Those of us who use draft animals for work on the farm or ranch or in the woods usually know that we are odd. We don’t fit well into the modern pattern or live up to the modern ideal, which applies relentlessly to every task the maximum available power with the greatest possible speed. The teamsters of farms and forests are likely to be regarded as old-timers—or, worse, as hobbyists – clinging to outmoded technologies and ways for reasons merely sentimental.
Maybe there is a grain or two of truth in that, but it is not significant. The larger truth is that draft animals have continued to be used, by people who know how to use them, because they make their own kind of practical sense. Put to appropriate tasks that are appropriately scaled, their work gives a favorable practical result and a favorable economic return. If that were not true, the draft breeds and the teamsters’ skills would not have survived.
Back in the 1970’s, with the examples of good Amish farms before us, my friend Maury Telleen helped me to see that the presence of draft horses or mules on those farms was not a simple choice of one kind of traction power over another. It was, instead a choice of one kind of farming, and one way of thinking about farming, over another. What Maury understood and helped me to understand was that those work teams were a determining force against specialization and for diversity. They were part of a package or a pattern. If you were working horses or mules, then, merely in the nature of things and following an obvious logic, you would also have pastures, fenced fields, forage crops, feed grains, barns for stable room and feed storage. Those things in turn made for the keeping of other kinds of animals. Diversity of crops and animals led, in turn, to the rotation of crops, the use of cover crops, the use of manure as fertilizer. The farm thus sponsored much of its own operating energy and fertility. Moreover, the use of draft animals determined the scale of the farm. The farms had to be what we would call “small” or “family-sized”—acreages that could be worked and maintained with a reasonable expenditure of effort by the work animals and therefore by the people as well. A good Amish farmer told me that he had learned from his father never to have a horse harnessed after supper. That guaranteed enough rest and good health for the horses, and also some leisure for the family.
If the use of draft animals implies diversity, homegrown energy and fertility, appropriateness of scale, and a significant measure of built-in economic health on the farm, it also implies economic diversity and health in the local community. I am thinking, for example, of Holmes County, Ohio, where the horse-powered farms are supplied and served by an impressive variety of local shops, trades and industries: harness makers, farriers, farm equipment factories, and so on. I am also thinking of the small towns of my boyhood, in which all sorts of independent small businesses survived and even thrived by participating in an economy of small, horse – mule-powered farms – in which every shore-repair shop repaired harness, and a lot of farm equipment was built or re-built or repaired in local blacksmith shops.
If we can see that draft animals on the farm belonged to and led to a distinctive kind of farming, then we will have no trouble in seeing that the substitution of tractors for draft animals belonged to and led to farming of a radically different kind. The tractors too have proved to be part of a package, as we can now clearly see. The tractor package included increased dependence on farm equipment corporations and oil companies, increased dependence on credit, increased dependence on toxic chemicals, ever-larger farms and ever-fewer farmers, loss of diversity, increased specialization, more acreage planted in annual crops and less in perennials, more erosion, clearing of woodlots, removal of fences, less wildlife. All this implies and has led to a highly centralized long-distance economy, a commensurate decline of local economies and communities and of the whole social structure of rural America. I don’t mean to say that you can’t farm well with a tractor. You can, but to do so you must take care to regulate your work by the nature, the carrying capacity, and the sustaining pattern of your farm, not by the capabilities of your machinery.
The same interests and forces that have brought about our centralized, long-distance agricultural economy have also brought about a centralized, long-distance forest economy. The economic principle is everywhere the same: a domestic colonialism that extracts an immense wealth from our rural landscapes, returning as near nothing as possible to the land and the people. The producers of agricultural products, nearly all, nearly always, are absolutely at the mercy of the buyers. Producers of forest products are in about the same fix. The Market News Service of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture doesn’t publish the current market prices for saw logs.
Given the growing demand for local food, and the increasing numbers of farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture farms, it is becoming fairly easy to imagine the development of local farm and food economies in which communities and localities produce, process, market, and consume local farm products, marketing any surpluses to outside demand.
But we need to be moving also toward the integration of forestry into the local farm and food economy, wherever the farms are likely to include woodlands. And wherever forests or woodlands are predominant in the landscape we need to think of developing local forest economies which, instead of exporting raw logs, would produce, process or manufacture, and market the fullest variety of forest products, from lumber for building to mushrooms and nuts, from fence post to firewood, from Christmas decorations to finished furniture.
The answer, the only answer, to economic colonialism is to make the greatest local advantage of the products of the local countryside, producing and processing for local consumption first of all, and then for export. This exactly reverses the colonial ideal, which would have the local people starve in order to export food, or live in shacks and shanties in order to export logs.
Obviously, I’m already talking about “job creation” in the best sense. If your community is making its living primarily by the export of raw materials for manufacture elsewhere, then along with your logs or your wheat or your cattle you are exporting jobs, and then you will be exporting your young people to take those jobs. All that is clear enough. We have seen it happening.
