by Amelia Templeton
Ben Scileppi isn’t old enough to drive a car yet, but he has learned the more subtle art of driving a wagon hitched to a team of four draft horses.
Ben and his older sister Sarah Scileppi are part of a small community of farmers in the Pacific Northwest interested in expanding the role of draft animals in farming. The siblings work their family’s bio-dynamic farm near Medford in Southern Oregon.
In the Midwest and the Northeast, hundreds of thousands of farmers, mostly Amish Mennonites, still rely on draft animals to plow fields and haul loads on the farm.
In the Northwest, experts say likely fewer than a thousand farmers use draft animals today, though as recently as the 1940s, farmers in Washington’s Palouse region harvested wheat with teams of more than 30 horses.
Tractors are faster and more powerful but the practice of horse farming hangs on. And advocates of farming with horses say concern over the environmental impact of industrial farming has sparked a draft power renaissance. Small scale farms can use draft teams to cut their use of petrochemical fuel and to produce manure for fertilizer.