming in the St. Croix Valley

Ideals are funny things. Often touted as diaphanous tufts of dreamy fluff, it is a continual delight and wonder to me that they wreak so much havoc in the waking world. They tug and pull and goad a person on...they shape the reality of our joys and form the substance of our disappointment. In our society it is a curious contradiction that we frown upon the "idealist" as unrealistic, naive, and overly bold....yet remained inspired by those who turn their ideals into action and by their very being conjure and tease the ephemeral into tangible. A friend of mine, Karen, brought her spinning wheel and drum carder over one afternoon to teach us the art of turning fleeces into yarn. She told us how her first lesson in spinning was disastrous. "I kept breaking the thread! For the life of me I couldn't catch on." I marveled that she kept at it..."of course I did" she replied "it had been my dream to learn to spin. You don't let go of dreams that easily!" How like a thunderbolt it hit me; to hear those words for her that afternoon, from a real flesh and blood person, and not from some Disney character, from this woman alive with a transferable gift which, glowing, she was placing in our hands as we spoke.

It was nearly 4 years ago that Shane first took to the notion that we ought to farm with horses.

"They're the only tractors that can give birth to more tractors" he would I shook my head. "It's not practical" I would chide. But I wonder now at how little knowledge I stood on when I uttered those words. I realize now that my understanding was based on what I was familiar with. To me, at that time, Gas furnaces were practical. Jobs with insurance benefits were practical. Guinea pigs were practical. The equine? Decidedly not.

A small scaled farm tends to teach you a different version of practicality.

For instance:

relying on foreign oil to plow, cultivate, and fertilize our land: Not practical.

going into debt to pay for machinery we wouldn't know how to fix when it broke: Not practical.

Compacting the soil year after year, buying in fertilizer, and working late into the night in the headlights: Not practical.

And then there's this:

When we decided to farm it delighted us to no end to realize that this life of manual labor, although fraught with hardship, was also going to be one of a million and one every day small and large joys. These joys have come in small (there's a chicken nestled with the kittens!) and large (we've just harnessed our very own team!) packages. These joys have also come as the direct result to be willing to yoke ourselves to a continual sense of adventure...a boldness which ever so gently tests the waters of materializing ideals. A faith in the practicality of the immaterial truths about the world. (With ever a steadying glance over at those who have long been doing it, and doing it better.)

"I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature." --Wendell Berry

A 75 year old Arabian horse breeder in the area is liquidating his horses due to his health and age. The opportunity arose to go and take a look at his team of Norwegian Fjord horses, and we jumped at it, eager to see what a smaller draft looked and felt like. We have been working with a neighbors Shires for the past 2 years, and though gentle, their shear size has proved intimidating on more than one occasion.

Now, a cozy fire in the wood stove, a Winter's evening with a fat armchair to sink into, a cup of tea at your elbow, and a lot of staring into the leaping flames can cause the mind to wander, and feel that if there was nothing more to life than staying inside and being comfortable, why, that'd be just fine....the small farmer is lulled into the old temptation of giving it all up, becoming respectable, and going into something artistic and interior decorating...or a cupcakes catering co., you know how it goes...

but let me tell you, as soon as we laid eyes upon this mother/daughter pair of Fjord horses it was as if the fire had suddenly been lit underneath us! We spent 2 hours driving them around the indoor arena, and all the time the fuzzy fog of unreachable ideals was lifting, making the possibility of working with our own team on this farm more and more real. The old description of the Fjord horse breed comes from the mountainous district of Vestlandet in Norway, and to read it is to understand exactly what they are, and why you suddenly hear breathy Enya-like music when you stand next to one:

"The eyes should be like the mountain lakes on a midsummer evening- big and bright. A bold bearing of the neck like a lad from the mountains on his way to his beloved. Well defined withers like the contours of the mountains set against an evening sky. The temperament as lively as a waterfall in spring, and still good natured"

Something began to sing inside of us when we took the reins behind these two horses. Some string inside began, newly tightened, to tune to a clearer pitch. You know that feeling you get, when you round the corner of your street, and you look ahead to see light pouring out into the snow from your home, and it's dinner time, and most likely someone has a pot of something delicious bubbling away on the stove, with hot buttery rolls to match being pulled out of the oven just as you walk in...that's the same feeling we had when we first saw this team. The feeling of coming home.

So now they are ours. They arrived on St. Nicholas Day. The day dawned bright with sunshine, and the morning's snowfall came down light with thick flakes that dusted the horses like a snow globe as they trotted and whinnied in their new pasture. They are the farm's first real breath of Freedom. Freedom to turn over the soil, to cultivate the veggie rows, to pull the harvests in, to help with gathering firewood from the dead trees and stumps in the woods. Freedom to work.

Needless to say we have not been inside much lately, cozy next to the wood stove. All 4 of us have been snatching up our mittens and hats, pulling on mismatched socks with eager haste, fumbling some excuse as we streak outside toward the pasture with fist fulls of hay, carrots, lead ropes. Tonight, just as the sun was setting we harnessed Maj and Marta for the first time. There was a battle of the wills, a testing ground. We had to earn our right to be Herd Boss. In the end, the stone sled was pulled willingly and steadily across the pasture, beneath a fat and beaming moon...a foretaste of Spring cultivating.

But for right now there's Winter work to be done, and we meet it eagerly "like a lad from the mountains on his way to his beloved."

We would like to thank our friend and neighbor Ken, for continuing to devote his generous time and mentorship, teaching us the art of driving and good horsemanship. And also those 2012 CSA members whose early support has made this crucial beginning of our Draft-Powered Farming project possible. Thank you!


  1. Oh, Mr & Mrs. Farmer, your post has me so filled with smiles and joy and hope for a future with young farmers like you and your little family! I am an old(er) farm wife with an even older farm husband (grin). We were both blessed to be born into farming and later on live that life of draft horses and ponies and we don't take that for when I hear about someone taking hold of the reins of life and turning a dream and a belief into reality, well its really exciting!

    I'm so glad to be able to follow along with your journey through your blog and let me tell you, your post and the amazing photos sure brought some tears and some smiles this morning. Thank you.

  2. Bravo!

    Why don't I feel and write this way about my new smartphone?

    Maybe if my smart phone produced manure . . .

  3. I'm in love with the horses already! Once again, reading about the dream you live (even with its challenges) makes me want to shout for joy (and come join you)! Know of our thoughts and prayers for you as you enter a new stage of the adventure. :)

  4. I'm pea green with envy: Fjords are precisely the horses I'm going to have some day on my small farm. The perfect dual purpose breed.

  5. Cary,
    Your tears, and smiles, and example are the most elequent of compliments! I think they are many young people making the leap into small farming! The future looks bright! Thank you for cheering us on.

  6. Anonymous,

    We're attempting to bring back a long neglected pasture too...and they are perfect foragers. When they saw their paddock they went right to it with gusto! This is indeed a match made in heaven! You are right: the ideal dual purpose breed. Agility, Strength, Hutzzpah...and DARLING-ness