Market Gardening

Horse Powered Market Gardening Economics
Case Study: Cedar Mountain Farm

Editor’s Note: In his introductory article (link below), Eric Nordell provided an overview of his updated study (first published in the Summer 2012 issue of Small Farmer's Journal) which tracks the economics of four horse powered market gardens. Below we learn the specific details of one of those participants, Cedar Mountain Farm operated by Stephen Leslie and Kerry Gawalt. You will find links to the three other case studies in this series at the end of this article.
cedar mountain dairy cows grazing
Cows graze the hill pastures of Cedar Mountain dairy and vegetable farm. Photo by Stephen Leslie
by Stephen Leslie
Our farm business comprises the dairy farm and the CSA market garden. As members of Cobb Hill cohousing, we are co-owners of 270 acres of forest and farmland. We have free-lease from the community to manage about 60 acres total of Cobb Hill land; 17 acres in hay ( plus 20 acres in free-lease from a neighbor), 35 or so in pasture, and the balance in garden and green houses (two high tunnels and a propagation tunnel). We have a working team plus two younger Fjord horses. The horses are the source of traction power in the garden and also lend a hoof with mowing, raking and tedding. This year we intend to work with them skidding out firewood as well.

In addition to ourselves, our farm business has three employees — one who works year-round primarily at milking and barn chores, and two who are engaged seasonally in the full spectrum of cattle chores and garden. We offer our workers a starting pay of $8.00/ hour — plus milk and meat and veggies. We have onsite housing for two workers. We also pay FICA, farm insurance, and workman's compensation. We wish we could offer more, but as it is, we are often paying our employees more than we pay ourselves.

Plowing rye cover crop
Stephen Leslie plows under a cover crop of rye. Photo by William Stack

In 2010, we had a total of $91,000 in dairy sales. This figure is coupled with a total of $36,000 in produce sales through the CSA, farmer's market, farm stand, and wholesale, and an additional $30,000 for catering, beef, and resale of retail produce at our farm stand. Our combined household income was $20,000 (we obviously have a lot of overhead expenses). Of course, income estimates for the farmers don’t include a tally of all the food we produced for our own household.

Currently we maintain four horses ranging in ages from 4 to 17. In actuality, we only require the work force of a team to execute the tasks in the market garden and the hay fields. During spring and fall field work it would be easier on our Fjords to fold in a third horse for bigger jobs of plowing, discing or spreading. I am currently grooming our youngest horse to eventually play that role. I also like to imagine a time when we might be ambitious enough to purchase a motorized forecart (or one of the new 24HP ground driven models) and employ four horses to pull a hay baler, haybine, and perhaps a tow-behind combine. For the moment, however, four horses on our farm must be accounted as symptomatic of our passion for horses and in abeyance of our Yankee pragmatism.

We purchased two mares as weanlings and our gelding as a 2-year old. We chose to take on the lower initial price and incremental costs of raising and training young horses instead of the up-front costs of purchasing mature and trained horses. Also, young horses allowed us to acquire Fjords, which were enjoying a peak of popularity in the mid-90s, with mature mares fetching anywhere from $10,000 to $16,000. Our third mare was born on this farm. We paid a total of $15,000 for the four horses (this includes $3,500 in costs to produce the foal born on the farm). We might add that the likelihood of finding mature and trained workhorses in our region is not a given.

Cedar Mountain Farm - 2010

Farm Products vegetables (2 acres), dairy, meat
Markets CSA, farm stand, farmers market, cheese maker
Power Sources 4 horses ($8,500), tractor
Gross Income $177,000
Net Income $ 20,000
Horse Expenses
Grain $842
Hay $780
Bedding $442
Stable Repairs $200
Veterinary $200
Supplies $200
Electricity $200
Vaccinations $116
Trucking $100
Fencing $100
Harness Parts/Repairs $100
Dewormer $  96
Minerals/Supplements $  96
Fly Repellent/Control $  67
Baler Twine $  30
TOTAL $3,569
Teamster Hours
Vegetable Production 113
Training/Exercise   16
Harnessing   98

Horse Maintenance
Daily Chores 213
Clean Stalls/Dry Lot 152
Trim Hooves   28
Feed Production   22
Fence Moving/Repair     8
Health Care     2

