My oldest son has some farm-land in the Sacramento valley in California. He works at U.C. Davis and is very involved in sustainable agriculture. He also grows vegetables a well as usual crops such as wheat, tomatoes, etc. A year or so ago he acquired four work horses (Belgians – about a ton each) and set about integrating them into his farm. It is close to the farm where I fiddle with old machinery, and yesterday I took a visiting friend up to check out the area. Bob was spreading manure with his horses (who had produced it) and we stopped by to say hi and maybe give him a hand. We could not stay long, but it was long enough to help him load a few loads into the manure spreader and ride around with him.
My grandfather worked 20 acres of oranges with horses in Southern California jointly owned by my parents and grandparent when I was a little boy, but I was so young I don’t really remember much about the horses. But visiting Bob with his horses made me remember much about farming when I was a kid.
Work horses have some similarity to huge dogs. They like to be scratched and petted and talked to, eat, and be around people. But they have differences. They have been bred to be unflappable, love to pull heavy loads, and are extremely well trained (they have to be, or the owner not only would have trouble doing his/her work, but would probably spend quite a bit of time recovering from bruises, broken bones, and other such inconveniences).
Of course the pace of horses is far slower than that of modern tractors. As a result, the pace of farming when I grew up was much slower and simpler than modern farming. Not only do horses move more slowly, but horse drawn equipment is straight forward to understand and repair should it need it—no panic calls for the repair van. And riding on the spreader behind the horses on a beautiful day was in many ways the opposite of working inside in a university. Plenty of time to look at the scenery, think, listen to the birds, soak up the sunshine, and feel like something worthwhile was being accomplished. Although I was too young to become involved with my grandparent’s horses, I did get lots of chances to help spread sweepings from Santa Anita racetrack stables onto the grove from the bed of the family Ford Model B 1-1/2 ton truck. Same thing – no critical deadline, no interruptions from one’s cell phone, no need to be highly visible in the world or have a great deal of money.
I certainly do not want to be a farmer, horses or not. I fled the bucolic life as soon as I was able. But I very much like farmland, farmers, and now work horses (although I have no use at all for riding horses). And it is interesting to me to recall how two families could at one time live off of 20 acres of citrus (a beautiful, fragrant, easy-to-raise crop that tasted good) when now 1000 acres is considered a small farm. True, my parents and grandparents had little cash, shared one very used car, and were without such things as TV, computers, micro-wave ovens, air conditioning, and central heating. And since I did not live in town, I was not surrounded by people my age. And I was definitely expected to do my chores. But there were advantages to traditional country life, and I am glad my son can experience some of them. And I have to say, horse-drawn equipment was so simple and so well tested, that to me much of it is downright elegant. I finished restoring my McCormick mower (red machine in photo), and it is an example.