Breaking ground with methods and tools not used much in our region for several generations lets us slow down to truly observe our impact on the land.
We see the rusting relics of a bygone era virtually any time we travel around our county. An old Oliver plow ornamenting someone’s garden, or a horse-drawn hay rake set out by a gate post. If one tries, it isn’t hard to imagine the days 80 or 90 years ago, when you could see a team of stout draft horses pulling that old Oliver through the spring soil—the skilled plowman driving them on—or a pair of sleek, black mules raking the second cut of hay into windrows in the high heat on a September afternoon.
Perhaps that plowman was your great-grandfather. Maybe those were your great-great-uncle’s mules—his pride and joy. That era has come and gone, but we are still connected to it, and relics though they are, they’re not necessarily obsolete to every farmer of Jefferson County. To some, their function can still be seen. Their useful lives are not over.
I’m not necessarily talking about just the old tools. What I’m also talking about is an additional type of recycling—a return—to a way of farming that, when done right, truly nourishes the land and the community.
Our farm, Green Gate Farm, has returned to draft horse power, and sees the possibilities for healing the land with these old ways and reconnecting our community with an aspect of its agricultural past.
When my horse, May, and I are rolling down the farm lane on our way to feed pigs and chickens, there is no roaring engine. I can pick out individual bird songs. When we plow our gardens with those old restored implements, we can hear the Earth open as the plow unzips the sod. The gentle clank of harness, the plod of each hoof, and the creak of the wagon are things that generation upon generation of farmers experienced. Perhaps they didn’t think much of it, but their lives, and my connection to them, dominates my imagination.
While the aesthetics of farming with a draft horse are likely obvious to just about anyone, going backward technologically to produce more, higher-quality food, and heal the land, may seem impractical, or even counterintuitive to some folks. But when the pieces fit together, you truly see a more natural and economic system at work.
By taking that step back, we take a leap forward in sustainability. With a culture and society that is addicted and vulnerable to fossil fuel consumption, using a draft horse for virtually all of our on-farm work frees us from the encumbrance of filling gas tanks and fluctuating petroleum prices. We are able to fuel our main power source with hay and forage growing right here under our feet. She (May) is the final piece of the puzzle, the key, to being truly biodynamic. Our horses and sheep graze our pastures, and the chickens glean through the clipped grasses after them. The pasture, season after season, becomes more lush and nourishing as the animals fertilize while they go. We harvest that grass as hay, with a horse-drawn mower from the 1890s, and then the hay is stored and fed to the horses and sheep in winter. It’s an almost perfectly closed carbon cycle.
Farming is all about cycles and generating new life. Here at the farm, that’s even more evident, as what’s old to most is new again to us. Breaking ground with methods and tools not used much in our region for several generations lets us slow down to truly observe our impact on the land. It helps us appreciate those who came before us and grew the food that sustained their people.
Think of those farmers the next time you see one of their tools quaintly sequestered to a flower bed. The old ways don’t have to disappear completely. Indeed, each morning in your community, perhaps at this moment, a young farmer harnesses his horse and steps through time in order to preserve those old ways, and the memory of those who came before.
— Lars Prillaman started Green Gate Farm with his parents in 2010, and now manages and oversees the day-to-day livestock work. Check them out on Facebook here, and support their efforts to expand their greenhouse here.