September 25, 2020

On Small Farms, Hoof Power Returns

ON a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.

Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.

Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.

Now, as diesel prices skyrocket, some farmers who have rejected many of the past century’s advances in agriculture have found a renewed logic in draft power. Partisans argue that animals can be cheaper to board and feed than any tractor. They also run on the ultimate renewable resource: grass.

“Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels,” Mr. Ciotola said.

Animals are literally lighter on the land than machines.

“A tractor would have left ruts a foot deep in this road,” Mr. Ciotola noted.

In contrast, oxen or horses aerate the soil with their hooves as they go, preserving its fertile microbial layers. And as an added benefit, animals leave behind free fertilizer.

David Fisher, whose Natural Roots Community Supported Agriculture program in Conway, Mass., sells vegetables grown exclusively with horsepower, said he is getting record numbers of applicants for his apprentice program. “There’s an incredible hunger for this kind of education,” he said.

Mr. Fisher discovered farming with horses more than a decade ago as an intern on a farm in Blue Hill, Me. It stuck.

“Using animals is just really appealing to the senses,” he said, adding that he found it philosophically appealing as well. “There’s a deep environmental crisis right now, and live power is also about creating an alternative to petroleum. Grass is a solar powered resource — and you don’t need manufacturing plants or an engineering degree to make a horse go.”

Drew Conroy, a professor of applied animal science at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, who is known in draft-power circles as “the ox guru,” notes that horses and even mules are seeing a comeback. Each animal has its niche.

“Ox are cheap and easy to train but they’re essentially bovine, which is to say, smart but slow,” he said. Horses are faster, more spirited, trickier to train and more expensive to buy and to keep. Professor Conroy notes that mules are better suited to Southern weather. “In the heat, an ox will just stop,” he said.

Even their most ardent supporters concede that draft animals are likely to remain minor features of the rural landscape. For starters, they are cost effective only on small farms. They are also time intensive, performing well only when they can be worked every day, and becoming temperamental when neglected.

On Mr. Ciotola’s first day out with his oxen, he had to struggle with the fact that the long winter had left them rusty. At one point they pulled over and came to a full stop in the bushes. He walked in front of them and tapped them gently.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=6677f5ba1f5f9e5cb3df3e89f51844bc

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