News from Madagascar

We’ve been receiving a few pictures and notes from Dick and Dave in Madagascar.   Here’s something Dave wrote last night:

“We had a really fun day out in the country with some of the ADRA field agents and some farmers. The oxen are pretty small and the garden plots really divided into tiny sections. It rained a little last night, but the ground was still really hard. The oxen were not trained very well, but pulled hard and we had some success. The farmers already understood why we were trying the ripper and they made a lot of adjustments to try out all the options…. including removing the front wheels while ripping, which actually worked pretty good. The second field we tried was a little softer and we got down to 25 cm.”

Here are a few images of the first field trials and of rural farmhouses.






Tillers’ Staff Off to Madagascar

madagascar-map3Today, Dick Roosenberg and Dave Kramer leave for Madagascar to initiate a 4 year food security project funded by ADRA, or the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.  They will be visiting several rural communities, assessing soil conditions and performing field tests with K2 Rippers and Planters.  Besides training ADRA staff and farmers in the manufacture and use of the tool, they will also be exploring available materials and resources (i.e. metal shops) for its ongoing production.

IMG_4264Over the past few days (and this morning) Dave has been cutting a K2 prototype into pieces in order to fit it into his luggage.  Upon arrival, the pieces will be welded back together and their work will begin.  Depending on what materials are available, the K2 design may require modification for Madagascar.

This is the first of three visits over the next 4 years.  By the end of this project, we hope that Malagasy small-holders will benefit from this ox-powered tool, which is the product of the collaborative efforts of our domestic, Ugandan, and Mozambican staff and our Amish friends at Pioneer Equipment.

Please contact us if you are interested in supporting this or other similar projects in which Tillers is involved.

A Student’s Reflection on Tillers’ Latest Timber-Framing Class

This is zero to sixty timber framing; start to finish, beginning to end.  No matter your level of skill or experience, everyone starts at the beginning; day one: naming of parts.  Mortise and tenon; bent, post, and beam.  By the end of the week, a pile of timber becomes a standing frame and your work is evidenced by thousands of wood chips and a stronger back.  This is real work with a real goal: students learn it, then build it.

IMG_4425Every working building and barn on the Tillers campus lends itself to instruction on timber framing styles and construction.  A museum rounds the experience by providing both an example of modern uses of timber frame construction and the agricultural heritage that gave birth to the need for 60 foot sills.  Other buildings show uses of king and queen truss construction, and other roofing solutions.  There’s even a timber framed chicken coop that could serve as a first project idea for students eager to get started at home.

When you arrive at Tillers, you immediately are welcomed into the community; even the goats and cats come to say hello.  You eat together, work together, and learn together.  And you eat well; good food, grown and cooked right on the farm.  The staff is not only a group of the friendliest people you’ll meet, they are also extremely focused on making sure you’re learning what you need to learn.  Every moment of the work process is a training moment, and no question is too small.

The primary instruction in timber framing is enhanced by additional classes in tool sharpening, and timber frame engineering.  You will sharpen chisels and learn why a king post needs a support brace all in the same week.  You will learn how to cut a tenon to fit, and also how to remedy any wood defects  — no, knots aren’t fun, but you will conquer a few by the end of the week, with confidence.

A book can’t teach what you will learn here in just six days.  And, your timber framing books will make more sense when you’re finished with the class.  Day by day, concepts come together until you see the fruit of your labor on raising day.  And, when you wake on raising day, the only sadness you have is the thought that your time at Tillers is almost at an end.


Stafford, VA

See Tillers in new AFSA Journal article entitled, A CLOSER LOOK AT ADVANCING WORLD FOOD SECURITY

In agriculture, our free trade and commodity export agendas conflict with our development agenda, and the result is food insecurity. Here is the case for a change in focus.


