Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A wild horse on the prairie in Lantry, S.D. On some small farms, draft horses are still used to pull buggies, carriages, and farm equipment.

For some farmers, a return to animal power

A nonprofit based in Michigan teaches animal-powered farming at home and abroad. Draft power, or animal traction, is a method smaller farmers still use because draft animals cost less than tractors and require no fuel.

Despite the mammoth size of two Belgium Draft horses, Duane Westrate, following closely behind the bouncing tails, easily directs their movement with one hand.

"Gee," Westrate calls out to the animals, who in response, simultaneously turn to the right. He holds a line of leather straps connected to each horse harness with solely his right hand.

Westrate was teaching six interns and two visiting guests the basics of draft horse handling, hitching and driving during four daylong courses at Tiller International this week, the Kalamazoo Gazette reports ( ).

The class, offered once a year, teaches individuals how to drive a draft horse, which are used to pull buggies, carriages and farm equipment. 

The individual, or driver, communicates with the horse through iterations and line movements, without riding the horse, to direct the movement. By the end of the week the class will learn draft-powered plowing.

Tillers International is a nonprofit, tax-exempt Michigan corporation known for its specialty in animal-powered farming with oxen and draft horses. Draft power, or animal traction, is a method smaller farmers still use because draft animals cost less than tractors and require no fuel.

"I think it's a great way of farming for a small-scale farm and besides from being pleasant, it makes sense," said Cynthia Main, an intern at Tillers, who was taking the course. "It's actually a really viable option for small farmers."

The organization offers classes in farming, logging, homesteading, blacksmith, woodworking, coopering, beekeeping and cheese making, as well. The farm sits on 430 acres at Cook's Mill Learning Center in Scotts.

Tillers, founded in 1981, has gained an international reputation for its skills and effectiveness in teaching animal-powered farming.

The organization partners with various organizations and government entities, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Land O'Lakes International Food for Progress Program, among others.

Tillers has participated in farming programs in at least nine countries in Africa and South America.

Executive director Dick Roosenberg, 66, recently returned from training hundreds of farmers in Uganda for about six weeks. Tillers trainers are taking the lead in teaching African farmers how to use draft power and better farming techniques with minimal tillage, he said.

A relationship with Howard Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, led to the past two years of Tillers being funded to teach ox-powered biological agriculture and soil conservation in South Africa through the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Roosenberg said.

"What we're doing now is conservation farming, an effort to provide more tools to deal with climate change," Roosenberg said. "To me, the most exciting thing is the people we pick up from farms who are bright but not formerly educated and we put tools in their hands that allow them to do amazing things."

We see what someone is doing in South Africa and move it to Uganda, or Madagascar to Haiti," he said. "We're bouncing around the world as a catalyst."

Tillers International's Annual Plow Day Open House takes place on Saturday, April 27. The public is welcome to check out Tillers International facilities and learn how to plow for free.

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