Ox-team driving, blacksmithing, and timber framing might seem like really out of date skills, but there is a place that is still teaching them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney pays a visit to Tillers International near Scotts, Michigan:
Ox-team driving, blacksmithing, and timber framing might seem like
really out of date skills, but there is a place that is still teaching
them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney
pays a visit to Tillers International near Scotts, Michigan.
The sun is blazing straight down and the humidity is oppressive, flies are
buzzing left, right, and center, and I’m standing next to two enormous oxen
named Marco and Polo. Marco’s horn is right next to my eye. I’m told he
won’t try to gore me.
“I mean you have to give them leeway, because their head weighs 150 pounds,
and if they going for that fly and you happen to be in between… yeah.”
(Sound of ox snorting)
Dick Roosenberg hands me a stick called a goad and I’m supposed to now
(Sound of clinking)
ROOSENBERG: “Come up easy. Whoa.”
CHARNEY: “So if I want them to go forward I bring it up here?”
ROOSENBERG: “No, that’s stop. You keep it back here and say Marco, Polo, come!”
CHARNEY: “Marco, Polo, come! Wahhh… As they step on me.”
They take off, but they’re not heading where I want them to.
CHARNEY: “Whoa, whoa, whooooaaa…”
ROOSENBERG: “Marco, Polo, whoa.”
They make a beeline off the path.
(Sound of laughing)
CHARNEY: “Oh this is good grass.”
ROOSENBERG: “They say, ‘We see alfalfa blossoms and we are going…'”
CHARNEY: “And we have a novice in charge.”
ROOSENBERG: “‘Cause we can tell we can get away with this.”
CHARNEY: “How would I get them to back up?”
ROOSENBERG: “Probably, from the alfalfa, you have a challenge.”
Dick Roosenberg had a similar experience back in the 1960’s when the Peace
Corps sent him to West Africa. His job was help people there move from farming with a hand hoe to
farming with animal power.
Tse tse flies had infected cattle there with blood parasites. Those parasites
kept the oxen from having the endurance to do work. But new medicines changed that. However, by
that time, no one knew how to use an ox team.
“We certainly didn’t know how to train them to respond to gee and haw
and all of those things and you know, the harnessing and everything was a
big challenge for us, and we didn’t understand the fine physical dynamics
of something like that.”
There weren’t books about it and ox driving sure wasn’t taught in ag
school. Small groups of people who did historical reenactments still had the
skills, but there was no place to go to learn the old ways. Dick Roosenberg decided to change that.
So he started Tillers
ORR: “I’m going to go check for eggs.”
(Sound of clucking and peeping)
Maurya Orr is an intern at Tillers. She’s been learning how to plow with
an ox team, take care of animals, and build a barn. And she helps to keep
Tillers demonstration farm going.
“Not enough for an omelet.”
Students and visitors can come here to see that farming can be done with
out modern expensive equipment. Tillers also runs formal workshops and
classes. People from all over the world come here to take an ox driving
class, learn how to forge their own tools, and build things by hand.
Chuck Andrews is one of those people. He had been a chemical engineer but
was always fascinated by blacksmithing. He took a class about it, and today
teaches it at Tillers. He says there are a variety of reasons people want
to learn what Tillers has to teach.
“We have people interested in reenacting. We have people from low-capital agricultural environments
like homesteaders, we have
international students, and we have people that are interested in these
skills for organizations like the peace corps and for missionary work.
“Many of these skills like we see the oxen being driven up the lane
right now even 100 years ago that particular need in this area was fading,
but yet we here are capturing that knowledge base and somebody has to be
there to preserve them and to keep these traditions going in a sense.”
Dick Roosenberg has his head pressed into the side of a cow. He’s milking
her by hand. But not everything at Tillers is old fashioned.
Roosenberg is always looking for modern techniques that are inexpensive
and sustainable – things like solar water pumps – that they can combine
with techniques of yesterday and use to help small farmers.
For the GLRC, I’m Tamar Charney.