Horse Power Keeps Small Farm Humming

Editor’s Note: Thanks to our friends at Farming Magazine (www.farmingmagazine.com) for permission to share some of their great articles featuring commonsense and innovative approaches to country living. We’re planning on spotlighting the ‘cream of the crop’ regularly. The article below, by Patrick White, originally appeared in October 2011. 

Entering the Draft: Horses power a growing enterprise

From retro furnishings to vintage clothing, everything old is new again.

There’s a similar reawakening, taking place at Essex Farm in Essex, N.Y., where owners Mark and Kristin Kimball have brought true horsepower back into farming. “We’re trying to create a healthy lifestyle in the midst of a crumbling ecosystem,” says Kimball.

Kristin Kimball heads out with two of the farm's draft horses to do a little late-season sickle bar mowing.

The couple purchased Essex Farm in 2003, and since then have worked the land with the help of draft horses, relying on the horses and their drivers (teamsters) for an ever-increasing portion of farm work. During that time, the farm has expanded and now serves 150 members of a year-round, free-choice, diversified CSA.

Essex Farm was basically a haying operation when the Kimballs purchased it. A former dairy enterprise was shut down in the 1980s, before it became basically a gentleman’s farm for two subsequent owners. The farm totals 500 acres and came with four tractors. The couple kept the tractors, but sold many of the large implements. “We said right from the start that we wanted to do this with horses,” Kimball notes.

Why rely on horses if it means higher labor costs? “I think that it’s a challenge, and human nature on its best day wants to run toward difficulty,” Kimball replies. There are also practical reasons. Along with reduced fuel costs, there are savings in terms of not having to purchase or maintain tractors, says Kimball. “It might cost us $10,000 to $20,000 a year to maintain our three midsize tractors if we were using them harder,” he says. And, rather than making loan payments on a new $75,000 tractor, you can purchase a team of horses for about $3,000.

Kimball was inspired to use horses by Amish and English friends who were farming with horses more successfully, and profitably, than he was at the tractor-powered organic vegetable farm he ran in Pennsylvania. He thought it deserved a second look, and it helped that his wife, Kristin, grew up around horses. So when the couple purchased the farm on the shore of Lake Champlain in Essex, they set out to learn as much as they could about farming with horses.

A farmer at Essex Farm hitches up a team of draft horses.

A farmer at Essex Farm hitches up a team of draft horses.

While they discovered a substantial draft horse community, few people they talked to used horses for practical farming chores. They found the majority of the answers, and the equipment, they needed among the Amish. “The interesting thing is that the Amish are a growing demographic, and most of them are still using horses for transport and in the field. So in the Amish community there is an extensive amount of new and used equipment. But they’re not next door; they’re out in Pennsylvania, Ohio and western New York,” says Kimball. “We would love to have some Amish competition in our area; it would bring with it some of the infrastructure and wisdom needed to do horse work.”

In the farm’s first season – chronicled in Kristin’s 2010 book “The Dirty Life” – the learning curve proved to be steep. “Kristin’s writing does an exquisite job of capturing that time,” says Kimball. “I would have liked to have had four years of apprenticing with a really good horse farmer. I would have done a number of things differently in retrospect.”

At the same time they were learning about draft horses, the Kimballs were creating a diversified farm, which meant expanding their knowledge base beyond Kimball’s primary expertise in vegetable farming.

They set out to purchase equipment at an Amish auction. “The Amish outbid us on a number of things; we had a lower budget than they did,” laughs Kimball. They were able to secure a disc, a spring tine harrow, a two-horse cultivator, a plow and some accessories. The Kimballs also had to find and acquaint themselves with draft horses. “Kristin had a horse sense and knew what the horses needed more than I did,” Kimball recalls.

