From the smallest details of proper harness fitting to the overall management of a complex forest system, horse logger Carl Russell puts careful thought into everything he does. “For me, putting a lot of thought and purpose into my work and into my life is a personal objective,” he says. That mindfulness reaches its full expression at Earthwise Farm & Forest, his draft-powered organic farm and timber stand near Bethel, Vermont.
Russell and his wife, Lisa McCrory, manage the farm with the goal of keeping it ecologically healthy and self-sustaining. The forest, which covers 75% of the 150-acre property, helps to support the farm by generating revenue to cover expenses and to purchase items not grown or made on it. “We sell timber as a source of income,” Russell says. “That’s part of the sustainability.” Russell also does some logging for other people as well as sharing his knowledge of horse-powered forestry by hosting workshops and offering consulting services.
Although sustainability is a hot issue right now, the concept is nothing new at Earthwise Farm. The property has been in Russell’s family for 75 years, ever since his grandfather bought it in 1938. By the 1940s the land was under a long-term forest management program and in the 1970s, the farm entered the National Tree Farm System, a forestry stewardship program. Russell grew up on an adjacent property and helped his family work in the forest. “I started at age six dragging brush in the woods. At 11 or 12, I was running a chain saw and by 13 or 14, I was telling everyone I was going to go to forestry school.” Indeed, Russell earned his B.A. in Forestry from the University of Vermont. “I came home from college in 1982 and have been here ever since,” he says.
Russell is continuing a long family tradition of forest stewardship, but there is one important way in which his practices differ from those of his elders. “My father was a product of World War II, and he liked to use pesticides to kill things,” he says. “I wanted to use practices that enhanced ecological function and didn’t break it down.” With that in mind, Earthwise is a certified organic farm where all the work is done with draft animals. Russell and McCrory raise and sell organic onions, garlic, potatoes, flowers, milk, poultry and GMO-free natural pork and eggs, along with fuel wood and lumber.
From the time Russell bought his first horse in 1986, the logging at Earthwise Farm has been done solely with horses or oxen. Working with draft animals is an important part of his philosophy of living in harmony with nature and remaining self-sufficient. “I found that using natural power was of great ecological benefit and also allows me to support my individual sovereignty and independence,” he says.
Working in harmony with the natural ecology is the guiding force in Russell’s logging enterprise. “Trees don’t grow in the forest,” he says. “The forest is the community of organisms that forms within the environment that the trees have created. When we log, we affect the ecology of that community. The horses provide a subtle tool to work within that environment. Using horses minimizes the impact on that broad community.”
Besides his concern for the environment, Russell enjoys logging with horses for its own sake. “There’s an overarching personal reward in that it’s a very creative process. It’s very much of an art form. The attention to detail and workmanship are superior with horses.” He has worked with machines on logging sites and prefers horses by far for their low-impact effect. Another benefit of horses is their ability to be used successfully for small-scale logging. With machines, loggers must work on a much larger scale to remain profitable. “One of the reasons for using animals is efficiency,” he says. “With logging I have extreme flexibility and capability with limited financial input.”
Logging at Earthwise Farm is a year-round endeavor. When the snow is deep, Russell uses a bulldozer to clear roads in the forest in order to keep working. In fact, he prefers working in the winter for many reasons. “I really enjoy working in the woods in the wintertime,” he says. “I don’t sweat too much, the bugs are really light, the horses stay comfortable and the logs slide really nice and they stay clean.”
Good roads are a necessity to provide horses with shorter skids and to allow year-round access to the forest, Russell says. He notes that a well-made road can be a permanent improvement to a productive, sustainable woodlot. “With good access I can harvest smaller amounts over a longer period of time,” he says.
For the past ten years Russell’s logging efforts have been concentrated on his own farm, but recently he began preparing to do more logging off the farm. He plans to stay within a 30-mile radius of home, since travel beyond that distance becomes prohibitively expensive. He also joined Jason Rutledge’s Healing Harvest Forest Foundation (HHFF) and became a Draftwood practitioner (see the sidebar). In addition to participating in other community-building activities, he is working with HHFF to organize a Northeast Draftwood Producers Association.
HORSES AT EARTHWISE
Russell currently works with two mares and a gelding, all of which happen to be 13-years-old. One mare is a Belgian, while the other two are crossbreds, most likely with Belgian and Percheron parentage. He has no preferences for breed or gender, but he does prefer a specific type. “Mostly I’m concerned with having a horse that’s responsive and healthy,” he admits. “I am looking for a certain size and conformation, not the real tall leggy horses.” He looks for horses in the 16.2-17 hh range, about 1,700 pounds, and keeps two or three horses at a time.
