PLYMOUTH — John Childs and his wife Susan would be the first to admit that the way they operate their farm is not for everyone. It takes special people to uses horses instead of tractors.
The couple has operated Childs’ Farm in Plymouth since about 2006. They settled on the property not for the house, but for the pasture and barns. Once secured, all the additional land included in the purchase was a perk.
They grow a variety of certified naturally grown produce, including heirloom varieties of tomatoes, beans, melons and watermelons. These varieties may not be the pretties on the vine– heirloom varieties typically have a thinner skin than varieties grown for mass consumption – but John said the taste is much better. “We grow for taste,” he said, “not looks.”
The Childs sell their produce at the Farmer’s Market, make homemade soap to sell and welcome visitors to their farm for hayrides and bobsled rides. A pumpkin patch in the fall is especially popular and the couple recently hosted a group of educators who got some lesson of their own in the 1800s lifestyle.
For John and Susan, these kind of lessons come easy. The couple were historical interpreters at the Buckley Farm in Lowell, Ind. for years. In fact, that was how they were first introduced to horse farming. After taking a class, both Susan and John were hooked and soon bought a pair of Belgian draft horses to use at the historic site.
Now, they use a couple of teams to do the work that is needed on their farm.
“For a farm this size and for what we wanted to do with it, using horses was a natural fit,” John said. “You can’t have draft horses and not work them.”
Draft horses are a taller, heavier and more powerful breed of horses used through the centuries for work and as mounts for the knights. The Childs use Belgians and Percherons, but other breeds include the Clydesdales and Shires.
These horses are best purchased as a team, John said, because it takes time and effort to get to know which horse is the lead and to train the horses to pull together with the right amount of speed and effort. A good lead horse, like he has in Old Joe, is crucial.
While the hay rides and sled rides resonate the best with children, the Childs’ horses do more. The couple uses horses to cut hay, plow and till the fields for their crops.
For John, being out in the fields with the horses is truly an amazing thing.
“The world slows down,” he said. “There are so many things – the power the horses have, the way their heads will bob in unison and the smell of the earth. the combination between all these things is [what makes it worthwhile].”
An added bonus is the free fertilizer his horses provide to make the crops the Childs grow meet the specifications of certified naturally grown. These include highly restricted use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and no genetically modified seeds.
These standards mirror the USDA’s reguirments for organic producers, but are farmer inspected and often have additional criteria above and beyond the government regulations, John said. Paperwork required by the government is time consuming and the Childs preferred to spend that time doing what they enjoy.
Choosing to plow behind a team of horses is also a statement about modern life.
“People pay too much attention to where they are going instead of where they have been,” he said. “We tend to gloss over the agricultural history of the post Civil War era, but this time was an explosion in agriculture. Horses were commonly used and made it easier for a farmer to use the new equipment of the time, lessening the demand on labor.
This meant he could grow enough for his family and have product to sell.
As technology improved, farmers could produce more and more because the work became less labor intensive, meaning manpower was replaced first by horsepower and then by tractors and other farm machinery.
Childs said farmers are environmentalists. “If you don’t care for the land, you don’t have a crop,” he said. “Even modern farmers are interested in preserving the land and being good caretakers.”
And while John is perfectly content to work his land behind his team of horses, don’t refer to it as the “old ways.”
“There is a place for modern horse farming,” he said. “It’s a niche; it’s not for everyone.”
With his team of horses, John said he creates less of an impact on the land. For example, when horses are used for logging, no roads are needed to haul the logs out of the woods.
And while it may be a little slower pace and he doesn’t have the yield of bigger farms, that’s perfectly alright with him.