Do you imagine Farmer Joe sitting on a tractor?
Or does your mind go somewhere more traditional, to a stomping oxen or a horse-drawn plow?
Animal, or draft, power used to play a central role in American agriculture, but in the last sixty or seventy years, machines have taken over.
Many Amish and Mennonite communities never stopped using draft power, but now a new generation of young farmers is taking it up as well.
Stephen Leslie is the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm and an enthusiastic advocate of animal-driven agriculture.
Leslie owns and operates Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vermont, with his wife, Kerry Gawalt. Leslie and Gawalt milk Jersey cows, and they grow vegetables, flowers and fruit trees in a four-acre market garden. They rely on horses for everything but loading their manure-spreader.
Leslie says he and his team “use horses as the plowing engines they used to be.” He estimates that 400,000 other North Americans do too.
Animal power has several advantages. Horses don’t burn fossil fuels, and their hooves aerate soil, unlike tractors, whose wheels compact the dirt, keeping air from getting in and supporting biological activity.
For Leslie, farming with horses is also a way to improve his quality of life. Farming doesn’t pay much, and the organic agriculture community is small, but working with animals is an adventure, and it’s connected him to farmers across the country, who are publishing journals, hosting events, and reaching out to each other to share their interest in draft power.
“It’s an exciting time for young farmers,” he says.