A New York Times piece, describes the renewed interest in animal power among some small farmers. Mind you, these are not quaint Pa Ingalls actors demonstrating out-dated farming techniques to giggling groups of school children. There is a logic to this shift, one that we are all encountering when we fill up the gas tanks of our cars.

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.

Of course, a yoke of oxen are not suited to farming huge tracts of land, so questions of scale immediately present themselves. Nevertheless, for some farmers, the benefits are numerous:

“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.

For some, there is a deep satisfaction in working with draft animals, a satisfaction that a tractor simply wouldn’t provide, yet there are drawbacks:

“Even when it’s tough with them, it’s better than spending a day with a tractor,” he said.

Then again, there was that time when he nearly took a horn to the groin.

“A tractor doesn’t do that either,” he said.

Surely, this is a small niche in the agricultural community. It will be interesting to see if it grows.

H/t Greg Butler

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  1. It’s already growing, but several factors are currently complicating further growth:

    1) There are few breeders left outside of the Amish and Mennonite communities, and these communities basically breed just enough animals to supply their own demands (talk about a radical idea).

    2) Like virtually everything else these days, someone has already figured out how to “commodotize” these critters. I have a friend who breeds and trains Belgian draft horses that he eventually sells to Amish farmers in Ohio. At this year’s spring auction he said prices for colts were up by about one hundred and fifty percent year over year. After doing some digging, my friend determined most of the bids driving up the prices were remote bids (telephone and e-mail). Apparently the Wall Street types are afraid of stocks, bonds, real estate, and what have you, so they are now buying livestock with the intention of holding the stock off the market, thereby creating an artificial shortage that will in turn drive up prices even more.

    I know this last point sounds conspiratorial, and honestly I thought he was off his rocker when he told me. However, I recently saw some “investement guru” on one of the financial blogs suggest people consider such a “play.”

  2. Yes, I’ve been watching this trend from afar.

    It is really just a calculated move towards intermediate technology… the math and financials are really quite solid at around 180 acres (+/-).

    The key requirements seem to be:
    1. Mixed crops and pasture
    2. Animal husbandry advanced skills.
    3. Farming model direct to consumer that is profitable.

    #1 is a psychological hurdle
    #2 is a physical hurdle
    #3 is a systemic hurdle

    All can be cleared, but require a fair amount of vision, competence, and a combination of talents (sadly) not commonly available.

    Additionally, I don’t see this trend as replacing a tractor, so much as opening intermediate projects that currently require seriously specialized big iron… the stuff that costs more than your house.

  3. Mark, it took me a while but I finally found some photos I had once taken of oxen at the Tillers International site mentioned in that NYT article. I put them in a Spokesrider blog post: Tillers and Rakers

    John Médaille, that clip about baby tractors was fun to watch. Maybe it’s a continuation of the Robinson Crusoe/Swiss Family Robinson/Mysterious Island (Jules Verne) genre: Building your own new civilization from scratch, technology and all.

  4. Pulling a plow is only a very small part of what tractors do.

    We may till our gardens with a shovel for the aesthetic value, but we dig foundations with a front loader. And ditches with backhoes. And mix and pour concrete with trucks specifically for that purpose. And use forklifts and so forth because machines create a better life.

  5. @ love the girls,

    I can’t for the life of me visualize how one would go about tilling a garden with a shovel (there are tools better suited for the task); nor can I imagine trying to dig a foundation (I assume you are referring to footers) with a front end loader (seems they would be awfully wide).

    Yes, a backhoe can make short work of a ditch, and a cement truck is nice when needed, yet some how ditches got dug and foundations laid before we ingenious humans figured out how to refine hydrocarbons.

    While I don’t consider myself a Luddite, I do find myself frequently remembering the words of Wendell Berry when it comes to the role of machines: “They are nice when running, but quickly lose their luster when one is lying under them with oil and dirt falling in the eyes.” Actually, that’s not exactly what he wrote, but I suppose my phrasing is true enough to Berry’s point.

  6. Ooh, I wish I still had the photos online of the 140 feet of footings I dug by hand for our new garage and sunroom. In our part of Michigan, building codes require them to be at least 42 inches deep to get below the frost line. I guess I learned the bad habit when working as a construction laborer during college summers in the late 60s in rural Minnesota. We did a lot of work in places where it was hard to get with a backhoe, though sometimes it was questionable whether doing it by hand was best. I worked for a guy who often did things the hard way, and who still made a decent living at it. And his laborers were paid decently, too. We mixed concrete by shoveling gravel and cement by hand into a mixer, and then wheeled it by hand. I learned to enjoy digging, though in the case of my garage it is questionable whether I saved any money. But I did the job a little differently than a contractor would have wanted to do, which enabled me to put a bearing wall in a location which enabled me to put attic trusses over the 36″ wide structure. I’m trying to finish up the insulation and drywall of the attic now, before the summer heat comes.

