Market Gardening

Horse Powered Market Gardening Economics
Case Study: Natural Roots 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, Natural Roots Farm operated by David Fisher and Anna Maclay. You will find links to the three other case studies in this series at the end of this article.
two-way sulky plow
Belgian team pulling a two-way sulky plow.
by David Fisher and Anna Maclay
With our children Leora, age eight, and Gabriel, age four, we farm here in Conway, Massachusetts. We are situated in the small valley of the south River, on the Easter slope of the Berkshire Mountains, with sandy loam bottomland, hillside pasture rising up from the valley floor, and woodland on the upper slopes. We till about 7 acres of bottomland in a Nordell-inspired rotation. This means about 3 1/2 acres in mixed vegetables and 3 1/2 acres actively managed in cover crops and s bare fallow period. We manage a 40-acre woodlot and we also graze and/or hay about 22 acres of grass to feed out working herd of four Belgians and one Standardbred X Percheron workhorses. We keep two hogs for compost turning duty and raise another pair of piglets annually as replacements.

Our farm is also home to an assortment of chickens, gardens, fruit trees, etc. for the home use. We generally employ two apprentices full time from March until Christmas, or longer, and have several local part-time helpers as well. In addition to those mentioned above, we have pursued many endeavors here over the 14 years we’ve been here. Among them are sheep, beef cattle, a dairy cow, farmers’ markets, and wholesale produce. Currently we are primarily a CSA serving about 200 families. Surplus produce is sold to our shareholders for preserving or storage, or to local grocers and restaurants. Anna also runs a small farm store, open to CSA customers, which primarily offers local products from neighboring farms.

We have chosen to run our farm exclusively with horsepower for several reasons.

On a very basic and personal level, we really enjoy working with them. We find horses to be incredibly versatile. They are well suited for delicate cultivation, heavily tillage, digging, lifting, hauling, and traction in all seasons, terrain, and conditions. The capacity for us to raise the feed for our draft animals is also very appealing, both economically and philosophically. We feel that relying on live power will help to create a sustainable economy independent from petroleum dependence. In this way, we feel that horsepower can help to address many pressing environmental and political issues.

Spraying vegetables with a 60 gallon, 5-row sprayer.

Our basic care and maintenance of the working herd is fairly labor intensive. We start each day by retrieving our five horses from their night pasture, which can be up to 1/2 mile away. To facilitate this, we ride “ commuter” bikes to pasture and ride the horses back in to the barn. Usually two people can bring in the herd in one trip, though David will sometimes bring all five in one trip. Once in the barn, horses are fed and watered, and those who will work are hoof-picked, groomed, and harnessed. In the growing season this means four horses, five days a week, and often six or seven days during haymaking. In winter it can vary from zero to four horses in harness, depending on the day. We prefer to harness the horses during chores and have them in their tie stalls, ready for work whenever we need them. We feel that this helps with efficiency since horses are constantly coming and going off to work in various combinations throughout the day. Furthermore, the horses appreciate the shelter from flies that the barn provides (in summer) when they are not working. By keeping the animals stabled by day we can collect enough manure to provide adequate compost for our vegetable fields. We move our temporary fencing and solar charger around the farm to various pastures. This takes time, but leaves the pasture clear for clipping, post grazing, and pasture dragging, and it minimizes the amount of fencing we need to cover all of our pastures, not to mention the benefits of rotational grazing on pasture health and productivity.

Natural Roots Farm

Farm Products vegetables (3 1/2 acres)
Markets CSA, farm store, grocery stores, restaurants
Power Sources 5 horses ($12,945)
Gross Income $129,905
Net Income $31,745
Horse Expenses
Bedding $1,479
Minerals/Supplements $1,417
Farrier $1,200
Veterinary $1,188
Grain $1,158
Hay & Pasture rental $816
Supplies $346
Harness Parts/Repair $306
Fencing $291
Dewormer $36
Trucking/Commission $15
TOTAL $8,262
Teamster Hours
Vegetable Production 852
Hay/Grain 123
Logging 50
Pasture 24
Training 6
Harnessing 248
TOTAL 1303

Horse Maintenance
Daily Chores 795
Clean Stalls 160
Fence Moving/Repair 36
Health Care 18
Trim Hooves 14
Miscellaneous 36
Planting vegetables with a single-row homemade transplanter.

