The allure of horse-powered farms

Photos of Washington homesteads, where an old practice draws young farmers.

  • Dana Steege-Jackson, 33, guides a team of Haflinger horses on Around the Table Farm in Poulsbo, Washington.

    Andria Hautamaki
  • Steege-Jackson cleans the corral on Around the Table Farm. The horse manure will be placed in the compost pile and later spread on the fields after it decomposes. Raising a family on a farm often means bringing kids along for many different tasks; 8-month-old Alder accompanies his mom for many throughout the day.

    Andria Hautamaki
  • The compost pile on Around the Table Farm includes horse manure along with other organic materials.

    Andria Hautamaki
  • Steege-Jackson carries Alder on her back as she feeds Haflinger geldings their evening hay in the barn on Around the Table Farm.

    Andria Hautamaki
  • Aaron and Dana Steege-Jackson work together to sell their vegetables at the weekly market in Poulsbo, Washington. Around the Table Farm only uses draft power – in this case, horses – to grow their produce. No tractor was used in any part of the farming process.

    Andria Hautamaki
  • Matt Rohanna, 30, drives a pair of Belgium geldings named Red and Duke on River Run Farm in Sequim, Washington. Originally from Pennsylvania, Rohanna was drawn to the opportunity to work with draft horses at River Run Farm, and started to work with horses for the first time while learning how to drive a team in 2016.

    Andria Hautamaki
  • Rohanna brushes a Belgium gelding named Red before harnessing him to work the fields at River Run Farm.

    Andria Hautamaki
  • Belgium geldings Red and Duke pull in tandem as they help work the fields on River Run Farm.

    Andria Hautamaki
  • Originally from New York, Anna Bunk, 29, picks spinach for market on River Run Farm.

    Andria Hautamaki
  • Rohanna drives a pair of Belgium geldings spreading lime on River Run Farm.

    Andria Hautamaki

 

Aaron and Dana Steege-Jackson own Around the Table Farm, a 5.5-acre horse-powered vegetable, berry and flower farm in the small town of Poulsbo, on the Kitsap Peninsula of Washington. The Steege-Jacksons are a part of an emerging trend of young farmers returning to an old tradition: using draft power  mules, horses, or oxen  for small-scale farms.

Horse-drawn farming has lower startup costs than buying a tractor, but the practice also fits into the desire of a younger generation to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Aaron, 35, and Dana, 33, started farming in 2010 after apprenticing with other farms that used horse-drawn power. Draft horses enable farmers to live a life more connected to the land where few resources are wasted — even animal manure is incorporated back into the same farming system. The horses’ hooves don’t compact the soil in the same way that large tractors do, and they can power through wetter conditions without getting stuck or leaving large ruts.

Another small operation, about 50 miles northwest of Poulsbo, the River Run Farm in Sequim, Washington, was co-founded in 2013 by a group of friends. The farm uses a combination of horse-drawn power and tractors. Noah Bresler, 33, and Anna Bunk, 29, oversee tasks ranging from spreading lime to harvesting potatoes as well as breaking up clods of soil and seeding cover crops. The farm currently owns four Belgium draft horses and has attracted young farmers interested in learning how to farm with horses.

This year the farm hosted a program where one group worked with a local mentor to learn the skills necessary to be safe and successful when using horse-drawn power. For a farmer without equine experience, the learning curve can be steep. But the mentorship program teaches the basics, too: How to catch and halter horses reluctant to return from the pasture, how to bridle and harness a team, and how to pace the horses and read their body language so they don’t get overexerted.

Note: This article has been updated to correct the location of Poulsbo. It is on the Kitsap Peninsula, not the Olympic.

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