COLLEGE PLACE — Light tillage was the job of the afternoon on a spring day at Hayshaker Farm.
Two gray dapple Percheron geldings, Dusty and Jackson, dragged an implement through the soil where about 6 of the property’s 8 acres are under cultivation.
Dusty and Jackson came to Walla Walla from an Amish farm in Iowa in 2015. But to a lot of people, they look more like they were transported from the year 1890.
The kind of horsepower they provide is the type that farmers moved away from as the tractor changed the industry starting in the early 1900s.
But in a place where the previously derogatory farmer term “hayshaker” has been reclaimed, it may be no surprise that other aspects of farming have been recovered, too.
Hayshaker owners Chandler Briggs and Leila Schneider found the property at the edge of 12th Street on Craigslist five years ago.
Briggs, now in his 13th year of farming, began working with draft horses eight years ago under the mentorship of a number of Northwest growers, including Walla Walla’s Emily Asmus of Welcome Table Farms.
“First and foremost for me was the ecological impact,” Briggs said on a busy June afternoon.
He went on to quote Omar Little, the violent antihero of Baltimore-based HBO series “The Wire,” whose mantra was: “A man gotta have a code.”
Briggs’ code includes leaving the land better than he found it, growing produce that is nutritionally dense, providing a living wage for employees, and farming organically.
Dusty and Jackson are quieter than motorized equipment. At about 1,600 pounds apiece, they weigh less than a tractor, so there’s less compaction of the earth with their passes on the dirt. There is a different kind of connection, too, between animals and the land.
And truth be told, going the draft horse route allowed Briggs entry into farming that he might not otherwise have found financially accessible through motorized farm equipment.
The cost of Hayshaker’s first walking plow was around $100, and the disc was between $300 and $400. Briggs went through some welding training at Walla Walla Community College to prepare for fixes on the equipment.
Today, the farm has much more expensive equipment than that, but the investment of a tractor may have been cost-prohibitive for a first-generation startup.
Support in the farm community comes from a collective of farmers all over the Northwest who use draft horses. The group meets periodically to discuss trends in the industry, network and share information.
Fuel for the horses is grass and hay. In return, Dusty and Jackson help plow, disc, harrow, cultivate and harvest. They also provide natural fertilizer for the fields.
That’s not to say there are no gas-powered pieces of equipment. Hayshaker is a mixed-power farm that produces artichokes, basil, beans, beets, blackberries, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, celeriac, chard, cilantro, cucumbers, eggplant, fava beans, fennel, garlic, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, specialty melons, parsley, pea shoots, peppers, popcorn, potatoes, puntarelle, radicchio, radish, raspberries, salad mix, scallions, spigariello, spinach, summer squash, sweet peas, tomatoes, turnips, treviso tardivo and winter squash.
A small, two-wheeled tractor is used on the salad field, and a rototiller helps, too.
“There’s a lot of great farmers using tractors,” Briggs said.
But he and Schneider prefer their choice to keep this aspect of farming alive.
During this season, they brought in a third horse on rent. Iris was borrowed from a farm in Oregon to help Dusty and Jackson. With a three-horse team, two can run an implement while one can work on cultivation.
As with human staff, there is a hierarchy among the horses that’s reinforced in their interactions with one another.
Meanwhile, the majority of communication between humans and horses comes through the lines and the bit.
“It’s simultaneously not at all complicated and extremely complicated,” Briggs said.
“We see it not as harder” than mechanized farming, Briggs said. “Just different.”