Farming with horses – like our grandfathers did

Farming the old fashioned way. The team of four horses of Bruce Coleman's friend turn the furrow on the oat field.

Farming the old fashioned way. The team of four horses of Bruce Coleman’s friend turn the furrow on the oat field.

There’s a strange absence of sound as the plow turns the golden oat stubble under. No roaring tractor motor to shut out the wind blowing steady this beautiful fall day. Bruce Coleman’s dog trots ahead of the team of horses turning the black soil up. It’s so peaceful. This is how Bruce’s father farmed years ago in southern Alberta. This is how my grandfather plowed in his time, back in Switzerland. “We absolutely love it,” Bruce tells me when I stop to take some pictures. Farming with horses is a hobby for Bruce and his friend who plows on the other side of the small field with a team of four horses. They harvested 23 acres of oats on this field, the old way – cutting with a binder and horses, stooking the sheaves, then threshing with an old fashioned thresher. They also put up 140 acres of hay using horses. The hay and oats feeds the horses throughout the year.
Three years ago I passed this field the day before it was threshed, and wrote a blog on it, which I will repost here, from September, 2012:

No, it’s not Remembrance Day yet. But it was a day to remember.
September 22 and 23, Bruce Coleman and five or six friends held an old time
threshing bee along the Alaska Highway south of Fort St. John, B.C. Two teams
of horses hauled the oats stooks from the 14 acre field to the thresher powered
by a 1927 McCormick-Deering tractor. Besides an opportunity to put their draft
horses to work, it was a day to show how things were once done, “what this
country was built up on,” as Bruce told me.

I drove by this stooked field of oats on my way back to Westlock. I missed the threshing bee by a few hours!

My Dad on the tractor drawn binder in l964 or l965. Note the pile of bundles to his right, that will be dropped when there is enough for a stook.

Those of us swallowing huge swaths of canola into big
combines, covering a quarter of land (160 acres) in a day, forget what it often
cost to get that land into production, what it used to take to bring that crop
in. I remember well the first years on
our farm in northern B.C., in 1964/65, when my father cut the crop with a
binder (a machine that cuts the grain, gathers and ties – binds – it into
bundles that are dropped in groups of usually seven). A Russian we called
Rubberchuck manually stacked the bundles into a conical stook to dry and mature
before threshing. The stooks were taken home to a standing threshing machine
owned by a neighbour that took it to one farm after another.

As kids we worked day after day alongside our parents, picking
roots in fields that were cleared by a CAT bulldozer (earlier with axes), to
prepare the land for a seeder. I forget that too, when flying over the land
with the big machines now.

The 1927 McCormick-Deering tractor and McCormick threshing machine are set up, waiting for the work to begin. There’s even a small wooden grain cart there.

It took two days for Bruce and his friends to thresh the 14
acres. I didn’t ask how long it took for the horse drawn binder to cut the
grain, or to make the stooks by hand. The group invited lots of people to the
threshing bee, but others stopped in while driving down the highway, out of curiosity.
For some it was nostalgia of ‘better times’, for others something they’d never
seen. Some of those helping were in their eighties. “Those 80 year olds were
forking stooks!” Bruce marvelled.

The men that know how to produce crops the old way are all
turning 80 or more. “I’ve just got to hang around and learn all I can from
these guys,” Bruce says. “They’re not going to be around forever.”

Bruce and his friends have made hay on 100 acres for four
years now using horses and horse drawn equipment that he inherited from his
father. His father farmed with horses all his life, full time, near Olds,
Alberta. “It’s the way we grew up,” Bruce told me. “I really like working with
horses.” This is the first year they’ve produced grain using horse drawn
equipment. Gordon Meek of Bear Flats, towards Hudson’s Hope, B.C. used to grow
crops like that, but it’s become too much for him and Bruce’s group has taken
the project on.

I’m thankful for people like Bruce and his friends; like the
Ukrainian Village east of Edmonton (, and many others across Canada showing us
how things were done. It’s not just about nostalgia, about reminiscing of the
old times. It’s about remembering what the first settlers on our land went
through to make it arable, about giving the land with the respect due it.

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