Wednesday, May 4, 2011

hell yeah

Sheffield, Mass
On a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.

Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.

Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.

-Read the rest of the article from today's NY Times here


Blogger Julia Wright said...

Brown Swiss are the most amazing animals. I raised them for 4-H every year, and I've had a few steers in my adult life. They can't be beat. It's a shame, but they are kind of rare anymore. Mark my words, I'm going to have a whole herd someday. Great post Jenna.

May 4, 2011 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I still like the old ways best.

May 4, 2011 at 1:22 PM  
Blogger City Sister said...

It reminds me of Farmer son wants oxen and pigs just like his hero Almanzo

May 4, 2011 at 1:24 PM  
Blogger judy said...


May 4, 2011 at 1:36 PM  
Blogger the_amadaun said...

Jenna - I seriously saw this article in the NYT this morning and thought it would be about you. Oh well - fun piece anyway! And beautiful oxen!

May 4, 2011 at 2:01 PM  
Blogger Maurizio said...

Amazing, reminds me of my Grandfather who did all his work with an ox team in the bavarian alps.

May 4, 2011 at 3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article - it's good to see that people are thinking about different ways to do things. I've been hoping that I could use animals for farm work when I get some land.

May 4, 2011 at 5:01 PM  
Blogger sheila said...

My grandfather used a team horses until the late 1950's when his brother bought a tractor and started doing the bulk of the field work with it. With the price of fuel I think you may see a return to smaller farms producing more food locally with people eating the bulk of their food grown closer to their home. It's time, what agribusiness has loser done is unsustainable. Funny that the Amish had it right all along.

May 4, 2011 at 6:36 PM  
Blogger sheila said...

oops pays to proof read... not supposed to have the word loser in the next to last sentence.

May 4, 2011 at 6:38 PM  
Blogger sugarwood thoughts said...

Hope you feel better!! Absolutely love the picture of Jasper.

May 4, 2011 at 7:39 PM  
Blogger farmgirljen said...

On our honeymoon to Maine, my husband and I visited a small county fair and saw our first oxen pull. We watched for hours, glued to the sight of those magnificent animals pulling in tandem. My father-in-law talked of how, when he was a kid, they used small draft horses (not the big ones - they ate too much -- but ones they called half-lingers, whatever that meant). We took loads of snaps and I still remember how my husband, at 6'2" only came up to the shoulder of one of those gentle giants.

May 4, 2011 at 8:27 PM  
Blogger beccaWA said...

Very cool! Brown Swiss, huh. Maybe some day... an acre just isn't enough. Heard they have a very good temperament.

Farmgirljen: Halflingers are smaller sturdy light draft type horses from Austria. Beautiful!

I know they cross them with other tall, lighter types to use for jumping, cross-country and dressage.

I wish we could upload pics here. I do have a picture of my Swedish grandfather and crew harvesting wheat with a 20 horse hitch with a harvester. Incredible how they could control all those horses! They were not draft horses, but just "regular" looking horses.

May 4, 2011 at 8:39 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

Oxen and horse teams are still used here in Nova Scotia in pulls at local fairs, and the reference to Maine reminded me that there used to be an international competition, but I think mad cow disease put an end to that. Oxen here are also still used to do farm work and logging if their owner is a hobbyist just to keep them fit and in training.
Oxen and horses are particularly useful for skidding logs in forests where the soil is thin and fragile, which is true of most of this province. There is no sweeter sight than a ten or 11 year old 4H kid proudly teaming his young oxen.
Oxen are shod with a two part shoe to take the cloven hoof into consideration, and because the animals are so low slung a blacksmith cannot comfortably get under them to work, they are led into a stall with movable sides, clamped in and turned on their sides - I've seen this done and the animals don't seem the least concerned about it.
The yokes here in Nova Scotia are different from yours - the yoke is carved to individual specs and fits on top at the junction of the head and neck. It is replaced as the animals grow and change. It is strapped tightly around the horns, which are both decorated and protected by lovely brass balls.
Once it is determined which animal will work which side that is never changed and the traditional names - Lion, Bright and Star denote which side the animal works on.
When I still had a field garden as opposed to raised beds, it was "horse-hoed" every year by a small spotted pony called Pat who travelled in the back of his owner's pickup - no fancy ramp for him - his owner would just pat the floor and up Pat would jump into the loadbed - jumping out once he got home.

May 4, 2011 at 8:52 PM  
Blogger Rachael said...

I love this idea! We even considered a team (probably horses) for our day. I'm glad to see that people are returning to the days gone by and working with the land and nature, instead of against it.

May 4, 2011 at 10:10 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

Well that's just cool. Really cool.

May 4, 2011 at 11:44 PM  

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