When you hear the word teamster, what springs to mind? Unions? Jimmy Hoffa? Big 18-wheeler trucks hauling freight down the interstate? (And yes, I am going somewhere farm-related with this...)
Originally, a teamster was one who drove a team of horses. Someone who made their living with a set of reins in hand. Back before tractors and big rigs, there were big horses. They were used to plow the fields and to pull wagons, loaded with goods, from town to town. Interestingly enough, the word “teamster” stuck with the freight haulers, but not the farmers when hooves were replaced with steel. So today, most Americans think of teamsters as truckers, but it is also a word proudly used by the small but dedicated group of people who choose to farm with horses, like Dan and I. Being a teamster, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, is really a dying art, although it does seem to be making somewhat of a comeback with the increases in both interest in sustainable farming practices, and also the cost of diesel fuel. Being an old-fashioned teamster AND a woman is rarer yet. And while I certainly am no expert (I won't even think about working the horses if Dan isn't home, just in case), I do take great joy in helping to do some of the real work of the farm with those lines in my hand.
Two weeks ago, Dan spent a good part of the weekend walking behind the plow. This weekend, we finished the rest of the soil prep. So on Saturday, Dan harnessed up the horses and ran the disc and harrow. Both of these machines break up the large clods turned over by the plow into smaller, more workable pieces. Next comes the cultipacker. It's like a big roller with a seat above. You ride it, and it basically smashes the remaining small clods. It is my absolute favorite piece of machinery to run. Probably because it was the first piece I ever drove without Dan being right next to me. That, and it's hard to mess up. If you miss a spot, you can go back and catch it on the next pass. If you go over the same spot twice, it's fine. But of course, it's a point of pride to try and have those rows straight and even, and doing it efficiently means you spend less time doing it, which is important too, since there is never enough time in the day to get everything done on a farm, especially in spring. Having grown up riding horses (I met my horse just before my 12th birthday), I'm quite used to a set of reins in my hands. But there is something different when you're driving a team. I'm not sure if it is because you're controlling them in a different way- using only voice and pressure from the lines as opposed to the subtle ways all your muscles communicate when astride- or if it's the size thing. I love Dixie & Dolly, I often feed them, bring them inside the barn, clean their stalls...I'm very comfortable working around them. But they are big. Really big. Their backs are at least as tall as the top of my head when I stand next to them, and at 5'4', I'm not terribly short. Their feet are literally as big as dinner plates. We estimate their weight to be somewhere between 1800-2000 pounds. Each. There is incredible power in those muscles, and especially as a novice teamster, I'm very aware of that when I take up the reins.
But through generations of breeding and hours of training, the horses really do seem to understand, even enjoy, their job. When we got to the end of a row, almost before I changed the pressure on the reins to tell them to turn, Dixie & Dolly were already moving to turn the cultipacker. When it works, it is amazing...a feeling of two horses, a person, and some otherwise lifeless equipment, all moving as one through the field, with the smell of fresh spring soil everywhere. It's almost magical. There really is a sense that we are all taking pride in our work, all three of us. Heads up, backs straight, we move together across the freshly turned earth, preparing it for another spring of new life, and another season of producing real food. Using many of the simple, effective, and sustainable methods that American farmers used for generations, when small family farms were the norm, and not the exception. Except for the neighbors driving by in cars and my purple plastic sunglasses, it could be a scene from 1912 as easily as 2012.
But of course, as easy as it is to be charmed into that daydream by the creak of leather and the jingle of metal, I snap out of it soon enough, when Dixie tries biting Dolly again on another turn, or when the pair of them want to go too fast across the field. Make no mistake, for all the idyllic splendor of the scene, it is real work. But the kind of work that leaves you with both tired muscles and a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. It makes me proud of what we do, and just as importantly, how we do it.