The pair of oxen stood by the information booth looking bemused, and surrounded by curious Amish farmers, their wives in stiff bonnets, and small sons in suspenders and straw hats. One of the oxen lowed, softly, and the sound travelled below the noise of the rural Ohio horse show, below cracking bullwhips (the toy of choice this year), hissing hoses, beeping trucks, clanking farm machinery and roaring mules. Perhaps it was looking for other cattle, some allies in a sea of horses.
It was the oxen‘s first time off their farm in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but despite their wide-eyed curiosity, and despite their black tipped, right angled horns, there were no reins holding them. Their handler stood beside them, holding a long dressage whip that she used to wave, point or occasionally tickle. The liver chestnut, white-speckled bullocks were joined by a wooden yoke that sat over their thick necks and looped under their dewlaps. Other than a halter, they were naked, in contrast to all the horses on site, who were trussed from nose to tail with leather or nylon harnesses.
The oxen were attending the 21st Horse Progress Days this Independence Day weekend at the grounds of the Mount Hope auction house, Ohio. What began as a means of sharing new horse-powered farming technology developed by Plain People has become an annual event that draws up to 20,000 to eat maple candy, watch hay-making demonstrations, catch seminars on running a market garden for CSA customers, size up horseflesh and assess polytunnels. I’d travelled from Berlin to be in a place where horse power is a growth area, not just because the Amish population is expanding rapidly, but also because horses make economic sense for small-scale farming – especially organic and sustainably minded concerns. I wasn’t expecting cattle.
Horses are, as Jason Rutledge of the Virginia-based Healing Harvest Forest Foundation pointed out, “solar-powered” (his team mate’s t-shirt read, “Hay is bio fuel”), their waste product – be it manure or flesh and bone – is fertilizer, and they reproduce themselves, unlike a tractor which depreciates the moment you roll into the home field. In the 1950s, the family farms that mechanized hit the wall. The Amish survived, sustaining the knowledge required to work horses for later generations of farmers, who are now swapping tractors for big-rumped Belgian draft horses. I saw a pair of these haul a 7,000lb loaded sled with such a starting torque that it lifted a foot off the ground, and twelve big blond geldings hitched to a single plow that left a wake like a harbor ferry. Elsewhere, a bolshie Haflinger pony circled, driving the crank for an ice cream churn, and a relaxed looking paint gelding climbed perpetually on a noisy wooden treadmill, and turned out enough electricity to power a refridgerator.
Nobody at Mount Hope equated “horse-drawn” with antique, even if they were proud to call teamster skills their heritage. But the oxen were a throwback. Mammoth draft horses are the products of the European Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions – “living technology,” as one 1980s French government report called them. Oxen come from an era before the Clydes and Percherons, when horses were too expensive to buy and keep, and they were domesticated long before the first wild horses. The yoke predates the collar harness – you can’t use a yoke with horses, as their necks are too long and their windpipes get impaired. Even though they were slower than horses, oxen took a long time to be phased out in Europe – they may not be as sophisticated, but they’re low maintenance. And like horses, they run on biofuel, generate fertilizer, and don’t compact the soil as aggressively as tractors.
But although they might be a rarity in Europe and America, oxen make up more than half of the 400 million draft animals in use world-wide – one in five of the world’s bovines. “There are two million ox owners in Ethiopia,” Richard Roosenberg of the NGO Tillers’ International told me, “That’s more than there are farmers in America.” A softly spoken man with a gray beard and glasses, he was manning a booth in one of the barns at Horse Progress Days. In his twenties he spent three years in the Peace Corps working for the FAO in West Africa, where he saw local farmers taking to ox-draft with ease. Sleeping sickness had prevented them from using large draft animals prior to the 1960s – Ethiopia is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa with a deep history of using oxen for draft, and Africa usually defaults to human rather than animal labor.
Roosenberg returned to the United States and “dug in. We needed to relearn what our grandparents knew. We organized Tillers’ to be a bridge between older Americans who still had the skills and younger international aid workers.” Tillers’ International took on their first American students for overseas work in 1981, and welcomed their first foreign students in 1982.
