With Harvest Fest, Tillers International Reintroduces its Animal-Powered Technologies

Sep 17, 2015

Mazambhani, at Tillers International, uses oxen to power the ripper at one of the organization's experimental plots
Credit Robbie Feinberg

On September 20th, Tillers International in Scotts will hold its annual Harvest Fest. Most years, the event is a celebration of local food and local farming. And a lot of that – the food, the music, the blacksmithing and wood working – that’s still there. But this year’s event is different. For the first time, Tillers is emphasizing its own efforts to teach old-fashioned farming techniques, both in the states and internationally.


Lori Evesque, the education coordinator at Tillers, says changing the approach was necessary for Tillers to stay relevant around Southwest Michigan.

"There's many times when our executive director, Dick Roosenberg, says we're probably better known in Africa than in our backyard," Evesque says.

She says Tillers’ mission – to keep alive old-fashioned farming technologies and expand them throughout Africa -- is still as strong as ever. But, she says, a lot of people in Kalamazoo still think of Tillers as just that big farm over in Scotts

"Tillers has been going around for 35 years, and there are a lot of people in the Kalamazoo area, for one thing that have never heard of us!" Evesque says. "So by highlighting what Tillers is doing as part of the Fall Harvest Fest, which is one of the times of the year where we get large numbers of people who visit who may never have heard of or seen what we do on a global context."

So what exactly does Tillers do internationally? To find out, you’ve got to head to a little farming plot in the middle of Tillers’ fields. It’s  here that David Kramer and Mazambanhi are trying out a brand new farm tool they’ve been working on for months.

Kramer teaches woodworking in Comstock. Mazambanhi, meanwhile, has spent the summer here learning new farming techniques to bring back to his village in Mozambique. 

The two are testing out a new ripper they’ve built in their workshop. It’s a metal contraption, made up of long, metal bars and bicycle parts that tills the soil. Attached by a chain, two mammoth oxen yank the beam beneath the soil to create a long, deep trench in the ground. Kramer crouches down and shows me how rain will hopefully fall and flow right inside.

Credit Robbie Feinberg

  "So what we're shooting for is if this was the dry season, sometimes the rains in Africa, they'll come, the first rain will come and then it'll be two weeks before the next one hits again," Kramer explains. "But if you can plan on that first rain, you've got enough water to get the seeds started until the rainy season really comes in, you've got a head start on your planting and the growing season."

A few hundred feet away, Kramer and Mazambhani show me their other inventions. This one’s an ox-driven planter that spits out seeds every eight inches or so. Mazambhani is excited to try all these out when he returns home. For years, he says, he’s had to plant and rip by hand. These will save some serious time.

"This one, is big, fast," he says. "By hand, two hectares can maybe take three weeks, four weeks. But this one, two days! Maybe one day!"

These kinds of innovations aren’t just important in Africa. More and more farmers in the United States are now opting for horse or oxen power rather than tractors.

Stephen Leslie owns a horse powered farm and is speaking at Harvest Fest this weekend. He says there are a whole bunch of reasons a farmer might opt for horses rather than tractors. Startup costs are lower. You’re not using up fuel, so it’s better for the environment. And it’s simply more peaceful.

"So I think aside from, obviously, attracting people who like to work with the hands outdoors, it also works with rethinking the food system we've created in North America at this point and wanting to be a part of a grassroots change that goes towards a more localized, sustainable food system."

Leslie says these farmers are still a tiny percentage of the overall population. Because of that, mainstream businesses aren’t developing tools to help farmers use horses to plant or plow or cultivate. He says there are really only two places that are helping these farmers across the world: Amish communities and organizations like Tillers.

"And I think what organizations like Tillers are trying to say is, let's help these countries improve their existing models, which have worked for them, in some cases for centuries," Leslie says. "Let's help them tweak and improve those models with improved seed, improved tools, improved technologies at the scale they're already working."

As part of Harvest Fest, Tillers will be holding a panel discussion with Leslie and other horse-powered farmers to show people that this kind of farming is being done, and done well. The organization is also taking another step with a new farmer incubator program as a way to help local farmers who want to use horses or oxen but may not have the money. With that and the new techniques and tools, the organization hopes, these farms can make rural communities stronger.