LEE CENTER, NY — As a schoolboy, David Steinbach relished studying American history and life in rural New York State.
Then in the 1990s, armed with an engineering degree from Virginia Tech University, he entered the business world. Unfortunately, it meant leaving behind his passions. In 2006, after a frustrating spell sitting behind a desk, he made an abrupt about face.
“I worked for a few years (as an engineer), but I didn’t like it,” he said. “I wanted to be outside. I was always fascinated by farming and growing things. I think I always had a green thumb. It took me nine years, but I’m really farming now.”
He began farming part-time in Norwich, NY (Chenango County) in 2006. In 2012, he sold the farm and purchased a larger property with rolling hills in Oneida County, about 20 miles north of Rome. He moved there fulltime in 2013.
Dubbed Iron Hoof Farm, the name is not just a testament to the pre-industrial past. He found a pair of strong, well-muscled horses to help him operate his 45-acre crop farm. Barney is a 19-year-old Belgian cross and his yoke mate, Bob, is a 16-year-old Belgian.
“I used them for plowing about one-third of the time this year,” Steinbach said one summer morning recently as he completed a job in the fields and led the horses back to the cool, shady barn and the reward of hay.
Iron Hoof Farm is a one-man commercial operation and it’s a daunting task for the determined 37-year-old. He grows a variety of vegetables for his community-supported agriculture (CSA) clients, including a handful of restaurants.
“The horses are a tool for me to use and I use them because I really enjoy it,” he said. “I would love to do everything with the horses, but since time is limited and I do most tasks myself, the most important thing is getting jobs done and being efficient.”
Farm horses are not an uncommon sight in upstate New York, especially among the Amish, but they are seldom seen on conventionally-mechanized farms.
Steinbach enjoyed riding horses as a boy, but it wasn’t until 2005 when he happened to attend a farm show in Lancaster, PA, that he perceived a direct connection between farming and horses. “I met an Amish farmer from Holmes County, Ohio, and we corresponded for a few years,” he explained. “I went out to visit him in 2013 and to train how to use the horses.”
He later bought the horses from a logger in Chenango County, near his original farm.
Steinbach finds the horses to be versatile for disking and harrowing, rolling and packing the cover crop, spreading manure, cultivating/weeding, mowing pasture and hauling firewood. They can remove large rocks that pocket Iron Hoof Farm, which lies in the foothills of the glacier-remnant Tug Hill plateau.
“There are more large rocks than I anticipated on this farm,” he pointed out. “As I clear the rocks, I think more and more plowing will be done with the horses. In the spring, I plow up all of the ground for later-planted vegetables. In the summer, I plow up the ground and plant cover crops in preparation for the next year’s crops. Overall, three acres of ground are plowed per year and the rest would be prepared using only minimal tillage (disking).”
Farming wasn’t on Steinbach’s mind when he grew up, the son of a doctor and a nurse, both now retired. His interest in history, though, went hand-in-hand with a desire to learn about genealogy. He said he has had discussions with his father about his paternal grandparents.
It turns out they were farmers in Latvia before emigrating to Canada during World War II, “so (farming) skipped a generation,” he said with a chuckle. They later moved to Bainbridge, NY.
Now his father has caught the farming bug. He occasionally visits the farm and lends a hand operating the 70-year-old McCormick-Deering tractor, which allows Steinbach to spend more time with the horses. The younger man enjoys buying old farm implements and tinkering with them so they can be used interchangeably with horses or the tractor.
When he started Iron Hoof, Steinbach envisioned a family farm. His wife, Raluca, works for a not-for-profit agency while her mother babysits their two toddlers, Owen, 5, and Sam 3. Since he considers the farm a partnership, he’s teaching his wife to become a teamster.
“Family farms are crucial to securing the connection between people and their food supply,” he writes on his farm’s webpage. “Therefore, Iron Hoof Farm’s major contribution is growing quality produce at an affordable price for our local community.”
He also assures his customers that his produce is safe for families to eat while not harming the environment. While he can’t run a 100 percent organic farm, he uses pesticides minimally. He completely avoids herbicides and practices integrated pest management. To manage weed growth, he runs a horse-drawn cultivator between rows of crops.
His soil is improved with crop rotation and manure management. “After harvest, land is tilled and a cover crop such as rye grass or oats is planted,” he said. “The cover crop remains for one season; it is tilled into the soil and serves as fertilizer for next year’s crops. Alternating fields between vegetables and cover crops also disrupts the life-cycle of many harmful insects and fungal pests.”
Now that the crops are bountiful, Steinbach uses a tractor and pickup truck to haul vegetables from the field to the walk-in-cooler. He reserves the best produce for his CSA, then he sells directly to other customers at local farmer’s markets.
His CSA has blossomed from seven customers in 2013 to 30 now, but he wants future growth to be deliberate. “The problem with farmer’s markets in central New York is that they aren’t predictable (in terms of customers or crops),” he observed.
“There is not enough demand for farm products, so I’m cautious. I am keeping the vegetable acreage the same for now with an emphasis on increasing the efficiency and productivity on the current land.”