We’ve been members of a horse-powered Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm for a number of years. Natural Roots owners, Anna and David, along with their interns Emily and Nate, allowed me to tag along for a photo shoot while they collected their second mowing of hay last week.
It was a beautiful, dry and sunny day in the mid-70s, as had been the previous few – perfect for mowing, tedding (turning and fluffing the hay several times to facilitate drying), raking into long windrows and finally for gathering the hay onto wagons to be brought to the barn. I was there for the last of this multi-day process.
The farm has two pairs of Belgian workhorses, a gentle breed possessing great strength. I climbed aboard the wagon with David and Nate en route to the field where the hay laid waiting. I love the thrill of riding behind a pair of powerful horses; tack jingling, heads tossing and the bump and sway as the wheels pass over ruts and across the ford in the river. The horses are cued by voice commands, a language that communicates to the team exactly what they are being asked to do: go forward: “Come up,” stop: “Whoa,” backward: “Baack,” left: “Haw,” right: “Gee” and just one step for fine-tuned movement: “Up a step.”
Once in the field, I jumped down to photograph the hitching up of the hay loader, an ingenious contraption that rakes the hay onto a stepped platform where tines lift the hay up and dumps it into the wagon, where it is then manually distributed evenly by pitchfork across the body of the wagon.
Hot work, but gratefully, the weather was mild and not the typically grueling heat that usually accompanies haymaking. With each pass the level of hay rose higher and higher. After three and a half times around the field, the wagon was full, ready to head to the barn for offloading. Anna and Emily were waiting at the side of the field to fill the next wagonload.
I climbed up the rungs of the wagon rack to sit high atop the hay for the ride back – it was a great view from up there in the comfy, soft bed of fresh, sweet-smelling hay. I love hayrides and this was the best! I got a birds-eye-view of the crops as we passed.
At the barn, the horses drew the wagon under the hayfork; four hooked blades on a chain pushed into the loose hay, then lifted by a pulley system to the upper floor of the barn where a trolley shoots it across to where it is released, again spread manually by pitchfork evenly over the barn floor.
Up, up and away!
David and Anna’s ten-year old daughter, Leora, operated the pulley system, impressing me with her expert handling of Star.
The process was coordinated by clear verbal commands between Nate down in the hay wagon, David up in the hayloft and Leora, out in the barnyard opposite Nate. Even six-year old Gabriel was on hand to give Star a carrot treat. “I’m a farmer!” he proudly informed me.
I totally lost track of time while witnessing this engrossing operation from bygone days. No whiff of diesel fumes, no loud motor running, just the gentle, plodding footsteps of horses, the low-voiced commands and praise given to the horses and the sounds of nature surrounding the farm. The sun, the sky crossed with darting swallows, the fresh smells of clean air, newly mown hay and the quiet tumble of water coursing over the riverbed. This is the way it used to be before farming became mechanized. I can remember a few old timers keeping teams when I was a child, but even then most farm equipment was tractor driven. Teams were used for hauling lumber or maple sap out of the woods or for heavy weight pulling competitions at the agricultural fairs.
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in farming with horses as sustainable agriculture has grown. Our nearby university now offers a program in sustainable agriculture and more young people are coming on board every year. I admire the hard work and devotion that go into farming using these methods. Organic food really does taste better; the fresher, the more packed with nutrients it is. I am so grateful to Anna, David and their team, who are committed to providing our community with the fruits of their labor as well as their friendship. What a blessing!
Related article: Read my March post of the community barn raising at Natural Roots.