Millions of cattle could be put to work as draft animals on small farms in South Sudan. Doing so requires low cash inputs and low-level technology. And, typically, according to Tillers International, it will double or triple a small farm’s output over hand labor.
Michael McClellan

World food security is rightly a high priority for the United States. While the large U.S. commodity sector and industrial agriculture clearly reap the benefits of our commodity food aid, support of global trade and export promotion, such short-term “aid” does not help other countries to develop their own food security. In fact, as it stands, our free trade and commodity export agendas are in conflict with our development agenda—and this conflict ultimately leads to food dependency, not food security.

Instead of a focus on promoting commodity exports and the adoption of biotech and industrial farming products and techniques pitched by American agribusiness, our focus should be on people, land and communities. Because it relies more on development of local food sources than on a global trading system that primarily benefits large corporations, such an approach will build food security abroad.

Our objective should not be to “feed the world,” but rather to “enable the world to feed itself.” In doing so, we will set an example for other rich nations to follow in supporting sustainable farming globally.

Advancing Food Security

To truly advance our food security agenda, and improve America’s image abroad in the bargain, we need to adopt a five-part agenda that:

  1. promotes sustainable and environmentally responsible stewardship of the land;
  2. minimizes cash inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and imported equipment;
  3. keeps people on the land through support for small-scale farms and does not displace them into urban areas;
  4. fosters reliance on traditional, nonpatented seeds and local “heritage” livestock breeds; and
  5. promotes a better environment through improvement of soils, improved water usage and better carbon sequestration.

Our objective should not be to “feed the world,” but rather to “enable the world to feed itself.”

In short, American foreign policy should promote organic, small-scale, diversified, sustainable farming practices and not large-scale, commodity-focused agriculture that relies on chemical inputs, expensive machinery, and genetically modified seeds and other biotech practices that place production and efficiency above all else.

President Barack Obama’s “Feed the Future” initiative is a good step in the right direction, but it contrasts with other U.S. government programs that prioritize promotion of trade and exports. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps have several programs that promote small-scale farming, particularly women in farming, as well as organic and sustainable practices. But these programs are weak in comparison with other efforts—such as trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership—that promote the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and other patented seeds, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and other costly inputs as part of global trade promotion.

Consider how American agriculture has evolved since World War II, and how it affected Americans throughout our nation’s rural areas and small towns. Growing up in rural Kentucky, I saw firsthand how farmers and small towns were hit hard by the “industrial” model of agriculture. This so-called modern agriculture was shaped mainly by corporate profitability and the incessant drive for productivity and efficiency.

What we have today across the United States are farms and farmers saddled with debt and dependent on patented seeds, both GMO and hybrid, that must be bought every year; a heavy reliance on expensive machinery that encourages large-scale farming; and dependence on chemical inputs such as herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers with potentially deleterious long-term effects. It is a farming model that relies on cash inputs from the farmer and that makes him or her dependent on large corporations and money lenders that are no longer community-based.

The New Holland Tractor: A Cautionary Tale

In 2013, while driving through South Sudan, we came upon a small shop that had a beautiful, 70-horsepower New Holland tractor sitting beside it. The tractor was obviously new, the tires had no scratches or other marks on them, but it was covered in cobwebs. It had probably never been used. The man at the shop said it had been sitting there for about a year after a government official dropped it off.

This tractor, like many other tractors dotting the South Sudanese countryside, was a gift of some country’s foreign aid program (thankfully, it was not a U.S. donation). Priced at roughly $35,000 new, the final cost was probably closer to $70,000 after accounting for shipping and delivery.

At best, that tractor may help one farmer—until it breaks down because of poor operator skills, lack of spare parts or fuel, and lack of maintenance.

Had that same $70,000 been invested in draft power—much more appropriate technology for South Sudan’s farmers—at least 30 farmers could have been set up with the full complement of tools to cultivate their land with oxen, thereby doubling or even tripling their agricultural output.

Furthermore, most or all of those implements could be manufactured in South Sudan. That would, in turn, support small businesses and shops across the country, developing a light industry that would provide urban jobs and service technicians with work for years to come. This process would strengthen rural communities and lift many rural residents out of poverty.


