While most modern farmers work their fields accompanied by the rumble of a trusty tractor, sheep farmer Donn Hewes labors to the faint jingling of harnesses in rhythm with the hoofbeats of horses and mules.
He readily admits that horse-powered farming takes more time and effort than tractor farming. But as one of a growing number of small-scale farmers dedicated to keeping alive the art of the teamster, he's fine with that.
"People always want to know how many dollars an hour can I make, and can I really profit from farming with horses," said Hewes. "We can, but to me, that's the wrong question. I benefit in so many ways. I benefit from working with young stock, building fertility for the farm, and all the time I get to spend enjoying doing what I'm doing."
Hewes and his wife, Maryrose Livingston, own Northland Sheep Dairy on a hilltop in central New York, 40 miles south of Syracuse. Livingston milks grass-fed sheep and sells hand-made cheese. Hewes, who has a night job as a firefighter, works about 100 acres of land with Percheron and Suffolk draft horses and mules pulling implements for haymaking, compost spreading, snow-plowing and log-hauling.
Horse-powered farmers cite a number of reasons for eschewing engines. For example, horses don't use fossil fuels, their manure contributes to the farm's fertility, and they cost less than tractors.
As president of Draft Animal Power Network, Hewes is dedicated to mentoring and sharing experiences with other farmers who want to work with horses.
"Young people are starting organic vegetable farms, realizing there's an opportunity to make healthy food for local markets," Hewes said. "A segment of that movement is finding out about draft animal power. That's creating new demand for horse-powered equipment, and Amish businesses are responding to making equipment that's smaller and more accessible to beginning farmers."
Dalton, Ohio-based Pioneer Equipment, an Amish manufacturer of horse-drawn farm implements, recently came out with the Homesteader for small farms. It has interchangeable parts for plowing, harrowing, discing, planting, cultivating and harvesting row crops such as carrots, onions and potatoes.
It's hard to quantify how many horse-powered farmers there are. Stephen Leslie, who runs a horse-powered dairy and vegetable farm in Hartland, Vermont, said he has seen a big increase since he and his wife started Cedar Mountain Farm 20 years ago.
"When we started it was hard to find anyone with knowledge or equipment," said Leslie, whose book, "The New Horse-Powered Farm," was published in 2013. "Now, the networking is incredible."
Leslie said horse-powered farm equipment manufacturers, most of which are Amish, all report increasing sales and a growing number of non-Amish customers. "That's one way to gauge the health of horse farming," Leslie said.
The Draft Animal Power Network has grown to 400 members since it was formed in 2010, Hewes said. "We've had draft animal field days in the Northeast five out of the last seven years, and attendance keeps growing. There were over 1,000 last year at the event in Barton, Vermont."
On a recent afternoon, Hewes put a collar and harness on a young mule he bred from his Mammoth jack donkey and a Percheron mare. Hitching the mule to a chain attached to a heavy log, Hewes began a training session, communicating with whistles, low voice commands, and long leather lines attached to a bit.
"When people want to get into this, I really encourage them to look for some mentorship so they can have safe beginnings," Hewes said. "That can be a challenge, because most of the old-timers who were born to farming with horses are gone. Today, it's up to people like me to fill the gap and provide mentorship. That's something I really enjoy."