We house our horses in a three-sided shed. The structure they occupy is the back side of a small barn. Their allotted space measures 12 feet wide by 45 feet long. Since our horses are limited to two to five hours grazing per day, they spend a lot of time in and around this shed year round. In the summer both ends can remain open to catch the breeze. We maintain the yard daily by raking up all the droppings. The droppings are also removed from inside the shed, and an equivalent amount of wood shavings are added every day (about a wheelbarrow full). This task takes about 25 minutes. The horses are fed hay three to four times a day in winter and twice a day in summer. They are each fed two pounds total of supplemental grain twice a day. They have a water tank which is re-filled and scrubbed out regularly. Moving fence for the horses during grazing season probably adds up to about two hours of work each week. Most of the time, we are able to set up paddocks that allow the horses to go out and return without being led, but occasionally they must be taken out on leads. In sum, we probably have an average of one hour of daily horse maintenance chores.

I have plans to build two tie-stalls so that I can have a place to park the team for the lunch hour on days when they are required for a full day’s work. Right now, I end up having to harness and unharness twice on such days. I have also been advised that if they work in the woods in the winter, a tie-stall and blankets on their backs are a good way to allow them to cool down without catching a chill.

We trim our horses’ feet and have always kept them barefoot. The one exclusively barefoot trimmer we know of in our locale charges $45 per horse for a trim. With shorter intervals for barefoot maintenance, the horses are getting trimmed seven or eight times a year. Even though it takes me longer to trim than it would a professional, I’d still have to be there to assist the farrier, so I figure we are saving a small bundle by taking on the trimming.

cow barn
Cows are kept comfy in the bedding-packed barn on a cold winter day. Photo by Stephen Leslie.

If each horse is trimmed seven times a year, and one hour is spent on each trimming, four horses multiplied by seven trims comes to 28 hours. Twenty eight trims at $45 a trim totals $1,260 saved each year in farrier costs.

Our horses see the veterinarian regularly for updates on rabies shots and for getting teeth floated. We do all immunization shots ourselves (under supervision of our vet). They are wormed in the spring and the fall.

I tracked all my time and functions with the horses for 2010 and 2011 in the same way I did for 2006 on the calendar in the barn. My hours have increased from 2006 to 2010 — a happy result for me. My hours for 2011 were almost the same as the previous year — the only difference being that they were a little less midsummer due to a labor shortage issue on the farm, but we made up the difference by doing field work late into the fall, thanks to an especially mild season.

My recorded times don’t include grooming, harnessing, and hitching, or their reverse at the end of the session. I like to keep routines as consistent as possible with the horses, so I always brush them down and pick out their feet before doing anything else. I look at it as an important transition time for the horses to begin to put their heads into the work. I estimate that it takes me about 25 minutes to halter, pick feet, groom, harness, and hitch a team of horses — and about 15 minutes to do the reverse — for a total of 40 minutes. I would probably shave 10 minutes off this time for a single horse. I believe I could do this task more quickly but don’t for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I am getting a little pokey in my middle-age. Secondly, even when I am feeling the urgency of the task at hand, I like to try and maintain a calm, measured routine with the horses.

Once at work in harness, our horses spend very little time idle. I take a very simple approach to field work. The horses are employed for very basic tasks of tillage and cultivation, and we usually go out and complete a job and then come back and either unhitch for the day or move right on to the next implement. For the most part, the only time the horses are standing is when waiting for me to load the spreader. We harvest into crates stacked in a garden-way cart or onto a small trailer pulled by the team off the forecart. For big actions like harvesting winter squash, we use a flatbed wagon hooked to the tractor. This is an area where we could challenge ourselves to get the horses involved.

harvesting cabbages
Harvesting cabbages with visiting third graders. Photo by Jada Haas

Mowing is another function in the market garden that we are still doing with a 5-foot bush hog on a 30 hp tractor. We use this mower to clip cover crops and to knock down residue of crops such as brassica or corn for easier incorporation. Actually in 2011, I brought the dairy cows in to eat the corn stover and dealt with the brassica by discing it with the horses. I have seen mowers of this type with a self-mounted motor on top that can be towed behind a forecart and have this item on our new equipment wish list. It remains to be seen how our horses would adapt to pulling a motorized implement. I have tried knocking this kind of stuff down with scythe and machete but found it too human labor intensive. This coming season I intend to use our recently restored No. 6 mowing machine with the shoes set high, but I will have to do a thorough job of rock picking this spring. It was such a labor of love to bring that mower into working condition that I still shudder at the thought of using it in the stony garden.

