Couple tries shifting from tractor to horses

Farm Forum

MARTELL, Neb. – With the morning sun rising, Alex McKiernan guided draft horses Duchess and Duke up through the pasture, past rusted machinery and into the small stable on his farm near Martell.

The 13-year-old Belgian horses – weighing about a ton each – moved onto McKiernan’s farm the previous week. The three still are getting acquainted: McKiernan with the horses and the horses with him.

“You’re going to have to start trusting ole Alex,” McKiernan told Duke as he brushed the gelding coat.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports that built on budding trust, the 33-year-old and his wife, Chloe Diegel, will employ the draft horses to help them around their 40-acre vegetable farming operation known as Robinette Farms.

Across North America, draft horses help at about 400,000 farms in some capacity, Lynn Miller, editor of the Small Farmer’s Journal, told The New York Times earlier this year.

For Diegel and McKiernan, who didn’t grow up farming, Duke and Duchess provide them with soil-saving help for back-breaking work and allow the organic farmers to experience a bygone agricultural lifestyle.

“We don’t make a lot of money,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle choice for us.”

Surrounded by dwarfing 900-plus acre farms, Robinette’s organic operation grows a variety of vegetables ranging from parsnips and potatoes to beans and bok choy.

The two 17-hand-high horses will disc new fields this fall and help move water for animal chores and do “as much work as possible” during the winter, McKiernan said. That work should prepare the sandy-colored pair for their first big goal: helping weed the five acres where most of the vegetables are grown.

“They’ll free us up to do a lot of other things that are on our list but don’t get done,” said Diegel, 32.

But don’t confuse their move to hoof-power as a slam against machinery, they say. The farmers have a 50-horsepower John Deere tractor they’ve worked hard. They admit replacing that tractor with the horses will be difficult, but they plan to phase it out in the next few years as the horses’ ability to carry the workload grows.

They see the value of tractors on their neighbors’ large-scale farms. But McKiernan said he spends more time trying to start their other two Allis Chalmers tractors than they’re worth.

On their small-scale operation, tractor tires compact the dirt – and vegetable farming is hard enough on the soil already, he said. Horse power eases stress on the soil, he added, and horses help keep it fertile, too.

“What comes out of the rear ends of these guys can go on the field,” he said. “What comes out of the rear end of the tractor cannot.”

Not only that, but a farmer can’t develop a relationship with a tractor, he said.

“You can get a lot done with tractors,” he said. “But they’re loud and smelly, and you can’t get engaged with the machine.”

To aid their endeavor, Diegel and McKiernan launched a crowd-funding campaign to pay for their farm’s transition to horse power. So far, they’ve raised $17,187 of their $22,000 goal. The money would help them buy horse-driven equipment and pay for repairs to the stable. The campaign runs through Nov. 30, and donors can receive perks that top out with a lifetime membership to the farm’s produce.

Diegel and McKiernan don’t claim to be experts in horse-driven farming, and he doesn’t plan to sell the tractor just yet.

On this morning, McKiernan harnessed Duke and Duchess. He put on their bridles and tied them to his makeshift hitching post – a trailer hitch. Once settled, he untied them, backed them up and hitched them to a pull cart. They rode around the farm leisurely until Duke caught sight of the pigs.

“Duke, you gotta learn to like those pigs,” McKiernan said.

His wife of five years put it this way: “It’ll be a learning experience for everybody, and we’re ready.”