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 say...as 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.
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 domestic....like 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!