In the vegetable fields, for primary tillage we use three or four horses abreast for disking winterkilled cover crops in our early fields. We do most of our plowing of live cover crops with a team. If we have a lot of secondary tillage to do, we’ll use four abreast on the spring tooth harrow, usually with the cultipacker in tandem. We do a lot of work with a team on the riding cultivator such as forming beds cultivating, and hilling certain crops. We use our homemade transplanter for planting all plugs spaces 12” or greater in the row. This tool is helpful for getting plants watered in with a nutrient boost and set at a uniform distance. We find that it is most efficient when there are few variety changes in the row. We try to foliar feed all vegetables weekly with our five-row boom sprayer, though we often only keep up with this until haymaking derails us for a couple of months at midsummer. We also use the sprayer for applying organic pest and disease controls. Most of the work in the fields (mowing cover crops, spreading compost, and all haymaking tasks) is done with teams with the exception of the larger hitches mentioned, and some amount of single horse cultivation and mowing in tight spaces. Since we must ford the South River to bring supplies onto the farm and our farm produce off the farm, we spend a good bit of time hauling.

Having two teams plus a spare has proven essential for making hay while keeping up with the demands of the vegetable production. While keeping a spare horse can seem like a drain on resources when it is idle for many weeks, it is a blessing when another horse must rest for illness or injury. We’d like to work that spare horse into more regular work, if only to rest some of the older horses. Some horses have turned our to be relatively easy keepers, subsisting on minimal grain and lighter hay rations, while others (like our best horse) can require much more in grain, vitamins, and supplements to maintain good condition and health.

Natural Roots Farm Horsedrawn Equipment

Oliver 357 two-way sulky plow $250
Syracuse walking plow $0
Pioneer forecsrt $650
John Deere 6-foot tandem disk harrow $0
6-foot spring tooth harrow $$0
8-foot spike tooth harrow $0
riding cultivators $0
I&J riding cultivator with drench tank $1,200
assorted walk-behind cultivators $0
6-foot cultipacker $150
8-foot drop spreader $0
manure spreader $450
12-volt battery-powered 60-gallon, 5-row sprayer $150
single-row potato digger $250
homemade single-row transplanter $450
Ontario 6-foot grain drill $650
No. 9 McCormick 6-foot sickle bar bower $450
McCormick 4-foot single horse mower $350
Grimm tedder $250
New Holland rollabar side delivery rake $900
New Idea combination rake/tedder $500
New Idea hay loader $0
dump rake $0
McCormick 6-foot reaper-binder $1,100
homemade wagon $600
Pioneer 3-ton wagon $1,400
homemade snow roller $100
Pioneer 7-foot snow scraper blade $500
feed sled $0
stone boat $150
piggy-back log arch $600
TOTAL $13,350*
*Equipment costs do not include the expense of hauling nad restoring implements, replacement parts, tongues, eveners, neck yokes etc.  

Participating in this study has been a fantastic exercise for us as it has revealed where some of our inefficiencies lie. It has motivated us to plan for a new barn, which we hope will greatly reduce the time we spend on horse maintenance tasks. For example, we currently put up all of our hay loose, by hand, and, for lack of barn loft space, we make several outdoor haystacks, which need to be moved into the barn for feeding when space permits. We wheelbarrow the daily stall clean out to a separate composting shed, and we need to lead our horses out to turnout in a winter paddock daily for four to five months of the year. With a new barn, we plan to have mow space enough to hold all of our hay and bedding needs for a year under one roof and have space for a traditional track and trolley system for loading the mow with horse power rather than people power. We plan on locating our compost middens in immediate proximity to the horse stalls for easily clean out, and having an attached laneway from the barn to the paddock for hands-free turnout.

We look forward to making improvements towards a more efficient and economical future with horses.  rh horse logo


David and Anna operate Natural Roots Farm in Conway, Mass. This article appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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