Plow! Plow!

Draft horses still work the land at New Family Farm


With his wooly beard, dirt-stained pants and wide-brimmed felt hat, Adam Davidoff looks like he stepped out of another era. And when he harnesses a team of tawny Belgian draft horses to drag a dirt-burnished plow through the soil of his 23-acre farm, he’s definitely from a different time. I say it’s the future.

Davidoff and partners Ryan Power and Felicja Channing run New Family Farm just west of Sebastopol. The organic-certified farm is in its second season, growing root crops, herbs, potatoes, lettuce, arugula, squash, broccoli and a few rows of tomatoes. The trio sell their produce at the Occidental farmers market and Andy’s Market in Sebastopol, as well as restaurants like Peter Lowell’s in Sebastopol and Willow Wood in Graton. They also raise chickens, goats and pigs for personal consumption.

Along with Mendocino County’s Live Power Community Farm, New Family Farm is one of a very small number of farms that rely on draft animals.

Davidoff, 25, and Power, 26, are Sonoma County natives who were working on farms out of state when they learned the farm was available. They jumped at the chance to come back home. “It was just waiting for us,” says Power. “The land wanted to be farmed.”

The farm sits at the neck of a valley off Ferguson Road that funnels stiff ocean breezes from the east. Coupled with the moist, flood-prone soils, the patch of land has a relatively short growing season. “It’s a challenge, and it’s lovely,” says Davidoff.

But he says it would be even harder if they had to rely on heavy machinery. Not only would tractors compact the soil and make drainage worse, the tires and implements would get stuck in the mud.

Mike Thibault, sous chef and produce buyer at Willow Wood, likes the farm’s old-school approach. “They’re not only doing what they do with the horses, but they’re actually good business people,” he says. “The quality is totally there. I wouldn’t be getting it if it wasn’t.”

For Davidoff, farming with animals requires greater finesse and skill than firing up a diesel tractor. Getting a pair of 2,000-pound horses to cooperate has also given him a healthy sense of humility. “You have to let go of expectations,” he says.

While their decision to farm with horses isn’t based on notions of a post-petroleum future, Power says they’re ready if that happens. “If the lights turned off and the semis stopped rolling,” he notes, “Adam and I would be OK.”

“We’d even have beer to drink!” Davidoff adds. (In addition to growing vegetables and raising animals, the three make their own beer, cheese, sauerkraut and bread.)

Still, it’s easy to see these farmers as idealists, engaged in a novel but ultimately naive venture. Horsepower needs to come from a John Deere tractor, not actual horses. Farming without machinery is backwards and inefficient. Right?

We’ll see about that. As the costs of industrial agriculture become increasingly hard to ignore (climate change, declining biodiversity, soil loss, water and air contamination, diminishing soil fertility), so-called conventional agriculture with its arsenal of petrochemicals and machinery may soon be regarded as backwards, while the kind of small-scale agriculture practiced at New Family Farm could offer a sustainable vision for the future.

A person who works with draft animals is called a “teamster,” a term that has special meaning for Davidoff as someone working as a team with his partners, the animals and the earth. “We create this deep bond between people and the animals and the land,” he says. “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing. That’s magic.”

For Power, a lanky man with long red hair and a red goatee to match, he’d much rather drive a team of horses than a noisy tractor. “It’s so much fun,” he says. “Getting on a tractor is a chore.”

But like Davidoff, working with animals creates in him a deeper connection that echoes the words of the late writer and priest Thomas Berry: “We have to get beyond the artificial division we’ve created between the human community and the rest of the planet. There is only one community, and it lives and dies as a unit. Any harm done to the natural world diminishes the human world because the human world depends on the natural world.”

That may seem fairly obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of that connection given the distance most of us have between the source of our food and ultimately the natural world at large. In a small way, New Family Farm is attempting to bridge that gap.

“The further we distance ourselves from our friends and allies in the natural world, the less human we become,” says Power. “In some ways, hanging out with just humans makes us less human. Farming and growing your own food closes the loop.”

Sonoma County Library