Horse Progress Days is the event to experience for anyone who has ever looked at that acre or two on their horse farm and envisioned row after row of vegetables. It’s for the hobby farmer who is ready to make a go at full-time farming by taking his operation the sustainable, economical route.
This event was created with those in mind who are seriously considering small farming. The 2012 Horse Progress Days is set for June 29-30 at the Alvin Yoder farm in Clare, Michigan.
The genesis of Horse Progress Days dates back to the 1990s, when draft-horse farmers — predominantly Amish — were looking for a central event where implement manufacturers could demonstrate their products. Since then, interest has grown among non-Amish farmers, following a trend toward produce farming to meet the demand for locally grown and organic foods.
However, interest from large farms is emerging as well, according to Henry King, a majority partner in White Horse Machinery.
“Over the past several years, the bigger farms, non-Amish farms, are going to horse farming,” says King, who hosted the 2011 Horse Progress Days on his farm near Kinzers, Pennsylvania. “The movement today is for healthier diets, and people are willing to pay for these kinds of products. In the future, because of the economics of fuel, the viability of the farm may hinge on doing a lot more work with horses.”
Seminars at Horse Progress Days are moving more toward produce, but horse trainers and farm techniques still round out the schedule of events. The highlight of the two-day event is horse-drawn machinery demonstrations, where implements are put to work in the fields.
The event is rotated on an annual schedule between locations in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and northern and southern Indiana. The events tend to center around Amish communities, where the latest innovations in draft-horse farming and related horticulture can be presented in a natural farm setting.
The farm hosting the event gives up a few acres of arable land for the season, turning it over to demonstrations of horse-drawn equipment. A good chunk of pasture goes to vendors and food stands.
Anyone new to this type of agriculture will first notice the absence of the combustion engine’s assault on the ears. Instead, there is a snap of leather and the jingling of harness as a walk-behind plow bites into the soil and a furrow turns in the earth. It’s no wonder many horse farmers describe their time in the fields as meditative. Rather than powering through the fields under a cloud of diesel, the horse farmer and team seem to glide.
The Amish, who have continued horse farming right through the age of steam into gasoline and diesel, are at the center of some of the major advances in horse-drawn equipment. The small gas engine has come into play as well, powering rotors on horse-drawn manure spreaders and balers.
Yet with increased fuel prices, ‘ground drive’ technology is catching up. Horsepower is generated at the cart wheels, and non-motorized systems capable of generating anywhere from five to 18 horsepower have been developed and put into use.
Liberty, Kentucky-based Athens Enterprises’ horse treadmill takes horsepower on the farm to another level. The 11-degree tread, when walked by a buggy horse or plow horse, powers a driveshaft that can be coupled easily with belt-driven appliances.
Athens Enterprises owner Ammon Weaver has demonstrated the treadmill’s ability to run washing machines, meal grinders, log splitters and freezer compressors. Weaver hopes the demonstrations show that horsepower can replace energy needs currently met by electricity or petroleum-based fuels.
“We’re trying to stir the imagination, come up with different ways to use the treadmill,” he says. “We try to get people thinking how they can make it more adaptable.”
High fuel prices are starting to help sales of the treadmill. Once it is in use, Weaver says the treadmill changes a person’s mindset toward conservation of resources.
“Changing your thought process has to come with it,” Weaver says. “You aren’t going to let your lights burn all night if your horse is powering it. With gas prices going up and down, it seems to be taking hold.”
Horse Progress Days also is something of a trade show for the implement manufacturers. Manufacturers, although attending with the goal of sales, also take note. New innovations are described, taken home to the shop, tried, tested and applied. If it works, the consumer will see more next year.
The interest in small-scale produce farming prompted Pioneer Equipment Inc. of Kidron, Ohio, to design a universal implement. New in 2012, Pioneer’s homesteader implement carries the ability to switch at its two-pin hitch from plow to discs, harrow, cultivator and harvester.
“There’s quite a movement to small acreage, the people coming in are interested in small vegetable gardening,” Pioneer owner Wayne Wengerd says. “They want to work the land with horses, but don’t want to spend a lot of money. You just can’t justify an $8,000, $10,000, or $20,000 investment in 10 acres.”
David Fisher and his wife, Anna Maclay, started their Massachusetts farm, Natural Roots, with a Farmall tractor in 1997 and moved to horses the next year, putting to the test Fisher’s skills gained during a horse-farming apprenticeship.
With comparable experience between tractor and horse, Fisher prefers horse farming hands down. Most every aspect of Natural Roots is related in one way or another to the work of its four horses.
“We have so much more versatility with horses,” Fisher says. “You can take the horses, work them together or have two teams in the harness.”
The beasts of burden are put to work year-round. Much of the farm is in timber, and the horses skid logs without leaving the deep tread marks from heavy machinery that damage the forest floor. The horses sow and harvest the grain that is in turn their fuel source.
Natural Roots has seven acres mostly in produce and currently has 220 families with shares invested in its community-supported agriculture collaborative. The shares are enough to keep the farm going, Fisher says, but his plan for Natural Roots is to evolve into larger-scale farming.
“Produce is great, but it’s hard on the land. We have our seed drills and eventually want to go more toward cash crops,” Fisher says. “For us right now, produce is it.”
Fisher shared his experiences with horse farming and CSA in a seminar at the 2011 Horse Progress Days.
For more information on this year’s event, visit the Horse Progress Days website.