Last year my daughter’s boyfriend sent us a bottle of red wine from a biodynamique winemaker in the Loire Valley, along with a note explaining that “he uses a horse named Joker to plow fields and transport grapes.” A slightly risky choice for a gift (this wine really puts the terre into terroir) but I loved it as well as its backstory. There’s something rather thrilling about animal traction in this day and age.
I take students to rural India in the summer, and for many of them the “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” moment comes at the first sight of a farmer behind a bullock or buffalo plow. (Then of course they started demanding plowing lessons…)
I was tickled to play a small role in the donkefication of Missouri a few years ago. I was emailing with a couple who run an organic herb harvesting operation in the St. Francois mountains and they asked me if I knew anything about donkey traction. (Yes, there is such a thing as certified organic wild goods, and one criterion is that they are transported out in a non-destructive manner.) I connected them with an animal traction expert in England who talked their ear off. I assumed they would soon be running a fleet of donkeys but it looks like they are making do with one.
In the US, animal plowing is best known on Amish farms where it is actually less environmentally friendly than you might assume. But animal traction is making a surprising comeback on other American farms, to the point of a major article “On Small Farms, Hoof Power Returns” in today’s NY Times. In Michigan, Tillers International runs workshops on animal plowing and last year over 300 farmers signed up.
For people who already scoff at organic farming’s avoidance of pesticides and GMO’s, ditching the tractor for the ox must seem like the ultimate lunacy. But as Deborah Fitzgerald shows in Every Farm A Factory, tractors aren’t inherently better, just different, and they replaced animal traction in the 1920s only because of an unusual intersection of factors. War-related labor shortages coincided with engineering schools turning out “agricultural engineers” who sought to earn their spurs by persuading farmers to adopt industrial machines and mindsets.
Studies in the 20s showed that tractors often required more time and work than doing the job manually, and that tractor buyers didn’t come out ahead economically. Tractors were wildly dangerous too. But as prosperous farmers began to adopt (for the complex and partly non-economic set of reasons that farmers adopt things), the tractor became the mark of farmer prosperity, and before long banks stated using tractor ownership to evaluate creditworthiness.
Expensive tractors, larger farms, and higher loans all amplified each other in a perfect storm of overproduction. There was already more than enough food pouring out of American farms without tractors, and now as the grain-eating draught animals disappeared, a crisis of over-supply started to drive farmers out of business. As economist EG Nourse put it in 1927, “the outlook for agricultural production is so good that the outlook for agricultural prosperity is distinctly bad.”
Today I hope we are beginning to understand that agricultural prosperity comes in different forms. When we hear about retro technologies like oxen, it’s like a reflex to ask if they can make enough food, but the brutal truth is that we make too much food and we make it badly. The small but growing ranks of oxplow farmers are making an unexpected contribution to agricultural prosperity by helping to provide a viable alternative to overproduction of artificially cheap commodity crops by heavily subsidized, cost-externalizing agribusinesses.