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Horses, of Course

Photo by Brian Powers
Small farmers are going back to four-legged help

For John Reuter, who’s been a regular vendor at the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market for years, the reasons he farms with draft horses are simple.

“I’ve a number of reasons,” he says. “I like them better than tractors. Tractors are more efficient, but I like the horses. I have wet soil, and horses don’t get stuck.”

Reuter has more reasons, some practical, some political, but what other reasons do you need? Reuter’s simple reasons were enough for him to start working his 60-acre farm near Paw Paw with draft horses in 1988, growing broccoli, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables; herbs and greens for the market; and hay for his horses. Unlike sleek riding horses, draft horses are tall, burly animals weighing about 1,500 pounds, bred for strength and stamina rather than speed or agility.

In the 1980s, the number of farmers in the U.S. using draft animals was few. The number is still small, but there’s an increasing interest among well-established and new farmers in using draft horses, mules and oxen to work the soil and harvest crops. And while practical reasons such as not getting stuck in wet soil are still an important consideration, so are more recent market forces.

Animal power

The locavore movement among consumers, stores and restaurants to increase the amount of locally grown food in our diets has benefitted many small farms, and small farms are best suited to make the switch back to using draft animals, according to Reuter and others interviewed for this story. Increased demand for crops that are grown organically, or naturally without chemical fertilizers, gives farms worked by draft livestock a unique advantage. Besides tilling the soil, the animals provide the fertilizer, increasing the self-sustainability of the farm, another market selling point.

“More and more people are returning to animal power,” says Dick Roosenberg, the executive director at Tillers International in Scotts, a training ground for the use of draft animals and sustainable farming. The reasons some farmers are attracted to draft stock “include the romance of it, but it’s also deeper ecological issues,” Roosenberg says, especially the ability to maintain a natural nutrient cycle on the farm and greatly limit the use of petroleum for growing crops. Draft animals even help farm their own fuel — hay.

Limiting the use of petroleum is the political reason Reuter doesn’t own tractors on his farm. “One of the nice things about the horses, I’m not part of the Iraq war. I don’t need that oil,” or at least not much of it, he says. Reuter still needs gas when he uses his old pickup truck to bring his vegetables to market, and he admits there are jobs on the farm that require him to bring in a tractor.

“I hire tractor work because tractors can do things that horses can’t. Horses can do things that tractors can’t. You have to make a decision. I couldn’t afford both.”

He also admits that horses are slower. “The horses are more trouble. If I had both, I’d use the tractor. It’s easier to jump on the tractor, but tractors are expensive.” On small farms like Reuter’s, draft animals can provide a cost advantage over tractors.

While horses require day-to-day care and rigging their harnesses takes more time than hopping on a tractor, there is a routine to working with the animals that Reuter appreciates — it’s part of the romance that Roosenberg talks about. And on cold days, horses can be easier to start than tractors.

“I can use the horses year round,” Reuter says. “I don’t plow or cultivate in the winter, but I haul firewood, and we go through water sometimes” when snow melts.

It’s all part of a pattern and lifestyle that Reuter has embraced to earn a living for nearly 30 years. “No regrets. There are days, but no long-term regrets.”

From tanks to tractors

Draft animals were common on American farms through World War II. When the war ended, though, the United States suddenly had excess industrial capacity, so the government started encouraging farmers to replace their draft teams with tractors. Soon the horses, mules and oxen that had pulled the plow through centuries began to disappear in this country. Meanwhile, because of the tractor’s ability to till more land in a day than a draft team, farms began to expand, with the larger ones squeezing out many small farms.

Only the Amish and Mennonites kept the heritage and bloodlines of draft horses alive, mostly in Pennsylvania and northern Indiana. Although the numbers of the tall, extremely muscular horses diminished in the post-war years, those numbers began to rebound as breeders and others used these horses in pulling contests and horse shows or to pull wagons and sleighs for entertainment and marketing purposes (think Budweiser).

Blake Griffin plows with draft horses on his farm in Bellevue, north of Battle Creek. He started out using them to work his farm 27 years ago and then began showing them on and off for 15 years, he explained during an interview at a Michigan Draft Horse Breeders Association picnic in Ionia in June.

“We have showed as high up as the world show,” Griffin says. In 2014 at the World Percheron Congress, held that year in Springfield, Massachusetts, “our horse stood second” in its class for Percheron stallions, he says. But when Griffin retires next year from a job driving a fuel truck for D&L Fuel of Charlotte, he plans to go back to working his 58 acres full time with his horses.