    I laid the block myself, too, and found a contractor who was willing to build on the foundation I built. I’m pretty sure it was as square and level as any other he ever built on. Unlike a lot of DIYers, I don’t know much about carpentry. But I know about concrete work and masonry. Later I built two small interior stud walls myself, which convinced me I had done well by hiring someone else to frame up the building and close it in. I kind of enjoy drywalling, but don’t care so much for painting. I am now set to learn how to do finish work and trim — including a lot of wainscoting.

    I also spade our big garden by hand, though this year I may break down and rent a tiller. (The weather has been unseasonably cool and wet, and I want to spend my time finishing up that attic etc.) One advantage of spading it by hand is that you don’t release such a big carbon plume from the soil as you would with a tiller. No, I don’t have data to prove it, but I would lay a modest amount of money on it. I also turn the soil over a little deeper than a tiller would do. But most importantly, I find it therapeutic. I like looking at the soil and what’s in it. I also like the quiet (though I usually listen to an audiobook while I’m working.)

    But love the girls is right in that you don’t get nearly as much done when you don’t take advantage of modern machinery. If we swapped all of the world’s tractors for oxen, there would be a lot of people starving to death until the world’s population got down to a level that could be sustained by those methods.

    Still, I enjoy seeing people do things that way. One regret of mine is that I never took a chance to see a horse-powered thresher when there was an annual festival of it in Minnesota. There are a lot of steam-powered thesher festivals, but there was only one horse-powered one I ever heard of. My sisters used to work there, dressed up in period costume, but I never went to see it myself, even though I have wanted to see the work done ever since I read Herbert Krause’s novels. It came time for the people who operated it to retire, but they had no buyers who wanted to continue the festival operation.

  7. Robert,
    Frontloaders, as in digging out basements where the concrete wall foundation goes in first, and the footing simply rest on the existing soil. I’ve never ceased to enjoy watching the efficiency of frontloaders because I do till my garden with a shovel for the pleasure of turning over the earth, but I don’t mistake my by hand method for being practical.

    Sometimes the old methods are better such as hand nail framing, I grew up on it and prefer the aesthetic of it, where I’m still about as fast with my rigging ax as most carpenters are with a nail gun, and the end product is better, but I also use a wormdrive skilsaw and would consider a carpenter a fool who sawed framing lumber by hand.

    The problem with articles such as this is that they are more of akin to sawing framing lumber by hand. We can mix in oxen, just as we can mix in hand nailing, but we should order our lives to fit the existing environment.

    What is needed is a practical means of living as close to the earth as possible, while recognizing that we do need modern machines, modern medicine, and the like.

  8. I’ve looked into “living as close to the earth as possible”. I’ve found quite a good resource on building houses that take advantage of the dirt under your feet to build them (instead of wood… http://www.greenhomebuilding.com). Adding farming with oxen is a new one on me, though.

  9. I have named a tractor in the past but it never gave me the proper stink eye and bit-chomping invective a near-black mule could offer up. Then again, I never had to argue with my tractor….it went, sometimes requiring a clang on one thing or another. I’ll take both the mule and the tractor because I’m intemperate. I also think schools of either – or are a tad devilish, not to mention, eminently boring. Should a clinical definition of Mule-Love be arrived at, I shall be in the footnotes. Still,unrequited, I reserve the exalted name of Satchmo for a jet black jackass that has yet to present himself .I have a nameplate at ready. How can one love agriculture if one cannot love the beasts one practices with it?

  10. D.W. Sabin, have you read Theodore Rosengarten’s, “All God’s Dangers : The Life of Nate Shaw”? I expect you would like it. Nate Shaw (not his real name) farmed with mules in east-central Alabama until he ended up in prison for ten years. (He accepted some help from the American Communist Party in defending his private property rights, and also used a gun for the same.) When he got out of prison, the days of mule-farming were pretty much over, though he kept at it as best he could.

    The names of people and places in the book are mostly pseudonyms. Nate Shaw was really Ned Cobb. I listened to the book on audio at least twice, then bought a dead-tree copy so I could do a little detective work and decipher some of the place names, then went on a bike ride to Alabama to visit some of the places he told about. I have a lot I never got around to blogging about, but two articles in which there are quotes from the book involving his mules are Disrecognized, Discounted and “Log-hauling trucks”
    But judging by the sound of your comment, you’ll need to get the book to read for yourself the passages you would really like.

    I also took some roadside photos of the prison where he spent most of his prison term, and strangely, those have been the most consistent generator of hits on my little blog for the past four years. Maybe they come from Alabama students doing homework.

