It would not be an exaggeration to say that I love all the seasons. Apologies if anyone finds this level of optimism off-putting, I have been told it can be a bit much. I think farming demands it: to anticipate each season’s arrival, to enjoy the process, and to be thrilled to see one go in order to welcome what comes next.
Spring is all about smells. After a winter of snow and soup and spreadsheets about farm planning and field layouts and budgets, it is so nice to smell dirt. Or “soil”, depending who you ask. I did not grow up on a farm and only started to dabble in it as a profession within the past decade, so the novelty of spring has not yet worn off. I hope that it never does.
This will be the third growing season of Four Beat Farm here in the meadows, and I would be lying if I said that I felt ready for it. But that’s the great part about farming and growing food—often the best option (the only option?) is to jump in before you are ready, because nature does not wait, and if you procrastinate too long to till or plant or weed or water or harvest then it may be another 365+ days before you can realistically try your hand at growing that particular crop again.
Right now, spring smells like freshly turned earth, compost, and sweaty horses who, along with their farmer, had a pretty quiet winter. Call it lazy, call it restful, either way the sudden workload of April can be a shock to the system. Thank goodness for variety. For every hour that is spent moving fresh manure into the greenhouse to keep it heated on cold nights, there are taxes to finish, cultivators that still haven’t been repaired, onion seedlings that need haircuts, and horses that appreciate an afternoon head scratch as their muscles rest after morning fieldwork.
When it comes to fieldwork, plowing with horses is slower than with a tractor, no arguments there. Our ever-improving farming systems for 3ish acres of certified organic vegetable seem to be functioning adequately throughout the summer season with the two horses at hand, often called a “team”. When people want to talk about it (or even when they don’t), I can and do enthusiastically chatter on that there are many jobs on the farm that horses do on par or better than I have seen done with a tractor. This is without even getting into the added benefits of having two 1600lb colleagues who eat local fuel, constantly produce compost, and bring a level of determination and sass to the field that I have yet to see in a combustion engine.
For this year’s planned spring tillage, however, which will allow for better crop rotation and attention to soil health, our current two horses are fully employed and could easily share the workload with two more given our short and intense growing season here in the valley. So, as in past years, we as a farm leave the option open to phone one of our many generous neighbours to bring in some extra horsepower for big jobs.
On a practical level, getting a few hours of custom tractor work here and there feels more efficient than feeding and caring two extra animals who are only going to work for a few weeks out of the year. I drawn parallels with fellow small farmers who might choose to rent heavy machinery for excavation projects, or how it can make sense to have a small car for your family and borrow a neighbour’s pickup truck when you need to bring home a few loads of compost to kick off the gardening season.
When weighing the options, I have to remind myself that we are a young farm that is in the business of growing food for our community, and that there are many ways to best do this. That said, if someone in the valley has a well-trained team of draft horses I can borrow to spell mine for a few days when their shoulders get sore, feel free to drive up the valley and drop by.
Our place is the one with plow lines that are not entirely straight, horses that still have their winter coats, and a hoophouse bursting with onion plants that are already dreaming of farmer’s markets at the community barn downtown.