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,” says Hewes. “We can, but to me, that’s the wrong question. I benefit in so many ways. I benefit from working with young stock … 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. Livingston milks grass-fed sheep and sells handmade cheese. Hewes, who has a night job as a firefighter, works about 100 acres of land with 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, they contribute to the soil’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.
The Draft Animal Power Network has grown to 400 members since it was formed in 2010, Hewes says.