Reconnecting to a Sustainable Future

The Zenger Farm Internship Series


When I get in my car, my only hope is to reach my destination as quickly as possible, whether that destination is ten minutes away or two hours. Though I consider myself a careful driver — looking both ways, triple checking mirrors, and maintaining a safe speed — internally my heart is racing, externally my hands tightly grip the steering wheel, and inevitably, I start bemoaning traffic. Pedestrians become irritating obstacles and the trees, flowers, and families on the sidewalk are ignored, even when I’m sitting at a stoplight. I just want to get there — wherever — quickly.

This entire experience changes when I bike. On a bike, my physicality is connected to my transportation. As I pedal, I have to notice changes in grade and terrain. As I throw out a hand signal, I seek out eye contact with a driver or a pedestrian. And when there’s little traffic, I soak up the changing colors of flowers and trees, while breathing in the outside air. That air, whether fresh or muggy, is unavoidable without windows. If I pass a biker, I often smile. And when I park my bike, I might have a conversation with someone unlocking theirs.

From my house, it’s a fifteen minute bike ride and a seven minute drive to a local grocery store. These are fairly negligible time differences — how much can one truly accomplish in an extra seven minutes? Yet, I frequently choose the car over the bike, tricking myself that it’s more convenient, that it’s faster, and that I’ll bike on another day. A day when I’m a) less tired, b) not wearing a skirt, and c) feel like it. And I’m much more likely to feel like biking when it’s not 100 degrees outside — a temperature that’s been more realistic than hyperbolic so far this summer.

In early June, on an exceptional scorcher of an afternoon, I stood beside a large potato field in Dorena, Oregon watching Justin Moran and Walt Bernard work carefully with Nugget the drafthorse, repositioning him at the end of each row, pausing as he chomped on weeds and grass, halting when the bridle had to be adjusted or the cultivator went off track. Nugget is a powerful animal, and both Justin and Walt were forced to stay focused with each pass, checking in with each other, assessing every change in speed and bump in the field, while simultaneously looking at both Nugget and the potatoes.

It was a full body experience that looked exhausting and exhilarating, not unlike watching a running race, where competing thoughts may include “They look so tired” followed by “but, I want to be out there, too!” Sure, the men could have hilled the potatoes in a number of different ways, including with a tractor, but they chose to use Nugget for similar reasons that people choose to bike over drive: for broader connections and a meaning that extends beyond efficiency.

A year ago, Justin was still an intern at Zenger Farm, about to enter “hell week” (where interns work eleven hour days for a week during the height of summer) and didn’t have an ounce of first hand experience farming with draft horses. Hailing from England, Justin had occasionally seen people working with horses in Europe, and remembers feeling curious about the cultural and ecological impact of the practice, aware that it was a “dying skill” in most parts of the world. He carried that intrigue with him when he immigrated to the United States, a country dotted with regional agricultural horse work, from the Mennonite population to small clusters of farms in the Pacific Northwest.

While at Zenger, Justin heard about a horse farming workshop at Oregon’s Belle Mare Farm, taught by Don Yerian, the former breeding program manager for the Suffolk Punches at B-Bar Ranch in Montana. It was time for Justin to translate his years-long intrigue with horse farming into something more practical. Would the romance be lost in the details? He had to find out, and even though the workshop fell during the absolute height of Zenger’s farming season, head farmers Sara Cogan and Bryan Hall encouraged him to raise money to attend the five day workshop. Justin responded positively to the experience, especially to Yerian’s’s calm and contemplative manner, a personality that translated directly into his skill working with horses.

“It was magical. It really opened my eyes to relationships cultivating [fields] with draft animals, including how gentle the work is,” Justin told me as he planted lettuce starts in one of the many greenhouses at Ruby and Amber’s Farm. He continued, “we did some log skidding, mowed some acres of hay, raked it, bailed it, hauled all the bales, stacked them. I was like, damn, that was very close to as quick as it would have been on a tractor, but way quieter and more fun.”

