The Land Bank
We’re six weeks into life at Maggie’s and already we’ve established steady working relationships with the all animals on our farm. We lead cows to fresh pasture daily and pull fresh eggs out from under broody hens. We try to our best to keep the peace with Mr. Marbles the pushy ram and I’ve even grown accustomed to the regular mouse fiestas inside my bedroom walls.
But because we don’t have horses on this side of the farm, I have not yet had to confront a 15-year fear I’ve harbored since seeing a horse buck its rider and drag her across the ground by a stirrup, straight into a rock wall. Since then, most horses I have met have done little to convince me this experience was isolated. As I’m told, my fear of horses only encourages more antisocial behavior from them and so our relationship has spiraled downward to where you’ll find me today, preferring the company of a tractor.
This, in sum, is my equine life experience and it was with this frame of reference that I trekked to Brattleboro, Vermont this week to learn how to work a team of draft horses.
But lets back up a couple centuries for just one moment. In case you didn’t know, the dimensions of an acre (approximately 200’ x 200’) come from the amount of land that is tillable by one man, in one day, with one yoke of oxen. And until the industrial revolution, the physical limits of nature (plants, weather, our bodies) and effectiveness of our tools (animals, implements) established the outer limits of our ability to work the land. But as machines crept out of factories and onto our farms, our productivity exploded and so too did our capacity for destruction. Chainsaws leveled vast forest, tractors open up larger and larger tracts of land and chemicals laid waste to thousands of years of accumulated fertility in our soils.
But in an attempt to turn back this destructive tide, progressive agricultural thought today is revisiting the horse-powered roots of farming’s past. It is an ethical relationship to land that I find both admirable and terrifying.
Our horse power ambassadors comprised an impressive looking team of 1,500-pound Suffolk Punches named, Phoebe, Charlie and Robin and their equally sturdy handlers Jay and Janet Bailey. The Baileys have been bravely growing vegetables on their humble 42-acre farm since 1978 when they showed up to their first farmers market with a bushel of spinach, six dozen eggs and a baby under their arm.
Once Jay was satisfied the mind meld was complete, we were turned loose for two days with the horses. After hitching the team up and pulling hay wagons through open pastures and we eventually graduated to pulling logs through windy wooded lanes. Sensing our lack of confidence at the lines, the horses tested our instructions at every opportunity. But with practice, our pressure on the reins became more confident and commands – a staccato “gee” (turn right) or a drawn-out ‘haaaaaw” (turn left) sounded more convincing.
After we came in from the field and relieved the team of their lines, we lead each horse to their stall and gave them hay. One evening, as the light faded outside, I attended to Charley and brushed his glossy coat free of the day’s dirt and sweat. To my satisfaction, he didn’t kick. He didn’t nip. In fact he barely seemed to notice as I nudged his massive his rear haunches into the corner of the stall so that I could squeeze by him with a bucket of water.
It was far from the terrifying drama I was prepared for.
So where does it leave me? I can easily say that I aspire the level of patience and focus required by working with horses. During those two days, whenever I allowed my mind to wander, I wound up with a wayward horse on the on the other end of the reins. And the moments when the horses and I were in sync, I found the work peaceful and connected in ways grossly absent when working downwind of a tractor’s exhaust pipe.
There are also the ecological benefits. With horses, soil compaction is not an issue, you burn zero fossil fuel in the process AND you get manure, to give back to your fields to replace the fertility you’ve taken away in the harvest.
It is a beautifully elegant system – with one ironic hang up.
The very pace of the work, which I so celebrate in theory, makes me crazy in practice. Each day we spent 45 minutes messing with harnesses and tack before the real work even began. This was bookended by another 45 minutes at the end of the day haying and watering and bedding the horses down for the night. None of which include the cumulative chunks of time spent throughout the day trying to convince horses to do things they would rather not do – like step over a wagon pull or back up in tandem. More than once I would have preferred to just start up a tractor and get on with it.
My years as a construction worker and self-employed photographer have hard wired me for efficiency. Greater efficiency means greater productivity which in turn equals bigger profits. And under our economic system of accounting, profits equal success. Industrial farming is no exception.
But it is has become an uneasy calculation for me because that sort of accounting alone fails to consider the true cost of our so-called progress. After all, it was the inclination toward efficiency that gave us the industrial revolution, which lead to the environmental fix that we’re in, which is leading us back in search of a more sustainable way forward.
Meanwhile, I’m running headlong into my own industrial programming.
Two days of shaking my head in awe at the harmony of man and beast while tapping my feet impatiently shows me clearly: our challenge on the farm (but also for humanity’s existence in this world) is to find a way forward that strikes a balance between the two ethics – a balance that values efficient progress, but also restraint. A way that respects the limits of the natural world – limits to which all our progress is ultimately beholden. It needs to be an economy that looks to land as the bank, and acknowledges we can’t take out more than we put in.
Or else, the bank will come looking for us.
More photos from the week can be found HERE.