The “Get Big or Get Out” Model

This business model stems from the “get big or get out” philosophy first promulgated by Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson in the 1950s and reinforced two decades later by Secretary Earl Butz, who told American farmers to “adapt or die.” The policy pitted farmers against their neighbors and destroyed many of the bonds that had held rural communities together; one neighbor’s failure was a growth opportunity for another. There is even research underway now in the agroindustrial complex to enable “farming without farmers,” using remotely controlled farm machinery directed by GPS and satellite mapping so that machine operation can take place around the clock without any human controls in the field. In other words, drone warfare meets farming.

The result of these practices is visible in a vast region of America’s heartland that is today largely depopulated, littered with decaying ghost towns bereft of people and small businesses. There is a devastating loss of topsoil across what was once one of the world’s richest agricultural areas. Depleted aquifers can no longer supply irrigation and drinking water. Water pollution from fertilizers and other chemical runoff has poisoned countless creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes and possibly created a massive “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. And there is flooding across the country in areas that did not flood before because the soil can no longer absorb the rain that farmers rely on to grow crops.

Sadly, the increase in farmer suicides in many countries, including our own, has been directly related to this inability to “adapt,” as farmers become debt-ridden and even poisoned by the deluge of chemicals they are encouraged to use but not taught to handle responsibly. In addition, rural communities are often powerless to fight coal mining, timber interests and natural gas companies that treat once-vibrant rural farm areas as colonies to be depleted of natural resources at any cost and without regard for the environment or the people there.

Is this what we want in the rest of the world? Is it in America’s interest for Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and other farming regions of the world to deplete their soil and water, drive their people off the land into the cities and turn their prime farmland into large-scale commodity croplands that rapidly lose fertility, while serving mainly to generate export revenue rather than feed the local population?

No, it is not. The post-World War II model of American agriculture is only destined to make other countries increasingly dependent on foreign aid, leaving them with a weakened farming and rural infrastructure that cannot support the population. Nor is it in the interest of U.S. foreign policy to foster urban migration, driving people off the land into teeming cities with no jobs, but plenty of drugs, crime and HIV/AIDS. More “efficient” farming, in fact, often creates increased unemployment, which only leads to other problems that our assistance must then try to manage.

Our foreign policy agricultural agenda should not tell farmers around the world to “adapt or die.” Rather, we should be helping them to survive and thrive.

It is not in the interest of U.S. foreign policy to foster urban migration, driving people off the land into teeming cities with no jobs, but plenty of drugs, crime and HIV/AIDS.

Good Farming…and Its Opposite

Good farming improves the land and keeps people on the land. The Chinese have farmed their land for more than 4,000 years, as have many other cultures around the world, and their soils were fertile until the advent of “modern” farming practices in recent years. Even periodic famines in China, Ethiopia and other countries throughout history were due more to politics and lack of infrastructure than to actual food deficits. Many modern practices “mine” the soil of nutrients and minerals rather than rebuilding and growing topsoil.

Good farms are diversified, usually with a mix of crops and livestock, with nutrients added to the soil naturally. Good farms are managed by men and women who love their land and want to pass it on in good shape to their children. Good farming is a challenging, intellectual skill that requires knowledge of botany, biology, chemistry, climate, animal husbandry and even business and accounting.

Good farming, as it has been done for thousands of years around the world and is done today in the United States on small, diversified, organic farms, makes the land better and better with each passing year. There are Amish farms in Pennsylvania that have been farmed for more than 200 years by the same families, and the land is incredibly rich and verdant as a result of their sustainable, often organic, and responsible practices.

Contrast this with farms across the South and Midwest that are mono-cropped year after year with soybeans, corn and cotton, using GMO and hybrid seeds, herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers that kill much of the life in the soil and pollute the groundwater and nearby bodies of water. The topsoil is steadily depleted, year after year after year. Most of this corn and soybean crop is grown to support large-scale meat production that abuses animals and pollutes the surrounding air, water and soil with toxic manure runoff that could be avoided if the animals were dispersed through free ranging and grass feeding. Such natural ways of producing meat animals are still the norm in most of the world.

