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Farming and logging with draft horses.

On a misty morning in Barnardsville, Andy Bennett guides Allis, an eleven-year-old draft horse, as she pulls a chain bearing two lengths of tulip poplar trunk toward a clearing. It's slow and careful work. Preserving habitat is the first concern; Andy saws each tree to drop in a specific direction away from others, and avoids snags-the standing, dead trees that are home to many forest creatures.

Cathy Bennett, Andy's wife and business partner, had farmed organically using draft horses for three years after first learning about horse-powered farming from a Tennessee neighbor who was using them in his tobacco field. Cathy had grown up with horses, so it was less of a leap for her than for most to begin her small farming operation without a tractor. She provided weekly baskets of fresh produce to forty families and sold at the Farmer's Market, and did it all with horses.

Cathy and Andy met and moved across the state line to Madison County, NC, where they bought farmland with an old house that needed work. Andy's first draft horse task was to pull from the woods the two locust trees that would become the Bennett's front porch posts. He was hooked.

The Bennetts and their horses still do some farming. On some Saturdays this time of year, they are at the Madison County Farmer's Market selling firewood and sorghum molasses. The draft horses plow and cultivate the sorghum plot, and the tall canes are pressed and boiled down to make the traditional sweetener.

But their main focus is forestry. On this job, Andy and Allis are clearing a third of an acre to create a place (and lumber) for a customer's future home, but next month may find him sustainably harvesting lumber from woods that will stay woods.

By taking "the worst first"-trees that are too crowded, leaning, or cracked, but still produce good wood-the whole forest becomes healthier and faster-growing while the landowner makes a profit. Just as supermarket produce is shipped in from all over the world, lumber sold here comes from as far away as Sweden, Brazil, and Australia. Getting your building materials from your own land is a "buy local" strategy that doesn't occur to many these days. Cathy, Andy, and others in western North Carolina are trying to change that.

"Well-managed woodlands are a great investment for farmers and landowners," says Andy, explaining that good forestry techniques generate a gain in value of twelve to fifteen percent a year. While many people carry the belief that cutting clown any tree is a bad act best avoided, most of those people live in wood-framed houses and would welcome learning about more responsible ways to harvest lumber and firewood.

Doing it all with draft horses makes it even more responsible. It may be slower than using modern forestry machines, but there are clear benefits to the low-tech ways of working the land. Using modern technology, a Kansas corn farm uses forty calories of nonrenewable energy to grow each single calorie of food. An oxen-powered Vietnamese rice farm works in reverse: 40 calories of rice are produced for each single calorie of energy burned. The big business, big machine way of farming and forestry works to bring the harvest to our homes cheap. And it will keep working as long as the energy it consumes stays plentiful and cheap, too. Feeling lucky? In 1900, 38 percent of Americans farmed the land with the help of horses. Unlike machines, horses can eat homegrown feeds, fertilize the soil, and repair and reproduce themselves. Yet even while oil prices soar, it's a far-fetched fantasy to think our country could return en masse to our horse-powered roots. But having people like Cathy and Andy Bennett study, preserve, and model these old ways does us all good.

Interested in woodland management services, sorghum, firewood, or custom-milled lumber from Doubletree Farm/Doubletree logging & Milling? Cathy and Andy Bennett can be reached at 828-689-3812. The Healing Harvest Forest Foundation fosters horse-powered sustainable forestry throughout the Southeast. Call 540-651-6355 to learn more or make a donation.
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Title Annotation:buying local
Author:Marks, Peter
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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