More organic farmers are switching from tractors to horse power

08/26/2013 1:52 PM

08/26/2013 1:52 PM

While strolling through his farmyard on a recent summer afternoon, John Craft pauses near the corral. His three Haflinger draft horses immediately reach through the fence to nuzzle Craft’s shoulder, and he rubs their honey-colored necks while making introductions.

There’s Vi, a 15-year-old mare originally trained for dressage (a competitive equestrian sport) who adapted readily to fieldwork on Craft’s Willing Horse Farm east of Lawrence. Her son, Stretch, is 4 and recovering from an injury, so his 3-year-old sister, Vida, picked up more of the workload this year.

Craft relies on these muscular animals to plow, manage and harvest his 31/2 acres of crops, but they’re clearly more than just a tractor replacement.

“Sometimes I tell people my growing vegetables is an excuse to work with my horses,” says Craft, who is also a residential building contractor. “I found to my surprise working with horses was a great source of joy.”

He’s not the only one. Farming with horses may seem quaint, but the practice is enjoying a renaissance in the United States. Demand for well-trained teams and modern horse-powered equipment is rising, as is attendance at industry events.

Amish farmers who have long favored equines over engines account for part of the growth, but draft horses are also gaining ground on small organic operations, says Dale Stoltzfus, national secretary for Horse Progress Days (

), an annual equipment manufacturers’ showcase that will be in Mount Hope, Ohio, in 2014.

“For those concerned with how they produce food and the impact their way of farming has on the environment, horse farming really makes sense,” Stoltzfus says. “More and more people are considering these things and are being drawn to a new old way of farming.”

Horses were domesticated some 6,000 years ago and have since served as warhorses in the Middle Ages, hauled freight and tilled fields in Europe and provided transportation in colonial America. John Deere’s invention of the first cast-steel plow, coupled with westward expansion after the Civil War, seemingly solidified their role in agriculture.

By 1920, 26 million horses and mules were in use in the U.S., according to Draft Horse Journal (

), but the advent of the tractor quickly eroded their numbers. Engines eclipsed draft horses by the 1950s; there are now just 1 million in the U.S., according to Stephen Leslie, author of “The New Horse-Powered Farm” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013).

Clydesdales are the most familiar, thanks to Budweiser’s commercials, but farmers rely on breeds like Belgian, Shire, Percheron and Suffolk Punch as well. Most stand between 5 and 6 feet at the shoulder and weigh 1,400-2,000 pounds. There are also draft “ponies” such as the Haflinger and Norwegian Fjord that reach almost 5 feet and 1,000 pounds.

That’s a lot of power, especially when it has a mind of its own.

“I used to tell people that I have no physical control over these animals, and their jaws would just drop,” Klaus Karbaumer says with a chuckle. He operates Karbaumer Farm near Platte City with his wife, Lee.

What Karbaumer does have is the absolute trust of his four draft horses — a glossy black Percheron named Sam, two Belgians called Charlie and Norman, and Gandhi, a sturdy Haflinger. Karbaumer understands the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of each and how to work with them safely and efficiently.

“It’s all about communication,” Karbaumer says. “It’s about observing what they do, knowing how they will react and what they might be doing in the next moment, and how you communicate with them through the lines.”

Karbaumer has more than half a century of experience with draft horses. He grew up in Germany in the 1950s, where neighbors taught him to drive a team and where he later owned his own horse-powered farm in addition to teaching. Karbaumer continued to farm and teach after immigrating to the Kansas City area in 1991. He moved to Lee’s farm after the couple married in 2006.

Just more than two of their 17 acres are in vegetable production, while much of the rest provides hay and pasture for their horses. The couple don’t own a tractor, irrigate or buy fertilizer or chemicals. Instead, they use organic methods to produce a succession of vegetables including collard greens, Swiss chard, spinach, kale, beets, carrots, leeks, onions, potatoes, green beans, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, cowpeas, okra, sweet potatoes and winter squash.

Marketable cover crops such as turnips, radishes and mustard greens enrich the soil and out-compete weeds, and flowering plants like buckwheat and elephant amaranth help support the farm’s five beehives. They also have ducks, and goats control weeds and produce milk for drinking and cheese-making.

“Every animal on this farm has a job, down to the cat,” Lee Karbaumer says.

The Karbaumers operate what they call the Karbaumer Farm Guild. Its 50 members pay a $12 service fee; in exchange, they receive weekly emails detailing availability and prices and can pre-order produce, fruit from a nearby orchard and vineyard, and eggs from the couple’s 300 free-range hens ahead of a weekly market day. The farm market is also open to the public, and the Karbaumers supply vegetables to Grunauer, Eden Alley, Local Pig and Green Acres Market.

Karbaumer’s method is an intensive one, and he’s constantly plowing, discing, harrowing or cultivating; planting or harvesting; logging (their home is heated with wood); mowing hay; spreading composted manure on fields; or giving hay rides. Tasks must be organized so the horses can work at a steady pace but still get ample rest.

“Horses force you to be more considerate with yourself, and with them,” Karbaumer says. “That’s one of the reasons why horse farming is different from tractor farming.”

Another is that not only must a farmer master all that, his draft horses must, too.

