My novel, Drowning Cactus, is about people who turn to the land to find meaning and purpose. Though my research for that book is done, I’m always interested in real back-to-the-land stories.
Reber Rock Farm is a draft-horse powered farm in Essex New York, co-managed by my friend, Racey Bingham. Racey and I grew up together in the Boston suburbs, where most fertile land has been filled in with housing developments. We last met up when we were both in graduate school near Boston. Curious about how Racey ended up a farmer, and why she’s chosen draft-horse farming (and thinking, you, readers, might be interested as well), I asked her to answer some questions for us.
Right from the get-go, Racey set me straight on a few points.
- Horse-powered farming is traditional farming. Her farm isn’t alternative at all. People have been using draft horses to farm for a long time. It’s a tried and true method with many benefits for the farm and the farmer.
- The environmental benefits of horse-powered farming aren’t cut and dry, though. The folks at Reber Rock are clearly very thoughtful about the environmental impacts of their decisions, but those horses eat a lot of hay made by diesel powered machines, sometimes from other farms.
- Speaking of sustainability, the finances of a small farm require some creativity. Racey hasn’t chucked her desk job. She works part time to supplement her farm income and so do her co-workers. (Sounds a lot like the life of a novelist.)
- It’s all worth it. If you love working with horses, which is a must, small scale draft horse farming produces happy, healthy farmers… as well as delicious farm products.
Still intrigued? Here’s the rest of our conversation:
Carrie: Why did you decide to start farming? Money? Fame? Glamour?
Racey: I farmed in Peace Corps, in Mauritania, and felt really alive for the first time. So I went back to Graduate School and then on to a distinguished international development job working for the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Mali. I realized during that job that the better I got at development work, the more time I would spend in an office, getting promoted to management and oversight positions that took me far away from the farmers that I loved working with.
I moved back to the states and tried to decide to take a “risky” (according to some) break from my international development career path and farm in upstate NY (where my Dad and stepmom had settled) for a little while. I had dated someone in Mali who had told me to take the risk; that I always seemed happiest just puttering in my pathetic little city garden. I wasn’t happy in city life, sitting at a computer all day was sucking away my soul despite how interesting, intelligent and inspiring my colleagues were. So I left DC and move to Essex for a 6 week break….
Carrie: What have you got against motorized farm equipment?
Racey: Absolutely nothing! We use tractors, drive cars, run generators and pull motorized equipment with the horses. I simply prefer to work behind a team of sweet smelling, sweat dripping, thinking, feeling, communicative animals.
Carrie: Are horse powered farms a trend outside of the Amish world?
Racey: Seems like it. There are quite a few up in Essex, in Western Mass, out in Cali, ME, VA, etc…We’re actually being interviewed by a team of college students from Skidmore who think that horse farming – or small scale farming by young over-educated farmers- is a trend.
Carrie: Why horses rather than mules, oxens, or elephants?
Racey: Just our choice. We’ve got friends who farm with mules and oxen. Personally, I don’t know mules or oxen, and the breed of horses that we work with primarily “Suffolk Punch” (the only horse bred for farm work and not war – from England besides), are “easy keepers” meaning they can grow strong and be healthy on just grass and hay and not a lot of grain. Elephants? Well, don’t think they’d like the winter here…
Carrie: Do your horses ever act up? Do they demand days off?
Racey: Hmmm…sure they act up. When the mares are in heat they can be feisty and excitable; poorly trained teams, or green teams can spook easily and run. Scary. When they get tired they can get stubborn about not pulling. A well trained team won’t demand anything other than to work for you and be near you. A poorly trained team will certainly avoid the halter and resist being brought in for harnessing. I have the good fortune of working with two incredible teamsters who are also incredible horse trainers, so we have some pretty willing and amazing partners in our horses.
Carrie: Tell me about your “work/life balance?” Do you have time to socialize, travel, and read a good book?
Racey: We have a seasonal balance really. Winter is for spending time with people, traveling, reading, researching, concerts, lyceums, dinner out, planning collaborations with other farmers. But we’re pretty social all year round…We gather VERY often around big meals. Sports night, too, is a big one – in summer and winter. I travel for my consulting job in the winter as well, which allows a good switch back to a social lifestyle for a bit. We have an incredibly supportive, close community, so there is quite a lot of varied socializing year round. We make sure go to the local bakery for Friday night pizza at least 40 weeks out of the year 🙂
We’ve also set-up the farm to be a two-family farm, which allows both couples to have more off-farm or non-farm time/activities, and hopefully be more sustainable over the long run (i.e. we won’t burn out).
Carrie: Some people dream of writing. Some dream of tilling the soil. It sounds like the two career paths have a surprising amount in common: Hard work, little likelihood of acquiring wealth, but fantastic colleagues, great satisfaction, and fun. Thank you, Racey, for sharing your thoughts.
Reber Rock Farm produces maple syrup, grassfed beef, pastured chicken, pastured turkey, pastured pork, sunflower oil, grain crops, and handmade soap.
They also sell trained draft horse teams for those of you inspired to start your own farm.
Check out their website for ordering information. http://www.reberrockfarm.com/products.html