- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

MORTON, Wash. (AP) - One need look no further than the King Agriculture Museum and its prized antique tractor showcase in Centralia for proof of Lewis County’s enduring relationship to agriculture and its long-running love affair with tractors of every shape and size. With that in mind, it’s important to address first things first: Caitlin Arnold and Brandon Wickes don’t hate tractors.

They just love horses.

Arnold, 32, and Wickes, 27, run Furrow Horse Farm in Morton, where they grow a cornucopia of vegetables on a south sloping hillside at the base of a picturesque crumbling rock outcrop of the Cascade foothills. The main difference between their farm and most other produce farms in North America, let alone Washington, is that theirs is powered by only four human hands and two horsepower. The hands belong to Arnold and Wickes. The horsepower is also divided equally, between Lady and Abby, a mother and daughter pair of American Belgian draft horses.

“A lot of people are very skeptical of us. They think we are going back in time because we are using technology that was abandoned a long time ago,” explained Arnold. “Tractors are fine. Tractors are great. Tractors changed the way that American agriculture could happen. But for us it’s just a choice we made.”

In this land of tractor reverence one might be wondering why two young farmers would make that choice. At the beginning of their grounded undertaking, Arnold wondered the same thing.

“It was really Brandon’s thing. He’s the one who had to convince me,” said Arnold. “My thought was farming is already hard, so why would we want to make it even harder? That was my perception of farms with draft horses before we got started.”

Now, though, Arnold is convinced in the credence of their approach. The equine harnessing farmers say that using horses to prepare the earth for planting takes less of a toll on the land. Most of the benefit comes from the fact that a horse setup is lighter than most tractors so it causes less soil compaction with each pass. The light load also allows the horses to get on the field earlier in the year, when the soil is wetter and heavy tractors tend to bog down in the mud.

Fuel inputs are another important factor to consider. Tractors take lots of diesel and a little oil, while horses require only hay and a little grain. “We’re really trying to reduce our fossil fuel use on the farm and our dependence on machinery in that way,” explained Arnold. Cost was another concern. “For us it was just more feasible to buy (horses) and the used equipment than it was to buy a tractor, or even a used tractor, because tractors are expensive.”

Mostly though, Arnold and Wickes prefer the duties of animal husbandry to knuckle busting mechanical work. Now in its second growing season, Furrow Horse Farm purchased its horses from a guest ranch in Sandpoint, Idaho, in October 2015. Lady is 20 and Abby is 15. The matriarchal draft horses spent the past 10 years pulling visitors around in sleighs and wagons, “So this farm thing is quite a bit different for them,” noted Arnold. “But they are doing really good. They’ve been great.”

Still, the transition from rolling wagons to pulling plows is one that will take a bit of time. Arnold and Wickes are gradually building up the endurance of their equine workforce and they make sure to give the horses plenty of rest. According to Arnold, it’s best to work draft horses at least once a week in order to keep them in shape. During the busiest times of the growing season in spring and summer she anticipates the horses working as much as twice a week. During the wet winters, though, it can be a real chore to get the horses out in the field. This winter they only got out once a month or so, which Arnold said is not enough because, “They get used to not working.”

In the years since tractors took over the conventional farming scene, rampant unemployment has dogged the horse community. A drive down any county road will reveal scores of Eeyore-sad looking horses standing in mud with nothing to do but slump under soggy blankets. “Horses get bored,” explained Arnold. “Draft horses are bred to work. I think they are happier when they work.”

Eventually Furrow Horse Farm would like to breed and sell draft horses to supply members of the esoteric farming community with top-notch stock, “but that’s a long way down the road,” conceded Arnold.

For now Furrow Horse Farm is concentrating on breaking ground and getting its organically grown produce to market. Last year the farm sold its goods at the farmers markets in Chehalis and Tenino as well outlets like The Pearl in Chehalis, the Mineral School, the Vipassana Center in Onalaska and the Eatonville Co-op. Though they will not be attending Tenino any longer, they have applied to the farmers markets in Olympia and Puyallup.

