Farm Profit Helped by Return to Horse-drawn Plows and “Old Way”

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It's all about muscle power during the Northeast Animal-Power Field Days.
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A horse-drawn plow turns soil at the Northeast Animal-Power Field Days in Tunbridge, Vermont.

What if there were ways for farmers to tap into free fuel sources right on their own farms? This is not a new or high-tech innovation; it’s a practice that has been around for centuries. While years ago farmers worried little about the cost of fuel in the operation of their farms, today’s high fuel costs can greatly affect a farmer’s bottom line.

Farmers of old used teams of horses, mules or oxen to power their farms. These animals were not only inexpensive to keep, but also provided the farmer with free fertilizer. Today, more and more farmers, especially those running smaller farms, are returning to the “old way” of farming – using draft animal power to run their farms – and reaping the benefits.

Lisa McCrory and her husband, Carl Russell, tapped into the growing interest in utilizing draft animal power on the farm and created an annual event, the “Northeast Animal-Power Field Days,” held in Tunbridge, Vermont. This year’s event will be held the weekend of October 17 and 18.

“The Northeast Animal-Power Field Days is a gathering designed to pull together those interested in sustainable land use, using draft animals, and all the resources, contacts and opportunities that they may need within the northeast region,” McCrory says.

The two-day event includes workshops covering a broad range of topics.

A few of the educational offerings in 2008 included nutrition and animal health, college-level draft-animal programs, balancing modern life with farming, beginning driving skills, growing grains in the Northeast, manure-handling systems, and many others. In addition to the workshops, working demonstrations in animal-powered tillage, haying and logging are offered. A swap meet, exhibition area, equipment demonstrations and children’s activity tent are all available for interested participants between workshops and demonstrations. In the evenings, entertainment is provided. In 2008, contra dances, local musicians, movies and networking sessions were held in the evening hours. 

“Many people have commented on how energizing it is to get together with other people who are pursuing the same aspirations and challenges,” McCrory says. “People returning each year want to take in more advanced information, while new people arrive searching for introductory information. We are seeing the need to provide beginner, intermediate and advanced topics of discussion and demonstration to complement and enhance the networking opportunities and resources that are there.”

McCrory says the idea for the Animal-Power Field Days first came to the couple after meeting separately with many individuals interested in learning more about farming with animal power. McCrory points to two main factors in the decisions many farmers make to start using, or increase their use of, draft animals on the farm: fuel costs and getting back to the land.

With prices continuing to rise, fuel plays a large role in how much a farm will profit, or not, throughout the year. In addition to cost, many farmers are concerned about the environment. Tractors and other farm machinery spew large amounts of waste into the atmosphere. The third factor, according to McCrory, is the increasing desire of many farmers to get back in touch with nature, to get back to the land and to be able to grow the fuel that they need right on the farm. “Homesteading is growing in popularity,” says McCrory, who sees a resurgence of small farms. These smaller operations don’t require as much fuel and are therefore better equipped to grow what fuel they require for their working animals. “It’s more of a self-sufficient method,” McCrory says. “And it allows people to have a small enterprise.” 

McCrory and Russell know for a fact that draft-animal power and other renewable energy resources are a benefit to small farms. The couple, along with their children, live off the grid, utilizing solar and wind power for their home. All other power for the farm comes from their draft animals. In fact, the only traditional fuel used on their homestead is for their chainsaws and weed wackers.

“A lot of people want to turn back to the land,” McCrory says. “My husband, Carl, has been using draft horses for over 20 years … it’s been something he’s always done. I think that there is a growing interest in using draft animals in farming.”