Digging up the dirt

Amish Plowing

Gene Wintersole photo

As Spring arrives, so does the need to prepare for planting of crops. Farming among the Amish remains in the 8 - 10% range with regard to family occupations.

Recently I interviewed a New Order Amish farmer about farming methods. Even though Amish are allowed to utilize tractors on the farm for running equipment, some New Order may use tractors for fieldwork. That is not the norm, but demonstrates the extreme examples from one group to another.

Working in the field does not come easy. Amish men don't use equipment with comfortable seats and air-conditioned cabs. A straw hat and a cooler with water is as comfortable as it gets.

Some interesting facts about the draft horse (the real horse power) is that a draft horse can exert 10% of its body weight with a horizontal pull. A 1,500 pound horse can pull 150 pounds all day. If you need the horse for less time, then it would work well with just half of its weight.

The type of soil, whether dry or moist, will also affect how many horses to use as well as the depth of the plow. The dryer the soil, the lighter the pull. Horses also need a rest. If overworked to hard, they can get sore muscles.

The general rule of thumb is one horse can work 25 acres. Its a good idea to have a good solid team due to horses aging and possibilities of getting sick. One team of horses do not work all day in the field. They will be switched out with a fresh team.

What I found interesting was his comment about the necessity to maintain manageable acreage. For example: "We could have hundreds of acres to farm, but that would require us to spend more time in the fields instead of with the family after dinner. We don't put head lights on our draft horses, therefore, we are forced to stop farming at dusk to dark. If we used tractors in the field, we could use the headlights and work all evening. We have to know where to drawn the line and focus on our family."

This farmer supplements his income with broiler chickens and dairy farming. Although he plants mostly corn and bails hay, it is mainly for his own use.

Plowing is one of the essential steps in preparing to sow crops.

Farmers plow on unfrozen ground during the winter months. As long as the frost is out of the ground, it can be plowed. Natural fertilizer (manure) needs to be spread on the ground before plowing so it can be worked into the soil.

In Holmes County, Ohio, he stated the average number of acreage is around 80 acres.

When the farmers plow sod, they usually are preparing to plant corn. Farming in Holmes County is done with crop rotation. Crop rotation keeps the nutrients in the soil and avoids erosion. After corn has been in for a season, a farmer will then plant oats. Sod is to strong for oats causing the oats to lodge. Following a year of oats, would be hay or alfalfa.

As you visit our area and observe farmers in the field, you may notice a variation of plowing techniques. Keep in mind, Holmes County, Ohio has around 8 different Amish groups. The groups vary in many ways according to their interpretation of progressing to the likeness of the worlds ways. One of my most interesting Amish groups is known as the Swartzentruber Amish. To me, I would describe the Swartzentruber as "the true Amish". The more I learn about their beliefs, I can see why they maintain methods of living that to some people would question.

Swartzentruber farmers would be seen in the field or gardens by walking behind the horse drawn plow. Here you see a one bottom plow with a seat along with the water jug nearby. I would guess it is lunch time or he went to get a fresh team. It is a long, laborious day.

I often wondered how a farmer determines how many horses to hitch to a piece of equipment. Sometimes we see 4 - 6 horses and other times 2 - 3. Another factor that is consistent to Holmes County, Ohio farmers is they either use a Belgium or Percheron Draft horse. It also depends if the land being worked is flat or hilly causing the need for more horse power.

As far as the size of the plow, that can be up to the individual farmer. He will know what size and how many furrows to use.

Example... A one bottom plow is one furrow and usually requires 3 horses. You could use up to a three bottom plow using 6 horses.

It depends on the farmer as to his individual preference on what size plow he needs.

Imagine a front line of 4 horses. One of the horses would have to walk on plowed ground and would be tiresome. He stated in that case, that horse would be the less experienced and would be used in the team to get experience.

It is a slow process, but if you have good horses with the weather in your favor, a day in the field is a day well spent.