WINCHESTER, Ind. — Instead of a shed filled with tractors, Keith Woodbury has a barn filled with Belgian draft horses.
In summer, Woodbury hitches four Belgians to a corn planter. The chestnut-colored horses mow, rake and haul in hay from the fields. In the fall, he uses teams to plant winter wheat and bring in grain. In winter, the horses move feed to pastures and even clear his lane with a horse-drawn snowplow.
"We have some horses hitched every day for one thing or another," Woodbury said. His tractor is used primarily for hay baling.
Some observers think that when U.S. farmers unharnessed their work horses in favor of tractors and other machinery, they saddled themselves with their first large-scale debt, a burden many have been unable to bear, as bankruptcies across the nation's farming regions have shown. Not everyone agrees.
One Vote for Tractors
"Farmers today borrow more money in a year than my grandfather ever saw," acknowledged Mauri Williamson, executive secretary of Purdue University's Agricultural Alumni Assn. But he said neither farmers nor consumers would want tractors to be replaced by horses.
"You're not going to reverse the technology," Williamson said. "If you did, your food is not going to be as cheap as it is now. Consumers want cheap food."
Farming with horses in past generations, he said, was "subsistence agriculture. . . . It was terribly unproductive by modern standards."
With mechanized agriculture, though, he said, farmers have traded physical strains for the stresses of debt.
Economics is part of the reason why more farmers are returning to horsepower for help with their chores, said Rollin Christner, secretary-treasurer of the Belgian Draft Horse Corp. of America, founded 100 years ago in Wabash, Ind.
"Right after World War II, when farmers could buy automobiles to get away from the farm and travel, the horse had to go," Christner said.
"Now it's exactly the opposite. For $4,000 a fellow can buy four horses that can feed cattle . . . and replace a $25,000 bulldozer to cut through snowdrifts. You can do it much more efficiently."
Increasingly, some farmers, woodsmen and others are recognizing that efficiency, Christner said.
"Forty-five years ago, most (work horses) were kept for nostalgia and weren't being used a whole lot," he said. "(Now) it's generally conceded by those in the know that well over half of them are broke to work and in some capacity are earning their living."
Woodbury said he isn't getting rich by raising horses for sale and farming his land with them, but he hasn't gone broke either.
"Look at the number of people who spent their life working for John Deere or International Harvester--paying for their equipment," Woodbury said.
His horses are members of a sturdy breed that once carried heavily armored knights into battle. Originally imported from Belgium, they have become the predominant breed in the United States. Christner figures there are about 75,000 Belgians, roughly three times as many as other breeds, including dark-coated Percherons and the better-known Clydesdales.
Partly because of Indiana's large Amish communities, where horses are almost as common as automobiles on the roads, more Belgians are registered in this state than in any other.
Among the Amish, life remains much as it was before agriculture became mechanized. "You took care of your own and then tried to farm all the ground there is in the world," recalled Murry Messersmith, an Indiana State Fair director in charge of the draft horse and mule show.