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Journey Back to the Future at Orchard Hill Farm

Ken and Martha Laing operate an organic and sustainable farm with the help of their two draft horses, Button and Gwen.

| Spring 2016

  • 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.
    Photo courtesy
  • 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.
    Photo courtesy
  • 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.
    Photo courtesy
  • 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.
    Photo courtesy

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.”

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