Animal Farm: The 2002 green version

Farming with Suffolks

Ken Laing calls them his baby tractors. When I arrived around lunch time at his farm near St. Thomas, he was just returning with a Suffolk mare from pulling logs out of the bush, and the first thing he did, with great affection, was to point out the baby tractors — yearling Suffolks — in a yard beside the stable.

Suffolks, with a history that goes back 500 years in England, are a popular draught horse, gentle, economical to feed, tireless, and always a chestnut colour.

The baby tractors were already three quarters the size of an adult horse, showing the powerful shoulders and the sturdy, somewhat short legs that mark the breed.

Ken and his wife Martha operate an 81-hectare organic farm, and part of their income comes from raising, training, and selling Suffolks. They use 13 horses to work the farm, almost all of them Suffolks. I was visiting because I was curious about the finances of farming this way.

Farmland in southwestern Ontario is marvellous. The soil is rich, almost free of stones, and gently rolling, almost flat. On the way to the Laing’s I passed a succession of large mechanized farms, one with seven silos.

The two large tractors that I saw on that farm alone would cost in the vicinity of $400,000, so I guess the total cost of equipment would easily surpass $1 million. I shudder to think of the additional annual costs of fuel, repairs, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides.

The Laings have 24 pieces of equipment, which they value at about $15,000. Six implements, such as a hay baler, are used only with their one, 35-horsepower, ten-year-old tractor.

They recently bought a new plow for $1,100. The remaining 17 horse-drawn implements were either bought used, or were made by Ken in his well-equipped workshop.

The Laings own 14 hectares of the 81 hectares that they farm. They rent or sharecrop the remainder. They grow soybeans, spelt, oats and Christmas trees and,  on a little less than one hectare, they produce market vegetables .

Their success hinges on getting a premium price for organic food. For instance, they get $17 a bushel for soybeans as compared to the conventional price of $7. Last year, aphids were really bad, says Ken, « and they reduced our soybean crop to a half or a third of what we normally get. But it was a very good year for oats. We had good quality oats and we got a very good price.’’

The other way they get a premium return is in selling vegetables directly to customers at retail prices.

But the main factor in their success is reducing costs. The fuel for the Suffolks is the hay and oats that they grow. Fertilizer is the manure that the horses provide free. And there are no pesticide bills to pay, although sometimes, as with last year’s aphids, there is a price to pay.

Last year, the combined income from the vegetable garden and the farming operation came to about $60,000. After expenses were deducted, including the wages of two part-time summer workers, Ken and Martha were left with about $20,000.

Now that may not sound like much. But look at it this way: they live on a beautiful ridge from which they can see Lake Erie in the distance, they have built a handsome timber frame home, they are self-sufficient, answer only to themselves, and they are treading lightly on the environment.

And during the 1991 Gulf War, when Kuwait was in flames, Iraqis were being slaughtered mercilessly, and Western soldiers were being exposed to depleted uranium from firing armour-piercing shells, Ken and Martha decided to get rid of their car.

« It (the war) demonstrated what we, as a country, were prepared to do to get Mid-East oil,’’ says Ken. « We felt we had to do something.’’

So now they travel by horse and buggy, unless they need to rent a car for a long journey. It was an act of conscience, and stands as an inspiration for seeking alternatives in these troubled times.

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