But now, since we’re a convocation of users and lovers of draft animals and are used to being odd, let’s carry this vision of local forest and farm economies just one radical step further. Let’s suppose that a significant part of the traction power in those already complex economies were to be furnished by horses and mules — and, since this is a democratic vision, and for the sake of ox drivers who may be listening, let us include oxen. If we should do this, we would create more jobs, somewhat in the pattern of the best Amish communities. By scaling down and simplifying our technology, we would truly be bringing our economy home, where it belongs. Instead of paying outside the community for large machines and fuel, we would be providing income locally to makers of equipment, producers of feed, farriers, breeders, and so on.
The economic advantages of such local economies as I am talking about are probably clear enough. Their promise is not luxury or extravagance for a few, but a modest, decent, sustainable prosperity for many. In addition, there would be an equally significant ecological advantage. In a complex local economy, in which a lot of people were economically dependent on the products of the local landscape, there would be the strongest local support for good land use. People knowingly dependent on the land would not willingly see it cropped or grazed or logged to exhaustion.
I’ve laid before you what I’ve been calling, rightly, a vision. Like you all, I hope, I’m skeptical of visions. And so I will hasten to point out that this vision is a modest one. The scale is small, and I would be greatly surprised if it should produce even one billionaire. It is also a practical vision. I don’t think it is fully in practice anywhere, not even among the Amish. But we know that many, maybe most, of the pieces of it are already in existence, properties of the actual daily lives of actual people, though so far they may be pretty widely scattered.
This vision, in no doubt many versions, exists because it is attractive to some of us. But also we are going to see it enforced from the outside, so to speak, by the increasingly manifest failures of industrial forms of land use. I don’t think I need to say a lot about these failures beyond just listing them. The principal ones are these:
- Erosion and degradation of the soil.
- Pollution by toxic chemicals, resulting in unswimable streams, inedible fish and a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico (one of at least 400 worldwide) of 6,000 square miles.
- Toxic or pathogenic food.
- Forest ecosystems damaged or destroyed by high-grading, clear-cutting, tree monocultures, etc.
- Land destruction on a gigantic scale by forms of surface mining, culminating in mountaintop removal.
- Destruction of rural communities and the cultures of husbandry.
With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitable rising price of oil . . . our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later . . . Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, and higher health costs . . .
But the good news is that we don’t have to be consenting victims of agribusiness-as-usual. To give just one example on the positive side, Wes Jackson and The Land Institute – with the backing of a numerous coalition of groups and institutions – have just proposed to the Secretary of Agriculture “A 50-year Farm Bill” which addresses head-on the problems of erosion, toxicity, and the decline of farm communities. The key change proposed by this bill is the increase in the acreage of perennial plants from 20% in 2009 to 80% in 2059. This change would involve at first increases in pasture and forage crops, and then, starting in 2019, the introduction of perennial grain crops.
The proposed perennialization of agriculture, like the horse and the tractor, would not be a simple choice. It to will be a package deal. A significant increase just in pastures and forages implies a new diversification. Replacing corn and soy beans grown for animal feed with perennial grasses and legumes would reduce erosion and save energy; it would also take cattle, hogs, and poultry out of the animal factories and put them back on farms, where they belong. Diversification would tend to reduce the size and increase the number of farms; it would bring more people into agriculture where at least some of them belong. An increase in the number of diversified family-size farms, together with higher energy costs, would increase the number of places where draft animals would fit in and make practical sense.
This is a prospect pleasing to all of us who are devoted to draft animals and to better, kinder ways of using the land. But it involves worries too, and to make this speech as honest as possible I want to speak of a couple of worries.
Most people who understand good land use know that to use our land in the best way, we will need more people on our farms and ranches and in our forests. We need a better ration of eyes to acres, as Wes Jackson has put it. We need more people skilled in physical work, who have workable minds. How are we going to get them? That is my first worry. I don’t think we can get the best work done by underpaying and overworking an underclass of migrant workers. I think we will have to go back to our old agrarian ideal, espoused by Thomas Jefferson among many others, of a countryside populated by settled families and stable communities earning a decent livelihood from their work and their goods. But by reducing our land-using population as drastically as we have done since World War II, we have dangerously reduced the skills necessary for resettling our land. It seems certain to me that we are coming to a time when a lot of people are going to need a lot of patient and neighborly instruction.
If you can imagine a good many ignorant people wishing or needing to learn to use draft animals, then you will know my second worry. The most knowledgeable users of work animals know they don’t know everything. And probably most of them have a list of mistakes, bad surprises, narrow escapes, and sometimes serious injury or damage. We want those lists to stay as short as possible. If, as seems possible, more people are going to think of using draft animals at work, they and we will need to stay reminded that some people should NOT use them, and that, in using them, ignorance is dangerous. Moreover, those of us who appreciate these good animals don’t want to see any of them misused or mistreated. Capable and conscientious teamsters already have, and certainly will continue to have, a responsibility to pass along their knowledge. We need to keep this on our minds. One of my own favorite pleasures is to imagine the teaching that will be branching out form the work of hands-on teachers like Jason Rutledge, his students, and their students, on and on for generations to come.