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Animal Power

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One ancient practice nearly wiped out in the United States by "progress" was the widespread use of animal power in many important endeavors, including farming, hauling, logging, herding and various types of transportation. In the late nineteenth century, for example, getting around in New York City meant employing at least one of the nearly 200,000 horses stabled in the city (whose manure production posed a serious and perennial public health hazard). Equally hard to imagine today is the knowledge that until the adoption of tractors in the1920s, nearly all American agriculture was powered by livestock!

As someone who came of age among the asphalt suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona during the 1970s-the nadir years for animal power in the U.S.-these historical facts were hard to comprehend when I first heard them. Although I had spent my youth around horses, they were strictly the recreational variety. I knew nothing about draft animals or horse farming, except that they had become an anachronism, replaced forever by petroleum, or so I assumed. Therefore, it came as a surprise in the 1990s to learn that animal power was making a comeback, draft horses in particular, propelled by rising concerns about carbon pollution and oil scarcity. Cool!

But what exactly was animal power?

I decided to find out. In early July a few years ago, I traveled to the heart of Amish country in central Ohio to attend an annual event called Horse Progress Days, which is partly a celebration of horse farming and partly a convention of farmers intending to witness the latest in animal-powered "technology"-a word that must be used judiciously, given the famous Amish disdain for gadgetry. The most educational part of my trip, however, happened on the evening of my arrival.

Standing at the second-story railing of my hotel, I watched an Amish family bale and load hay in an adjacent field. The hay had been cut a day or two earlier to dry and now needed to be "put up" before the leaden sky began to drizzle. There was a calm, methodical urgency to the family's work. The apparent patriarch of the family, wearing the standard Amish uniform of straw hat, plain shirt, suspenders and black pants, stood in a hay baler that was so old it looked like it belonged in a history museum. It sounded old, too. Its single-stroke engine, whose job was to compress the loose hay into a square bale and bind it with string, sputtered and choked so noisily that I expected it to give up and die at any moment. 


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