At home in Michigan, Tillers’ run courses in working horses or oxen, beekeeping, coopering, timber framing, masonry, rope making, blacksmithing and smallholding, as well as some more folksy skills like scything and wool spinning. Not all the clients are aid workers – most are just civilians who want to learn a craft or become more self sufficient, or else curators at historical or folk museums. But it was Tillers’ work in Africa that was promoted in Ohio. Quaint though some of Tillers’ ethos might seem – no laptops for every child or solar-cell cookers in every home – the classic American self-sufficiency dovetails beautifully with modern aid work, which emphasizes local materials, independence and building an economy from the grassroots up. The oxen were in full compliance with this ethos.
“We’re not opposed to working with tractors,” Richard said, “but we don’t have the capital to buy them and the farmers don’t either, so we get serious – we want to get to work now. It’s usually the government ministers who want the tractors, not the farmers, and we try to work below the political level.”
“We had no animals because of the war,” said his colleague Boniface Okumu, referring to the 30 years of conflict that devastated the economy of his home country, Uganda. He was Tillers’ project manager in Uganda, heading a staff made up entirely of locals. “I grew up doing hoe farming, so I know how hard it is to dig by hand. When I could see what animals could do in a day I realized there was something good about the technology.” He’s been training farmers for Tillers’ since 2006, going fulltime in 2012. He’d worked in the neighbouring Congo, too, and the Ugandan base was hoping to later expand to Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and maybe Rwanda.
“Some of these places don’t have oxen – they might have donkeys instead. Some have them but don’t use them as draft.” The courses lasted one week – two if the local oxen were not trained. One week was all it took to have the oxen responding, free of reins, to the gestures of its driver. “The Amish were asking about that,” said Boniface, with a grin. A good draft horse can take weeks or even months in basic training, and still be skittish for some time before it’s considered “well broke.”
Tillers’ brought a Ugandan vocational teacher called Bob Okello to the United States in 2009, and he attended the Horse Progress Days. Both he and Boniface have also visited Pioneers, an Amish firm that dominates the horse-draft equipment market, and who shared their designs with the men. Bob scaled down one of the plows he saw and adapted it for use in Uganda, where the Zebu oxen are just 500lbs each – well below the standard 2,000lb American work horse.
He’d been unable to attend this year’s gathering in Ohio after a visa snafu, but Boniface brought over the plow, folded down to suitcase size, and had demonstrated it in the top field at Mount Hope, plowing in the same line up as the mule and horse equivalent of a top of the range John Deere. Faced with a large audience, the oxen had a little stagefright, but recovered with honor.
The plow and yokes are all built by Ugandans trained in carpentry and blacksmithing by Tillers’. Boniface told me they were developing more pieces of equipment for ox-powered cultivation and transport. Last season, the Mozambique operations trained 1,979 farmers and 131 artisans. In Uganda they started off 202 farmers and 33 blacksmiths and carpenters. The oxen didn’t just power a plow, but artisanal industry and innovation.
Boniface counted off the crops Ugandan farmers were now growing on small plots: groundnuts, maize, beans, soya, peas, sim-sim, rice, potatoes, cassava and vegetables. “Where I am now every household has oxen, so they have food in the house at every time of the year. Sometimes there’s just one pair of oxen per village, and there’s too much work for those that have the oxen, so fields go unplowed.” There were not enough trained drivers and oxen in some areas to keep up with demand. Farmers who had no draft animals hired freelancers, but Boniface said that often the hired hands had no time to reach them.
The answer was to step up training. He added, “We look to women because most of the work in Africa is done by women. Animals can bring water supplies and carry produce to market, so the women have less work to do. One of our trainers is a lady, and she’s very smart with the animals. We’re hoping more will join.”
All this industry did not come at the expense of the oxen. Roosenberg said that the local and sustainable focuses were layered over with animal welfare principles: “We do low stress cattle trainings. Oxen that might be throwing their heads about in agitation have calmed down enough after two days to be brushed and handled by children.” The Michigan headquarters had recently hosted a Swiss cow whisperer who’d demonstrated special massages for the oxen‘s legs, and had won their instant obedience and devotion. These skills, too, would be passed on to Tillers’ overseas bases.
When I left the fair, high-stepping buggy horses with braided manes were heading for the closing parade at a spanking trot, and kicking up clouds of dust. The oxen were plodding slowly back toward the barns in the opposite direction, in perfect step with one another, still pondering their surroundings as their handlers gently reassured them.