On Small Farms, Hoof Power Returns
By TESS TAYLOR
MAY 3, 2011
ON a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.
Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.
Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.
Now, as diesel prices skyrocket, some farmers who have rejected many of the past century’s advances in agriculture have found a renewed logic in draft power. Partisans argue that animals can be cheaper to board and feed than any tractor. They also run on the ultimate renewable resource: grass.
“Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels,” Mr. Ciotola said.
Animals are literally lighter on the land than machines.