When we arrived at the farm on the northern edge of the Olympic Mountains, the morning air still had a sharp, fall bite to it. John, the horseman and farmer greeted us with wild blue eyes and a peppered Yosemite Sam mustache. His flannel overcoat was ripped and spilling cotton insulation; it looked like a horse had taken a bite right out of it.

“So you want to learn how to farm with horses do you? First off, it’s not about the kind of farming you want to do, it’s about the lifestyle you want to live.” The wrinkles around John’s eyes, his grey hair gave the impression he was somewhere in his 50’s. He’d been farming with horses for 45 years. “You have a tractor, you use it to farm during the week, you leave the farm on the weekend. You have horses, you feed them in the morning, farm them all day, feed them at night, through the weekend. You don’t get to take vacations but you don’t have to pay for tractor repairs either.”

John had a collection of farming equipment designed for horse teams–plows, mowers, haying equipment, cultivators, harrows, roto tillers–most of it antiqued, rusted, patched up, but workable. He introduced us to the team, two shire mares that weigh in between 1600 and 1800 pounds. “If you look in their eyes,” John instructed, “you can tell these horses are dumb. They’ve got dull eyes, but they get the job done.” Olivia and Libby had soft brown eyes that appeared to stare into space. When John asked them to move to the side, he did so with a loud whack! on their enormous rumps.

When you’ve grown up working land with a tractor as I did, having the patience to deal with a hardheaded team of horses and rusted potato digger doesn’t come easy. I was also lucky enough to grow up with horses, so while my compassion for the team ran high, my patience for the work easily waned. We started on a row of potatoes at the edge of a one-acre potato field. John stood behind the horses, the long reins slung over his shoulder, his hands on the metal digger handles. He cooed softly to the horses and they started off immediately, lurching their mass of tons of weight forward almost in slow motion. John jerked into the  movement, the potato blade sunk into the soil, the harnesses jingled. The potato blade stuck in the soil. Team flipped their heads back with white eyes and John yelled “Whoa!” sternly and fiercely with the intonation that doesn’t take no for an answer. The digger was lodged in the dirt and required the hands of three men to lift it out.

This went on for several minutes. Then, nearly a half hour. Tools were brought out to fix the equipment. The digger had to be reset with its perpendicular blade bolted on top of the vertical shaft that led to the horses, rather than underneath. This made the blade rest higher above the soil, therefore less likely to get stuck or spear any precious potatoes. Once the position of the blade was fixed, John instructed each of the boys to take a turn at holding the digger while the horses pulled. Now, 1000+ pound draft horses have quite a pull to them. Add that with uneven soil and ancient digging blades and you get a recipe for falling in the mud, which many of us did, several times.

At last, one single row was plowed. John led the team back to their hitching posts by the barn. We set to gathering potatoes. And what beautiful potatoes they were–Ruby Crescents, French Fingerlings, All Blues, Larettes, Red Golds, Purple Majesties, and more. Our fingers poked and dug at the loose dirt pulling the starchy potatoes out one by one, tossing the perfect specimens into boxes and the seconds into crates.

Two subsequent rows were slowly, steadily dug. The horses worked faster this time around, but still painfully slow and I could see the trade off between tractor and horse power clearly before me. At the end of the day only three rows of potatoes had been harvested, which was enough to stuff the back of a pickup full of crates and boxes of spuds. I can’t say the amount of money John would make off of the potatoes in regards to the labor put into gathering them, but I’d guess he broke even.

“So who wants to learn to drive?” John called to us as we were loading the pickup. He had hitched Olivia and Libby to a wooden sled topped with straw bales. One by one we took our turn at the reins, John quietly instructing beside us and grabbing the reins to avoid crashes.

When I sat on the bale behind those horses’ huge butts, I thought my job would be easier than it was. The heavy reins were familiar under my fingers but the steering and pressure were entirely different than in riding. When you’re perched on a horse’s back, your legs do at least half of the directing, your hands softly guide. When driving, however, your hands are the most important aide. They are the single physical connection between you and the team and if you don’t use the correct amount of pressure on both reins while directing, the team confusedly starts frothing at the mouth and pushing against the reins. Learning where that perfect pressure is takes years of practice, just like in riding, and at the end of my drive I was happy to turn the reins back over to John.

The sun had fallen behind the Olympics by the time we turned in for the evening, and the air was again snappy and sharp. A stiff, cold breeze blew from the north, crawled between our coat collars and necks so we all stood shivering as we bade farewell to John. “Come back anytime,” he said. “We’ve got more young horses to bring along next year and there’s always plenty of work to do around the farm.” In the bluish evening light, the wrinkles on John’s face deepened, the grey in his mustache grew whiter, his shoulders seemed to sag. “I like having young people around,” he said. “It keeps me sharp, reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

Farming with horses is one of the hardest, slowest ways to farm. But in the wise blue of John’s eyes and the satisfaction on his face we could see that it is also one of the most rewarding.

Olivia and Libby, ready to pull

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