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Where Everything Grows

The allure of horse-powered farms

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

 

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.