Board President Donn Hewes posed some questions to Rich Lee and Kate Del Vecchio about their first season farming on their own with horses. Rich and Kate started Tendersoles Farm in the 2014 season. 
KateRichMolly
Tender Soles Farm
Dresden Mills, Maine

-Tell me about your farm?  Who, what, for whom!  Animals, kids, etc.

Tender Soles Farm is a diversified, soon-to-be certified organic farm comprised of Rich Lee and Kate Del Vecchio.  We met at a CSA fair nearby where we were both advertising CSAs for different farms we were working for 3 years ago and haven’t looked back since!  On the Bridge Farm, where we lease 28 acres of crop and hay ground, we grow primarily mixed vegetables, cut flowers, perennial and annual seedlings, medicinal and culinary herbs, and additionally raise some pigs and laying hens.  During the winter, I enjoy working in the woods single with our Suffolk, Jess.  We’ve got three draft horses total, one of which we recently acquired to eventually replace our older mare.

We choose to work with draft horses in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and to close the nutrient cycle by using their manure to fertilize our fields, minimize tillage and compaction, and working closer to the pace of our natural soil biology.  We believe horses bring farming to a more human scale and help us maintain the focus on quality of our produce and our relationships with the animals and environment rather than simply maximizing profits.

Long-term, we want to include kids from local schools in education on the farm as well as the more general public; connecting people with their food.  This is a big part of the sustainability of our food system and something I strongly believe in as a teacher for four years.

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-How long have you been farming with horses?

-What got you started in Draft animals?

-Where / How did you gain the skills you have today?

I got started with draft horses by accident (in a good way).  I decided that as much as I liked working with adjudicated youth in a farm setting, I really enjoyed the satisfaction of growing my own food.  I began looking at apprenticeships online and found MOFGA, which has a nice apprenticeship program set up with an application process and many, many listings of farms seeking apprentices.  After visiting several farms, I settled on Buckwheat Blossom Farm which is nearby Wiscasset.  I arrived shortly after New Years of 2011 and worked harder than I worked before.

One day my mentor Jeff mentioned offhand that we were going to be cutting and twitching with the team.  That is when it occurred to me that I was going to be driving.  Turns out I loved it and have been going over 3 years strong.  I was the sole apprentice for the majority of the year and consequently got to do at least half of the field work (plowing, discing, harrowing, cultivating) and woods work with the horses.  About two months into my apprenticeship I met Kate and we’ve been happily together since.

After a little over a year at Buckwheat Blossom, in 2012 Kate and I decided to apprentice at New Beat Farm in Knox, ME where our mentors Ken and Adrienne have three drafts and grow certified organic vegetables, flowers, and herbs.  We wanted to diversify our growing and teamster experience behind different horses and expand our knowledge of systems of keeping and caring for drafts and utilizing them in vegetable crop production. There we both got much more invaluable time on the lines on our own (one of them was always nearby of course!), which was a big confidence booster and helped us learn some of the nuances that we needed to pay attention to without someone just telling you.  Those kinds of lessons stick better.  At New Beat we got our first taste of haying with horses.

After New Beat, we helped out a friend on his vegetable farm in Kate’s hometown of Whitefield and integrated our two drafts into his tractor system as best as we could.  We learned that there are definitely some advantages and disadvantages to mixed power.  It turned out to be a very successful season.  In some ways, we learned the most in this situation as we didn’t have to worry as much about some of the management aspects of farming and could focus on building a working relationship with our team, get our Suffolk adjusted to regular field work, and take a look at our equipment in order to familiarize ourselves with it.

In between working on different farms, we have gone to DAP field days, MOFGA events, and asked local teamsters and friends for help in order to gain more skills and knowledge.

-Would you recommend anything different to others just starting out ?

There are two things that I would do differently given the right circumstances.  One is to have my own team on another teamster’s farm for a period of time.  I think apprenticeships are the best way to get into draft horses if you have the desire to do so, and the humility and patience to learn under a mentor for a season.  I don’t see many other ways to really get a fully integrated experience of all the different aspects: horse behavior, harnessing, harness and line dynamics, training, hitching to and using different equipment, maintaining that equipment, systems of production, hoof care, feed and pasture quality, paddock setups, the list goes on and on.  I’m still learning these as I go on, but my apprenticeships provided a firm foundation to build on as a teamster.

