|Vermont farmer William Butler enthusiastically traded in his tractor for a team of horses for plowing, making hay and logging. With the increasing price of fuel and decreasing returns on milk, this move was economical (as was switching to organic milk production). “Now I’m keeping my money,” he says. Not only do the horses save him money, but they are easier on the land. Photo by Carla Occaso.|
by Carla Occaso
Dairy farmer William Butler of Barnet Center, Vermont, decided the only way to keep farming was to sell three gas guzzling tractors and rely on mighty horsepower. When gas prices rose and milk prices dropped, Butler sold three of his four tractors and, after a short stint working off the farm, started using horses the old-fashioned way.
“We found out the hard way these small farms cannot stand the debt load” it takes to farm conventionally, using tractors and harvesting machines, Butler says, describing how he and his wife, Edith, got a Farm Service Administration loan for tractors and equipment about 13 years ago, only to choke on debt when milk prices bottomed out in 2001-02. Milk prices had dropped to about $11 per hundredweight, when he needed to sell milk at $14 per hundredweight to pay expenses. Hundredweight (100 pounds) is the unit of measure used by the milk industry when discussing prices.
“I was afraid to pick up the phone,” Edith explains. “It was always someone wanting money.” She says all their cash went toward debt, gas, grain and electricity, and they were “starving.”
William decided to stop shelling out money unnecessarily, sell the “fancy equipment” and take a job driving trucks for a New Hampshire company about an hour away in order to support his family of seven children. But after working for himself, Butler learned he does not like working for other people, and thought about other ways to turn a buck at the farmstead.
“Now I’m into keeping my money,” he says. “The more ways I can figure to keep my own money, the better I like it.”
Butler is a large, burly man who dresses in a farmer’s uniform of plaid flannel shirt, denim pants and suspenders, and has steely blue eyes that flash glints of determination. Edith, a petite woman with dark hair and dark eyes, speaks with strong convictions. Both agreed that they want to work toward financial independence by reducing their dependence on gas, electricity and other outside expenses, such as groceries.
Discovering that he could get more than twice the money for organic than conventionally produced milk, Butler looked into converting – which wasn’t hard, he says. He hadn’t used pesticides and herbicides anyway, and the land readily met certification requirements.
So, in October 2005, two tractor-trailer loads containing 46 certified organic Holstein heifers pulled into the driveway, and the Butlers started shipping milk to Horizon last December.
Last summer, with diesel selling for $3 per gallon, Butler says he would have paid $200 per day in fuel costs to run tractors to spread manure, plow fields, do the logging and make hay. Horses might take more work, but it costs $4 per horse, per day, to feed them.
Acquiring old-fashioned cultivating equipment for his horses – 12 Percherons and a team of Belgians – has been easy, he notes. Every old farm has them lying around, not being used. Butler finds equipment in hedgerows and barns and has no problems buying it.
Now he can take a team of horses to plow the freshly fertilized garden using an old-fashioned plow attached to the harness with a rough-hewn log. His sons and coworkers, Richard and William, set up the team and stand ready, in case of problems. Butler can be heard using the traditional horse team commands, “Haw” and “Whoa.” He easily plows several furrows in the rich soil on the patch of land overlooking one of Barnet’s most breathtaking vistas, as if he had suddenly stepped out of a scene in a Currier and Ives painting. Butler appears to be at home behind the harness and, seasoned horseman that he is, has a strong rapport with the animals. Years earlier he earned his living logging with horses, using skills he came by as a child.
“I grew up with horses,” Butler explains: He was raised on a dairy farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and had an Amish grandmother. The Amish are a tight-knit religious community, living primarily in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, that shuns modern contraptions, from engines to flush toilets.
Butler says now that he has returned to farming, he will use horses for all the chores, such as plowing, haying and logging. He will use his last remaining tractor, a 1969 Farmall, to bale hay and load manure.
Butler says he can manage this relatively small herd of cows, adding that farmers with hundreds of cows and dozens of employees are not doing the kind of farming he wants to do. “That’s not what farming is to me,” Butler says of huge dairy operations. “Farming is a way of life. Those big farms are milk factories, they aren’t farms.”
Edith does her share to run the farm and keep costs down while using as little fossil-fuel energy as possible. With her daughter, Diane, Edith “puts up” all manner of vegetables, including corn, carrots, tomatoes, squash, beans, relish and pickles. She cooks their organically grown beef and ham on a wood-fueled cook stove that also heats the house. Sugar and flour are the primary provisions she gets at the store. She hopes to get a cream separator so that she can churn her own butter. Edith is responsible for milking the cows. The Butlers try to save or make money wherever possible.
William and his sons are also in a long-term agreement to do some forestry for Karme Choling, a nearby Buddhist retreat sitting on hundreds of wooded acres. Butler says that cultivating logs with horses is much easier on the land than using a tractor, which leaves behind a torn up forest floor.
They will find out this year for the first time what it is like to harvest hay with horses rather than tractors, but Butler doesn’t sound daunted. In fact, he sounds content to be navigating on the upside through difficult times.
“When you’ve worked for yourself … to work for someone else … My God,” Butler sighs, looking off into the distance.
After a long struggle to survive and to keep up the farm, the Butler family now appears to be living happily with 14 horses, five guinea hens, 46 milking cows, some beef cows, six pigs and an adorable gang of stately bullmastiffs and affectionate little pugs.
“I love it,” Butler says.
About the author: Carla Occaso works as a writer and photographer in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Her work has appeared in Science Magazine, American Police Beat, Rural Heritage, Vermont Life, Vermont Magazine, Northern Woodlands magazine and The Northland Journal. She is also a regular contributor to The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus daily newspaper (www.timesargus.com).