For most farmers, a day of plowing or tilling features the roar of a diesel engine, the stench of exhaust, and the soil compaction imparted by heavy-duty treads.
Not so at Horsepower Farm, owned by the Birdsall family, on Maine’s Blue Hill Peninsula. This three-generation operation is known throughout the region for grass-fed lamb, certified-organic vegetables, and the Suffolk Punch draft horses that work the land.
Native to the county of Suffolk in the east of England, the Suffolk Punch arrived in North America in 1865. It’s the only draft horse selected exclusively for farm work (most heavy breeds trace their origins to military applications) and boasts a pedigree reaching back to the late 1500s. “His color is bright chestnut,” wrote Marguerite Henry in her 1951 Album of Horses, “like a tongue of fire against the black field furrows, against green corn blades, against yellow wheat, against blue horizons.”
With a stocky build, upright shoulders, and a thrifty, hardy constitution, the Suffolk Punch is ideally suited to agrarian labor in brisk northern climes. “They’re easy in the woods, good in the field, willing,” says Andy Birdsall, 56, who has worked several breeds since his parents established Horsepower Farm in 1973. “I can take one out single, just loop the reins over my neck, hold the cultivator, and run through the garden. The horse goes through perfectly.”
Paul Birdsall, now 86, has trained some 150 teamsters in his career, including both son Andy and grandson Drew, a professional farrier. (In the word’s original sense, a teamster is a person who drives a team of animals.) Initially, Paul worked Belgians, but it’s the sweet, friendly Suffolk that captured his heart. Many of his trainees favor the breed, too. At just 16 hands (64 inches, at the shoulders), its relatively diminutive stature eases the teamster’s labors. Tack (collar, harness, traces, pads, and more) can weigh upwards of 45 pounds; the shorter a horse’s legs, the greater its pulling power and the less a teamster must hoist at the start and end of each day.
The breed also has terrific feet. “Drew comes back every so often, wringing his hands about the feet he sees on other horses,” says Paul, who did most of his own shoeing for three decades, “but ours are great. They go barefoot, except in winter.”
Perhaps most important, he says, the Suffolks are a joy to work with and even improve the soil. “You don’t get the compaction with horses that you get with a tractor. And we depend on the manure to make our organic compost. We’d be lost without it.”
Photography by Brian Feulner
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, August/September 2014