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.
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.
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.