Essex Farm Note, week 37

Jane and I walked out to Paddock Three yesterday to catch the pony, Abby Belle, so we could give Miranda a ride – a treat for her second birthday. As I slipped the pony’s halter on, Obie and Amos came over for a nuzzle. Jake and Big Abby, Cub and Chuck, Jay and Jack looked on expectantly, wondering if it was time to work. It has been a while – with no trained teamsters on staff right now, the horses have been nearly as idle as the fat white pony. Which brings me back to the conundrum I raised in the week 30 farm note.

Mark and I have been doing some deep thinking about draft horse power here. We do not yet have answers, but I’ll share our conclusions to this point, and invite your input. As many readers know, we crafted this farm around the idea of using horses as our primary source of power. This year, we invested heavily in more horses, in harness and equipment, and through summer, we did an extraordinary amount of work with them. We made use of multiple horse hitches and larger equipment, like a two bottom plow, to prepare and plant not only our vegetable ground but also our grain ground, and we mowed 10,000 bales of hay. We are emotionally, ecologically, and agriculturally satisfied with these choices. Economically, not so much.

If we roughly compare the cost of plowing a field with horses to plowing the same field with tractors, we think the horses could be up to ten times more expensive. Of course horses bring other benefits — fertility, less compaction, no fossil fuel, and joy — but the economics can’t be ignored. We can’t pass all of the added expense on to our members, as it would put the share price out of reach for most people. In the past, we have subsidized the cost by underpaying ourselves and our employees, by foregoing repairs and maintenance, and leaving ourselves without a lot of cushion for a bad year, which is not sustainable, farming being farming. We might be able to tighten up and sort of meet the infrastructure and savings issues, but the big-ticket issue is payroll.

Our current conclusion is pretty simple. If we pay our employees a living wage with health insurance, and use draft horses for our work, then we need some sort of external subsidy. This is an issue, by the way, even on farms that are not powered by horses – so many small local producers are economically viable only because of free or cheap ‘intern’ labor; health insurance, which we began offering our employees this year, is almost unheard of. And certainly we are not alone in trying to find ways to pay for an environmental benefit that is usually externalized, invisibly, through the use of fossil fuel. To quote Bill McKibben’s striking statistic, one barrel of oil contains the same amount of energy as ten years of manual labor. The oil costs about a hundred bucks. Ten years of a living wage is somewhere between a quarter and half a million. So what do you think, dear members and readers? How do we crack this tricky little nut? Let us know your thoughts at essexfarm@gmail.com. We may not write everyone back personally — it’s harvest season after all — but we will certainly read your ideas and put them into the mix.

The field corn is starting to dent – hooray. The second cut hay is still too stunted to mow – boo. Wish for warm weather and a late frost. The winter squash is ripening and will be in the share in a few weeks. Welcome Dan to the neighborhood and the staff! And say hi today to the Garden Club of America national delegates, who are here for a tour, as well as Squire Fox, who is here to take pictures for Prevention Magazine. And that is the news for this complicated 37th week of 2012. -Kristin & Mark Kimball

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