I recently interviewed Julia Dakin, a local horse woman here in Mendocino County, California, about the horse powered work that’s been happening on the Frey farm. A life-long horse enthusiast, Julia got interested in draft horses a few years ago. She wondered if it would be possible for local vineyards to convert to horse power to do the work currently done by tractors. She met up with Luke and Lily Frey, who have been experimenting with draft horse work on the farm for the past several years.
Luke and Lily have been working to develop a rapport with draft horses on the Frey farm. As they built relationships with the horses, they have branched out to harnessing the horses and accomplishing farm tasks and logging with the horses on the land. Julia noted that logging with horses is one of the most environmental ways to do forestry management, as the horses are able to get into more narrow and tight spaces with far less impact than a road and heavy machinery. The horses get to exercise, and the land gets tended more gently. This last spring, Andy, Bonnie and Lola (the horses), accompanied by Luke, Lily and Julia (the humans), pulled logs out of the forest, tilled the garden beds on the ranch’s biodynamic farm, and tested various implements in the vineyard.
From experiences with the horses, Julia took her research a step farther and enrolled in online classes by Elaine Ingham in soil science. Her studies led her to the field of no-till agriculture. As she’s been delving into the world of soil, she’s been postulating that horses might be able to create a niche for vineyard management, by practicing no-till methods with a roller-crimper tool that is hitched to the horses. Instead of tilling up the soil with a disc, which disturbs the soil life (worms, bacteria, fungi), the roller-crimper moves between the vineyard rows to smash down the cover crop.
If Julia’s work with the horses is successful, they may have a more efficient system of converting cover crops into soil fertility. Also, using the roller-crimper helps sequester carbon in the land, while protecting and nourishing the layers of soil ecology already in place. Julia also hopes to find through current research on test plots, that the soil being worked with the roller-crimper both enriches the land and could prove to be a cost-effective enterprise for local grape farmers, whether or not they use horses. Julia currently has horses that she’s working with to amass some data to look at the roller-crimper horse-power at different sites. Should her efforts prove qualitatively impressive, Julia would like to expand the ways that local vineyards become carbon sinks instead of a carbon source, by transitioning to more horse-powered tasks: seeding cover crops, mowing, roller-crimper, and perhaps harvesting.
Additionally, as part of the biodynamics program on the farm, we prepare a unique blend of organic, homeopathic herbal sprays that we apply to the crops to nurture soil fertility. At present, Julia and Luke have been having some horse-powered spraying sessions to see how the horses fare as the deliver mechanism for these potent land medicines.
There are several factors to weigh in about how and if a farm would convert to a horse-powered technology. Julia is quick to note that with the prevalence of cheap oil and the speed of mechanical inventions, horses have been relegated to a technology of the past. However, with the use of more innovative techniques, like no-till, horses may well prove themselves to be able to compete with mechanized technologyfor the lesser impact they have on the carbon footprint of the land and for the potentially important contribution to increased soil fertility.
For more information on Julia’s research with the horses, follow her blog at www.rganicnotill.com.
Click here for a YouTube video clip.