Why do we use horses at MacDougall Meadows? After all, this is the 21st century. Tractors are faster and can do more work. Why do things the hard way?
Besides the fact that they are nice to look at, there are some very good reasons why we use horses here on the farm.
Firstly, horses cause far less soil compaction. This is when the soil gets pressed down too hard by heavy machinery. All kinds of bad things happen due to soil compaction. Rain water can’t penetrate as easily, so it runs off and causes erosion. Erosion strips away soil. Roots can’t penetrate compacted soil, either. Even the soil between rows, where no crops are growing, is very important. If you are a gardener, you may be surprised to learn that the walkways between your plots are just as important as the plots themselves. By the same token, the space between crop rows is very important, too. If it gets compacted, bad things happen to crops. Soil compaction and tractor usage also destroys habitat for small critters, who are very beneficial to any ecosystem, and increases the risk of floods.
Secondly, farm equipment is expensive. One of the major problems with modern farming is the cost of equipment. This creates a vicious cycle between farmers, banks, and the cost of food. Horses aren’t free, but they’re much cheaper than tractors… and they smell nicer, too.
Which brings me to my third point: fuel. Tractors consume fossil fuels. I look forward to a future when our farm, as well as the rest of our society, is powered completely by renewable energy. As Klaus Struber points out in his excellent article, “Horse Labor instead of Tractors,” it takes 232 kilos of corn to produce 50 liters of bioethanol for tractor fuel. That amount of corn, says Struber, could feed a child in Namibia or Mexico for a whole year. Horses, meanwhile, consume far less resources, and they produce manure, which is a valuable resource of its own. Name me a machine that can do that!
It’s easy to understand why tractors became commonplace. In the days after World War II, during the great population boom that followed, more and more food was needed. Modern science and technology had just been used to free Europe and Asia from the grip of fascism, and it made sense that we should use them to produce much-needed food as well.
Lately, thanks to the work of permaculturalists like Bill Mollison, Sepp Holzer, Geoff Lawton, and Masanobu Fukuoka, to name just a very few, we are realizing that natural methods of growing food offer much better prospects for the long-term sustainability of our food supply. Yes, it may take more time to produce the food, but that’s my problem, not yours… and I don’t see it as a problem, but a pleasure.
And another reason why I use horses, of course, is because they are very popular with our customers. Have you ever seen a child pet a tractor?