Getting to know the behavior of horses has been one of the biggest challenges, he says. “It’s really about predicting what things a horse will react to in their surroundings and how you’ll give them the confidence to trust you that they’re not going to get hurt,” Kimball explains. As large and powerful as horses are, they are prey animals and instinctively fearful. “They’re ready to run at a moment’s notice. A lot of it is like poker: There are situations where I think, ‘Oh no, this is not going to go well,’ but you have to bluff and give the horses confidence that everything is OK,” he says.

That means it also takes time to train the teamsters. Kimball compares the process to learning to drive a car, where the basics come easily, but true proficiency takes time. “You can learn to drive an automatic in a day, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be a great driver in snowy conditions between two tractor-trailer trucks on a highway. Real teamster skills come only with experience,” he says. Horses recognize when someone at the reins doesn’t really know what they’re doing, Kimball adds.

The highest periods of danger are often around the barnyard. “Once a horse has been in an open field for a little while pulling a disc, they’re tired and they just want to be guided,” says Kimball. “Guiding is almost as simple as pulling on one side to go one way and pulling on the other side to go the other way.” Still, it takes constant attention on the part of teamsters.

Some of the simpler farm chores with draft horses tend to be tasks that are low-stress for the farmer. If the teamster is stressed working around valuable crops, for example, they’ll transmit that stress to the horses, so some training involves simply “ground driving” a horse with no implement attached. After that, most training involves tillage operations, where there’s no consequence whether the horses go over the same spot six times or whether they miss an area completely. “A spring tine harrow, for example, is a zero-consequence task if done wrong. If an area gets missed, I can just go over it later,” says Kimball.

Discing is a natural next step, because any ridges that are created can be fixed. “Late-season cultivation, where you go into a row of beets with a fairly wide pattern on your cultivator sweeps is another intermediate step,” says Kimball of the progression. “Cargo work – pulling wagons from one part of the field to the other – is another example. It’s a little risky because you’re stopping and starting, but it’s fairly low stress on the horse.” Raking and tedding hay are also mid-level on the difficulty scale.

The most advanced jobs involve heavy loads – such as a potato digger where there are multiple hitches and the horses really have to pull their hardest – which put the most stress on horses, humans and machinery, says Kimball. Sickle bar mowing is another difficult and technical chore for horses and teamsters, he notes: “Horses often are not used to the loud noise and the shiny flash of the steel, so a mowing machine is definitely higher on the scale of difficulty. But we’ve had some pretty young teamsters go out and do some pretty amazing stuff; they just have to be savvy. And, horses are amazing when they’re trained well in terms of what they can do and how they respond,” says Kimball.

Tractors still play an important role at Essex Farm. Tractors are used in the event that a short weather window requires a certain job to be done immediately, and contracted custom tractor work is utilized for some jobs. “There are times when I feel a little hypocritical calling ourselves a horse farm when we use tractors,” admits Kimball. But using tractors for certain jobs now is allowing the farm to rely more on horses in the future. For example, hiring custom tractor work to till and plant cover crops will improve the soil and allow horses to farm that ground next spring. “I think in 10 years we can be tractor-free here,” he concludes.

When using horses in place of tractors, Essex Farm usually relies on a forecart between the horse and implement. “We have moved more toward a modern Amish type of farming, where we’ll typically hitch to a small forecart,” explains Kimball. “We have one forecart with a three-point hitch lift that is hydraulically ground driven, so as it rolls forward 10 feet it can lift or lower.” All the forecarts have pin hitches, and one has a ground-driven PTO. There are also motorized forecarts that can be used to run implements with little power because the horses are providing the propulsion that otherwise would be handled by a tractor.

Kimball says the Suffolk draft horse is the only horse bred to be low for plowing and other jobs, though Essex Farm also uses Belgians and Percherons. He thinks that if resources were devoted to improved breeding of draft horses, there could be dramatic improvements made that would improve the ability of farmers to use horses in their operations.