Close to the end of his internship, Justin attended an event called Farmers Rising, a weekend long beginner farmers conference with workshops on small engine repair, the Farm Bill, and one noteworthy workshop on the economics of horse farming, led by Walt Bernard, of Ruby and Amber’s Organic Oasis, where Justin and his wife Teagan now live and work. Walt and his wife Kris are well known for their horse farming prowess in the Pacific Northwest. A quick internet search easily locates farmers scattered across the region who now farm with draft horses after being trained by Walt. Walt and Kris began working with draft horses in 1999, and today, around 75% of the farm’s tillage is accomplished via draft horses, including the tilling in the farm’s large hoop houses.

Walt has led draft horse workshops on harnessing, driving, and plowing for many years; this year, after Ruby and Amber’s joined the Rogue Farm Corps, Walt created a more structured training program, designed for an intern who lives and works on the farm. Justin and Teagan both joined Rogue Farm Corps to work at Ruby and Amber’s, and while the couple’s internship responsibilities look relatively similar, Justin is now taking a deep dive into farming with drafthorses, including how horses and tools are used throughout a growing season, how Walt fabricates many of the tools the horses pull, how to build a trusting relationship with a horse, and what to do if a horse gets spooked.

To continue with the earlier bicycling analogy, it’s one thing to gaze lustfully at Linus’ latest three speed steel bike, and an entire other thing to ride that bike up a steep hill. Farming with drafthorses isn’t anywhere near as simple as harnessing the horse, putting on a specific attachment, and cultivating free of noisy machinery, blissful and content. Working with drafthorses, like maintaining a fast cadence while biking up a specific hill, takes hours of practice, patience, and a lot of sweat, and then adds one additional layer: you’re working with a sentient being, and the only way for that to be successful is when both the human (teamster) and horse are on the same plane, moving in harmony.

Watching experienced farmers work with drafthorses is quite literally awesome: I couldn’t help but stare in wonder as Walt, Justin, and Nugget moved throughout the field in front of me. I was aware of the micro movements in how Walt held the reigns, and absorbed Justin’s look of concentration. When they finished the potato field, Nugget still wanted to walk, so Walt encouraged Justin to walk him around in circles. Nugget walked around Justin while Justin used his wrists to subtly move the reigns. It was a dance that both Justin and Nugget seemed to enjoy.

Before the thirty minute potato field hilling, Justin spent an additional thirty minutes moving Nugget from the stable, brushing him, and putting the harness on. Nugget was watchful, but clearly wasn’t in the mood to make Justin’s life easy when he bridled him. Justin shared that bridling and bitting is the still the hardest part, because he hasn’t gained the muscle memory or confidence to perform the motions smoothly and quickly. “I don’t want to bang their teeth. They don’t forget [if you do that]; they’re super smart,” he told me. “I don’t think they really want to work,” he added, chuckling that he doesn’t think the horses “get up every morning ready to work.”

The reason that Nugget and the other drafthorses at Ruby and Amber’s, including namesake Ruby as well as Tom, Jerry, Larry, Kava, Belle, and Lara, respond so well to Walt and (slowly but surely) to Justin is because they know their roles and are treated with respect and gentleness. Some of the horses prefer to work alone, while others work well in a team with a specific horse. “Tom is a good example,” Justin elaborated. “We put him on the left [of the hitch] because he’s blind in one eye. If he’s got a horse there, he knows the horse is there and feels better.”

Joel Salatin familiarized the American public to the idea of rotational grazing: cows chomp down on specific parts of the grass, sheep follow and nibble on pasture that the cows didn’t want, and chickens follow the sheep, spreading manure and eating bugs. All of this translates to healthy meat, eggs, and pasture, a closed loop system that requires little outside fertilizer or feed input. Sustainable farms who use animals in this way strive to create self-sufficient and resilient systems. They work to cultivate a community of crops, humans, species — and yes, machinery — that all rely on each other to work properly. And yet, fuel remains one of the missing links in this closed loop discussion.

