Horsepower with Ed Hamer

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Thanks to Twitter I unexpectedly found a good talk to go to in Dartington last night – one of The Earth Talks at Schumacher College. It was given by Ed Hamer, one of the co-editors of The Land who also runs a market garden CSA box scheme called Chagfood . He does all the tillage with horses – one of only 20 farmers in Britain to do so, compared with the 200,000 that used horses previously.

It is really encouraging that Ed told us he was never ‘horsy’. I have always felt prospectively disenfranchised from ‘suddenly’ getting a horse and expecting it to work with me. However, Ed has devoted a lot of time to learning the skills. He took a 3 day a week year-long apprenticeship with Jonathan Waterer at Higher Biddacott Farm, which he reckons was invaluable. The important thing is to learn how to read the horse’s mood and its reactions, in order to minimise hazards. This is partly for safety reasons – he told the story of how a new Shire horse in training took fright at some cows in a field and bolted, complete with the other horse in the pair, Jonathan, Ed and the cart – and partly because if you allow the horse to become wary or frightened you ruin its career. They just never get over it. So he definitely advocates working with someone experienced if you get the chance.

Ed then broke in his own horse – a Dartmoor/Welsh Cob cross. That’s encouraging too. He paid £120 for Sampson, whereas a ready trained horse can cost thousands. Native breeds are a good plan, because they “like being where they are” and are suited to the climate and rarely become ill. He has only called the vet once in 6 years, and that was for a cut not for illness. His horse, used to being on the moor, has hard hooves that don’t need shoeing. He is often grazed on the moor, and it only costs Ed £30 a year for oats. Yet more encouraging factors.The only thing is, you really do need a cross with a heavier horse. A straight Dartmoor or Exmoor is too small, at least to work with the tillage equipment Ed was telling us about. You could use them for a bit of light harrowing, but not for everything else.

Ed told us about two different set-ups. PROMMATA (the association for promotion of modern agriculture with traction animals) have developed modern, light-weight, ergonomic horse-powered cultivating equipment – although unfortunately for us here in England it is all in French (Google Translate). The Kassine is suitable for up to three acres and is worked with one horse and you, walking behind holding a handle. It is a sort of multi-tool affair so you do everything with the one basic machine, just changing attachments. You don’t even have to unhitch the horse to do so. The other is the Pioneer Homesteader, developed and used by the Amish. It is another multi-tool, suitable for 3 acres plus. You need 2 horses, but you can sit down. That is the big plus, although having to import it from America is a big minus.

The actual procedure is a complex set of steps whereby you turn the ground, draw it up into ridges, wait for the weeds to compost, draw it up again, weed the sides, sow on the top of the ridge, etc. It all sounds a whole lot more holistic than I had imagined. I had a rather unsophisticated (and erroneous) image of a heavy horse clomping along compressing the soil and getting its feet full of mud, and leaving a load of bare, ploughed clumps of soil between furrows that would be planted with… I don’t know:  wheat or something. In fact the cultivation process is much more sophisticated, and includes several stages of anaerobic digestion similar to the composting process. At one stage the sun warms the soil and assists with the process, and at a later stage the weeds are ‘drowned’. As for the horses, they are light-footed, walking delicately between ridges and even rows of mature plants, in a space 8-12″ wide. They put one foot in front of the other, and their back feet tread exactly where their front feet trod. I asked Ed whether this is part of the training or whether the horse naturally walks between things. His reply was more than I could have hoped for. He said that Sampson has spent a lot of time watching them nurturing the plants, and knows they are important to them!

Dear, dear horses! It just makes me want to go out and get one straight away. They need stimulation, the more you work with them the better, and either a lot of work or too little will set off a virtuous or vicious spiral up or down. If you work with them a lot, they become easy to work with and therefore you work with them easily. If you don’t work them often, they get out of practice and then it’s hard and you work with them less. Ed rides Sampson as well, and drives a cart (originally they delivered the veg boxes by horse and cart) and has made a “little trolley” that they use for carrying things around the farm. What I envisage doing is saddling up/ harnessing the horse in the morning and just hanging out with it all day, going on little jaunts, pulling a little dray with all my tat – tools, buckets, boxes of books and videos, prunings, compost, building waste, scavenged items, shopping, bottles for the bottlebank, duck food, dog food, firewood, beer… In fact it makes me wonder how I manage without one.

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