Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century:

review by Louis H. Battalen

At the close of the past century, the revitalized draft animal power movement was proceeding steadily with its initial plowing, cutting a fresh regenerative swath nationwide into the stagnant and wearisome, mono-cultured agribusiness that has dominated that landscape since mid-century. The degraded petro chemical approach to farming is “going by the way-side,” replaced by the single- and multi-hitch plow alike and the sweet scent and “invigorative natural processes” of the closed-farm fertility.

The dawn of the 21st century finds teamsters, their animals—horses, oxen, donkeys, and mules in particular—and innovative equipment manufacturers collaborating in a groundswell of mutual activity, naturally lending itself to other forms of regenerative farming, including organics, crop rotation, and small-scale farming. The clock is not being turned back to some halcyon isolated moment in time and history and place; rather, in the turn to the next furrow, these practitioners are promoting an agroecological mindset capable of long-term sustenance that should carry us into good stead through this century.

And, as Stephen Leslie who farms Cedar Mountain Farm, a Fjord-horse-powered CSA and Jersey cow dairy at Cobb Hill Co-Housing in Hartland, Ver-mont ably demonstrates in his new book Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century, at once complementing and expanding on his 2013 book, The New Horse-Powered Farm, already reviewed in these pages and readable at www.thenaturalfarmer.org, he has become the leading chronicler of this movement.

The earlier book served as an introduction to the requirements of operating a successful market garden with animal power and included an overview of horseman-ship skills and training. In this new book Leslie focuses his attention on the tools and methods necessary to manage a horse-powered market garden, examining the function and use of various implements as they uniquely apply to such topics as managing fertility and cover crops, seeding, transplanting, irrigation, cultivation and harvesting. Leslie draws on more than applying the experiences of his own twenty plus years of farming.

In keeping with the spirit of this movement—witness the formation and continued growth of DAPNET, the Draft Animal Power Network based here in the Northeast, (which is) committed to supporting a network of draft animal-power enthusiasts where the sense of community runs deep and which has partnered on several occa-sions with its Draft Animal-Power Field Days at NOFA Summer Conference and which Leslie acknowledges— Leslie augments his own observations and analysis by taking us across the increasingly vast diaspora of teamsters –across the pond, in fact — “visiting with farmers of diverse backgrounds and approaches, some of whom speak a different language, but all of whom have in common a love and respect for draft animals and an abiding confidence in their utility for managing their lands ecologically and profitably in the 21st century.”

And in this second volume he does more than just provide farm profiles as in the first work; here, he celebrates these like-minded practitioners by giving them add-ed space to share their stories, analyzing the equipment they utilize, explaining how their systems and techniques work, and where and when they work best. “This assemblage of seasoned voices is no mere historical archive,” he contends; they “hold treasures of experience and knowledge that we need now and may need even more tomorrow.” No argument there. A humble farmer, Leslie is also the humble compiler: “rather than placing protective earmuffs on our heads to shut out the roar and din of the tractor, we are invited to open our senses more fully to the experience of the here and now.” “Such attunement,” he adds, “is essential to good farming,” and, this homesteader and fair trade advocate might add, to being a good reader and enlightened shopper.

Some of the more than 60 contributors — a score or more from NOFA nation, including some who have presented at various NOFA conferences — have moved on from being just farmers and growers to becoming skilled mechanics and artisans, keen on designing, modifying, and restoring implements and attachments that work on a scale suitable for this level of farming, yet another indication of how the growth of draft animal power is also transforming the agricultural landscape and marketplace from the centralized corporate paradigm to the creation of cottage industries, intent on open sourcing and sharing of knowledge and equipment. “For many of us small farmers,” Leslie writes, “farming is not a job per se; it is a direct form of social action, maybe the most important ‘grassroot’ activism pos-sible.”

In his chapter on Plows and Plowing, for example, he includes anecdotes from those who favor both the walking plow and the sulky; his explanation for this deci-sion is representative of his inclusive approach generally: Although I have written my own positive review of this model of plow, I thought it best to seek out another experienced horse farmer/market gardener to give us his take on the merits of this plow…to provide a balanced picture and to suggest that although a book like this one can provide road maps you will likely have to try out some different plows to your own unique situation to discern which plow is right for you, your soil, and your horses. Who is the ‘expert’ in this situation? And try employing such a strategy with tractors!

This book, then, is more than just an edited compilation-like best practices manual. In conjunction with its companion volume, Leslie’s new volume, in the story that it tells and in the way it is told, serves as a testament, adding the strength of their voices and shoulders, maximizing the potential of a growing world-wide struggle that honors right livelihood, incorporating old and new tactics and strategies, “fomenting a new agricultural revolution—one grounded in the wisdom of our an-cestors but also employing exciting new tools and methods…require(ing) our horses to help us restore our land, to respect the fabric of our local communities, and to heal our human spirits. Those of us who have taken up driving lines to manage our fields and forests have the power within our hands to help steer the course toward a new cultural evolution.”