In one generation, farming has moved from the horse to the tractor, an improvement in efficiency that has transformed world food production a thousand fold.
But that transformation, and its wholesale adoption of modern methods, has left traditional horse farming in the proverbial dust. A means of farming that existed for hundreds of years, along with the knowhow that went along with it, has been lost overnight.
At Eau Claire Distillery, we are distillers with a love of the traditional. We believe that the term ‘farm to glass’ truly means that we should be involved in every step of the process – beginning to end. Our principles translate into an unusual transparency for an industry that has been shrouded in myth and secrecy. All because we think you should know where your spirits come from, each step of the way.
Our love of tradition could also be criticized as wholly impractical. But it is why we have started a new – old tradition – an annual horse farmed harvest of grain. With friends and fellow horse enthusiasts, we have planted 25 acres of barley and rye, completely with horses and horse drawn farm equipment salvaged from old yards and auctions. Our stable of horses comes from Amish farms in Canada and the US, the modern keepers of horse farming knowledge.
In 2013, we established a relationship with the Bar U Historical Site Ranch, located 65 km south of Calgary. Its long tradition of ranching, farming and draft work horses was a perfect fit. That year we arrived with 14 horses (7 teams) and a group of likeminded horsefarming hobbyists and friends, to break the ground with ploughs. It took two days to do 12.5 acres, and we planted oats just to hold the land for the first year.
In the spring of 2014, the same group of intrepid farmers arrived with their horses to plough the land again, this time to seed it with Rye for eventual use in Eau Claire spirits. Again, for two days we camped by the field and ploughed with horses for 8 to 10 hours a day. Then we used our 1910 seeder and sowed the earth with untreated Spring Rye seed we had purchased from a farmer in Provost, Alberta.
The crop grew and the plan was to harvest it 100 days from the date of planting. But Mother Nature, who can be friend or foe of the farmer, had a different view. Our planned day of September 9th, suddenly had heavy snowfall warnings – a potential peril of Alberta farming. As a result, we had to make some hasty decisions. We cancelled a planned Harvest Party on the sidelines of the field, and decided that we needed to move the harvest up by two days to avoid the snow. The rush was on!
Dale Befus, of Alberta Carriage Supply, brought a 1920’s vintage McCormack Binder – an amazing technological wonder for its day. Pulled by 4 horses walking side by side, it has a long set of scissors that cut the chaff and collect the rye stalks on a table. Rolls of canvas carry the rye up into a compartment where it is bundled and a ‘knotter’ ties twine around a bundle and kicks it out onto the field, five bundles at a time. The teamster driver has to drive 4 horses, control the bundle ejector with his feet, control and managed 3 different levers, while keeping the contraption straight – all at the same time!
Alas, old equipment has its limitations and Dale’s Binder broke, turning a corner in the field. That night, we found ourselves in an old barn 50 km north, scavenging parts from an old binder that had sat idle for 70 years. Miraculously, we were up and running again by the next morning, accompanied by Joe Jeffrey, another horse farmer with an ancient John Deere binder. Twice the equipment meant half the time, as we raced to beat the snow.
Walking behind the binder are our volunteer farm labourers, who stook the bundles of grain into tripod pyramids of 5 bundles in a time honoured system against the prevailing wind. This allows the grain, to stay up off the field and spend about a week drying in the wind.
A week later, we came back to the field, bearing witness to hundreds of small ‘stooks’ of grain awaiting the next step of our harvest – threshing. Here we have a huge machine, another vestige of the 1920’s, that separates the grain from the stalk. With pitchforks, we toss the bundles into the thresher, and out comes a steady stream of grain into a grain wagon, pulled by 4 horses. On the other side, cut straw piles up for feed or eventual disposal.
Once we have transported the grain off the field, with our team of horses, we put it in large bags, or totes, an unfortunate but necessary retreat back into modernity. From here we take the grain to a seed cleaning plant, where it is cleaned and separated mechanically to take out any fungus (urgot) or extraneous material. Then we take it back to the distillery where it is stored until we can distill it and put it into barrels.
Horse farming for our distillery is satisfying for so many reasons. We are connected to the land in the ultimate ‘farm to glass’ experience – to our knowledge the only distillery doing so in North America and maybe the world. We are preserving knowledge of farming that has been lost to a new generation and, more so, we are able to work with some of the most beautiful and majestic animals on the planet – the gentle giant work horses bred to work the fields.
Some think we are crazy, but I can’t think of anything that is more fun. Here’s to horse farming grain, making spirits the traditional way and beating Mother Nature’s disdain for the 2014 Rye Harvest. Cheers!