Even the smallest farms aren’t immune to fuel costs and fuel requirements, whether they’re powering their rototiller, truck, or tractor. Most farms in America are susceptible to price spikes, fuel shortages, and the related environmental consequences. By promoting an interconnected system of agriculture that uses drafthorses, farms like Ruby and Amber’s, Portland’s 47th Avenue Farm, and training programs like those at the University of Massachusetts and Sterling College, are empowering curious farmers to partially free themselves from fossil fuels, while teaching interns like Justin that these horses are way more than just tractor replacements.

If you’re curious about the history of drafthorses in America, and how swiftly our nation’s farm horses were replaced with tractors, look no further than Dick Courteau’s article in Orion Magazine. Despite drafthorses’ proven ability to perform just as efficiently as tractors in terms of work done and time allotted (as seen in the 1943 study quoted by the author), by the end of World War II, Courteau writes, most of the Western world “had simply walked away from traditions six or eight thousands years in the building.” The agricultural climate in the 1950s (and solidified today) is one that promotes convenience and ease over all other factors. As farmers abandoned their team of horses for new tractors, our nation’s industrial agriculture system became more and more entrenched: fuel was brought in from outside sources, animals were removed from the farm, and farms became specialized and massive.

When methodologies are abandoned, the services and community that support those beliefs also disappear. It’s very likely that farmers that wanted to still employ drafthorses found themselves without a community connection to do so. As industrialization trumped self-sufficiency, “rural neighborhoods, once held together by common memories, common work, and the sharing of help, [began] to dissolve.”

Wendell Berry, the prolific environmental activist, writer, and farmer, has much to say on the subject of drafthorses, including an honest admittance that he intrinsically understands the appeal of the tractor — it’s the same appeal of the car over the bike. He remembers the transition from horse to tractor, sitting on top of a tractor and looking at the horses. “I saw them from the vantage point of the tractor, and I remember how fiercely I resented their slowness. I saw them as ‘in my way,’” Berry admits in a 2004 essay.

I’ve had discussions before about the strangeness of the word farmer. It’s odd that we use the same word for farmers like Walt and Kris or Zenger’s Bryan and Sarah as for the people who grow thousands upon thousands of acres of corn or soy, sitting in a separate room and monitoring fertilizer and pesticide applications via computer systems. Or that Jess and Brian Powers of Working Hands Farm have the same title as an Iowan who “raises” and slaughters millions of birds a year (unless they have to be culled because of a bird flu epidemic). At this point, the only common link between these two approaches — that is, community based, organic systems and machine based, industrial systems — is the fact that they both produce “food” in some shape or form.

The further removed a “farmer” is from a community and interconnected systems — with chickens housed in huge barns instead of outside in mobile coops, with corn fields that threaten to swallow you up, with miserable pigs living out their dark days on slatted floors, their manure housed in lagoons outside — the easier it is the view these items, pigs or corn, as mechanized cogs in a machine. And “mechanical farming makes it easy to to think mechanically about the land and its creatures.”

A more accurate definition of farmer should be of a person who cultivates a community, who strives for energy independence, who rotates his or her farm hat between soil scientist, botanist, ecologist, and biologist, never forgetting the capability of creating stupendous flavors. My day spent in Dorena, Oregon showed me how imperative it is that animals are involved in this system: as members, not cogs. The concept of animal husbandry dovetails neatly with the concept of sustainability, with each focusing on conservation and care.

At first, I struggled to come up with an appropriate way to encapsulate the warmth that Justin exudes, seeking a word that captured his gentle nature with the farm animals and his inquisitive nature with the farm employees and the surrounding community. But of course, the word and its derivations are obvious: husband. Husbandry. To husband.

Berry defines husbandry as “to use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve.” Justin immigrated to Portland, Oregon to become a husband to Teagan, and it’s the most important relationship, and role, in his life. The couple met in England years ago when both worked at Green and Away, Europe’s only tented conference center. Teagan was living in an intentional community in England at the time, while WWOOfing at different farms. She told me that because they initially met and fell in love while working together, working beside each other is what feels most natural (with “not even the slightest hiccup!”, Justin jokes).

