New York Times: On a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.
Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.
Now, as diesel prices skyrocket, some farmers who have rejected many of the past century’s advances in agriculture have found a renewed logic in draft power. Partisans argue that animals can be cheaper to board and feed than any tractor.
They also run on the ultimate renewable resource: grass.
“Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels,” Mr. Ciotola said.
Animals are literally lighter on the land than machines.
“A tractor would have left ruts a foot deep in this road,” Mr. Ciotola noted.
In contrast, oxen or horses aerate the soil with their hooves as they go, preserving its fertile microbial layers. And as an added benefit, animals leave behind free fertilizer.
David Fisher, whose Natural Roots Community Supported Agriculture program in Conway, Mass., sells vegetables grown exclusively with horsepower, said he is getting record numbers of applicants for his apprentice program.
“Using animals is just really appealing to the senses,” he said, adding that he found it philosophically appealing as well. “There’s a deep environmental crisis right now, and live power is also about creating an alternative to petroleum. Grass is a solar powered resource — and you don’t need manufacturing plants or an engineering degree to make a horse go.”
Oxen are also cheap, at least compared to a tractor, and can work for 10 to 14 years. Since the dairy industry relies on keeping cows pregnant so they lactate, millions of baby bulls are born each year. A pair of calves start at $150 and range up to $1,500, depending on their breed and how much training they have.
Some dairies even give their young males away. Mr. Ciotola got Lucas and Larson, now 2 ½, as wobbly-kneed babies from a nearby raw-milk dairy, bartering for them with his own labor. “I just had to buy or make the yokes and cart,” he said.