The last thing the United States should be doing is encouraging other countries to make the same mistakes we did by exporting practices that serve only to enrich a few large corporations at the expense of countless small farmers and devastate the agricultural heartland of a country. Any member of the Foreign Service who has lived in Africa and eaten locally produced meat and eggs can probably tell you that they taste much better than typical U.S. supermarket fare, thanks to traditional grazing practices and natural animal foods.

The Economics of Appropriate Technology

In the Magwi region of South Sudan, Michael McClellan, then DCM in Juba, plows with oxen, the cattle typical of the area.
Courtesy of USAID

If our foreign policy objective is truly to make sure the world is fed, we should promote an agenda that will keep farmers on the land and keep the land in the hands of responsible stewards who will improve it with each passing year. We should promote organic farming approaches that rely on low-cost or no-cost inputs and that are sustainable and natural. We should not encourage farmers to take on debt or to buy expensive inputs—or pay for those inputs ourselves with grants and loan incentives through foreign aid funds. Instead, we should work with farmers to use appropriate-scale technologies, natural fertilizers and crop rotations, and a diversity of crops and livestock to ensure better protection against natural disasters, bad weather and pestilence.

At the same time, the United States should promote the licensing and production of small-scale farm technology from U.S. companies so that small American companies and the jobs they provide also benefit from international food assistance. Significant advances have been made in recent years in draft-powered farming (i.e., using horses and oxen instead of tractors), and these advances could and should be licensed for manufacture by small companies and entrepreneurs abroad, thereby encouraging manufacturing and job creation in developing countries.

By focusing on the farmers themselves, and what we can do to sustain and improve their work, U.S. agricultural policy can spend far less money and do more to promote food security abroad than we can through our current approach. We should promote knowledge and training in using appropriate-scale technologies, the use of non-patented seeds that will adapt to local growing conditions, good animal husbandry so every region of the world will develop the most appropriate livestock for its climate and terrain, and the use of natural fertilizers and supplements that do not degrade the soil or pollute groundwater.

Our public diplomacy will also advance a more positive image of the United States by sharing the wealth of knowledge of America’s organic farmers through citizen exchanges and field visits, advancing the knowledge of sustainable and organic farming through support for agriculture schools worldwide, and preparing and translating books and manuals that will help farmers.

In July, I spoke to more than 200 Amish farmers at the annual “Horse Progress Days” celebration in Daviess County, Indiana, about the importance of sharing their knowledge and experience of working with draft animals with farmers abroad. When I asked them if they would be willing to host international visitors for home stays and cultural exchange, every man and woman in the room raised their hand—clearly there is no lack of support for such citizen exchanges in the sustainable farming community.

A Win-Win for All

The approach outlined here will advance our nation’s food security goals and environmental policies globally. It will advance democratic institutions through the empowerment of a large, global land-owning and entrepreneurial class. It will help mitigate many ethnic conflicts in the developing world by preventing the displacement of large numbers of people into urban areas with no jobs. And it will grow more people-to-people linkages between the United States and the rest of the world.

Some large corporations may not benefit from this change, but many smaller American companies that produce small-scale farming equipment and natural fertilizers and supplements will, and the resultant goodwill for the United States and greater food security abroad will be a win-win for both donors and recipients.

Michael McClellan is a retired Senior Foreign Service officer who most recently served as deputy chief of mission in Juba, South Sudan. Prior to that, he served for 28 years as a public diplomacy officer in Yemen, Egypt, Russia, Serbia, Germany, Kosovo, Ireland, Iraq (twice) and Ethiopia. He is now the diplomat-in-residence for Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he also has a small, organic farm. A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2014 Small Farmer’s Journal.

