I’ve been working at Tillers now for a month but was volunteering for a few months before I was hired. From the beginning, I always noticed a tattered print tucked up in the corner of the main bulletin board in the Parrish guesthouse. After working here a couple of weeks, seeing and admiring it daily, I finally noticed the small print at the bottom, “Hand printed on handmade paper at Sri Pundarik Dham, Bangledesh”. It also read, “International Society for Cow Protection”. This was curious.
ISCOWP began in 1989 at the Gita Nagari ISKCON Farm Community in Pennsylvania, as far as I can tell. ISKCON stands for International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or the Hare Krishnas. When I asked the other staff members about this they told me that Hare Krishnas from Detroit used to come to Tillers for the Oxen Basics class. As you can see, the text reads, “Ox Power: The Alternative Energy”. ISCOWP’s mission statement includes the following: “ISCOWP presents the practices and philosophy of compassionate cow protection …………………and training oxen (male cows or steers) to replace farm machinery and thereby show an alternative to their slaughter”.
The overlap with Tillers’ mission is obvious, and so are the differences. For one, we’re still raising beef cattle, though I will say that our Farm Manager, Dulcy Perkins, is a big fan of Temple Grandin (who revolutionized the treatment of beef cattle in America) and you can find Grandin’s famous work Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior on the shelf in the library at Tillers. It’s also worth mentioning that in our international trainings and in our classes at the Cook’s Mill Learning Center we teach the principles of “communicative touch” in ox driving. Part of this training (see picture) involves two blindfolded students being yoked together and driven by a third. This exercise instills the empathy necessary for a teamster to humanely and more effectively communicate with his or her team.
The Grandin reference may not satisfy ISKCON (or anyone for that matter. The beef industry doesn’t exactly live up to her depth of feeling for animals, nor is there anything humane about the amount of meat Americans eat) but these things do speak to our commitment to the humane treatment of our Milking Shorthorn herd, which also happens to spawn our oxen teams. Nevertheless, in this case, it is where Tillers and ISCOWP agree that there is special meaning. Farm machinery that depends on fossil fuel is not appropriate for the vast majority of the estimated 400 million farmers worldwide who still use oxen. For many reasons, tractor maintenance is not sustainable for these farmers, economics being one. Nor do they need an expansion of the beef cattle industry (which, interestingly, happened in America when the tractor was popularized and the land that was previously used to feed draft animals and rural communities was then used to raise beef cattle for urban consumers). What is more appropriate is the promotion of skills and innovation using ox power. For these farmers, ox-power is clean, it’s alternative, it’s sustainable (whatever you want to call it), and it is also very practical. It empowers rural communities around the world to support themselves independent of volatile fuel and fluctuating food prices. In this way, Tillers (and ISCOWP) is devoted to providing the skill and knowledge base for these rural communities to thrive.