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News / Clark County News

Using draft horses, Yacolt farm is team effort

Young couple eschew tractor for horses as they cultivate permaculture, sustainable practices

By Andrea Damewood
Published: June 30, 2012, 5:00pm
4 Photos
The Swanseys brought in their draft horses from Amish country in Iowa.
The Swanseys brought in their draft horses from Amish country in Iowa. Dan, who works the 1930s plow, said the horses are gentle, but that he also stays on his toes, because they can spook. Photo Gallery

YACOLT — To see Dan Swansey perched atop a plow working the land, making soft clicking sounds to encourage his two Belgian draft horses, is to immediately be transported to farming’s past.

There’s no tractor, there’s no exhaust. Instead, there’s Bud and Charlie, plodding through the late May fields at Yacolt Mountain Farm and Nursery, preparing for the season’s planting.

The plow is vintage 1930s, and the horses are from Amish country in Iowa.

“It’s bumpy, but it’s fun — we absolutely love it,” Dan Swansey said.

o Where to find them: They offer a Community Supported Agriculture program, as well at the Battle Ground and Camas farmers markets, the Vancouver Food Cooperative and Neighbors Market.

o Online: At the farm’s website.

It may seem that an upstart farmer would want to rely on the quick work of John Deere, rather than 16-year-old Bud and 15-year-old Charlie, to get crops planted as soon as possible.

o Where to find them: They offer a Community Supported Agriculture program, as well at the Battle Ground and Camas farmers markets, the Vancouver Food Cooperative and Neighbors Market.

o Online: At the farm's website.

Yet Dan Swansey and his wife, Caroline, at 32 and 29, are also part of a new movement by young growers to embrace what they see as a more natural way of farming — hitching to draft horses to further their organic ideals.

The passion of young farmers in sustainable agriculture for using draft horses is also reviving a largely oral tradition, just in time to hear the wisdom from older generations before it’s lost.

It’s a slower way of life, and one that means the Swanseys may not churn out as much chard right away. It also means that Yacolt Mountain Farm, which is also organic, has to charge more.

Still, Caroline said, there’s more demand from Clark County buyers than they can supply.

They have a Community Supported Agriculture program, sell at the Battle Ground and Camas farmers markets, and at the Vancouver Food Cooperative and Neighbors Market.

“We’re an artisan farm that does things in a nonconventional way, so we don’t have to compete with conventional farms,” Caroline said. “If people want the real deal, people don’t mind paying for it.”

Drawn to farming

Like many of their age group, Caroline and Dan are transplants to the farming life: A 2011 National Young Farmers’

Coalition survey revealed that nearly four out of five growers younger than 35 were not reared on a farm. (Their 7-month-old son Isaiah, however, is a future farmhand in the making).

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Dan studied at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the school of agriculture, and found himself working in turf management for the New England Patriots. After seeing a co-worker and a longtime employee develop health problems likely related to the pesticides and chemicals used to maintain the fields, Dan said it was time to get out. He made a leap and moved to California.

“Seeing all that stuff building up was eating at my conscience, and really pushed me in that direction,” he said.

Caroline grew up in Belgium, where she had horses, and also made her way to California. The two met at a mutual friend’s house, where she was studying a soils book, Dan said.

They struck up a conversation on the topic and found they were “soil mates,” he joked.

He moved in with her as she finished a master’s degree at University of California Santa Barbara, and the pair ultimately wound up managing an organic farm in the East San Francisco Bay area.

But they felt the call to work with their own land.

After some research, they settled on Clark County. With the financial help of Caroline’s parents, the couple moved to their 25-acre parcel outside Yacolt in 2011. The growing season is shorter than in California, and even the slight altitude difference in Yacolt makes it a bit tougher to farm than in other places. Money is still tight, and the couple said they may have to take second jobs in the winter until they get fully on their feet.

And yet, their farm is flourishing: they boast 1 acre of free range chickens (who roost in repurposed baggage trailers from the Portland International Airport), goats and sheep, and all manner of greens and other vegetables.

“We’ve had a really warm welcoming from a lot of the community,” Caroline said, adding they’ve had help raising barns, working with the horses and learning the ropes.

Helping hands

Among their support system has been the Courtney family, who long logged the forests around Amboy with draft horses, which can weigh about 2,000 pounds.

Today, Gene Courtney, 36, said he only has time to work with his horses as a hobby — when he takes a break from his day job of repairing tractors. The Swanseys’ ambitions toward keeping draft horse farming alive is a welcome sight, Courtney said.

“It’s something kind of cool for everybody to be able to see, be able to use and keep that history alive,” he said.

Young farmers and their interest in organic and permaculture farming — or making sure each part of the farm helps support the rest — is also regrowing the ranks of the Oregon Draft Horse Breeders’ Association, club member Sara Van Dyke said.

The club has two major age groups: The old hands who are in their 50s to 80s, and the newcomers in their 20s and early 30s.

“There’s very few books out there really, a lot of this is kind of based on oral tradition and hands-on learning,” said Van Dyke, 30. “There’s a younger generation of people coming into this … and getting this kind of new blood in the club, the older teamsters are dying off. It’s important to have young people with families.”

The club, based in Yamhill, has a membership of about 70 people from Oregon and Southwest Washington, she said. That’s up from a low of 25.

Many of the newcomers are interested in sustainable farming, she said.

“In the old days, you didn’t have a tractor or couldn’t afford one. They used horses because they had to,” Van Dyke said. “A lot of these farms, they’re an organic or sustainable farm, but they’re using horses as a way to treat the land a little bit nicer. You go in and work your ground with a tractor, the earth is getting torn up by tires, you’re sliding in mud, ripping topsoil. Whereas with horses, they’re a lot softer on the earth, not ripping things up — plus they’re providing their own fertilizer as they go.”

After a few years, the Swanseys said they hope to open their farm to tours and take on interns and apprentices in draft horse plowing.

“It’s a dying craft, and an important one,” Caroline said.

Putting down roots

In the meantime, the Swanseys are still trying to make it all work.

It’s just their second season, and with Isaiah on board, it’s tough for Caroline to get too much work done. They’re looking forward to visits from family members who will help around harvest.

They’re also applying –and getting — various grants for organic growing methods, including an equipment grant from the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service to build a greenhouse-type frame to extend their growing season.

They also take their dedication to permaculture seriously. Their chickens, for example, provide eggs, meat, pest control and manure for fertilizer. They’ve put in nesting boxes for kestrel falcons, to keep field mice down.

Bud and Charlie, along with a third horse, Lucy, also fit into their permaculture plans, providing their own fertilizer as they till.

It’s not just their ecological benefits that make Dan glad they were able to return their rented tractor after just one spring’s worth of tilling.

“They are so calm and so gentle, it’s awesome working with them,” he said.

The Swanseys, who also live in a farmhouse on their land, plan to have Caroline’s parents move in with them after a few years. They can’t wait to have Isaiah grow up and help them work the land.

“We really feel like this is where we want to grow old,” Caroline said. “We’re setting our roots and don’t mind investing.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall; andrea.damewood@columbian.com.