Once he finds a suitable horse, Russell begins his training program with the goal of having the horse learn to trust him. “It’s all about communication,” he explains. “I work on sensitizing the animals to my guidance through pressure and release: ‘I have an initiative, here’s my pressure, when you respond, here’s your reward.’ I don’t focus very much on conditioning or desensitizing. I want to be able to lead my animals into new and challenging situations. I want them to have the trust to follow me. I’ve practiced over the years not giving much responsibility to the horses other than following my commands.”
All of this results in a horse that responds willingly and with confidence when faced with a new or difficult task, simply because its trust in Russell’s leadership is so strong. “Don’t put your thought processes into developing a horse you can trust,” he says. “Put more effort into developing a horse that can trust you.”
The trust that Russell’s horses develop in him was recently highlighted when he noticed that his Belgian mare, a horse that he had started when she was four, didn’t seem to be seeing things as well as she used to. When he had a vet look at the horse, it turned out the mare had uveitis and was completely blind. Russell couldn’t tell that the horse was losing her sight because she was still completely responsive to his commands. “It was really validating to me when I realized how much she was responding to my initiatives,” he says. “I’m working her single to this day, and she’s one of the best horses I’ve ever worked with.”
Besides logging, his horses do utility work around the farm, including plowing and cultivating the gardens, spreading manure, mowing and raking hay, hauling water on sleds in the winter and hauling firewood. He also takes them to field days, but doesn’t do shows or parades. He did one parade once and will not do any more. “I realized it was an incredibly unfair thing to do to my horses,” he says, explaining that the thousands of people pressed close along the parade route created an unduly stressful situation for the animals.
This concern for the horses’ well-being is reflected in Russell’s practice of the “dignified” use of draft animals. He explains that this means “to bring a sense of pride, to hold the animals in high regard, but hold them in regard as horses, and not anthropomorphizing them. This includes keeping them healthy and well-groomed and well-shod, and keeping the harnesses well-fit. It’s demonstrating that you hold them in high regard by treating them with dignity. Treat them with respect to the fact that you’re domesticating them and using them in a level of work that they wouldn’t do naturally.”
This philosophy of respect came in part from Russell’s long-time mentor Les Barden, of Farmington, New Hampshire. Barden teaches a list of principles that his mentee has taken to heart. “[Les] is a well-known horseman, woodsman, and farmer, whom I have known my whole life,” Russell says. “His list of priorities includes: Do a good job. Emphasize the details. Produce a quality product. Do a good job. Work hard. Treat animals and tools with respect. Be safe. Take care of the land. Do a good job.”
WORKSHOPS & FIELD DAYS
Just as others have helped Russell along in his journey as a horse logger, he returns the favor by hosting workshops, speaking at conferences and participating in field days. He does two or three workshops per year, teaching everything from basic forestry and horsemanship skills up to higher levels of harvesting with horses in the woods. He has developed a series of four workshops to take participants through an increasingly detailed and challenging series of subjects.
The on-farm logging workshops are one-day seminars for five-to-ten students. The focus is on first-hand experience with the basics of logging with horses, including care and preparation of the horses, how to hitch up and use the equipment safely, and how to plan the work efficiently. As always, Russell’s emphasis is on the “safe and dignified use of work horses.”
In 2007, Russell and McCrory founded the Northeast Animal Power Field Days and the online forum DraftAnimalPower.com, which evolved into the Draft Animal Power Network (DAPNet). “Lisa and I helped to begin the process of forming a non-profit organization by convening a Board of Directors, but since 2011 we have stepped back to let others carry it forward,” Russell says. He remains involved by presenting workshops at DAPNet events. In September 2013, Russell presented several workshops at Draft Animal Power Field Days at Barton Fairgrounds in Barton, Vermont. “It was a huge success,” he says, noting an increased interest in sustainable farming and logging with draft animals in his area over the past 25 years. The event featured plowing, logging, haying, round pen training and other draft-related activities. “I call it an English version of Horse Progress Days,” he says. “We wanted to have some way to show the application of draft horse power to the small farmer.”
With an eye toward leaving a legacy for future generations, Russell’s goals extend beyond his own farm to those who share the environment around him. “I can help other horse loggers in our region have a more practical role in modern forestry,” he says. “And I’d like my farm to be an increasingly vital and sustainable resource for my family and the community that farms around it. I want to lead a life that’s the best example I can put together of my philosophy.”
To contact Carl Russell:
Earthwise Farm and Forest
341 Macintosh Hill Road
Randolph, Vermont 05060
Draft Animal Power Network
509 Dutton Brook Lane
Brownington, Vermont 05860