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Country Gentleman: The benefits of farming the old-fashioned way

A forest green tree frog is seen perched on a chopped tree trunk. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

We began keeping two horses, Yukimaru and Chachamaru, for the purpose of pulling logs out of the woods and as pack animals for carrying supplies and equipment for pleasant trips into the surrounding forests and mountains.

We imported horse equipment from America and Canada, and at the same time, we brought in a plow and a harrow, and here in Japan, we also found an old but perfectly functioning Meiji period Japanese plow. It is our ambition to also use our horses for pulling plows and harrows in order to bring back these basic country skills, as well as provide extra training for the horses.

When I was a boy, growing up in hilly Wales, there was a major argument going on among country folk about the safest and best way to plow. Modern people favored the motorized tractor, but many conservative farmers insisted that on slopes, tractors were dangerous. When pulling a plow across a steep slope, tractors could roll over and kill the driver, an accident that was fairly common back then, before the suspension system was improved.

Plows have been basic tools of agriculture for at least 4,000 years. A plow is a large farming implement with one or more blades fixed in a frame that are pulled over the soil with the blade cutting in and turning the soil over to create a furrow, ready for planting seeds or potatoes or whatever.

A harrow is a rather similar tool, but it does not turn the soil over, it cuts through the soil and breaks up clods, smoothing over the surface. A harrow can be used to prepare a field for seeds that are scattered on the surface, or for covering seeds that have been planted in the furrows.

Plows and harrows were traditionally pulled by animals. In our case, and indeed, in Britain when I was a boy, horses were used, but in many countries, oxen pulled farming equipment. In other countries it has been water buffalo, camels or even elephants.

Plowing is hard work and excellent strengthening exercise for a horse. At the same time, it is quite a skill for a human to keep the furrows straight. Our horses are not well trained enough to pull a plow and be guided by a long rein, so somebody has to lead the horse while another person grips the guiding bars of the plow. It is much easier to use a tractor, of course. Even so, we soon found out that even our rather small (420 kilogram) horses plowing a field prepared it for planting, and was much quicker than a man wielding a mattock.

I have black and white photographs, which I took in 1968 of a man plowing his field in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia using an Abyssinian short-horned zebu ox and a simple plow with a design that hadn't changed for thousands of years. He guided the ox with a long whip, not reins. Hearing his high-pitched yells and the crack of the whip, with the awesome and magnificent Simien escarpment as a background, I felt as if I had stepped back into the times of King Solomon.

However, the greatest memories I have of plowing come from my boyhood and early youth. When a horse, or even a tractor, pulled a plow in those British fields of 60 or more years ago, the plow would be followed by hundreds of crying, wheeling, seagulls, crows and starlings, darting down to land and snatch up any worm, grub or other tasty insect that the plow had uncovered. Nowadays, you would only see such an avian display on fields that grew their crops without pesticides or petroleum-based fertilizers.

In our fields, we use horse manure that is mixed with the straw or saw dust and wood shavings that are spread in the stables, matured at least a year. Yes, we do have lots of earthworms and beetle grubs.

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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