Friday, June 30, 2017

The Secret Handshake

When I was cycling regularly, it seemed like bumping into other cyclists occured often.  Shaved legs and VERY distinct tanlines made spotting them laughably easy.  Throw in a "Tour de France" T-shirt, and it was a clue for striking up a conversation about routes, training plans, and such.

Ox drovers are a little harder to spot for lots of reasons.  We're as rare as hen's teeth for one, and for
 another, we don't offer any characteristic tells. Truth be told, most ox drovers I know are pretty humble.  They don't seek attention and don't expect to meet other drovers on the street, so they pass by unless fate intervenes.

The other day, my family and I went to Connor Prairie for a short vacation.  I knew they had oxen and was determined to see them because. . . well, if you need that sentence finished, I suggest you look at other blogs.
We walked up to the "animal encounter" barn and a man greeted us.  I asked of they had oxen on the property and he told me about them with only some cursory details.  I assumed he didn't know the oxen well.  We then left and headed for 1836 Prairietown.  I asked there and was told that because they were walking the turkeys, the oxen wouldn't be out today (only one animal can be out at a time).

We explored for a while, found the paddock for the oxen, admired them, and saw the sights, when my mother-in-law called to say they had met the oxen expert and we should come to the "animal encounter" barn to meet him.

Long story short, we went back and met our friend from earlier.  Once Kevin knew that I knew oxen, and I knew that he knew oxen, we had a nice visit.  He mentioned that if I had said something earlier, he would have gotten them out and that I should come back again in the future.

We drovers need a secret handshake.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Show a Little Class (2)- Percy

The MODA blog got this entry submitted by Jim Whelan's nigh ox, Percy, who spent a week at Tillers last week.  It seems as if Carter is not the only one who can type:
Greetings – this is Percy writing this time…..we just returned from a great week at Tillers International in Michigan where we were up close and personal with a whole bunch of oxen.

What a great week – Mr. Collins, the President of MODA, really is a great ox drover. Carter said to tell Mr. Collins he was sorry about misbehaving in the woods one day. I didn’t know what to do but I just followed Carter’s lead and boy was that a mess. (Jim's note: the team was attempting to get hooked to a log when we think Carter got stung by a nettles plant and Carter got really excited because of the pain). Boy I somehow got wrapped around a sapling and didn’t know where to go. Both saplings broke and we managed to get safely out of the woods. Mr. Collins was also the main instructor for the Oxen Basics course. He taught us a lot about our capabilities and Mr. Jim learned a little bit also.
I am sure we will forget some of the students we met, but we really got to know Stephan from Georgia who spent a lot of time driving us around Tillers. Stephan’s dad helped us a lot also. We want to apologize to a man named Cameron for our misbehavior on Sunday when we were supposed to knock all those balls off the cones. It had been a long week and we were both tired and wanted to go back to the pasture by that time. Besides, what the heck was the use of knocking balls off a cone---now if they would have given us more logs to pull like we did the day before we would have done that. A young man named Kesi really gave us a workout the first few days. And a brave woman from California came all the way to Michigan just to see us. At least that is what Barb told us when she was driving us. We were really glad to show all these humans who may never have seen an ox before what we were all about. We hope all the class will continue their membership in MODA to learn more about oxen of all breeds and sizes. Oh we forgot to give our sympathy to the training calves that the students started. They got worked hard every day -twice a day- but soon caught on that the humans were the alphas.
We have to thank the Tillers staff who made us feel welcome in a really green pasture and checked on
us every day to make sure we were comfortable. Ivy, Else and Domenico you are the greatest. We hope each of you will find success in your later life as you learn more and more about the types of agriculture you perform at Tillers.
Chub and Jerry welcomed us home with a lot of laughs about the times they had at Tillers. They got to go to a new green pasture while we were gone and we are finishing up the old one. Mr. Jim tells us that we have a lot of work to do this summer and we will take the time to tell you about all the places we will be and the people we met. Until the next time, happy trails and stay out of the nettles.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Show a Little Class (1)

It might be possible to drive oxen, train oxen, and make yokes all on your own, but learning from someone sure speeds the process along.

Last week, ahead of the Midwest Ox Drovers Association's Gathering, Tillers hosted the Oxen Basics class for eight visiting students.  As usual, the class was an eclectic mix of interesting people connected by curiosity about oxen.  Cameron, Kenny and Kesi were farmers hoping to use oxen, Dan was a professor of large animal reproduction with 20 years of oxen experience, Stephan and Barb worked in museums and living history, Tim accompanied his son, Stephan, so he could also work in living history, and Jim was tuning up Percy and Carter for the summer fairs he attends.  

