The farms surrounding the University of Massachusetts are growing local food, but some of them are using machinery powered by fossil fuels. One Amherst farmer is choosing to live more sustainably by replacing his tractors with horses.
In the equipment shed at Amethyst Farm, tractors are parked next to carts that were once attached to them. Bernard Brennan, who owns and lives on the farm with his wife and two daughters, has been retooling the carts to be pulled by horses. He says one of his favorite tools is essentially a horse-drawn chariot.
“I can tow things on it, like any fork cart,” Brennan says. “But this one has gearing in it such that when the horses pull the wheels forward, it has PTO, powered takeoff tractor rotary power.”
Adapting farm equipment is a new skill for Brennan. His expertise is actually in animal behavior. He earned a doctorate degree in Behavioral Ecology from Cornell University. But two years ago, he ditched academia, moved his family to western Massachusetts, and bought Amethyst Farm. One reason for the switch was a desire to become less dependent on outside sources of food and energy.
“If peak oil, climate change, and economic disaster all come to fall, I’m fairly insulated from that in being able to heat, cool, [and] feed ourselves and our neighbors,” Brennan says.
He says he can use his horses to pull out some firewood from the woods.
“And suddenly we’re not dependent on the fuel company to bring inputs,” he says. “And really what we want to run our house on is what we have, wood and sun.”
Down the road, the Hadley Farm at UMass is home to some 45 horses. Two of them are prancing toward a gate that has just been opened.
Cassandra Uricchio, director of the Equine Management Program at UMass, says she thinks more farmers in the area are beginning to use draft horses to pull equipment.
“The movement comes even before that, the movement for sustainable agriculture and local foods and kind of getting back to knowing where your food comes from and also producing food in a very sustainable way,” Uricchio says.
Uricchio says horses make good farmhands because they work well with humans.
“As soon as that pecking order gets established and you’re the leader and they’re the follower, then they pretty much will do anything you ask them to do,” she says. “It’s pretty amazing the relationship you can build.”
And that relationship makes horses a good choice for jobs beyond farming. Jenny Gardener, a horse trainer at the Hadley Farm, says even business people are working with horses.
“It’s like the new thing happening. They have leadership schools for people who manage corporations coming to barns to practice leadership on horses,” Gardner says. “They’re not equestrians and never will be, but just because the horses respond so quickly to your intentions, your body language, your determination.”
Uricchio says working horses can be found doing all kinds of things across the country, from herding cattle out west to pulling tourists in carriages around New York City.
Note: The audio version of this story requires the following corrections: (1) Brennan received his doctorate degree from Cornell University and (2) Amethyst Farm’s land does not extend to Vermont.