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Will Draft-Horse Farming Make a Comeback?


Touch the Soil News #229

A few years back, Susan and I were fortunate to spend a couple of days with David and Debbie Mader of Horsepower Organics. The Maders farm 155 acres with Belgian draft horses in Eastern Oregon. They also breed, train and sell Belgian work-horse teams. To make the most of this enterprise, the Maders take in interns to learn the art of draft-horse farming. It came as a surprise to us that many of the interns were young women and some of them from overseas.

Working as interns at Horsepower Organics (from left) Carmen Becker (Germany), Liz Bedsole (Portland) and Hattie Kugler (Vet student from Washington State University). These girls spent close to a year learning everything from horses, raising feed and implements. (photo - Susan Gisin)


One of the things that touched us was to see David driving a foursome of Belgians in a field. There was something timeless about it that felt it could fit into the world just as easy 100 years from now as it did 100 years ago. Not because mechanized technology would go away, but because humanity might choose a practice that is less stressful to the planet, its soils and atmosphere.

David Mader takes the reins of this Belgian foursome. Mader explains the horses have to trust you and you never get angry with them. With kindness and determination you must guide the horses through any difficult situation. (Photo - Susan Gisin)


The cost of horsepower on modern farms is steadily increasing. In a year like 2015, when global grain stocks push prices down, few farmers can afford new tractors and John Deere Equipment sales are off. Equipment breakdowns and repairs are the norm. Thousands of farmers are opting out of owning such expensive equipment and are, instead, leasing tractors during times of need. The means lower sales and more used equipment on the market.

Combining the cost of farmland with mechanized horsepower puts farming out of reach for virtually most people wanting to farm. When it comes to sustainable farming, large heavy tractors are one of the primary causes of soil compaction – leading to reduced yields and soil problems relative to water absorption.

There remains a core of committed small farmers that continue to employ draft horses. Being published since 1976, the Small Farmers’ Journal covers the draft-horse farming scene, with subscribers in more than 70 countries.

Following is a short video clip featuring two market-garden farmers who have opted to use real draft horses as opposed to mechanized horsepower.

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