Lincoln and Hilary Costa farm with a team of horses at their 45 acre Sawyer Farm in Worthington, MA, providing produce and meat for a year-round CSA of 15 families at their home since 2010.
Their horses are both retired from competitive pulling on the country fair circuit. Misty is a spry half Belgian, half Percheron 18 year old and Mouse is an energetic Belgian 22 year old.
Misty had never pulled a plow. She clearly understood the commands, but it took Lincoln a long time to get her to behave well. “I was ignorant enough to be crazily persistent. I wouldn’t recommend this method. I worked with her single for a year,” he said. The first year, they increased the garden acreage from two acres to three, with some assist from a neighbor’s tractor during spring. Last year, Misty — teamed with Mouse — increased it to five.
Kip Porter and Mary Beth O’Shea, who they got Mouse from, gave them a hand harnessing the first few times. Initially, Misty was really crazy and would occasionally run away. Kip harnessed her up with a well-broke horse of theirs. When Misty tried to run, his horse stood stock still. Eventually, Misty wore herself out.
Mouse’s former training, preparing for an intense pull and concentrated burst of energy as soon as he hears the pin drop, has caused problems in getting him to maintain the slow plodding required when plowing. Used to pulling 500 to 2,500 pounds from a standing position for a very short distance, “That pulling instinct is very strong. When you’re working, he wants to move fast. I want him to go step-by-step, make straight rows, not step on any other plants,” said Lincoln.
Prior to 2010, the couple lived and worked in New York City, Lincoln as a high school biology teacher, Hilary at a literary agency. Pursuing a rural life, they moved to Pennsylvania and grew their own food. They worked at a bunch of farms, then bought the Sawyer Farm, retaining its name as it had been in the Sawyer family for generations.
At Essex Farm, in Essex, NY, the Costas had worked horses. “We liked everything about it. It’s also a lot less expensive to start out with horses than with a tractor. The horses were free, and the horse-drawn implements are a couple hundred dollars at the most, as opposed to tractors in the $20K range and most implements well over $1,000.”
They also like using horses since they’re much lighter on the land. “It might take longer to do some tasks, but you’re right there on the ground, watching the effect of the work on the soil. We find them more versatile than a tractor for a lot of the crops we grow. Environmental concerns were definitely part of the consideration for us, although, on our scale, tractor work is not a huge fossil fuel drain — we probably use more in our car than we would with a tractor,” Lincoln said.
How is farming with horses versus a tractor? “Heavy work, like plowing and discing, takes longer because they need to rest more often and the equipment is sized smaller, so you have to make more passes.
Harrowing, cultivating, transplanting and harvesting — which are 75 percent of the hours we spend — takes no longer at all, and in many cases is quicker, because the horses can turn in smaller spaces and are overall more maneuverable.”
Lincoln performs the bulk of horsework. Hilary helps with cultivating. Last year’s intern Rose Cherneff learned to work the horses, returning this season.
Farming full-time, providing nutritious, year round locally grown “full diet” or “a one-stop shop” for CSA members, they grow almost everything they eat. “Some of our members probably do the same, while others definitely still do a lot of shopping at grocery stores.” Averaging 20 head of beef, six goats, 75 layers, and four pigs at a time, they sell quarters of beef, pork and goat year-round, eggs, maple syrup and dried herbs. Late winter, they provide potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, onions and garlic. Greenhouse kale and salad greens finished out mid-February. Hilary bakes bread once a week, using local, organic wheat.
“If you have a natural affinity for horses and a decently broke team, there’s no magic to working horses — everybody used to do it,” Lincoln said. But for him, there’s definitely a lot of satisfaction.