Cobb Hill Harvest Celebration: Keynote Address

By Stephen Leslie. Speech given at Cobb Hill Harvest Celebration, October 19, 2011.

I was not born into the farming life. A child of suburbia, I came into agriculture by a circuitous route and did not start farming fulltime until I was 31 years old. As a young adult I attended art school and then soon after joined a Benedictine monastery. While a monk I had the opportunity to travel extensively in Mexico and Nicaragua. I had direct contact with the plight of the poor, and particularly of the indigenous communities whose lives were still so intrinsically linked to the soil. These experiences deeply impacted my worldview.

In 1992, after seven years of monastic life, I reached a decision to leave the monastery with the intention of going to Latin America to do service work in community development. I wished to help those poor Indian farmers gain access to new tools and markets so that they would be able to hold onto their traditional lands. Toward that end I enrolled in a two-year Apprentice Program at Hawthorne Valley Biodynamic Farm in upstate New York to acquire some practical skills in organic agriculture. After working there for a couple of years, completely immersed in the joys and struggles of a small farm striving to survive in our North American context, a conviction began to arise and take root in me that transforming our own culture through sustainable agriculture was a worthy and noble task and perhaps the more urgent.

It has been said that we will protect what we love. Prior to World War I, about 90% of Americans were agriculturalists. Today in the United States only 1.5% of the population is involved in farming. We are a nation in which farmers have become a disappearing minority. Many contemporary Americans have never set foot on a working farm and have no idea where their food comes from. We are raising a generation of children who are computer savvy but environmentally illiterate. In such a society the value of farm labor and the conservation of farm land are cast to the wayside.

Part 1
Once when I was fourteen years old my best buddy and I got the idea to go over to a local riding stable and ride ourselves a horse. The night before we had been to the theatre and seen a film called “Winterhawk” which featured some fantastic scenes of Native American warriors galloping their war ponies through the snow fields of the Dakotas. When we arrived at the stable there was fresh snow from a late winter storm blanketing the landscape. We had a peaceful ride up the forested trail into the gentle hill country and as we rode we transported ourselves back to pioneer days. We were two adventurous mountain men heading out from Fort Laramie to do some trapping and escape the choking confines of civilization.

As we headed the horses back towards the stable, the situation went downhill too. It started when, all of their own accord, our horses quit off walking and broke into a canter. I guess they could “smell the barn” and were anxious for oats and rest. The fast riding was fun enough at first, the trouble was that the cagey nag I was riding began to try and peel me off her back by heading straight for every low branch that extended over the pathway and I swear she had memorized where each potential guillotine was positioned and she aimed for every one of them. I somehow managed to dodge and duck all those branches so my untrustworthy mount pulled out a new tactic to do me in. We were charging down the path at breakneck speed when she suddenly banked a sharp right turn onto an intersecting trail. She took that turn so hard that I remained airborne on the main trail while she tore off down that side trail back to the barn. There is nothing much worse in the horse world than showing back up at the stable on foot.

A few years later I took a road trip up to Vermont. I stopped in to visit friends at the Farm and Wilderness Camp and I happened to see the farm manager driving his team of draft horses up to the barn on their way back in from the fields. He was a robust bearded fellow in a broad-brimmed hat and big black boots tromping behind his well-behaved team of feather-footed giants. All my attention was suddenly caught up by the sight of those working horses; the smell of their sweat, the jangling of the trace chains upon their heavy leather harness. And standing there contemplating that scene there was planted in my mind the improbable seed that someday I should have a team of horses and a farm of my own.

Part 2
When I was just starting out my farm apprenticeship, I came across a short article in an old edition of the CoEvolution Quarterly (the follow-up magazine to the Whole Earth Catalogs) which extolled the virtues of the Norwegian Fjord Horse as an all-around useful alternative source of draft power in the woods and fields of the small farm. The article included a photo of a single Fjord Horse in harness. That photo and brief description captivated my imagination. At the time I was enthusiastically learning to drive tractors and work with all kinds of farm machinery, but the revolutionary thought that at some future time I might be able to perform all those same functions with a team of horses set something alight in my soul.

Around this time, a companion apprentice named Peter began subscribing to a curious large format magazine called the Small Farmer’s Journal. All of us apprentices lived in the “bunkhouse,” a rustic building on the second floor above the cheese and yogurt plant. At supper Peter was in the habit of reading aloud to anyone who would listen from books or magazines relevant to our farming experience. My ears perked up when he began reading articles out of that journal. Here was a vision of the kind of integrated, holistic, back-to-the-roots kind of farming my soul was pining for; with working horses at the heart of it.

