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Farming with heavy horses

For Stewart Fawdrey, horses are a key part of self-sufficiency

By VANESSA FARNSWORTH

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Reprinted from Small Farm Canada, November/December 2013 issue

Haying season is in full swing and yet the first thing I notice when I pull into the long, dirt lane leading up to Stewart Fawdrey’s modest farmhouse is just how peaceful it is. The only tractors to be heard are off in the distance. Like his neighbours, Stewart is hard at work collecting hay bales from his fields. Unlike his neighbours, he is pulling his hay wagon with two massive workhorses instead of a tractor.

This is nothing new.

Stewart has farmed with heavy horses all his life. The team presently pulling the hay wagon consists of two Percherons: a “grey” named Bud and a “black” named Ted.? Stewart proudly refers to these horses as veterans and together they have cut, raked and hauled hundreds of acres of hay.

With their broad chests, heavy necks and impressive stamina, these Percherons are built for work.? Each horse weighs roughly 1,800 lbs., weight that Stewart considers necessary to move heavy loads without straining.

“They very seldom sweat on the job and they’re in excellent working condition from doing it so often. They’ve got a lot of miles on them, even in the off-season.”

Stewart’s horses traditionally worked eight hours a day, six days a week, year round on the 80-acre property on Vancouver Island that Stewart farmed for more than 40 years. During the summer months, they worked in the fields or in the woodlot that adjoined the farm and in the off-season, the horses were kept busy with fall plowing, hauling manure and other jobs that would keep them in prime working condition.

Flat, fertile and blessed with few stones, the Vancouver Island farm included 50-acres of hay fields that Stewart cut twice a year using horse drawn mowers. Early on he developed an efficient two-team system for getting all that hay cut. On the first day, both teams would cut as much hay as they could. On succeeding days, one of the teams would continue cutting hay. When the hay cut that first day was dry, the second team would begin raking while the other team continued to cut.? Each year, this two-team system would result in 100 acres of cut hay.

“It’s hard for people to believe in this day and age that you can do that amount of cutting in the summertime, but you can put down a lot of hay with a horse and mower. Two of them just doubles what you can do,” Stewart says, adding, “You’ve got to have a system and that’s the system that worked best for me.”

While hay may have been the farm’s primary crop, Stewart also grew oats and wheat. He raised pigs, cows, horses and chickens and maintained a vegetable garden.
A woodlot provided his family with all the firewood they could possibly need.

None of this was accidental. Self-sufficiency has always been important to Stewart. He grew the feed for his animals and avoided commercial fertilizers and pesticides, preferring instead to plant cover crops such as fall rye or clover.

“I wanted to be so self-sufficient, as self-sufficient as I possibly could, because that was the whole point of the farm. It was a self-contained unit.”

Stewart calculates that it takes 20-acres of prime farmland for one family to be self-sufficient, a size that one or two horses can easily handle. Indeed, Stewart believes that the key to farming successfully with heavy horses is to keep the operation small, to diversify and to avoid debt.

“Farming is a gamble. You never know what tomorrow brings. If you have debt and then you get a bad year or two, you’re in trouble.? No debt — you ride it out.”

Although there has long been pressure to mechanize his farm operation, Stewart has resisted, concluding that while it’s more time consuming to farm with horses and the yields are lower, all of his machinery is sturdy, easy-to-use, trouble-free and, most importantly, paid for. He grows his own horse feed, veterinarian bills are reasonable, the harnesses only need maintenance once a year, and his horses don’t take much to maintain beyond a barn to keep them warm in winter and to protect them from heat and flies in summer.

If at any point he’d switched to tractors, Stewart would’ve incurred heavy debts and he wasn’t willing to risk his farm or his way of life to purchase and maintain equipment to do a job he was already doing with horses.

And while Stewart admits that he couldn’t afford to go south for the winter or to buy the latest gadgets, those were sacrifices he was willing to make in order to live self-sufficiently, raising his daughter and three sons in what he considered to be idyllic circumstances.

Idyllic, yes. Idle, no.

There was never a shortage of chores for his kids. Whether they were raking hay, driving a wagon during haying season or undertaking their least favorite chore — stooking sheaves, Stewart felt it was important for his children to be involved in both the operation of the farm and the decisions that were made on it.

At 84, Stewart is keenly aware that his way of life is slowly disappearing. His wife passed away a few years ago and his kids are all established in careers unrelated to agriculture. Stewart himself is slowing down and his horses are approaching an age when he normally retires them.

Even so, Stewart gets frequent inquiries from young farmers interested in getting into heavy horse farming, an idea that Stewart likes, although he can see major stumbling blocks.

“There are younger people who want to do it, but where do they get the knowledge? Where do they get the horses? Where do they get the machinery? Where do they get the time? And how do they afford to buy a small farm nowadays with the cost of everything? Those are big problems to figure out.”

Stewart sees other challenges facing anyone wishing to farm with horses — mindset challenges — including the reluctance of modern farmers to take fields out of production to support the horses and the ingrained notion that tractors are the only viable option.

“I would like to see more people using horses, but I realize it’s a major challenge because people today never had the opportunity I had to use horses for farming. They were raised in a mechanized age. I was born in the horse-drawn era. That’s all we were using and I just stuck with it.”

And there’s a practical reality.

“With just a few minutes of instruction, you can teach anyone to use a tractor. Not so with horses. With horses you get up, you groom the horses, feed the horses,” he says. ”They have to be harnessed every morning then unharnessed every afternoon and, most importantly, they have to be well trained. It’s all work. If you spend the time and patience with them (when they’re young) then they’re good for 20 years. These horses here, I can put them anywhere to work, on any machine, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”

There are so few well-trained workhorses these days; Stewart finds that people are often amazed by what his horses can do. He points to the shed where he stores his haying equipment and notes that it has such a low overhang, the horses not only have to steer the equipment into the shed backwards, they also have to duck their heads at exactly the right moment to avoid hitting the overhang, something they do with precision every time.

Whether backing horses into the barn or guiding them across fields with a mower, rake, or wagon in tow, Stewart uses nothing more than a slight pressure on the reins and a gentle word. The horses understand and respond immediately.

“These horses are so reliable because they’ve done the job so many times. They drive by voice command and they stand like statues when you’re loading or unloading wagons or doing other little jobs,” he says.

After 43 years on his Vancouver Island farm, encroaching subdivisions and increasing traffic forced Stewart to sell the property and relocate to an area with a lower population. He’s been on his current 20-acre farm in the Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia for nearly 25 years. Although he now leases the 12 acres out back to an organic dairy farmer, the front fields Stewart keeps for himself. He cuts the hay, rakes it, bales it and gets help from a local youth to haul the bales to the barn.? In his spare time, he restores horse drawn machinery.

His only concession to mechanization is a small, second-hand tractor that he bought 15 years ago for baling.? It’s the first (and will be the last) tractor Stewart has ever owned and it gets used, reluctantly, twice a year.

“That’s all the tractor does — it pulls the baler — and when I’m finished baling, the tractor is parked for another year. I don’t bother with it the rest of the time. I’ve got nothing against it, but there are two horses in the barn and I’ve got to keep them busy. They’re not going to look over a fence and see a tractor working.”