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Belgian mares make BIG impression

by: Vern Uyetake, 
Monday was a good day for sunshine, so Laura Masterson of 47th Avenue Farms had her two new Belgian mares, Bonnie and Patty, out doing some plowing on the 10-acre plot at Luscher Farm.

Two new employees of the 47th Avenue Farm reported for work this past weekend.

They're a couple of beautiful blondes of about average size: 1,800 pounds each. Undoubtedly, they would look good in a beer commercial.

They are Patty and Bonnie, the two new Belgian mare draft horses, who made their long anticipated debut at Luscher Farm this past weekend, and they also showed up for work on Monday since the weather was so nice.

For the horses' owner, Laura Masterson, owner and operator of 47th Avenue Farm, it was a heart-warming moment. Tractors can accomplish a lot of work, but you just can't bond with them.

'I do. I do!' Masterson answered when asked if she owned the horses. 'I've been planning to have horses work here for a long time, and there were times I wondered if my hopes would ever come to fruition.

'I've been learning about draft horses, buying equipment, getting my ducks in order, so to speak.'

If Masterson was overjoyed, a neighbor was ecstatic. When she spotted the two horses plowing away, she came running down to the field to see them up close.

'Oh my God! I can't believe my eyes!' the woman said. 'It's amazing. Kids should be watching this.'

True, Bonnie and Patty, magnificent and huge, seem like a wonderful blast from the past. After all, aside from the Amish, it seems the only places you see draft horses these days are in old Gary Cooper movies. The notion of Masterson bringing a couple of plow horses to Luscher seems quaint, nostalgic and eccentric. And not all that businesslike.

But actually, she is smart, practical, a step ahead of the time, and sustainable. No, draft horses will not be replacing the tractor in producing the huge amount of food need by Americans and all other people of the world. But they definitely have their place in the world of farming today, especially with the new emphasis on sustainability, and they have been quietly making a comeback in recent years.

Just ask Doug 'Doc' Hammill, a veterinarian who has been mentoring Masterson and many other people across the country about the use of horses for farming. He was on hand for Bonnie and Patty's debut at Luscher, standing by almost like a proud parent.

'There has been a tremendous resurgence in actual working with horses on farms,' Hammill said. 'There are 400,000 horses working on farms today, with the bulk of them on Amish farms.'

Hammill is as responsible as anyone for bringing back the big horses for farm work with his clinics and workshops, both at his ranch in Montana and all over the USA. His love of horses began when he was 5 years old and he used to wake up early one day a week - 'It was the only day I woke up early' - to watch an elderly lady make her farm produce deliveries hauled by a single horse.

His love affair only grew as he became older. He became a veterinarian and started associating with 'real, master horsemen who had worked with horses in harness all of their lives.'

In 1971 Hammill gave his first clinic and thus a passer-on of tradition. In 1976 he began writing for a new farm horse magazine called Small Farmer Journal.

But it took more than a few enthusiasts to bring back the working farm horse. Draft horses actually began to have a place in the new world of farming.

'With these two horses on an investment of $5,000 or $6,000, Laura can do almost everything she could with a tractor that would cost $20,000 or $30,000,' Hammill said. 'Then there's the bond between human and animal. It takes skill and communication skills, and it is very rewarding when things work out well.

'Personally, I don't like the noise or exhaust fumes from a tractor.'

One thing he does like: 'Their urine and manure make an incredibly rich fertilizer.'

'I would much rather drive a horse than a tractor,' Masterson said. 'There is such a deep relationship with them. If you develop a good relationship with them you can use a lightness of touch that is so subtle. You don't have to manhandle them like so many people did in the old days.'

But Masterson is in business, and if Bonnie and Patty couldn't produce on the 10 acres at 47th Avenue Farm, they would be back at their old gig, working parades and fairs.

'For our scale here, they are really appropriate for what we do,' Masterson said. 'When the weather is good it's possible for them to work every day of the week. They can disc, plow, harrow, cultivate. There's all kinds of stuff they can help with.

'To me this feels new and innovative. We're not going backward. These horses are no more impractical than all of the organic farming that is going on now. I'm just using all of the tools I can from the present and the past to create a sustainable farming system.'

Later on Masterson may become more businesslike with Bonnie and Patty. But right now fascination has the upper hand. She only reluctantly gave up her seat on the plow to Hammill to take the horses on a few furrows.

'Look at them doing all that work for us,' Masterson said. 'The rewards they give to you are huge. And they keep giving.'

To find out more about draft horses, e-mail Doug Hammill at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 406-756-2889.