December 15, 2019
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Farming tradition strong at Penobscot’s Horsepower Farm

PENOBSCOT, Maine — The fields of Horsepower Farm in Penobscot were a lush green under a vivid blue sky one recent midsummer morning, and the air was filled with birdsong as a sturdy draft horse tilled rows of vegetables in the distance.

As agrarian scenes go, this one was pretty idyllic, but second generation farmer Andy Birdsall said that it wasn’t always the case on the 383-acre farm in rural Hancock County. When his parents, Paul and Mollie Birdsall, came from Connecticut in 1972 to settle on the farm with their two sons, they loved the land at first sight but found it needed some tending.

“All the fields were run out. The hay was so thin and so short. The soil was pretty poor,” Andy Birdsall said. “[But] the farm was just so viable. It only needed a little tender loving care.”

They didn’t know much about farming at first, he said, but because of their longtime commitment to farming organically with the help of horses, Horsepower Farm became a magnet that attracts young farmers from all over to come to its verdant fields and learn from the Birdsalls.

“Horses are very important,” Birdsall, 57, said. “They produce fertilization for the ground. They do an incredible amount of cultivating. And they draw people who want to learn how to work horses.”

His father, Paul Birdsall, 88, still wakes up every day and heads to the stable to feed the draft horses and clean out their stalls.

In the 1970s, he was getting his doctorate in history when his life made a sharp turn. Every summer, he and his wife would sail up the coast with their boys, and it was on those trips that they fell in love with Maine, Andy Birdsall said. After a search, they found the old farm on the Blue Hill peninsula, and by chance, not by design, ended up making a name for themselves around the state and even the country.

“I don’t think they were planning on farming, but they didn’t like the situation and the scene in the rest of the country. They wanted a little more elbow room,” Birdsall said. “This farm was probably the best place to grow up. My parents didn’t come up here to be back-to-the-landers, but they wound up entangled in the back to the land movement.”

As the movement grew, bringing more and more people from the country’s suburbs and cities to Maine, so did Horsepower Farm. There was a lot of trial and error at first, as the Birdsalls figured how to fix their soil and how to be a viable organic farm in an era when that wasn’t the byword it has become.

One early mistake was planting comfrey, an invasive species that then had to be dug out by the roots. Another problem was that although the farm was certified organic in 1975, an overly zealous pilot in the area sprayed their blueberry fields with pesticides without being asked in the late 1970s. That caused the farm to lose its organic certification for three years before the Birdsalls could apply to get it back.

But the family persevered, tending the soil and their horses with care and love.

“This is Dixfield fine sandy loam. Glacial till,” Paul Birdsall said. “The soil is really quite good.”

“It’s not just good,” Andy Birdsall said. “This soil is incredible. Our carrots — they’re so sweet, just so sweet. Last week people told me they’d never eaten carrots this good in their lives.”

In addition to the bright orange carrots, the Birdsalls grow all manner of vegetables as well as organic blueberries, apples, pigs, chicken and sheep. The muscular Suffolk Punch draft horses help to plow, till, harrow, plant, hay, cultivate and harvest the crops.

Summer apprentices Holt Akers-Campbell, 20, of Nashville, Tennessee, and Mary Vann Johnston, 24, of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, looked at home on the farm as they worked with Emma, a 1,500 pound draft horse harnessed to a walking cultivator. The two southerners are among about 200 apprentices who have come to the farm to work and learn for the last 40 years.

“I’ve learned so much,” Johnston said. “I’d love to continue working with draft horses. I enjoy the slower pace. You can see what’s happening. You’re not high up, like on a tractor.”

That’s not the only benefit, according to Birdsall.

“I think this is much easier than using a tractor and more productive. Less compacting of the soil,” he said of farming with horses.

Drew Birdsall, Andy Birdsall’s son, is a farrier and a third-generation farmer. He was trying out a riding cultivator that they found in Aroostook County and that likely is nearly a century old, yet it seemed to have a perfect ability to hill and weed the long rows of potatoes.

“This equipment is brand-new to us, believe it or not,” he said.

Drew Birdsall said the independence and variety of farming is in his blood.

“That’s what’s so fun about doing this,” he said. “Every day is different. You’re always learning and changing and growing, and if you’re not, you’re getting stale.”

 



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