More than a century and four decades have passed since Charles W. Hart built the first American tractor that was fully functional; it was a ploughing engine that was powered by steam. Today, farmers can get automated equipment, powered by gasoline or electricity, for almost anything that is done within an agricultural farm. Ploughing, planting, seeding, harvesting, and even packaging can be done with machines. When such is the state of our technological advancement, would you believe that horse powered farming is still alive? Horses and mules are the “engines” in a sheep farm owned and operated by Donn Hewes and his wife, Maryrose Livingstone. Their farm, Northland Sheep Dairy is located on a hilltop, 40 miles south from Syracuse in New York State.
Hewes acknowledges the relatively higher consumption of time and labor required in traditional horse powered farming than tractor farming; nevertheless he is satisfied with the operation much like a growing number of small-scale farmers feel the same way about horse powered farming. The Northland Sheep Dairy produces milk from grass fed sheep and the milk is their raw material for the traditional cheese they sell to customers. The horses and mules are engaged in pulling of farming implements for haymaking, spreading of compost, ploughing snow and hauling logs. Moreover, they are supplying manure to improve the fertility of the land. As there is no machinery involved, consumption of fossil fuel is completely avoided; thus, they are operating their business in an eco-friendly manner.
Access to information on horse powered farming throughout the country is very limited; but interestingly enough, they are increasing in numbers. Hewes himself is the president of trade body called “Draft Animal Power Network” which is a platform where 400 fellow farmers are mentored and informed of techniques needed for horse powered farming. At quite a distance from New York, in Hartland, Vermont, Stephen Leslie and his wife started a horse powered vegetable and dairy farm 20 years ago. They have witnessed a remarkable increase in the number of such farms all these years. Another indicator of horse powered farm gaining momentum is the fact that Amish businesses are increasingly meeting demands for horse powered equipment. Amish maker of horse-drawn implements for farms, Pioneer Equipment of Ohio has just introduced the Homesteader for small horse powered farms.
It is not the case that farming with horses and mules is more profitable than tractor farming in general. In fact, large-scale farms depend on a different cost-benefit analysis than family owned small farms do. Tractors and other machinery are evidently cost effective for those farms; otherwise, they would be procuring thousands of horses and mules for utilizing them in the fields. Horse powered farms are still alive and spreading within a particular segment of the farming sector. Small-scale farms focusing on the production of organic vegetable and other healthy food for local markets are the adherents of horse power. They don’t compete with the large-scale farms and their clientele is different. As most of the experienced old timers of such farming are gone, young people interested in starting horse powered farms may face the challenge of acquiring initial knowledge needed for day to day operation.