A quiet revolution is occurring out in the heartland. Largely dismissed by industry and government and most often ignored by the press, thousands of small farmers across the nation are bringing work horses back onto the land. I believe we can even state without exaggeration that there is a new cultural paradigm emerging which is centered on horse powered farming as a way of life. When Kerry and I first began to set up our horse-powered organic farm, most folks thought that what we were doing was at best quaint and at worst foolhardy. In the eyes of the world our little horse-powered organic farm scheme looked less like the incorporation of a business and more like the construction of a second Noah’s Ark.

Nineteen years down the road things have changed and are changing fast. Against all odds, it seems the dawn of a new era of draft horse powered farming is upon us. It is an exciting time to be (or to dream of becoming) a teamster. Everywhere around us now we hear talk of re-skilling and re-invention of the local food economy. And all around us there are lots of these little farm-arks established and more springing up every day. These small horse powered farms are signs of hope and promise at least as powerful as Noah’s rainbow. Small farms and small farmers are like anchors to the human community. The rituals of life turn less meaningful when they are abstracted from the cycles of the soil. Society without ties to a sustainable agriculture becomes like a rudderless ship.

To be alive – to be human – is to transform acreage. More and more individuals and communities are beginning to understand that if we don’t take that process into our own hands, if all our food, clothing, and shelter are procured through the earning and expenditure of dollars, then we leave it to others to transform acreage to sustain us. In this way we remain ignorant of the impact upon the environment of our chosen lifestyles. This is the ghost acreage that stands unseen behind the modern urban artifice of unending economic expansion.

The current industrial model of agriculture only gives the illusion of providing “cheap food.” The real cost of cheap food must be measured in our collective confrontation with the realities of peak oil, peak water, and peak soil. These are the hallmarks of the unprecedented environmental degradation resulting from humanity’s depletion of natural resources at a rate that increasingly outstrips the Earth’s ability to renew them. At Cedar Mountain Farm our reliance on draft horse power is the central component of our goal to become more sustainable and to use less fossil fuel to run our farm.

To produce healthy food out of a whole farm system is not a cheap undertaking—it requires time, honesty, dedication, and persistence. When we take the long view of visioning our farm as a whole system what we are attempting to do is not simply put food on the table – we are trying to find our way back HOME.

Part 3
Horses are tough animals. When they interact with each other even horses that are friends will on occasion bite and kick. For the most part, they hold these behaviors in check – the implied threat from a dominant horse; laying her ears back flat and lowering her head—is usually all it takes to drive a subordinate away from a pile of hay. When the biting and kicking do occur, the horses in a herd seem to hold themselves in check, the same way a dogfight, or a fistfight between two neighborhood kids, seldom turns lethally violent. Every horse owner has to be aware that the young horse will try to treat the owner as if they were just another horse. As the young horse contests to find its place in the herd, it may aim bites and kicks at the human.

One afternoon during the first winter that we had Tristan, I entered the horse paddock to retrieve the grain dishes. Tristan was in a rowdy and playful mood and excited about the prospect of being fed. He galloped around and nipped at the other horses and kicked up his heels. I tried to remain calm as I went about my task and not let myself be flustered by his display. But then, just as I was straightening up from collecting a dish, he veered towards me and fired off twin cannon shots with his back feet and landed his hooves onto my chest. I saw the feet coming but had no time to react. In the next instant I was flat on my back. I was wearing a winter coat and insulated overalls, but the impact still felt like the hardest punch I’d ever taken. I popped up to my feet irate as a disturbed hornet. I noticed that our friend, Don, who was helping out with milking chores, was watching the whole scene from the door of the calf barn. He had a look of horror on his face. Don had taken a big leap up from caring for his flock of sheep to becoming a relief milker for our herd. He had no previous experience working around large animals. At first he had been intimidated by the size of the cows but he stuck with it and got good at the job. However, the horses seemed to him to be an unmanageable beast and now his worst fears were being confirmed.

But even with Don as a witness, I was so flush with rage at my little horse that I peeled a rail off the fence and started to chase him around the paddock. I screamed a string of obscenities and tried to bust that plank across his butt. By this time, the other two horses were worked up into a panic as well – everybody running in circles. I couldn’t catch up with Tristan so I hurled the board at him and threatened him with certain death if he ever kicked me again. Fortunately, my aim was poor and by that time my ire was spent. I wasn’t seriously hurt and luckily I hadn’t hurt the horse. I felt dreadful, I’d lost my cool and was certain that all the patient positive-reinforcement work I’d been doing with the young horse would now be shot to pieces. But by the next day, all seemed to be forgiven. Despite my having broken the golden rule of never losing my temper and trying to do the horse bodily harm, Tristan didn’t act shy or leery of me and behaved like his usual goofball self. Ten years down the road he has never kicked me again. And for my part, I have never tried to break another plank across a horse’s hind quarters. Our friend Don, on the other hand, is still afraid of horses.

