Move Over Tractors, Oxen Are Making a Comeback on Small Farms

Move Over Tractors, Oxen Are Making a Comeback on Small Farms

Alisa Opar
Published: 05/04/2011


An oxen team at Ross Farm in Nova Scotia. Photo: Dave Matheson via Wikimedia Commons
 
These days, “workhorse” is probably used more often to refer to a hardworking person than a farm animal. After all, most modern farms rely on machines for planting and harvesting. But as diesel prices shoot up, some smaller farmers are again employing oxen and horses in their fields. The return to draft power lowers costs because the animals can be cheaper to keep than tractors, and they run on gas, Tess Taylor reports in The New York Times.
 

“Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels,” Rich Ciotola, a farmer in the Berkshires said. Animals are literally lighter on the land than machines. “A tractor would have left ruts a foot deep in this road,” Mr. Ciotola noted. In contrast, oxen or horses aerate the soil with their hooves as they go, preserving its fertile microbial layers. And as an added benefit, animals leave behind free fertilizer.

 
David Fisher, who sells veggies grown with horsepower the Natural Roots Community Supported Agriculture and runs an apprentice program, notes that “There’s an incredible hunger for this kind of education.”
 
Still, draft animals are likely to be used only on smaller farms because they wouldn’t be economically feasible at larger operations. And given how much time, energy, and patience is required to work with the creatures, “workhorse” applies to both animal and farmer.
 
The news article focuses on the Northeast, where farms are much smaller than those in the middle of the country. There’s been a lot of activity in the region around sustainable food production over the last decade or so, from cheese making to organic farming. And, as demand has grown for sustainable meat grown on small farms, a problem has emerged: The difficulty of processing it. In the March-April food issue, I wrote about a solution in "Meals on Wheels":
 

On a clear, brisk November day in Stamford, New York, three beef cows and 11 pigs await slaughter. They’ve been trucked here to meet their end in the Northeast’s first mobile slaughterhouse, docked today at Jim Eklund’s organic dairy farm. Under the watchful eye of a USDA inspector, Eklund stuns, kills, bleeds, skins, and eviscerates each animal in the 53-foot-long kill trailer. The organs are moved to an inedible-parts trailer, then Eklund quarters or halves the carcass and places it in a chilling compartment until it’s driven to a butcher or a cut-and-wrap facility.
 
“The meat goes to farmers’ markets in New York City, to restaurants that want local, all-natural grass-fed beef,” says Eklund, who’s building an on-site cut-and-wrap operation so he’ll have the capacity to process 50 cattle a day. “You know exactly which animal the steak or burger is coming from. Larger facilities take hundreds of animals, mix it all up.”
 
The Modular Harvest System (MHS) processes lambs, goats, hogs, beef cows, and veal calves. Farmers like it because it’s closer than industrial facilities, and they can make appointments a month, rather than half a year, in advance. “Ultimately, we’d like to see a system of docking sites throughout the region, so the MHS can be moved around to serve more farmers,” says Judith LaBelle, president of Glynwood, the nonprofit that created it. “It’s ecologically sound—the animals graze in pastures rather than eating energy-intensive grains, the waste is properly disposed of. It’s good for animals, people, and the planet.”