After years apart in different countries, the couple married in 2013 after Justin sailed from Europe to the United States and hitchhiked his way to Oregon, stopping in communities along the way. Last year, finally living together, Justin interned at Zenger while Teagan worked as a research analyst for Portland State University and volunteered as a nutrition educator at both Zenger Farm and the Oregon Food Bank. The couple lived in Kailash Ecovillage, an intentional community in SE Portland. Kailash’s apartments are small, with the larger spaces like the main kitchen and balconies dedicated for the entire community’s use. Residents gather for weekly community nights and work parties, especially in the gardens.

Through gardening and absorbing Justin’s experience at Zenger, Teagan realized that “farming is really about community”. Though Justin is quick to point out that farming is not an intentional community, he sees intimate connections between the two because “everyone is very intentional about what they’re doing.” Teagan added, “you need to rely on others to be successful [in agriculture].”

Walt and Kris have fostered a low-key, but deeply connected community at Ruby and Amber’s, one that includes the other employees, the neighboring farms, the greater Eugene area, and of course, all of the various drafthorse connections. When he was near the horses, Walt moved with thoughtful and focused ease, a manner that’s already mimicked by Justin. Yet, a lot of interactions with horses — or with a broader network of people — can’t be taught; they must already exist within. Justin’s easygoing, reflective manner, neither dominant nor domineering, naturally makes people and animals want to be a part of his team.

A tractor doesn’t care if you’re annoyed or tired. But, when working with horses, Justin knows that he has to “let go of my ego stuff.” “If you’re nervous, annoyed, in a bad mood, they pick up on it and won’t respond well,” he remarked before bridling Nugget. He describes working with horses as a working meditation: “You have to get grounded in a state so you can be on the present level of the horses. That takes time, it’s not like jumping on the tractor and turning the key.”

It’s precisely this reflective, “husbandry” focus that can make smaller-scale, interconnected farms resilient. At its core, nature is unpredictable. Agriculture is our attempt to work within that unpredictability to produce nourishment. Unpredictability can’t be reigned in by distant monitoring, monocultures, or more applications of a certain chemical; these approaches are like swimming away from a tsunami — paddle as fast as you can, but you’re still going to get sucked under if you don’t have a nuanced understanding of what soil, animals, plants, and humans need in the moment. A mechanized approach of “getting there quicker” means nothing without a constant fuel source; this approach remains powerless against a virulent bird flu or a sweeping antibiotic-resistant infection.

However, a community–based approach to farming, one that husbands holistically, leads to results that extend beyond basic productivity. Walt and Kris want more people to farm with horses not only because the approach saves fuel, but out of a belief that horses foster a transitive sense of trust and connection, a feeling that can’t help but extend into other approaches and relationships.

Courtreau writes that a larger scale return to animal power would force a “train of other changes”. Horses require people, people who must leave cities and return to a rural life. And horses require smaller scale farms as the animal’s effectiveness doesn’t translate well onto thousands of acres. Horses are powerful and compelling: I’ve walked by numerous tractors without feeling an awareness or stirring in my heart. With Nugget, and the other horses, I felt watchful eyes on me the entire time I was talking to Justin and taking photos. Once nurtured, an unspoken trust and respect exists between farmer and horse, traits that can’t help but be extended to the surrounding land and people.

For some farmers, it’ll always be “easier” to hop on a tractor, turn the engine on, and go. A horse doesn’t have an ignition switch: Justin and Walt have to slow down, assess, and move with intention. The allure of farming with drafthorses is that this intention allows the men to connect to something bigger than themselves. Restoring land and happiness doesn’t lie solely with drafthorses, yet after my day in Dorena, I believe that drafthorses are one answer to restoring a farm’s fertility and to re-connecting individual farmers to a bigger community and its resources.


These articles are also published at thesesaltyoats.com, where you can find other stories about sustainable food and the farmers who grow it.