A Blacksmithing Impression by Michael Skilton

I spent four lovely days 9/10-9/13 in the blacksmith shop at Tillers International in Scotts Michigan (near Kalamazoo). I had been looking for a blacksmithing workshop for awhile and stumbled across Tillers online a few weeks ago. Looking at the class schedule I saw that blacksmithing I and II were being offered back to back only occasionally and one was coming up quick. Perfect! Except at online checkout the second section was showing sold out. I thought, well I’ll call and get on a waiting list. The person I spoke with said the class wasn’t actually full and I signed up on the spot. While on the phone I was asked about lodging. I hadn’t taken the time to carefully look over the website and didn’t know about the guest house options. All that was available was a shared room and I declined.

I arrived about an hour late the first day, having completely forgotten about the time zone change from Chicago. The group had just finished introductions and gotten their handouts and were just heading down to the shop from the main house. I quickly got caught up and we jumped right into instruction. John, our teacher, was excellent. He has a very paced and pleasant demeanor and took the time to make sure everyone had an opportunity to ask questions and see what he was demonstrating. I felt completely comfortable right away.

The Blacksmith Shop at Tillers

The Blacksmith Shop at Tillers

The instruction was project based. Each project built on and added to previous skills. John gave clear demonstrations and then walked around the room helping and advising as needed. If we finished early we were encouraged to work on something of our own and there were plenty of materials available. When the group was ready, we moved on to the next project. I learned a lot from just watching an expert blacksmith at work, especially if I was having trouble with a particular technique.

The shop is very cool in its own right. A timber framed building with 6 coal forges and 12 anvils and lots of other tooling and materials. It didn’t feel crowded with a full class of 12 students. A hot lunch was provided each day. The food was excellent and plentiful. It was served family style in the main house where folks gathered from all over the farm. There is table seating for 30+ and it was easy and comfortable.

So that’s the nuts and bolts. Here’s a bit of my overall impression of the place. To start with the farm is absolutely gorgeous, very peaceful and to a city boy also quite large. It was obvious from the number of people at lunch that there was so much more going on besides the blacksmithing class.

Low impact rural efficiency was visible all around the place. A version of reduce, reuse and recycle quite different than the modern media version. More like: we will use what’s right here because its right here and we can make that work and work well. Rural efficiency, directly in line with their mission. Everyone I met was warm and friendly and an easy going but practical vibe is what I got. Next time I attend a class I will hopefully stay at the guest house and make a point of seeing the rest of the property, especially the museum.

Then there is their international mission. I didn’t get a chance to learn a lot about what they are currently involved in and that portion of the website appears to be out of date. I would have liked it if there had been a presentation on what they are doing right now and what their future plans are.

If you’re thinking about visiting I encourage you to take the time to carefully look over everything on the website. Look at the whole catalog of classes. It’s an impressive list and gives a real sense of what is happening there. Good people doing good work.

Michael Skilton


A Trip to Pioneer by David Kramer

Last week Mazambane and I had a very educational visit to Pioneer Equipment in Dalton, Ohio. Daniel Wengerd and his family were very gracious to host us for several days.   The Pioneer Equipment Company is very impressive.   I was amazed to see so much production going on in a factory that focuses on horse drawn farm equipment.   The machinery at the factory was really fun to watch. There was a robotic welder, an automated wheel rolling machine, and many work stations for shearing, bending, punching, and drilling heavy steel parts. Pioneer Equipment

Row of plows made at Pioneer

Row of plows made at Pioneer

manufactures everything from small weeding tools and harrows, to huge rollers, wagons, and engine powered fore-carts.   We took along some of the equipment we have been working on and had Joni and Larry, the research and development team at Pioneer, look over our work.   We got some good suggestions for trying a different angle on our cultivator sweeps.   Larry and Joni liked our seeder with the vertical plate, and they showed us a prototype of a seeder they have been working on.   Looking at the welding production line at Pioneer gave us some good ideas for how to set up jigs for mass producing parts for our own equipment.

