The New

Horse-Powered
farm
Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale Sustainable Market Grower

Stephen Leslie
Foreword by Lynn Miller

Conclusion: A Call to Consciousness

In a small village in rural China an old man sits by an open window waiting for the swallows to return. He is too old to work in the fields, so waiting for the swallows has become one of his tasks. Every spring the swallows return to their mud-and-daub nest, affixed to the ceiling above the altar to the ancestors within the main room of the upper story of the building that houses the old man’s extended family spanning generations. The people of the village have a custom of allowing the swallows to build nests in their homes because they believe the swallows bring good luck to the household.

Of course, everyone knows that the swallows eat mosquitoes and flies, but this alone does not explain the special treatment accorded them. Swallows are thought to mate for life and it is hoped that this fidelity will extend to the human couples dwelling under the same roof. When the birds come flying through his window chirping excitedly as if to announce their return, the old man marks the date and the time in a ledger kept just for that purpose. He then compares the date with the return of the swallows in seasons past. From that cumulative data stretching back through the scribing of

Fall plowing

320

The New Horse-Powered Farm

the many old men who have preceded him, he formulates a prognostication for the coming growing season: cool, wet, dry, hot—in effect, the birds are an augury of how much rice the villagers can expect to store in their granaries come harvesttime. To manage a farm demands that we are awake to the animals, the plants, the water, the insects, and the seasons. Now that we are facing such extreme ecological imbalances as climate change we have to be awake to the whole atmosphere, the oceans, to the multidecade unfolding of causes and effects that we have set in motion. It is challenging enough to be attentive to the complexity of one little farm; can we do it for a whole planet? In any ecosystem we can break down and catalog the components but we still don’t come any closer to understanding the complexity of interconnections that sustains the whole—let alone grasp the mysterious creative force that breathes life into it all. The small diversified farm is a step back from the hubris of industrial monoculture. Humbly but sincerely, small farmers try their best to mimic the diversity and complexity of wild nature in their farming systems and to allow space for that mysterious creative force to bring healing to the land and the animals and their own souls. The ecological farming practices of sowing cover crops, composting, rotating crops, and mulching not only help to build soil while producing healthy food, they also can sequester as much as 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre per year. Our cash crops can be understood as the dominant species within the engineered ecosystem of the farm, but we don’t want to be at war with the rest of the flora and fauna. While as farmers we need to harvest these crops to make our living, we also want to protect the other species and, in particular, the biotic life within the soil. Although we must raise cash crops in order to turn a profit, the primary aim of an ecological approach is to grow crops in a system that at the same time conserves and even builds up the stock of our soils. When soil conservation is our primary goal, healthy and abundant food crops and livestock are a natural outcome. The horse-powered farm takes these carbon sequestration benefits a step farther by employing a living and renewable resource as a source of traction on the

farm. The workhorse can be part of an integrated grazing management system, effectively harvesting its own “fuel” while improving the quality of pasture. The horses can also be participants in growing and harvesting the stored feed necessary to carry them through the winter. The stabled workhorse produces tons of manure for the compost pile that contribute to the building of organic matter and the maintenance of soil fertility. And the workhorse has the capacity to reproduce itself, raising foals for eventual replacements or as trained workhorses for sale. There are other benefits to working the land with horses that are not so easily quantified. The constant passage of the heavy diesel tractor over the land can have a deadening effect on the soil. When we work the garden for years with a team instead of a tractor, we begin to sense a subtle regeneration of the land; a quickening of the life force. The results of this transformation of the soil will be realized in the flavor, nutritional content, and keeping quality of the fruits and vegetables we harvest from the garden. We may also note changes in ourselves through our long association with our equine partners—changes that are even harder to describe but real enough to those who feel them. And now it is midafternoon in early October and I am out with the team. We are using the walking plow to turn over some sod. The horses are fighting fit at this tail end of the garden season. The soil moisture content is near perfect for plowing and, by some miraculous mixture of scant knowledge and pure luck, the line of draft is correct enough that the moldboard is slicing and turning over a neat ribbon that glints in the slanting sunlight like a wave breaking over before me as I walk behind in the furrow. My breathing and my steps are in sync with the horses as the air, crisp as a ripe red apple, surges into our lungs. This work of fall plowing is all about the doing, but to the extent that my mind is still spinning, the thoughts that it weaves are exultant, savoring these precious moments of lofty exertion. This is our moment in the sun, the horses and I, each step we take but a further squeezing out of the precious elixir of our farming life. There are so many times when that life is not this and we endure the frustrations of broken equipment,

A Call to Consciousness

321

crop failure, a sick animal, a disgruntled customer—any number of things that can and do go wrong on any given day—but that is all behind us now. These few moments of pristine plowing with a good plow and a great team of horses are what make all the other worth the while. At such a time the considerations of the

relative economics of tractor versus horses simply pale and fade away. Ahead of us there is only the next furrow to be turned and then maybe a chance to let the horses and myself catch our breath and for me to tell them, “Good horses,” and to whisper my silent prayer of thanks for the abundance of life they bring to me.

Barefoot hoofprints in the snow • photo by Alex Brollo, Wikimedia Commons

The author with equine friends • photo courtesy of Margaret Fanning