    There is a lot of Porcher stuff in the book besides the mules.

  11. @love the girls,

    I realized you were probably talking about digging out a basement after I posted my comment. Also, after reading my post again, I found it to be somewhat snarky, and for that I apologize.

    There is much wisdom in what you say in your last post, yet I still find myself uncomfortable with the path we are taking. I guess it’s ultimately an issue of complexity for me. Machines are becoming ever more complex, and while it’s true they are capable of performing more work more efficiently, they are also all but impossible to work on. Take farm tractors for instance, my grandfather farmed a hundred acres of West Virginia hillside with a late 50’s model Massey Ferguson tractor. This machine was so durable and simply made that he–not a mechanic–could fix just about anything that happened to break on it. Fast forward to the present, I have a late model Ferguson tractor which has at least two computers on it, a turbo charged engine, about a mile of electrical cables, and countless other gadgets. Yes, when all of this “stuff” works correctly the tractor is a thing of wonderment; unfortunately, most of this “stuff” doesn’t work correctly. This machine has spent more time at the shop and in the equipment shed waiting to go to the shop, than it has ever spent doing work.

    Finally, who’s to say in tilling your garden by hand you are being inefficient? My wife and I currently hang our respective hats in Switzerland, a country where practically everyone has either a yard garden or an allotment at a farm on the outskirts of the cities. This tradition started during the war years (both WWI and II) when the country largely fed itself with these “small, ineffecient” plots (most are 20′ x 50″ or so). The Swiss seem to enjoy all the modern creature comforts, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen anyone using a rototiller. However, the lawn and garden stores do stock an assortment of hand implements–most of which I’ve never seen in the US–that make short work of tilling and preparing a garden. After some reflection on this, I’ve determined these hand tools are very efficient. Sure, a tiller could do the job in a quarter of the time, but that’s only after you have transported it to the garden, spent two hours trying to get it to run, and another hour adjusting it.

    Like you say, we have to find an appropriate mix of the old and new. I just happen to think the old may have more to offer than we humans are apt to suspect.

  12. “However, the lawn and garden stores do stock an assortment of hand implements–most of which I’ve never seen in the US–that make short work of tilling and preparing a garden.”

    I wandered over here from The Western Confucian because I like horses and cows. As an urbanite I do not have room for mules. However I am very interested in human power magifiers -like bicycles and other tools that can increase output without fossil fuel or electric inputs. Draft beasties are the intermediate step. Somewhere I have read that the cows in India are worth more alive than for meat between the power, mild and fertilizer that they produce.

  13. I am training an ox. Perhaps the most valuable feature of oxen (and manually operated garden tools) is overlooked.

    Health care costs are one of the western world’s biggest and most alarming problems. Near the top of the list of preventative measures we must take, to stave off the major diseases that afflict us, is exercise. If you want to prevent heart-disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, alzheimer’s, cancer —exercise!

    We tend to think we have duped nature when we sit back and let machines do our work. Oxen and broad-forks seem arcane. We sit mesmerized in front of our screens, dim grey light reflecting on our faces. The lawn tractor mows our lawn, the roto-tiller tills our garden, the washing machine washes our clothes. We try walking without going no-where, lifting without stacking, rowing without splashing; eventually and inevitably we put our Nordic-tracs and stationary bikes out on the curb, we allow our health club memberships to expire; we get back worrisome results on our lab-work, our doctor gives us the talk, we start thinking about an early retirement. We thought we had duped nature but it has come back to worry us like a cat worrying a mouse.

    You may find a more practical physical activity, but for me the ox is proving his worth. Because of him I will get up from this chair; I carry his water, feed his hay, walk and run beside him— while we haul firewood, harrow the garden, and give ox-cart rides. We go for long walks in the countryside. And then there is the manure. I shovel it, I fork it, I load it, we haul it, and I spread it. Do you have any idea how much manure a half-grown ox produces? In short, because of the ox, I work.

    Please visit storybrookeripples: ox and dog blog, to see pictures and videos of Scout the Ox doing his job.

  14. This has been going on since the 1970s with the back to the land movement. Look up Lynn Miller’s Small Farmer’s Journal. Wendell Berry writes about his mules in his essays. There is a whole work horse culture and industry out there. Books, videos, suppliers, etc. Every year in the Amish community is a great event – Draft Horse Progress Days, usually in July. It moves from PA, OH, IN, etc in alternate years. All the new, modern, draft horse equipment is brought out and shown. Cool stuff. In the 90s, I ran a living history farm that used horses and mules for all the field work, we had all the operating machinery of the 1890s. Paid awful. Now I teach high school full time. It was great fun, and I learned a ton. However, being able to hitch a team and plow a field didn’t transfer well on the resume! But, I would love to do it again.

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