Griffin, who has 16 draft horses, says he hopes to do a lot of farming after he retires, growing oats, corn and other produce. “It’s something that you’ve got to relax with and enjoy, making hay, hauling manure. I plan to do the full farming.”

Mules are cautious, not stubborn

“I always liked draft animals,” says Jerry Snow, who works a small farm he grew up on in Onondaga, between Jackson and Lansing, “but my dad wouldn’t let us have any, ever.” The elder Snow had a particular dislike for horses.

“My granddad and his brother were mustang trainers. They’d buy mustangs in the West, unload them in Eaton Rapids, and run them about 10 miles down the road to the farm.” The job for Snow’s father, who at the time was still a kid, was to sit on the back of a hay wagon holding the horses’ lead as they went down the road. Often one or more of the horses broke free, causing the boy grief and sometimes pain.

He hated horses so much so that he vowed never to have any horses on his farm. But when he died, his son bought a draft team to work the land.

“God, my mother chewed my ass,” Snow says. But her attitude didn’t last. “It didn’t take her long to forget. Soon she’s right out there on a wagon, telling me what to do.”

Snow currently has four mules that he uses on 10 acres where he grows hay. “I used to use tractors, but on a small farm you can get away with using livestock and mules. I just love working with mules. They’re my friends. I trust these guys more.”

He insists that mules’ reputation for stubbornness is a misunderstanding. “They’re more cautious,” he says. “That’s why people call them stubborn. You can ride a horse off a cliff, but a mule will throw you off a cliff.”

As Snow explains it, a mule isn’t going to proceed down an uncertain path without looking things over. “You ain’t going to make one do anything until he figures it out,” which makes a mule a safer animal to use on the farm, he says. “You’ve got to trust them, and they’ve got to trust you.”

Passing the reins

While there’s a strong ecological and economic interest in using draft animals for small, self-sustainable farms, there aren’t very many farmers experienced in handling the animals who can show newcomers how it’s done.

When students attend classes at Tillers, “they can learn to operate the team in a few days,” Roosenberg says, but “that’s not to say they’re a master farmer. A master farmer is a lifetime pursuit.” To truly handle a draft team safely and effectively, be it horses, mules or oxen, farmers new to driving livestock “have to have a mentor somewhere,” Roosenberg says. “That’s one of the difficult things right now. They may have to go 50 miles to see a mentor to see why their horse is acting up today.”

In addition to having to learn how to guide a team of trained draft horses, which can be intimidating because of their size, farmers have to figure out how to make money using them.

“It’s not simply like going back to 1914,” Roosenberg says. “If somebody is just going to be a corn farmer, they’re not going to make money” depending on a draft team. It just won’t work for a single crop with low value. For that situation, the economics demand a larger farm and a tractor’s efficiency. For draft animals to pay off, farmers “have to figure out some high-value product to produce, like the vegetable gardens and things like that, which are important options. You just simply can’t go back to what your grandfather did. You have to market to people who want their food to be from a farm that’s animal-powered.”

Lauren Burns of Kalamazoo understands Roosenberg’s point. She also understands animals and plans to farm with them someday. An intern at Tillers, she graduated from Western Michigan University with a biology major. She was a zookeeper at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and Battle Creek’s Binder Park Zoo, working predominantly with hoof stock, such as giraffes and zebras. She also worked with domestic hoof stock at Binder Park Zoo. “We had two donkeys that I totally fell in love with.”

Those donkeys are partly why she’s interning at Tillers. She learned how to drive giant draft horses but prefers donkeys and mules. “I’m 5-foot-4 so mules are more my size.”

Burns echoes Snow’s judgment that mules are safer. “Horses are sort of flighty by nature,” she says. “Mules, rather than run away, have a tendency to assess the situation, think about it. Instead of being jumpy, they’re more calm.”

While she understands the animals, Burns and her husband realize they still have more to learn about farming with them. They have a “five-year plan” to travel the U.S. and work on farms so they can learn what they’ll face when they strike out on their own. Burns said their plan culminates with returning to western Michigan and buying land somewhere between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.

“I want to start with about 40 acres, something manageable for the two of us,” she says. “I’d like to get in with the local breweries that are doing farm-to-table-type stuff and have a small meat farm with pasture rotation.”

It’s a plan, and not one that dates from 1914. Or, maybe, that is how they used to do it back then.

Tom Chmielewski

Tom is a longtime journalist who has written for newspapers (including the Kalamazoo Gazette, magazines and the Web. As a freelancer, he has written on subjects from the arts to the sciences and pretty much anything else. His science articles have appeared on The Atlantic magazine’s website, and he writes regularly about science and science fiction at Tom is currently working on his second novel.

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