It’s an anachronistic image, but amid the incessant background noise of a digital age, there is something profoundly peaceful about riding through country fields behind a team of horses. You are moving — and at times, rather quickly. But in place of the metallic growl of a car engine, you hear the wind, the soft shush of wheels on a dirt path, the gentle clop-clop of hooves.
On a recent bright, chilly morning, this scene unfolded at Warren Wilson College as garden manager Ben Mackie perched at the front of a tiny, two-seater buggy, leather reins in his hands, guiding the school’s brand new team of draft horses in a broad circle through the campus fields.
Although they paint a quaint picture, the two chestnut Belgians are more than handsome mascots for Warren Wilson’s sustainable agriculture efforts. The brother-and-sister pair, purchased last month fully trained from an Amish community in Ohio, are the power that drives the college’s working farm. Queen and Doc, ages 6 and 5, respectively, replace the school’s previous team, Doc (no relation) and Dan, who retired to a farm in Franklin after more than a decade of service in the school’s more than 20-year-old draft agriculture program.
A tractor is parked at the ready in the gravel lot beside the barn, but the horses actually do close to 80% of the field work for Warren Wilson’s sustainable farming programs. They also do some logging on campus and provide wagon rides to visitors during special events and to students as “decompression time” during finals, says Mackie, who leads the college’s horse crew.
“It’s really a balance, just trying to use the appropriate technology for the task at hand,” he says. “We can’t do everything with the horses, but they do the majority of our preparation, our cover-cropping, all of our plowing, a lot of our harrowing and a lot of different things. We use the tractor for anything that’s rotary, like mowing or rototilling.”
But why use old-fashioned horsepower at all when modern, mechanized equipment is available for any farming task imaginable?
“You can grow most of their feed, so as far as self-sufficiency goes, that’s certainly a plus,” says Mackie. He points out that all of the hay and the majority of the corn and barley needed to feed Queen and Doc (as well as the school’s pigs and chickens) are grown in fields on campus. In turn, their manure is used to fertilize the fields.
Additionally, he says, for some farmers, choosing horses over machines makes good business sense. Queen and Doc set Warren Wilson back about $10,000, while a tractor could cost around $40,000 or more. (Prices for trained teams recently increased, he notes. Just three or four years ago, the cost was around $3,000-$4,000.)
“Some young farmers are choosing to forgo the large loan involved with purchasing a tractor and are choosing instead to invest in draft animals. With the ability to grow a large portion of their feed, if not all, and the lack of a debt over their head, they are able to make choices about their farming practices that might be better for their land; having loan payments can cause you to make different decisions,” he explains. “But I honestly see draft power in the future of regenerative agriculture as an appropriate technology, used in conscious concert with biodiesel fuel.”
Draft animals have not yet gained widespread popularity among Western North Carolina farmers, but Mackie says he knows of two farms in Maine — Hall Brook Farm and New Beat Farm — that are draft-powered, as well as one in Virginia. “There are definitely pockets around the country where’s there’s a big resurgence,” he says.
In WNC, though, most working draft animals he sees are doing logging. Mackie is mentored by local horse loggers, including Clifford Cox, who works with Suffolk Punch draft horses. The horses at Warren Wilson do some logging in the winter when there’s less farm work to do.
Logging with horses, says Mackie, is “a way of being a lot more respectful in the woods, because you don’t have to cut a big skidder path for machinery to get in and out, so you can kind of selectively get trees out in a more respectful manner to the woods and not destroy and cut huge swaths. And we’re able to do that on campus in places where machinery can’t get in.”
Mackie learned about horse-powered farming as a student at Sterling College in Vermont, which, along with Warren Wilson, is among the eight federally designated work colleges in the United States. At these institutions, all students are required to work on service crews at least 10 hours per week.
Mackie leads a crew of between two and six students per semester who directly care for and learn to drive and handle the horses. “One of the most universal aspects that graduates of the draft horse program walk away with is the responsibility and relationship required with working horses,” he reflects. “Students have to develop a working relationship with these giant horses that is all based on trust. And while many students come in with a horse background, for many it is the first time they have put the needs of another being on par with their own and made sure all of those needs were met.”
Rebecca Rominger, a junior, has been on the horse crew since the beginning of last year, and has learned how to drive the team. “It’s definitely great to be able to work with the animals here,” she says. “Not only learning how to work with the implements and keep them up, but also you learn a lot about working with big animals in general.” She says she used to ride horses, but has discovered a new way to appreciate them. “I found that I like taking care of horses more than riding them.”
Senior Grace Girardeau has been on the garden crew for years, she says, but just this semester joined the horse crew. “Working in the garden in the past, I always had a lot of purpose and meaning in my work growing food and working with the tractor and things like that,” she says. “But working with living beings, there’s so much more purpose to it, and you have an emotional connection to the things you’re doing. You know, I have to do my work for them to eat; it just means so much more.”