Part 4
These days there is a new approach to training and working with horses that is catching hold worldwide – natural horsemanship. On one level, natural horsemanship is a series of techniques for training horses that is based on the observation of horses in the wild and that relies heavily on the use of positive reinforcement within the context of round-pen training to achieve its goals. This type of gentler and innovative training has several leading proponents: charismatic and talented horsemen and women who publish teaching materials and conduct clinics all over. On another level, natural horsemanship can be seen as part of a greater paradigmatic shift. This shift is about restoring the rupture between the human community and the natural world; it is about repairing our damaged ecosystems and relationships to the animal kingdom. For some of us, working our land with horses can become the catalyst for entering into whole new ways of living more gently and wisely upon the Earth – a way that seeks to safeguard her precious bounty for future generations.

As small farmers we try to replicate the diversity of natural ecosystems, but we know that even our best efforts are but a shadow play before the light of reality. If I step out my door at Cobb Hill Cohousing on a mid-summer day and stand on the porch and look to the east over the 12 acre field that spreads out over the valley below, I see an amazing diversity of plants and animals; five acres of mixed vegetables interspersed with bright green cover crops, two high-tunnels full of tomatoes and greens, pastured laying hens milling around their mobile coop, pastured pigs rooting up future garden space, heifers frolicking on a pasture of rich forage, honey bees entering and exiting their hives, the patchwork of community homestead gardens, a small orchard of fruit trees, a children’s garden full of corn, squash and beans, another plot with small grains undulating golden in the sun, and in the further distance a hay field just ripe for the cutting. This tapestry of diversity is, I believe, the hopeful face of the future of farming. We can use our precious time trying to fight or reform big business and government, or we can put our efforts towards establishing alternate local systems that will eventually render those ruling entities less powerful and less relevant.

Part 5
After completing our two year apprenticeship in bio-dynamic farming at Hawthorne Valley Farm, Kerry and I had a few month’s hiatus before going to the next farming situation we had lined up in Montana. As we were preparing to leave the farm, I began to have some doubts as to whether the farming life was really for me – all that hard work and little pay – was it really worth it? Shortly before moving, we went to hear Wendell Berry speak at the town hall in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He was there to help inaugurate the opening of a new CSA farm in the area (Brookfield Farm). That evening Wendell spoke words that stirred me to the depths of my soul and galvanized my commitment to pursuing the small sustainable farming dream.

I don’t recall the exact words that Wendell spoke on that occasion but I still remember very clearly what I thought I heard him say: let all those who have ears to hear – hear my words – if you want to save the Earth – if you want to save humanity – stay in one place. Stay in one place and get connected to the land and grow your own food; get connected and build your own shelter. Stay in one place and begin to build community with your neighbors, those who walk on two legs and those who walk on four or wing in the sky or swim in the brook. Enough talk, enough New Age rip-offs, turn off the TV, give the computer a rest, stay off the jet planes and step out your back door – behold infinity in a spring blossom peaking up through the leaves of the forest floor. What is at stake here is your own life and the very life of the soil.

And now it is mid-afternoon in early October and I am out with the team. We are using the walking plow to turn over some sod. The horses are fighting fit at this tail end of the garden season. The soil moisture content is near perfect for plowing and, by some miraculous mixture of scant knowledge and pure luck, the line of draft is correct enough that the moldboard is slicing and turning over a neat ribbon that glints in the slanting sunlight like a wave breaking over before me as I walk behind in the furrow. My breathing and my steps are in synch with the horses as the air, crisp as a ripe red apple, surges into our lungs. This work of fall plowing is all about the doing, but to the extent that my mind is still spinning, the thoughts that it weaves are exultant; savoring these precious moments of lofty exertion. This is our moment in the sun, the horses and I, each step we take but a further squeezing out of the precious elixir of this our farming life. There are so many times when that life is not this and we endure the frustrations of broken equipment, crop failure, a sick animal, a disgruntled customer – any number of things that can and do go wrong on any given day – but that is all behind us now. These few moments of pristine plowing with a good plow and a great team of horses is what makes all the other worth the while. At such a time the considerations of the relative economics of tractor versus horses simply pale and fade away. Ahead of us there is only the next furrow to be turned and then maybe a chance to let the horses and myself catch our breath and for me to tell them, “Good horses,” and to whisper my silent prayer of thanks for the abundance of life that they give to me.

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