“These horses have to learn a lot of complex skills,” says Leslie, whose book features the Karbaumers. “It takes time to do that. It’s not something you can really expect to just jump into.”

Many of the inquiries Leslie receives come from novice farmers who also lack equine experience. He encourages them to learn one skill at a time — figuring out how to grow whatever they want to grow before adding horses to the mix.

“The main take-away message in my book was don’t be a new horse farmer and have young, new horses,” says Leslie, who has farmed for more than 20 years and uses Norwegian Fjords to grow vegetables, flowers, fruit and cover crops at Cedar Mountain Farm in Vermont. “That was my biggest mistake.”

But even the best-trained draft team still requires constant monitoring, says Craft, who grew up riding horses on his family’s dairy operation but refers to himself as an amateur teamster.

“You have to be present all the time. You can’t be off daydreaming,” Craft says. “They need you to be alert.”

Craft grows everything from a variety of greens to sweet corn, tomatoes, potatoes and sweet potatoes. He sells most of that at the Lawrence Farmers Market and Cottin’s Hardware Farmers Market and through a CSA organized by Lawrence resident England Porter. Craft also planted sweet sorghum for the first time this season and restored a sorghum press with an eye toward processing his own syrup.

Horses do all but the heaviest fieldwork. For that, Craft has a 1950s-era Ford 600 series tractor. Still, he limits its use, partly because of environmental concerns and partly because draft horses want and need to work.

“You have to do things with them,” Craft says. “These guys get bored if you don’t.”

When not in the field, Craft uses the trio to clean manure from their pen, hitches them to a cart during warm weather or a sled in winter or saddles them for a ride. It’s enjoyable, but also a lot of work.

Farming with horses is physically demanding, because you also have to manually guide whatever equipment they’re hitched to. It takes extra time and effort to harness the team at the start of the day and unhitch them at the end. Horses have to be fed, watered and cared for year-round, and whatever grain or hay isn’t produced on-site has to be purchased.

So why do it?

For one thing, horses are a green alternative to tractors, Leslie says.

“Some people are considering farming as a vocation because they’re concerned about the environment, climate change, the issue of food safety or the preservation of soils,” Leslie says. “They see organic farming almost as a form of social activism.”

Draft horses generate power and fertilizer without consuming fossil fuels or compacting the soil as a tractor can. Plus, they’re especially well-suited to small, diversified farms that rely on relationships between animals and plants, Craft says.

“It’s the farm working as an integrated system instead of an input-output model,” Craft says. Horses can also be more economical than buying a new tractor and equipment. That certainly wasn’t an option for him, Craft admits.

But most of all, Craft and Karbaumer simply enjoy working with horses and can’t imagine doing it any other way.

“This passionate love of horses is so powerful. People don’t understand it if they don’t have it,” Karbaumer says. “I don’t think I could live without horses. I wouldn’t want to.”

Spinach Quiche

Lee Karbaumer of Karbaumer Farm near Platte City substitutes Swiss chard in this quiche when spinach is out of season. She makes her own pie crust, but pre-made crusts also work well.

Makes 1 (9-inch) quiche Olive oil, for sauting vegetables 1/4 cup chopped onion 3/4 pound spinach, washed, stemmed and finely chopped 1/2 cup light mayonnaise 1/2 cup milk 4 eggs, lightly beaten Salt and pepper, to taste 8 ounces shredded cheddar or Swiss cheese 1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Saute onion in small amount of olive oil until soft but not brown on medium-high heat. Add chopped spinach and stir in pan just until wilted. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, whisk together mayo and milk until smooth. Add eggs, salt and pepper. Place the pie shell (still in its pie tin) on a cookie sheet lined with foil. Layer cheese, then spinach in the pie shell. Carefully pour egg mixture over all.

Cover quiche with foil. Bake in oven for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 to 15 minutes more, until the top is golden and the filling is set in the center.

Per serving: 320 calories (64 percent from fat), 23 grams total fat (9 grams saturated), 142 milligrams cholesterol, 16 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams protein, 473 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber. Kale and Potato Soup With Sausage

Soup isn’t just for winter at Karbaumer Farm. Lee Karbaumer likes to make a large batch and then reheat leftovers on busy days. You can substitute Swiss chard or other greens for the kale or make a heartier version by adding rice, lentils, beans, chopped zucchini or even cooked sausage links.

Makes 8 servings 1 pound ground pork sausage 1 medium onion, chopped 1 teaspoon chopped garlic Olive oil, as needed 1 (28-ounce) can chopped or pureed tomatoes with juice, or 1 quart spicy tomato juice Italian seasoning or seasoning of choice Red pepper flakes, optional Salt and pepper 6 large potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces 6 whole carrots, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces 1/2 pound kale, washed and stalks removed, cut into small pieces

In a large soup pot, cook sausage with onion and garlic. If the mixture begins to stick to the bottom of the pot, add a little olive oil. Add tomatoes or tomato juice (or both, if desired), seasonings, potatoes and carrots. More water or vegetable broth may be added, if needed. Simmer until potatoes and carrots are tender. Two minutes before serving, add kale and adjust seasoning.

Per serving: 388 calories (57 percent from fat), 25 grams total fat (9 grams saturated), 39 milligrams cholesterol, 32 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 699 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.