A Man and His Ox

Food Systems network NYC recently spoke with Mike in NYC.
Story by: Ed Yowell

“Whoa, farming with oxen…there’s a story,” I thought when, at a Wednesday, Union Square Greenmarket, I spoke to farmer and friend Mike Betit, of Tamarack Hollow Farm in Burlington, Vermont. (Some Newsletter readers may remember Mike as one of four, a farmer, Mike, two butchers, and a chef, who returned to omnivorous ways after their adventures in vegetarianism, as recounted in ‘Born Again Omnivores.”

Mike, and his partner Amanda Andrews, farm 88 acres, with about six acres under organic cultivation in 2011 and with plans to increase to ten acres this spring. Tamarack Hollow started transitioning from being primarily a pig farm to a more diversified operation in 2008. With the Great Recession, Mike saw the demand for his sustainably raised, pastured pigs start to decrease…he produced 300 pigs in 2008 and 70 in 2011. Mike said, “Prior to 2008, the demand for good protein was increasing, and supply increased to meet the demand.” He continued, “With the recession, people just weren’t buying high-priced protein. It was one of the first things they cut.” Consequently, Mike and Amanda’s fresh and smoked pork products at market are now increasingly supplemented by organic produce including greens and cabbages and turnips, radishes, and other root vegetables.

Mike and Amanda, in addition to having their operation certified organic, practice managed intensive rotational grazing coordinated with crop rotation. On their web site they have written, “We believe that diverse farms offer the most sustainable option for the future of farming. Every product from our farm represents a vital component of our farm system: pigs aggressively clear abandoned ground, boosting soil fertility, and keeping weed pressure low. As a result, successive vegetable and cover crop rotations produce a bounty of produce, without the dependency on plastics and fertilizers that we find distressingly common in organic production.” And, their integrated weed management approach, in addition to meaning no sprays, not even those certified as organic, means weeding everything by hand.

It takes about 18 hours for a human to weed what a human enhanced by an ox can weed in about three hours, Mike figured. So, he figured, he and an ox could weed two acres in a day instead of six. With plans to increase vegetable production in 2012, savings like that are important. Hence, Mike and Amanda’s work force was joined by Lucky the Holstein Ox.

ScreenshotIt occurs that, like me, many New York City dwellers have only the vaguest notion of what an ox is or does, other than supplying tails to braise. An ox, plural oxen, is a bovine creature; usually a castrated bull (castration making bulls more tractable) trained to be a draught (or draft) animal. Oxen may be, less typically, bulls or cows and can be multi-purpose, used for draught and meat, albeit not at the same time. Oxen are joined by horses in the draughting chore, but there are significant differences, which are obvious, even to a city dweller, with a little thought. Significantly, horses are fast and cattle are slow. The pulling style of horses is different than that of oxen…the operative characteristics of oxen’s style being slow and steady. Oxen are best fit to ploughing (or plowing), transporting, threshing, and powering machines, to mill grain or supply irrigation. Draught horses are best fit to harvest grain, which benefits from greater speed.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned comparisons, draught animals, horses and oxen, are interchangeable. When I asked Mike why an ox and not a horse, he responded, “I’m a Vermonter, Vermont is a dairy state, I guess I’m just a bovine kind of a guy.” While that can explain the presence of Lucky the ox, it does not explain Lucky instead of the tractor. Mike says his big wheeled tractor compacts the soil, an undesirable circumstance, and the costs of associated, specialized, equipment for the tractor to pull are higher than the costs of comparable equipment to be pulled by an ox. So, with few economies of scale to help absorb higher mechanization costs, Lucky is a versatile, cost-effective contributor to the bottom line of Tamarack Hollow Farm.

Lucky is also a way to decrease the farm’s use of fossil fuel while providing a more satisfying work experience for the human part of the team than the does the tractor, for understanding the ox mentality is a necessary prerequisite to success. Lucky, like other oxen, is a slow starter, needing to get into the rhythm of the task at hand gradually, perhaps not so unlike a human…a little start, followed by a short rest, gets him into the mind set for the serious, deliberate, work ahead. This year Amanda and Mike plan to use Lucky for more tasks, including ploughing and harvesting, and perhaps acquiring another ox.

For those wanting to know more, an English – Ox Dictionary is provided here:
Get Up – Go Forward
Whoa – Stop
Back – Back Up
Gee – Turn Right
Haw – Turn Left


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