On Wednesday, Daniel introduced us to Doug and Lydell from Ventrac, a company in Orrville, Ohio that makes small tractors. Lydell recently worked in Nicaragua, and is now developing a small tractor he hopes will be useful on small to medium sized farms around the world.   We were able to visit Ventrac on Thursday and see the

Fixture for stretching rubber tires around solid metal rimmed wheels at Pioneer

Fixture for stretching rubber tires around solid metal rimmed wheels at Pioneer

“TILMOR” tractor Lydell has been working on. It is very promising in its simplicity. Lydell had quite a few models of single row seeders and planters they have been checking out, and he loaned us a Jang planter to take back to Tillers. Mazambane and I put some corn seeds into it and tried it out Friday morning when we got back. We found that it worked fairly well, but like our own model it sometimes misses a seed.

In addition to visiting the factory, we had a chance to watch the Pioneer “Homesteader” in action. The Homesteader is a riding tool manufactured at Pioneer that has a variety of attachments including a plow, harrow, over-the-row weeder, disc, and potato digger. Daniel hooked up a team one evening and dug up several rows of potatoes from his own garden. After we collected the potatoes, Mazambane had a chance to drive the team on the Homesteader with the disc and later with the harrow attachments. Another highlight of the trip was visiting a neighbor’s orchard seeing apples being pressed, and trying some fresh apple cider.   We are very thankful that Pioneer Equipment and the Wengerd Family took the time to show us their company and their community.

Postscript (by Ryan): Dave thinks it’s a great idea if we (Tillers) could get a homesteader over to our bases of operations in East Africa.  That would be great, but perhaps a better idea would be to get some of our K2 Rippers and Toolbars over there first.  Tillers is a 501c(3) non-profit and is always welcoming financial support  that would allow our currents projects to have a larger impact.  Please contact us if you would like to support this specific project.

A New Ripper?

David Kramer interned at Tillers back in 1989.  He ended up in Uganda with MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) from ’91 to ’95 and then came back to Tillers as an instructor from ’95 to ’98.  Since then he has been an industrial arts teacher at Comstock High School.  He is currently on sabbatical from his teaching responsibilities at Comstock and has rejoined Tillers’ staff.  For the past couple of months he has been diligently at work in the shop with our visiting staff member from Mozambique, Mozambane (or “Maza” for short).  Below is one of their latest collaborative innovations.  It has yet to be named.


It has come as a result of testing the previous K2 Ripper which some of you are familiar with (seen below).


Notable differences are the steering mechanisms.  Though the K2’s single handle provides the benefit of being driven from the side, out of the ripped or planted row, it was found by Obali (Tillers’ trainer in Uganda) and Maza to be harder to turn around at the end of each pass.  With two handles, the ripper can easily be picked up as oxen turn to face the next row.  Another difference is the black part shown in the top picture.  This device allows for the user to raise and lock the blade for easier transport.  Finally, David and Maza’s new creation has been achieved with less parts and less bolts, which translates in to cheaper manufacturing costs.

Yesterday the two designers headed for Dalton, OH and Pioneer Equipment.  There they will visit and consult with Daniel Wengerd for three days and most likely will return with new ideas and improvements.   We’ll keep you posted.

From David Kline’s “Great Possessions”

Lots of land in America is set aside for conservation easement or given to land conservancies, and many landowners do this to preserve visual landscapes and/or protect local wildlife from development.  Last night, in the introduction of Kline’s book, I read this:

Great Possessions“Gary Nabhan wrote in the The Desert Smells Like Rain about two Sonora Desert oases, the first of which, in Arizona, began to die when the Park Service turned it into a bird sanctuary and, in an effort to preserve it for wildlife, removed the Indians who farmed and lived there.  The other oasis, across the Mexican border, has long been tended by a village of Papago Indians and is thriving.  An ornithologist found twice as many species of birds there as he found at the bird sanctuary in Arizona.”