Learning with our horses on our own was great, but I think any time I’ve spent with another teamster, our horses and equipment, and even their horses has taught me so much about what to expect and prompted me to ask questions that otherwise get pushed to the back of my mind more often than not.  I think that’s where having another teamster right down the road is truly invaluable.  I just met a neighbor half a mile down the road a few days ago that has been growing vegetables with drafts for a number of years.  Just watching him plow for a little bit got my mind working and asking questions.  This led me to start thinking of somehow figuring a way to have him or another nearby teamster there to just look at things with an experienced eye.

The other thing I would do differently is just bought an older, well-trained team, preferable Amish horses.  I’ve heard many times that a beginning teamster should do this and I’d just like to emphasize it.  We have put together three horses from three different places and this has been difficult at times.  We don’t know their pasts and how that plays into their dynamics while working.  We have to constantly remind ourselves to understand why our horses behave the way they do, and take that into consideration when expecting them to work.  It’s an ongoing process and despite the challenges it presents, taking these horses under our care has vastly expanded our knowledge of training and caring for them.  That being said, if you’re starting off a new farm and have expectations for production, it would be wise to get an older, well-trained team.  They can teach you a lot.

-As a teamster do you have goals or aspirations to do things you haven’t done yet?  What are they?

We hope to put up loose hay in the barn this year with a trolley system that is basically intact.  I haven’t put up loose hay before and will have a mentor nearby helping with it.  That in tandem with rebuilding a JD #4 mower for the season and I can’t wait to make some hay!  I’d also like to mentor people interested in draft power for farms in the future.  The teaching bug still has me wanting to learn, teach, and learn some more.

-Who is your closest draft powered neighbor?

Our closest draft powered neighbor is a fellow I met just a few days ago down the road whose family has lived in Maine for over 200 years.  He grows primarily garlic and a small vegetable garden.  We’re lucky to have several teamsters with whom we are close to within a 30 minute drive or less.  They are all great resources.

-What is the funnest thing you have done with a team?

The funnest thing I’ve done with a team is pull out a livestock trailer full of pigs ready to go to the butcher.  It was an early morning and the pigs were pretty much all sleeping inside it.  Of course when the back closed it was a different story.  I drove the team by the pigs several times previously in order to acclimate them to the noise because I knew they didn’t like the sounds they made nor their smell.  One tricky part was hooking up the trailer to the forecart with the racket inside the trailer.  That went off without a hitch.

The other tricky part was pulling the trailer over a narrow culvert onto the road that was basically the exact width of the trailer wheel base; no room for errors.  Otherwise it was a 3 foot drop into the culvert with over 2 tons of weight behind the forecart.  Add on top of that 4 hunters that were chatting loudly at the top of the hill on the road with their car lights on.  I pulled the horses up to the road right before the trailer hit the culvert so we could check for traffic and so that I could precisely guide them over the culvert.  The hunters decided to start driving in our direction so we had to wait.

After they passed, I stepped them up and the axle of the trailer scrapes on a dip where the culvert sat.  It turns out the Percheron gelding had a history of being balky.  More cars with hunters drive by.  He doesn’t want to move and starts to prance sideways out of the situation.  I let him stand calmly for a minute and ask the team to step up again.  With a little effort they free up the trailer and walk easy down the road where we could hook them up to the truck.  One of the more rewarding experiences I’ve had as a teamster.  I’ve also been known to spring tooth with a grin on my face.

-What was the hardest?

The hardest thing I’ve done with a team is just this season trying to plow.  Mostly it has been equipment malfunctions, but we’re also working out team dynamics with our Suffolk and the new Belgian gelding.  It’s been trying on our patience  and we’ve been trying to do it on our own.  We realized it would be helpful to have another experienced teamster here, so we will be doing that as soon as things dry out again.

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