In central New York State, as well as all over the country, an unlikely revival is happening in sustainably-minded agriculture; the return of work horses and draft mules on the American farm. A recent write-up in the New York Times entitled Farm Equipment That Runs on Oats featured a farm in Ghent, NY, run by a man by the name of Stephen Leslie, that has been foregoing heavy machinery in favor of a two-horse team of Norwegian Fjord horses for nearly 20 years.
Leslie’s technique of using horses, which seems unorthodox and old-fashioned to us now, was the de facto method of tilling the land up until the Post World War II period. After that, the mechanization of society nearly made agricultural horses obsolete, but Leslie, citing the unsustainabilty of modern agriculture, sees room for a workhorse renaissance. “People are attracted to the way of working with animals, of being back in touch with nature, of regaining a kind of rhythmic elegance to our lives,” Leslie was quoted as saying in the Times‘ write-up.
Horses are an integral part of Leslie’s “closed-loop” method of agriculture, in which the food produced on the farm goes towards feeding the animals, and the animals go on to help produce the food, thus creating one of the most environmentally-friendly systems of agriculture available. However, the drawbacks of farming with horses are daunting, as it takes a certain temperament to work with live animals, as well as care and upkeep that tractors do not require. For instance, Leslie must check his team’s hooves every day before starting to look for cuts and stuck stones that may damage or infect the hoof. Additionally, the learning curve for working with live animals can be very steep. Leslie’s partner had both of her tibias broken by a pair of runaway horses, an injury that took years to fully recover from. For “four or five years afterwards” Leslie had apprehension taking his horses out, forced to balance his fears with maintaining a calm temperament for the sake of the horses.
For his part, Leslie does not see this extra work as a drawback, but as a part of a rewarding lifestyle. The work gives Leslie a connection to the animals, which gives people, in his opinion, “a deeper self-understanding”. To that end he has written his own book, The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale, Sustainable Market Grower, a guide for anyone considering horse-powered farming and wondering how to get started. The book has received positive reviews from experts on the subject, with Joe Mischka, the Editor and Publisher of Rural Heritage magazine writing that “this comprehensive treatment of the subject provides the beginner or transitional farmer with the resources needed to succeed, as Leslie takes no shortcuts in his research and presentation of material” (via Chelsea Green Publishing).
Will horse-led agriculture ever be the dominant form of production that it once was 70 years ago? Very unlikely, as the process requires an amount of time and a temperament that most do not or don’t want to invest in with the option of heavy machinery available to them. However, it is there, which is something that couldn’t be said even 20 years ago, and it is starting to be recognized more and more as both environmentally friendly and personally rewarding to those who have the mind for it.
All quotes except the one via Chelsea Green Publishing via the New York Times