One reality that quickly becomes apparent is that choosing to use horses impacts nearly every aspect of the farm and how it must be managed. Forecarts are hardly the only type of specialized equipment needed. While passers-by see the horses out in the field plowing or cutting hay, there’s a long list of less-obvious alterations and modifications that must be made to allow horses to truly power the farm.

“What I’m realizing is that, because the use of horses on farms is less common, I’ll have to reinvent some of the old wheels using new technology,” says Kimball. For example, he explains, “We can now collect loose hay with horses, but we don’t yet have all the pulleys and contraptions to get that loose hay into a dry space; so we can do all of our haymaking with horses except for storage.” Since it will take $5,000 to $10,000 to get the barn ready mechanically for loose hay, for now Kimball relies on an electric motor to get the hay into the barn.

Similarly, the Kimballs have made determinations about where modern technologies can best be used in order to maximize the potential of the horses out in the field. Rather than try to power the farm’s sausage grinder, cream separator, vacuum pump, etc., with horsepower, these devices are electric, freeing up the horses to complete chores that otherwise would require the use of tractors. A grant was recently used to add an array of solar panels on the farm, which takes some of the “guilt” out of using electric equipment, Kimball adds.

Kimball says one of the biggest investments planned is in improved hitch system equipment. “We want to get our hitch system so user friendly that we can hitch six or eight horses together rather than starting up a tractor,” Kimball explains. The farm currently has a total of eight working draft horses; doubling that number and purchasing the equipment to use all 16 horses together would provide the equivalent of a 50 hp tractor, he guesses.

While the horses do much of the heavy pulling, it takes a lot of manpower to manage that process. “We have a tremendous group of farmers here,” says Kimball. Doubling the number of draft horses and maintaining the same size staff would increase efficiency, but doing so will take investment, not only in horses but in “tooling up” with the necessary harnesses, hitches and so on. “Instead of sending out three teamsters with two horses each, I’d like to send out one teamster with six horses,” he explains.

Finding experienced teamsters to work on the farm is a priority. “We’ve been hiring really smart and really strong farmers. Now we’re looking for really smart, really strong and really experienced farmers,” says Kimball. A number of past farmers at Essex Farm have gone on to start their own horse-powered farms. Matt Volz, for example, now operates Greyrock Farm (www.greyrockfarmcsa.com) in Cazenovia, N.Y. “He’s now a good teamster and he’s set up a tremendous diversified operation in just a year,” says Kimball.

Kimball says he doesn’t always get to personally spend a lot of time with the horses – he’s busy with the supervising, management, observation, purchasing, communications, infrastructure investment and other tasks necessary to make any farm successful, and enjoys the business planning (“and even the paper pushing”) involved with the job: “It’s like chess, and it’s been ridiculously fun to try to figure out how to make the farm grow.” He thinks that using horses has made him a better farmer in this regard, because you can’t just run out and jump in a tractor to get a job done, you have to think ahead, plan and schedule carefully, and pay attention to details that otherwise might be overlooked, he explains.

The horses have also helped grow the farm’s profile and visibility. While many members in the farm’s CSA are drawn in by the horse farming aspect, others are just interested in local access to high-quality farm products. “I think that if we stopped using horses, we’d still attract a tremendous following with what we’re offering, but I think that people driving by and seeing the horses in the field harkens to an aesthetic nostalgia,” says Kimball. It’s something that sets the farm apart and creates a distinctive niche that has a definite business value.

Just seeing the horses in the fields leads many people to tell Kimball, “That’s the way it used to be done when I was a kid.” Kimball’s own reaction is: “Boy, I hope not!” He’s looking to use the horses in new, more efficient ways. “If I have to use a little bit of Kevlar to make horse farming more efficient, I’m all for it. I’d rather make something out of wood, but I’m becoming more of a pragmatic idealist. I’m hoping we can make draft horses an economically and socially and environmentally viable part of a new type of agriculture.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories and cutting-edge installations.

To see the accompanying photos for this article, click here.