He goes on, “As Mr. Nabhan’s Indian friend said, ‘That’s because those birds, they come where the people are.  When the people live and work in a place, and plant their seeds, and water their trees, the birds go live with them.  They like those places, there’s plenty to eat, and that’s when we are friends to them.'”

If done thoughtfully, small-scale farming (the typical Amish farm is 80 acres) can create beautiful visual landscapes and sanctuary for wildlife.  Human and animal habitation can exist in harmony.

Monday, August 31st, 2015

IMG_4239I peeked into the woodshop this morning and it was supremely tidy.  This clamped table was the only object that stood out.  This past weekend Jim Crammond taught a class on how to make a Shaker Style Table.  It was a small group from what I hear, but it appears someone was successful in piecing one together.   Shakers believed that making something well was an “act of prayer”.   Whoever carved this yoke in the Oxen Basics class last week must have been praying pretty hard because it sure came out nice.  The sun was coming in through the IMG_4238window just right and the clean lines of this simple technology seemed to speak more to the Shaker aesthetic than all the metal clamps around the table. Wil Dancey from Dancey Family Farms in Ontario joined us last week for a truncated class.  He made an eight inch yoke, I believe, for his Devon yearlings he hopes to train.  Our beloved volunteer Duane Vedders also came for two morning of driving, and Julian Lauzzana from Earthen Heart Homestead in Bangor, MI came for a one day introduction.

IMG_4240From the woodshop, I made my way to the practice fields.  Jaymee and Grif were ready to begin plowing behind Maza, John, Ellen and David (in the distance) who were testing the ripper again with its new circular blade fixed to the front of the toolbar.  This has been done in hopes of keeping the ripper shank from getting clogged with grass and residue.  You can’t see the blade in the below  picture but it seems to be performing more effectively when some weight is applied above it.  David was leaning on it as it made its IMG_4241way and all the grass was being sheared ahead of the ripper.  A suggestion was made to have a seat for children attached to the toolbar above the blade. 60 to 80 pounds would work perfectly, and it would be fun for the kids!




Tillers at Horse Progress Days 2015

Last week Tillers’ staff, interns, international guests, and good friend Tom Hurst headed south to Nick Graber’s farm in  Daviess County Indiana for the 22nd annual Horse Progress Days.  For anyone who’s never heard of HPD I direct you to Dale Stoltzfus’ article under “Our History” on the HPD website.  For brevity sake, I’ll just quote the official mission statement: “To encourage and promote the combination of animal power and the latest equipment innovations in an effort to support small scale farming and land stewardship. To show Draft Animal Power is possible, practical, and profitable.” 

Tillers has been participating since 1996 and as the years have gone by has become an integral part of the event which spans two days and is filled with field demonstrations, seminars, vendors, and other presentations.  It is predominantly an Amish, Mennonite, and Draft Horse Association event.  Many of the equipment companies represented are Amish-owned.  Probably 90% of the people in attendance were from these same communities.   As a first-timer, with Anabaptist beliefs but never having been part of a plain community, I anticipated this rare opportunity to experience contemporary Amish culture.

DSCF8320 (2)

Dulcy drives two Lineback calves as they pull a stone boat with Mbaidiro’s cultivator.

My wife and kids joined me for the event.  When we arrived on Thursday evening we were courteously welcomed at the gate, especially after mentioning the name of Dulcy Perkins, our farm manager and lead ox trainer, who has been showcasing working teams of oxen at the event for years.  We joined the Tillers encampment at the back of the farm.  It was a bit muddy.

The next morning we were awoken by a steady stream of Belgian teams being led past our tents to the field demonstrations.  We saw a team of twelve being hitched to a rather large four-bottom plow.  The loud speaker broke the farm silence and sounded out across the parade grounds.  Things were about to happen.  Already a crowd had filled the grandstands for the Pony Parade.  This consisted of a large train of Amish children proudly presenting their pony teams and hitches; an assortment of covered wagons, carts and  carriages.  In an orderly fashion, each rig pulled up to the announcer who asked each child  their name and then their ponies’ names.  He was a witty chap.  He had the crowd laughing as he presented each teamster with a bottle of “NatureGlow”, an herbal tonic of sorts.