We enjoyed the week and had just enough mishaps to get a sense of what working with draft animals is really like.  More on that later.  

With a bit of coaching, some initial missteps, and a great deal of breakthroughs, the students all progressed, with some fine, precise driving coming at weeks end.  Cultivating corn with both single animals and teams illustrated the fine work that oxen can do.

The posted photos show the best parts of a class: the friendships that develop over a week- between both people and animals.  Cameron is working with Jim's team, as Jim graciously allowed the boys to be "guest instructors" for the week.  

It's always a shame to see a class end, but everyone needs to move on to the next adventure.   Godspeed, folks.  

Friday, June 16, 2017

As easy as possible

In early January, through the magic of video-conferencing, I interviewed Kevin Cunningham and Tom Jenkins about their oxen. Kevin is "a straight-ahead organic, tractor-based vegetable farmer" who started working oxen 6 years ago in Northern CA. Tom is a low-impact forester in NH.

RC:  Every teamster you know has a trick.  As professional ox teamsters, what tricks have you learned to make you work more efficient?
Kevin C (left), Tom J, and mini-me (lower corner), talking oxen

TJ:  I’ll walk mine over the log a lot of times.  I’ll turn them over one end of the log and walk them all the way up the log with the log in between the team.  You know, just because it’s easier than backing them up.

A couple of other things:   I'll almost always throw a pole on the ground before I drop the tree.  So if I've got a heavy saw log,  I'll drop  a four-inch pole or even a couple of branches off another top.  And I'll throw those on the ground and then I'll drop the tree on top of them.   It helps the team get it started.   That log will slide along that pole you threw down and it gives them an easier time getting it moving.  

And another thing I do is I try not to start them with the full weight of the log if I can help it.   If I drop a tree (facing) exactly away from my landing, I could grab the butt and head straight to the landing,  but I’ll buck a log off from it and then grab the tip of the log so I spin it around in a circle; And that way they gain momentum and they're moving a few steps before they actually have the full weight of the log. I think that makes a really big difference.  

I'm always saying:  I do everything I can all day long to make it as easy on the team as I can.  You know it's fun once in awhile to watch them pull and do really hard work and be proud about that, but anything you can do to make it as easy as possible, the more they're going to be happy to work for you you want to make sure that every day they go out and give you a hundred percent, so you want to make it easy for them to do that.  

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Without a Net

 "I take my chances, I don't mind working without a net." - Mary Chapin-Carpenter

Nose baskets are useful.  For some teams, VERY useful.  But like powertools, they can get in the way of learning to do things without crutches and with precision.  

I raked hay the other day with Brutus and Cassius.  They weren't hungry, so any eating would simply be misbehavior.  I decided to take along the nosebaskets, but hook them onto my forecart.  Ready if necessary, but only if.  

Long story short, the hay is done and the baskets remained on the cart.  One test for the week, passed.

Now, about the insulators on the fence post. . .that's a tale for another day.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Magic and Rhythm

Economies of scale conspire to remove the magic elements of farm work.  That one tree left in the middle of a field, providing a resting point for a farmer and her animals.  The ringing silence after the threshing machine is powered down, when the joking among the workers involved steps back out to occupy the now-empty spaces.  The sound of leather creaking on a harness or of yoke rings jingling, creating a bit of ambient, yet not unpleasant music to accompany the task.

Once they're gone from a farm, those magic moments often stay gone.  So it was a real joy to spend an afternoon last Wednesday putting up loose hay in the barn at Tillers using animal power.  

The class was "Farming with Horses and Oxen," and the students were living history professionals and prospective animal-powered farmers.  

While we worked (and I scrambled around deleting old clips from my phone to shoot a little video), Jim Slining remarked that there is a real rhythm to the teamwork involved in putting up hay with hooks and tracks.  Each person has a job and they all have to work and wait for their task to come round again. Some life metaphor probably lives in there.  Maybe you'll find it while you're putting up loose hay.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Yoking: Just a routine

Brutus and Cassius don't always yoke well at the hitching post.  Cassius assumes Brutus's long horns are intentionally invading his space.  Brutus knows how Cassius feels and fears retaliation.  A couple times they've dropped the yoke, making a smooth yoking routine more of a challenge.  

So it was nice to see this footage my son took in 2015.  It it, the boys are calm and relaxed.  That summer, we were working quite often and regularly worked on our yoking routine. 

It's nice to have a reminder of what it should look like.  We'll be back there again.  It's just a matter of routines.