Starting a Sustainable Draft Powered Farm
Hayshaker Farm, Walla Walla, WA
September 12, 2016
Hayshaker farmowners Chandler Briggs and Leila Schneider sat outside their turn-of-the-century Italian-built bungalow and addressed 15 Farm Walk attendees who came to learn about sustainable vegetable farming with draft horses. While Hayshaker Farm is not certified organic, their practices align with principles of nutrient cycling, energy efficiency and chemical-free agriculture. And, because of their use of draft horses for nearly all the load-bearing work, they are largely independent from fossil fuels to produce a great variety of vegetables.
A walk through the vegetable fields demonstrates row spacing that accommodates horse-drawn equipment. The horses, Dusty and Jackson, 10 year old Percheron geldings happily ate their hay in the barn while Chandler and Joel Sokoloff, another local teamster, spoke on the details of their care and maintenance to encourage productive work. The horse-drawn equipment, arranged neatly next to the barn, featured a non-motorized John Deere and several cultivators. These machines can be bought new from a few companies which still manufacturer them but Chandler prefers to buy them used via Craigslist and other channels. The older equipment (much of Chandler’s equipment was made in the 1930’s) tended to be made specific to the needs of a local region and community, which adds interest and often increased durability.
While farming with draft horses may be a big adjustment to make for many beginning farmers who are used to tractor-pulled equipment, there are much lower up-front costs to get started than if a fully mechanized operation is the goal. Another advantage is the relative ease of repairing non-motorized equipment if one has or can learn basic skills in welding.
To Chandler and Leila, being financially viable is as important as being ecologically sustainable. Because of this principle, they quickly saw the need to upgrade from 2 acres to 8 acres in order to generate enough volume to stay competitive in the market. Their chicory, celeriac and fennel tops are sold to restaurants in Walla Walla, which is supported by a vibrant wine tourism industry.
In their second year as a business, 45% of their sales go to restaurants in Walla Walla, 35% to three regional farmers markets, with remaining split among consignment sales at a local retailer, their winter CSA and a local food cooperative. They also host several pop-up markets throughout the year which they promote successfully through social media. Retaining customers year round has been their greatest goal and challenge but one upon which they continue to improve through the winter CSA, pop-up markets and through social media.
Despite their use of classic production technology, Leila and Chandler have found a complementary tool in modern communication. From texting orders with chefs to sharing and sourcing farm stand ideas via Instagram to promoting the farm on Facebook and via their website, Hayshaker takes advantage of what’s attractive to customers today.
Summary by Elizabeth Murphy
This farm walk funded in part by the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Program.