Category Archives: farming

Horse Power

cedarmountainfarm_0279sDrop me off on a farm with a camera and come back in eight hours; chances are I’ll be occupied and supremely content the whole time. After all, I am a country girl at heart. When the subject matter is something I am particularly drawn to, I can get completely lost in what I’m doing, enamored by all that is going on around me and hesitant to take that one final frame even after a full day of shooting. Such was the case at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vermont, in late April. Twenty-one of the resulting images appeared in Anne Raver’s excellent story about the farm’s horse-powered component in the Home & Garden section of The New York Times recently.

Read the article for the back story on Stephen Leslie’s fascinating trajectory from artist to monk to organic farmer and horse whisperer. His calm, gentle, yet assured manner in dealing with the Norwegian Fjord horses was a wonder to witness. The 1,000-pound animals were decidedly non-threatening and obedient. After seeing him in action, I have no doubt his new book from Chelsea Green The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale Sustainable Market Grower is bound to become the definitive book on the subject.

Having recently spent time in an intense environment where people are connected to the point of distraction—and getting sucked into it myself as a recent iPhone convert—I particularly appreciate Stephen’s desire to delve into the spiritual element of working so closely with these animals. In the article he says, “I think people are hungering for a kind of unplugged reality. That leads to a deeper self-understanding.” Coincidentally, I just read “The Art of Paying Attention” by James Fallows in this month’s The Atlantic about continuous partial attention and how to focus in this hyperconnected world. Linda Stone, the tech executive Fallows interviews, conjectures that “the generation that has been tethered to devices serves as a cautionary example to the next generation, which may decide this is not a satisfying way to live.” Let it be so. Below are some outtakes from this environment of “relaxed presence” where the only tethering is that of the horses to the plow, and where, as Stone says, “Mind and body are in the same place at the same time”—something we could all benefit from striving toward.

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The Norwegian Fjord horse has many distinct physical attributes including this dorsal stripe handsomely displayed by Tristan.

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Grooming the copiously shedding horses is a daily ritual.

Making short work of a field where a cover crop will be planted.

Making short work of a field where a cover crop will be planted.

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Never one to miss out on a party, the youngest Fjord horse on Cedar Mountain Farm, Isolde, gallops to catch up to her friends already out to pasture.

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The horses are so calm that even Charlie the barn cat feels comfortable walking underneath them!

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Stephen leads his 6-year-old daughter, Maeve, onto the farm when she arrives home from school.

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Charlie keeps Maeve company in a corner of the milking parlor while her parents tend to the 20 jersey cows that need milking.

Maeve occupies herself while her parents work.

A curious cow observes Maeve as she colors.

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First in line for dinner!

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Stephen’s wife, Kerry Gawalt, feeds the farm’s cows prior to milking. The cows’ manure is composted and turned into the fields by the draft horses.

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In regard to not letting your own stress affect the horses, Stephen says, “That’s the Zen practice you have to work on yourself: Take some deep breaths, create some sense of calm.”

Falling Far from the Tree

Gorgeous organic specimens: Black Oxfords and Golden Russet

A few weeks ago, shortly after that late October storm pummeled parts of the Northeast, I headed northwest across the state and into the mountains of New Hampshire to take photos for this piece on organic apple growing that recently ran in The New York Times. I always love seeing parts of the state that I’ve never been in. Since much of my work takes me up and down the coast, I don’t get inland very often. The drive was so lovely that the three hours actually went by quite quickly. The thick fog melding with a light layer of snow and punctuated by the occasional tree still dressed in its fall colors soon gave way to a bright, sunny day. It was mid-morning by the time I reached Groveton, N.H., home of Michael Phillips’ Lost Nation Orchard, and luckily, most of the snow in the orchard had melted. Phillips is well known and respected among organic growers (at least based on my random sampling of those here in Maine). His new book, The Holistic Orchard, which will be published in December, will no doubt add to his acclaim in this field.

Organic-apple-growing guru Michael Phillips

Only a few trees in the orchard still had apples on them at this late date, including this lovely GoldRush variety.

Growing fruit organically is still rare enough that a sign seen recently at my local farmers’ market next to a bin of sad, beat-up looking apples read “as close to organic as you’re going to get.” Well, it turns out, this is not the case! There are organic apples out there and they are not only gorgeous, but out-of-this-world delicious (and I mean so tasty that you can easily envision being totally satisfied having one for dessert). However, you have to work hard to find them. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if this was not the case? Apples routinely top the list of pesticide-tainted fruits and vegetables, and while most apples tested are below the EPA’s levels of concern, call me crazy, but I have a hard time imagining that consuming trace amounts of pesticides is good for you (not to mention what they do to the environment). You can help encourage more orchards to grow organically with your purchasing power. Seek out organically grown apples whenever possible. (There’s a good list of orchards who emphasize health in their farming practices here). Trust me, you won’t be sorry.

As part of the process of organically nourishing his apple trees, Michael Phillips lightly spreads a compost of manure and deciduous wood chips under the drip line of the tree (the circular area at the outer ends of the branches) each fall.

I had the pleasure of seeing the loving care Phillips puts into his trees, as well as tasting a selection of the more than 80 varieties of organic apples he grows. I have honestly never tasted such incredible apples. They all had such distinctive flavors, but my favorite on this day was also possibly the most beautiful one—the Black Oxford. At once sweet and tart, this dramatic purpley-black fruit is satisfyingly crisp. As if that weren’t enough to make it my new favorite apple, I then learned it originated in West Paris, Maine, in the late 1700s! Oh, if only I had a stockpile of these for the winter, I’d be one happy organic apple convert.

Among the 80 varieties of organic apples that Michael Phillips grows are (clockwise from upper left) Golden Russet, Erwin Bauer, Rhode Island Greening, Cox’s Orange Pippin, and Black Oxford.

GoldRush apples are considered a great holiday dessert and cider apple because of their high sugar content.