Did the Amish get it right after all?
There is an interesting development in mainstream U.S.A that just might have significant relevance for garden farming. Record numbers of people are acquiring pets. The dog and cat business is not at all depressed by the recession. (If you are wondering what all this has to do with the Amish, bear with me.) You see evidence of the trend everywhere, especially in advertisements where dogs are shown licking the cheeks of children— this in a society that has an almost manic dread of germs. Pets are the in-thing. Apparently our society is so enmeshed in its mechanical and electronic gadgetry that the human psyche is seeking solace in real life, as in the ancient loving connection that we have always enjoyed with animals.
The modern pet craze is not limited to cats and dogs but embraces many animals, especially horses. (Now you see how the Amish are going to get into this discussion.) Statistics say there are 6.9 million horses in the U.S. involved in various activities from racing, showing, pleasure riding, polo, police work, farming and ranching. The horse business or hobby adds about $112 billion to the GNP. Horses generate more money than the home furniture and fixtures business, and almost as much as the apparel and textile manufacturing industry. In other words, while we generally think of Old Dobbin as a step backward in time in agriculture, horses are very much a part of our modern economic and social lives today.
Why this is pertinent to garden farming becomes apparent from what happened a few months ago. At the time when the national banking fraternity was on its knees in Washington, begging for money, news all over the media reported that Hometown Heritage bank in Lancaster County, Pa., was having its best year ever. Hometown Heritage may be the only bank in the world, surely one of the few, that has drive-by window service designed to accommodate horses and buggies. Some 95% of the bank’s customers are Amish farmers. The banker, Bill O’Brien, says that he has not lost a penny on them in 20 years. They obviously don’t have auto loans to pay off and do not use credit cards. They might not need bank loans at all except to buy farmland, which especially in Lancaster County, has risen almost insanely in price. O’Brien says he is doing about a hundred million dollars worth of business in farm loans. To further make the point, an obscure law does not allow banks to bundle and sell mortgages on farms and homes that are not serviced by public electric utilities.
There is plenty in this situation for economists to contemplate, but what struck me the most was the fact that these farmers are buying farm land that can cost them ten thousand dollars per acre or sometimes more, and paying for it with horse farming. And because of their religion, the Amish do not accept farm subsidies that keep many “modern” farms “profitable.” Facing these facts, it is very difficult to see how economists or agribusiness experts can claim that farms using horses or mules for motive power are any more backward, or any less profitable, than farms using tractors.
If you study the great debate that raged in farm circles from about 1920 to 1950 over the economics of horses and mules vs. tractors, (a good recent book on the subject is Mule South To Tractor South, by George B. Ellenberg, Univ. of Alabama Press, 2007), you will learn that the experts never agreed. Both sides finally admitted that it didn’t matter anyway. There was a rising kind of younger farmer for whom tractors were just too alluring to resist. These farmers were going to use them, no matter how much more they cost than horses. Farmers who loved farming with horses wept while they watched trucks haul their teams off to the the rendering plant. They did not get rid of their horses because of the supposedly harder work involved but because they were afraid that if they did not switch, the farmers who did switch would eventually take all the land.
I grew up when horses were still the rule in farming. I had a runaway with a team and a wagon when I was 11 years old, so I know the dark side of it too. Because of the strange circumstances of my life, I worked on horse-powered farms again in my early twenties. I assure you: farm work is no harder or easier using horses than tractors. Each has its pluses and minuses physically. Mentally, farming with horses is more relaxed (they always start in the morning no matter how cold) except during a runaway. The horse farmer I worked for during those years, (1950s) was by no means Amish. He did have a big old tractor to plow his hilly acres. He used horses because he made money farming with horses. He was the best economics professor I never had. The way he farmed wasn’t what you’d find in articles in the leading farm magazines; it wasn’t very pretty. But it was a lot prettier than the Americans lined up at the employment offices today because they opted out of hard work in favor of the great American dream of ease and forty-hour weeks.
I do not speak as an uncompromising champion of horses. I actually prefer my 1950 WD Allis Chalmers which has cost me hardly $5000 total during all the years I have owned it. But that is not my point. I just wonder if we are not making a mistake by not taking seriously what the Amish are demonstrating to us. Given the facts of the matter, I don’t think it is naïve to suggest that young garden farmers take a closer look at horses, mules, even oxen for motive power on their little farms. Quite a few already are. Given the demonstrated yearning that humans have always shown for animal companionship, it seems entirely logical to me that young farmers just might lose their acquired attraction for the tractor one of these days to become horsemen and horsewomen again. The dollars and cents, the Amish will tell you, are on your side if you enjoy being at home and would rather work hard physically on occasion rather than pay for exercise at a fitness center.
With peak oil upon us, think of it this way. You may be able to grow enough extra grain or biomass to make ethanol for a tractor, but it will always be cheaper to grow the extra hay to feed a horse. You don’t have to distill the hay.
See also Gene’s An Ode To Horse Manure, And Other By-Products Called Waste
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.