Following this, the grounds opened up into a panoply of farm wisdom and festivity.  Depending on where you roamed, you might encounter a class or demonstration on anything from tree felling to horse dentistry to high tunnel cucumber production to “modernized relic technology”.  There were even lectures on Farm Aesthetics.  Plate lunches were prepared and sold by folks from the local community, and there was even a steam-powered (I think) ice-cream maker.

I spent a lot of the time helping Tillers board member Chuck Andrews and his wife with the Tillers information booth.  As is customary, Chuck, a skilled cooper and woodworker, operated a traditional rope-making device he had constructed.  In the past, this demonstration has apparently attracted a lot of attention at Horse Progress Days and is very popular among Amish youth.  All day, both days, there was a steady line of Amish boys waiting to make rope.  As the event wore on I realized that the eight feet of rope we were presenting to them, free of charge, was especially effective as a whip.  Farm boys love to crack whips.  Chuck should be awarded for his service.  He probably made a mile of rope with six times as much twine over the course of the weekend.  And he did it in two inches of mud underfoot.


This bale wrapper was a show stopper.

When I finally made it out to the field demonstrations, I had my first chance to actually form an impression of the event.  Hundreds of men were gathered in the middle of a hay field looking on as, one after another, teams of draft horses pulled powered fore-carts (equipped with gas engines and hydraulics) and a wide range of implements.  I just happened to be there toward the end when they were showcasing some of the larger, more complex pieces.  After asking a few questions I learned that the combinations of technologies (draft team, harness, fore-cart, implement, etc.) sometimes did not necessarily present a more economical alternative to those used by some conventional farmers (small, used tractors can be pretty cheap).  I wondered how all of it was reconciled by the standards of plain communities.

To this I didn’t find a direct answer (and I didn’t really ask for it either).  Although I did put it plainly to a friendly Amish farmer on the second day.  He was actually admiring the simplicity of our K2 Ripper on display (the toolbar we are promoting in East Africa).  My impression of what he said is this:  Where he is from, young Amish men have no choice but to work in the RV factories (piece work) in order to save up enough money to buy land for farming, which is expensive.  Then, in order to pay for their farms, their production has to compete with that of conventional, mechanized farms.  The draft horse-powered equipment innovations reflect their simultaneous need to keep up production and be different from the rest of the world.  The latter need is a religious one, which I understand.  Much could be said about this tension, but this post is getting long.  He said the worst influence on his community was the factory work.  I appreciated the man’s candor.

In the midst of all of this Tillers was given special billing in the Main Seminar Area.  Each day from 10:20 to 10:50 Tillers director Dick Roosenberg presented on Understanding and Helping within the Challenges Facing Farmers in Africa.  Our work was also highlighted during the International Exhibition each day from 12 to 1:15.  Chadian farmer Mbaidiro Taambaijim’d had come to us for training from MCC.  He was able to exhibit a cultivator he designed and built during his stay on Green Fields Farm in Ohio.  Our lead ox trainer in Uganda, Obali Robert, was also present and was given the floor each day to speak to a barn full of Amish farmers, reporters, and equipment manufacturers.  Wayne Wengerd of Pioneer Equipment concluded these sessions with heartfelt expressions of how meaningful it is to him that the Amish way of life and Amish innovations are relevant and helpful to farmers in other countries.  Amish society is a relatively closed society.  This connection to the outside world through appropriate technology and agriculture is cherished by many.

And herein lies the magic of Tillers.  I was deeply moved by the respect given to Tillers by leaders in the Amish community.  Our international work reinforces the mission of Horse Progress Days and validates the traditional lifestyle of plain communities.  We have worked with Amish farmers many times in the past and I hope that our collaborations with them increase and that our brothers and sisters in rural communities abroad will lead us all into deeper understandings of human need and interdependence.

Ryan DeRamus