Their other main method of produce distribution is a weekly Community Supported Agriculture box. The hefty boxes of produce cost $25 per week, or $500 for a full seasonal share. The farm offers both a summer and fall CSA share. Last year it sold 15 shares for each of the seasonal CSAs and this year the farmers are hoping to expand to 30 shares per season.

“Basically our goal is to double everything this year,” said Arnold. Last year the farmers worked about an acre of land in order to curate their produce. This year they plan on breaking ground on an additional half acre. “We grow every vegetable you could think of that’s available at a farmers market,” noted Arnold, who listed root crops, tubers, brassicas, salad greens and hothouse crops like peppers and tomatoes, among others, from their production list. Arnold also raises flowers to sell at market and the plan is to try growing melons this year.

Jane Hodges runs the Mineral School artists residency program where they serve Furrow Horse Farm produce, and she was full of praise for the upstart farm. Hodges explained that quality food is extremely important in residency programs where artists are wrapped up in their creative endeavors and away from their own kitchens.

“It was all awesome,” said Hodges of the farm’s fresh-picked produce, which she says lasts much longer than store-bought vegetables. “They’re really high quality and unique. It’s nice having something like that in East Lewis county,” which she described as a “food-challenged area with lots of fried food oriented pubs.”

According to Arnold, finding a mentor in the ways of draft horse farming is one the hardest parts of getting started. She said that there are only about six working horse farms in all of North America that teach internship programs. When it was time for her and Wickes to learn the reins they had to travel all the way to Ontario, Canada, to find an opening.

The farming couple moved to Ontario in 2013 and spent a year there honing their craft before finding their current farm property on a farmers resource website and making the big move to Morton sight unseen. “We moved to East Lewis County without actually knowing anybody,” said Arnold.

They do have friends who farm with horses as well, but the location of those farms is scatter shot all over the map. “We kind of have a little network, but we’re spread out. There’s nobody nearby,” said Arnold. Still, they have horse farming friends in Battle Ground who own the Yacolt Mountain Farm and Nursery, as well acquaintances from farms outside of Portland, in Walla Walla, Twisp and two in Sequim. Once a year horse farmers gather at a Farmer to Farmer event specifically targeted toward folks using draft power.

The event includes equipment demonstrations and sales, and lots of folks show up just to see what all the fuss is about. “Brandon started going to that before we ever started using horses and it was a great way to get to know the community,” said Arnold.

Besides typical soil issues like calcium deficiency caused by the rains of western Washington, the farmers say their biggest struggle has been getting their goods to market from their isolated perch. Because of their farm’s location, they are forced to truck their produce long distances in order to disperse their goods, “which is hard because we’re using the horses to try to cut down on our carbon footprint but then we have to drive so far to our markets,” Wickes said. The hope is that an expanded CSA program will alleviate some of that travel burden.

Arnold and Wickes admit that there are some chores on the farm that are in fact easier, or only possible, with the use of a tractor. For instance, they hire their tractor-owning neighbor to put up hay in the summer. “They’re very useful,” admitted Arnold, who noted that their neighbor is inevitably using his tractor next door whenever they are working with horses in the field. “We only work on sunny days, that’s why,” explained Arnold. “So we still get the tractor noise, but that’s OK. We don’t mind.”

Wickes came into the world of horse-powered farming with loads of experience on the other side of the aisle, driving tractors for large scale organic produce farms. “I didn’t really like that very much,” he said, citing the monotony of tractor work as one of its biggest turnoffs. He added, “At the end of the day your ears are ringing and you smell like diesel.”

Again though, Wickes concedes that he and Arnold will likely own a tractor of their own someday just so they can do large-scale tasks like manure management and earth moving, where hydraulics are helpful. “But there’s a lot of things that I would prefer to do with horses, like working the garden,” insisted Wickes.

For her part, Arnold said she has seen an increase in interest in horse-powered farming over the past five or 10 years, but she remains realistic about the future of agriculture in America, noting that the country is “not going to go back to farming only with horses and not with tractors,” she said. “That’s just not going to happen.”

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Information from: The Chronicle, https://www.chronline.com

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