Journey Back to the Future at Orchard Hill Farm

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Ken and Martha Laing of Orchard Hill Farm in southern Ontario grow produce on land that was first settled by Martha's ancestors in the 1820s.
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Ken Laing has such a humble, quiet way of speaking, but his stories about farming are full of inspiration and insight into the working of the land.
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The stable at Orchard Hill Farm is a warm and cozy place. The name of each horse, along with its parentage, is listed above each stall.
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Native grasses turn a golden brown in fall alongside fields of cabbages, broccoli and other cool weather crops. The grasses are grown as a source of biomass to enrich fields where organic matter is low.

When my wife and I pull up to the farm of Ken and Martha Laing in southern Ontario, we’re greeted by a cool, moist breath of air rising off of Lake Erie a few miles to the south. As our lungs take in the refreshing autumn breeze, the rest of our senses become alive with the sights and sounds of the farm. Chickens cluck around our feet, pecking for insects and seeds. A cow bellows from the pasture, as if to welcome us, or perhaps to announce our arrival to the rest of the farm. Somewhere in the distance, a child squeals with laughter.

I park in front of the barn, and a golden Labrador retriever peaks out from behind the tailgate of a large wooden wagon that is parked next to us. Caesar, as we will soon learn he is named, has been waiting patiently in the wagon for us to arrive, so the farm tour can get started. Caesar loves farm tours because it means he gets to go for a ride, his favorite thing in the world along with a good long rub behind the ears. At the other end of the wagon, I spot Caesar’s buddies and the reason we were drawn to visit Orchard Hill Farm: Buttons and Gwen, two of the Laings’ eight draft horses, which are the primary power source for the farm.

As we stand in awe, taking in these beautiful, thickly muscled animals — and getting to know Caesar, who appears to be our new best friend — Ken strolls up and introduces himself. Martha joins us shortly with one of their young granddaughters, who is the eighth generation in Martha’s family to call Orchard Hill home, and soon we are all bouncing down the dirt road behind Buttons and Gwen, getting to know one another and reveling in the wondrous atmosphere of a late fall day. All the crops have been brought in for the season, and as the Laings begin to tell their story, they are clearly feeling that huge sense of release of farmers who have brought another season to a close and are looking forward to the calm, quiet interlude of winter.

Martha’s ancestors first came to Orchard Hill from New York in the 1820s, making them among the earliest settlers of this part of Ontario. In 1837, they built a home here, which still stands today, and started farming the land. Ken grew up on a farm in a neighboring county and met his bride-to-be at the local Quaker house. “I had no idea at the time that Martha had so much farming experience in her genes,” he said. Ken had recently taken a leave from engineering school to “figure out what I wanted to do with my life” — which farming, what he had grown up with, was not the obvious answer to. But, shortly thereafter, he found himself enrolled in the horticulture program at Guelph University. After graduation, he and Martha moved on to her family’s land, where they have been ever since. A year later, in 1980, they acquired their first draft horses. 

“To me it just seemed like a sensible thing for a farmer to power a farm with animals that you can feed,” he said. “But I was also concerned about the environmental consequences of petroleum.” Of course, farming with horses is a little different than farming with a tractor. You can’t just a turn the key and get started plowing a field — it takes years to develop an harmonious relationship with a team of horses that makes it possible to get farm tasks accomplished in an efficient manner. Draft horse farming had completely died out in southern Ontario by the 1970s, but Ken did find a group several hours away near Quebec that had kept the craft alive and offered him some basic instruction. Still, progress was painfully slow at first, he said. “With the first team of horses I bought, one was too old and too smart, and the other was too young and didn’t have enough experience. So they gave me a lot of grief that first year and I didn’t even know whether I was doing something wrong or they were just acting up and giving me trouble. It was a steep learning curve, but eventually I started to make some progress.”

The Laings had a tractor at first to pick up the slack with the tasks they couldn’t manage efficiently with the horses. After a few years of practice, however, they were able to do all of their cultivation with draft power. These days the only gas-powered machinery they use is for baling hay and to till their flower garden, which is too small for tilling with the giant horses. There are many advantages to farming with draft horses that go far beyond the obvious one of cutting down on fossil fuel use. Being around the horses, for one, is absolutely magical — they have a special presence that you certainly don’t feel with a tractor. Plus, Ken said, “their manure is what fertilizes the land.”

As we progress down the hill from the barn, it’s obvious that the Laings have refined the craft of organic farming into something resembling fine art: the landscape is incredibly beautiful, as well as ecologically functional and highly productive. As we make our way through the landscape, Ken sounds a gentle “whoa’” to stop the horses periodically and explain his growing practices. The farm is made up of 93 acres of gently rolling terrain, but only 7 of those acres are in intensive fruit and vegetable production at any one time. There are a few perennial crops, such as strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb and raspberries, but the annual vegetables are constantly rotated through different areas. The rotation allows the soil to rest and regain its fertility, as well as to break the lifecycle of pests that prey on certain crops and which tend to build up in number when an area is planted in the same crop year after year.

Diversity is central to the crop science happening at Orchard Hill Farm. This time of year, summer cover crops have faded, leaving thick stands of biomass ready to be tilled into the soil. Summer cover crops like sorghum, sunflowers, clovers and other species grow together in a harmonious thicket on some of the plots. Into these fading stands of warm season cover crops, the Laings have sown winter cover crops which will take over as the summer vegetation dies down. In one area, they are growing native perennial grasses from the tall-grass prairie that was once found in the region, which has just been cut to the ground and has had grains over-seeded on top of it. By the time the grass grows tall again the following summer, the grains will have been harvested. This and the various other cool season grains like spelt are coming up all over the farm, which will be used as feed for the horses, as well as to supply the wood-fired bread-baking operation that has recently been established at the farm.

In a plot near the bottom of the farm, Laing jumps off the wagon and plucks the biggest kohlrabi I’ve ever seen from the ground. Slicing into it with his pocketknife, he hands my wife and me each a piece. The first frosts of the year have already occurred, transforming the kohlrabi into a sweet and nutty treat. I can see why the Laings have amassed such a loyal following of Community Supported Agriculture, CSA, members: experiences like this.

The farm’s 240 CSA members all come to the farm to pick up their shares, rather than the Laings delivering to local drop-off points, as is the case with most CSA operations. Every Tuesday and Saturday, the farm is transformed into a beehive of activity, as the membership shows up, not just to pick up their shares but to socialize and develop their own connection with the place where there food comes from. Some members have a ‘working share’ and spend a few hours in the fields, harvesting or weeding. Others wander the property, hang out with the horses and forage for ‘extras’ — gleaning the fields of unharvested produce is encouraged. “It saves us a lot in vehicle costs to have them come here, rather than delivering,” Martha said, “so we try to make it worthwhile for them.”

On the way back up the hill, Ken lets me take the reins for a while. Suddenly I’m snapped out of the role of a passive passenger and thrust into the role of conductor. The horses know where they are going, so I don’t really have to do much, but with the reins in my hands I can understand exactly why the Laings choose to farm with hoses, rather than a tractor. The feeling of connection with a living, breathing, beautiful and aware being is a wonderful thing. Fueled only by grass and grains grown on-site, Gwen and Buttons are free of smoggy exhaust and full of life.

Brian Barth is a writer, gardener, and amateur woodworker living in Toronto, Ontario.

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