For a farm with multiple income streams like ours, the tracking picture can get a little murky. Most of the work the horses currently do is in the garden, but the hay-making that they are involved with also brings in forage for the cows. The flex harrow is used for seed bed preparation and for dragging pastures where cattle graze. The spreader is used in the garden and on the hay fields. In my tracking of hours I have not noted the distinctions.

I have also been recording training and exercise times for the horses. I see this as part of my work with them. I am currently training two younger horses, and I also take my settled team out driving in the off-months to help keep them in shape and in the mental mode of the work horse.

We envision offering a dignified retirement to our horses as they age. I know that in harder times people have had to make harsh choices between feeding kids and keeping a worn-out workhorse companion on the farm. And even now, other folks might simply take a more pragmatic view.

I think the “why” of using work horses is a great springboard for discussion. From an economic and time standpoint (issues of environmental footprint set aside), my assumption has been that our market garden would be more efficiently managed with a 30hp tractor for primary tillage and spreading, and a lightweight cultivating tractor — but I’d be happy if real numbers proved me wrong. We make our entire living from our farm income. We have made working with horses work for us, we love being able to work with them to get real jobs done on the farm, and we believe it is better for the planet that we work in this way. From the holistic goal point-of-view, horses fit well into our larger vision of trying to farm sustainably and in a way that is humanly enjoyable. We are most certainly a hybrid horse and tractor powered farm. With every passing season we have taken new strides in replacing the tractor by integrating horse power deeper into our farming system.

Cedar Mountain Horsedrawn Equipment

Basic Forecart $800
Hillside 9-inch single-horse plow no cost
Pioneer 14-inch walking plow $400
Syracuse 10-inch two-way riding plow $350
6-foot disc no cost
3-foot spring-tooth harrow (9 teeth) $  50
5-foot flex harrow $250
5-foot spike-tooth harrow no cost
60-bushel John Deere manure spreader no cost
2 International walk-behind cultivators no cost
McCormick straddle row cultivator no cost
McCormick straddle row cultivator $  75
McCormick No. 6 mower $350
Hoover single row potato digger $  50
Harvest wagon $500
Flatbed hay wagon $2,500
I&J three-point hitch adapter $250
Toolbar to fit on three-point hitch adapter $@50
Grimm tedder $1,000
New Holland hay rake $2,500
8-foot drop box lime spreader no cost
TOTAL $9,575*
*Equipment costs do not include the expense of hauling
  and restoring implements, replacement parts, tongues,
  eveners, neck yokes etc.

For me, the value of this study is that it has shown me that our use of work horses to accomplish primary tillage, spreading, cultivation, etc., is actually quite time efficient. The work hours represent a very small fraction of the total human hours spent in the market garden and yet the “big actions” that require “horse power” are all accomplished in that relatively short time frame. It also underlines my instinct that moving horses into haymaking and woodlot management will be good for the horses (keeping them fit and engaged) and good for our investment in having them on the farm (getting more for the cost of their upkeep and “fuel”). We also record our tractor hours, and I learned that farm workers at Cedar Mountain use the tractor two and one-half times as much as we use the horses. This picture would look very different if we weren't also a dairy farm, as most of these tractor hours are for barn pack maintenance and cleaning, and manure and compost management. Another piece of our operation into which I gained insight is that, by tracking my hours and the implements I use with the horses, I discovered my essential horsedrawn tool list boiled down to a dozen or so implements to manage the market garden. I think it is not unusual for contemporary market gardens to have 30 or more implements. For me, this was another indicator of the efficiency of our approach. It is primitive farming, but it is working.  rh horse logo


Stephen Leslie, along with his wife, Kerry Gawalt, and daughter, Maeve, manages Cedar Mountain Farm, a 4-acre Fjord Horse-powered CSA and Jersey cow dairy, located at Cobb Hill Co-Housing in Hartland, VT. Stephen is the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm and Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century from Chelsea Green. This article appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of
Rural Heritage

  • Copyright © 1997 − 2023 Rural Heritage
    Rural Heritage  |  PO Box 2067  |  Cedar Rapids, IA 52406
    Telephone (319) 362-3027

    This file last modified: May 04 2016.

    Designed by