Powered by Horse
By Heidi Lewis
New Family Farm of Sebastopol, California, was one of six farms awarded grants in April 2013 from The FruitGuys Community Fund, a fiscally sponsored project of Community Initiatives. An outgrowth of the company’s Farm Steward Program, the Community Fund gives resources to small farms for sustainable agriculture projects that contribute to environmental and economic health.
As the song says, everything old is new again. In fashion that may be merely amusing, but the phrase has a deeper meaning for the many farmers who are discovering that “quaint” old-fashioned farming methods are actually rooted in deep ecology. After a century of industrial farming, some young farmers are turning to such tried and true practices as seed saving and sustainable management of livestock, crops, and soil to improve the quality of food, farmland, and farmers’ lives.
Two such farmers are Ryan Power and Adam Davidoff, who operate New Family Farm near Sebastopol, California. Their sustainable farming practices include using draft horses rather than motorized equipment to work the land. The $3,500 grant they were awarded from The FruitGuys Community Fund, a new non-profit founded in 2013, will go toward the purchase of a horse-drawn manure spreader that will improve soil fertility.
A Blend of Old and New
With its hoop houses, barns, pasture, and neat rectangles of fluffy plowed fields, New Family Farm, on leased land in a little Sonoma County valley, looks a bit like one of England’s fabled emerald shires. The sound of horses stomping and snorting drifts up the hill on gentle breezes. The farmers’ felt hats and suspenders augment the feeling of being transported to another time and place. But despite their appearances, Power and Davidoff are thoroughly modern men, well versed in the science and history of agro-ecology, and dedicated to growing healthy food and improving the land.
Power and Davidoff both grew up in Sebastopol – neither on a farm – and studied at the University of California, Santa Cruz, renowned for its organic farming program. After college, the two men worked on different farms and then met up again on a New Mexico farm that used mule teams to plow the fields. By now committed to farming without fossil fuels, they decided to return to Sebastopol, where, they acquired a donated pair of draft horses, through serendipity and connections to Work Horse Organic Agriculture (WHOA), a local non-profit and farm that promotes using horsepower for agriculture.
Both Skill and Heart
Last fall, New Family Farm hosted a community workshop with Doc Hammill, a famed horse (and people) trainer from Montana. Known as the horse whisperer of harnessed and working horse teams, Hammill practices “gentle horsemanship,” which strives for total trust and respect – and no fear – between animal and human. It takes skill and heart to be a “teamster” (the original meaning of the term now associated with labor unions was to drive a team of harnessed horses). Working with horses requires complete presence and mindfulness, Power said. “We learned how to ask the horses for what we want them to do, not make them do it. They cooperate,” he told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in 2011.
Anything that can be accomplished with tractor power can also be done with horses. Power and Davidoff and their team, Misty (a Belgian) and Sparky (a Percheron), can plow, harrow, seed, and harvest the fields using the same equipment a tractor would pull – but without the roaring engine, fumes, and fuel. Another plus is that the horses are their work partners. “They each have their own personalities,” Power said. “It’s really charming to work with them day in, day out; they’re like friends.”
Using draft horsepower provides big benefits: it reduces the farm’s dependence on fossil fuels, and they can use horse manure in place of synthetic fertilizers. Despite their 2,000-pound bodies and plate-sized hooves, horses are low-impact compared to tractors, causing far less soil compression.
Fourth Growing Season
New Family Farm is now in its fourth season growing luscious organic beets, lettuce, greens, potatoes, winter squash, and herbs. “We are certified organic, but I like to think our practices go way beyond the stamp that CCOF puts on our farm,” said Davidoff in a presentation to the January 2013 EcoFarm conference. “By having and using horses we are not using diesel, except to get our crops to markets and restaurants.”
The farmers sell their produce at three county farmers markets, two restaurants, and eight grocery stores. They also raise hogs, and Power’s fiancée, Felicja Channing, makes cheese from their goats’ milk, as well as an array of fermented foods and sourdough bread.
“This farm feels alive and it has a spirit,” Power said. “There’s a lot of different plants and animals living here together. I think of it as enriching life – we go beyond organic, because we’re bringing about abundance and more life in what we do.”