Draft horses picturesque, expressive assets for small-scale farm

Marvin Brisk drives a horse team in Halfway, Ore., accompanied on the plow by Joel Sokoloff.

Marvin Brisk drives a horse team in Halfway, Ore., accompanied on the plow by Joel Sokoloff.

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Watch out for traffic on Old Milton Highway.

On the farm this week our team of American Belgian horses is putting in its hours plowing under cover crop and furrowing for potato planting. Cars and people line the road to watch them at work. When I’m not driving the horses, I feel just as inclined as the people in the vehicles to stop and watch them. What a beautiful sight!

The spectacle of work horses in a commercial setting is not a common thing to witness in this day and age in Eastern Washington. Which begs the question, “Why do we work with draft horses?”

Those of you who know the sweet scent of a horse’s breath, or can interpret the expressive flick of an ear, or have felt the ground vibrate when the herd gallops by — you most likely already have a good idea why. Horses are awesome creatures. We learn so much about communication and about ourselves from horses. Driving horses requires full attention and engagement; there is little room for boredom around here.

For those of you who don’t know horses, perhaps you know the sound of the red-winged blackbirds in the morning or the pungent spice of the cottonwood sap in April. Working with horses allows us to stay attentive to the seasonal cues around us. The sounds and smells are not dulled by motor noise or fumes. It’s a way of working that reduces our dependence on fossil fuels and uses simple and elegant tools that were designed for exactly our scale of agriculture.

The horses are a lighter option than tractors, resulting in less soil compaction. With our horse team we are able to plow, disk, harrow, furrow, hill and harvest potatoes, cultivate with riding and walking implements, spread manure, pull wagons, cut hay and give rides.

We got our American Belgians in 2007 as 4-year-olds from Horse Powered Organics in Halfway, Ore., where they breed and train horses on their own working farm. Deborah and David Madder select for a thicker, stockier build that puts muscle on the back end and keeps the horses short enough that they can be harnessed by folks who aren’t tall — like me.

These are farm draft horses, not big-hitch, show animals. Weighing in at about 1,800 pounds, and at 16 hands in height, Dandy and Avi are big compared to saddle horses, but are small to medium in the draft horse world.

The horses are powerful. There is something completely compelling about creatures this strong, smart and willing. They can always outmuscle us. Our relationship is based on trust, respect and really interesting power dynamics. “Who’s in charge?” the horses always ask, and each teamster on the farm has to be able to come up with a very convincing, “I am.”

Dandy, the gelding, needs to know that the task is really worth doing; we convince him. Avi, our mare, needs to know that she’s doing each task perfectly; we support her. None of us grew up with horses, but we all are intensely drawn to them and work hard to learn their language.

Some teamsters work horses in harness as a historical re-enactment. We believe, however, that the small-scale, horse-powered farm is a very viable, contemporary option for farming mixed vegetables and forage crops. With our horses we can take good care of the soil, accomplish vital tasks in a timely fashion and experience a rare degree of challenge, satisfaction and joy in the work.

Luckily, other folks in the Northwest share these same values. We’ve learned a lot about teamster skills, horse training, equipment and row-crop applications from folks such as the Madders and Pam and Marvin Brisk of Halfway, Chis Woolhouse and Walt Bernard of Dorena, Ore., and John Erskine of Sequim, Wash.

Each year in the offseason there is a “Farmer-to Farmer” gathering at someone’s farm. For a few days we talk shop, drive horses and tell stories. It’s not the same as learning a craft at your grandpa’s side, but it’s the best we can do in this generation.

photo

Chandler Briggs

The Small Farmers Journal Horsedrawn Auction

photo

Courtesy of Amy and Jim Fenley

Maddock pulls a conveyance for AJ Carriages.

The Small Farmers Journal Horsedrawn Auction, which takes place April 24-27 in Madras, Ore., is the biggest gathering of horse farmers on the West Coast. For several days draft animal enthusiasts congregate to visit, attend workshops and bid on harnesses, field equipment and carriages. It is a great venue for newbies and old-timers alike.

The Welcome Table farmers won’t be the only folks from Walla Walla in attendance at the auction. We have a small cadre of teamsters in the Valley. Amy and Jim of AJ Carriages bring handsome, dappled Maddock into town for carriage rides. Joe Hallowell of the Jubilee Youth Ranch is currently training a pair of Belgians for the ranch’s garden and hay fields. Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards has a team of Belgians that are being used in a new project called “Horsepower.” Teamsters Efrain, Andres and Ernesto work the horses in the high-density vineyard with special French-manufactured equipment, suitable for the rocky soils and 3-foot spacing of the vines. Look for the first release of this unique new brand in the coming year.

There are others working draft horses that we haven’t met. Many folks have stories from when they were a kid, and just a few people remember the days of the big hitches for grain harvest and threshing in the area. We’d love to hear your tales, too.

Emily Asmus and her husband, Andy, own and operate Welcome Table Farm in the Walla Walla Valley. They can be reached at 509-529-0772 or emily@welcometablefarm.com.

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