South Dakota man finds satisfaction farming with horses
Alan Sorensen walks beside a friend, Gus Craven, as he tries his hand at the horse-drawn corn planter.
Coming from a long line of farmers, Alan Sorensen knew he wanted to farm. But instead of embracing the newest technology, he skipped back a generation, and took up farming with horses.
Alan, who lives in Yankton, S.D., grew up in the southeastern part of the state in the 1950s. Today he works full-time as the county highway superintendent, and farms with horses as a sideline. "I don't know why I always wanted to try farming with horses," Alan says. "I was 4 when my folks bought me a horse. He was a mid-sized kid horse and I loved to ride."
Alan was even more fascinated by the teams his father occasionally used around the farm. One team, Pat and Mike, was used for fieldwork. Some of the other horses were driven for pleasure, sometimes singly on a cart.
When Alan was a teenager, an opportunity presented itself but the timing was wrong. "My dad's uncle sold out and moved to town when I was about 18," Alan says. "He had a lot of horse-drawn equipment out under his trees, but I didn't have any way to haul anything then and I didn't think much about buying any of it."
A few years later, after Alan had purchased his own team of draft horses, he went to an auction on a nearby farm. "Iron prices weren't very high then and nobody was interested in the horse machinery on the sale," he recalls. "I bought a disc for $4. I think I bought a plow for less than that."
One of the items being sold, a John Deere 999 two-row corn planter, was more expensive. "I paid $20 for the planter," Alan says. "I was pretty sure I could use my team to plant corn with it."
Alan didn't know a lot about the corn planter he bought, just that he needed one in order to get started planting and harvesting crops with horse-drawn equipment. Although the no. 999 planter went into production in 1913, it was not Deere's earliest foray into that line.
John Deere's first planter design (a horse-drawn 2-row planter) dates to 1877 when Charles Deere (John Deere's son) joined forces with Alvah Mansur to establish Deere & Mansur Co., a manufacturer of corn planters. (The organization would become part of Deere & Co. in 1909.)
Horse-drawn planters of that era used a sled-style marker to create a grid on the field. The grid ensured uniform rows, which made cross-cultivation easier, keeping the field weed-free. Two people (often a farmer and his son) operated the planter. Parallel lines were etched into the soil on the first pass; lines were then etched at right angles on the second pass. On the third trip, the boy (sitting on the planter) jerked a lever at each intersection, dropping seeds into the furrow. Wide wheel rims tamped the soil as the planter passed.
Check-row planting evolved from the sled era, first using knotted rope and later wire (with regularly spaced "buttons") stretched across a field as guides for rows. When the planter's checking fork came in contact with a button, the seed drop mechanism was activated, dropping two to four seeds into the hill and thus putting the farmer's young son out of work (on that job, anyway).
Check wire ran along one side of the planter when planting in one direction, and on the other side on the return trip. Buttons spaced every 40-42 inches created rows wide enough to allow a horse to pass through when cultivating. The reel was mounted on the planter so the wire could be fed out as the planter crossed the field. When planting was complete, a hand crank was used to wind the wire on the reel.
Although primitive by today's standards, check-row planting represented state-of-the-art technology in its era. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, it took 35-40 labor hours in 1890 to produce 100 bushels of corn on 2.5 acres. Equipment commonly used then included a 2-bottom gangplow, disc and peg-tooth harrow, and a 2-row planter.
Alan's planter needed a bit of restoration to get it ready for the field. Although he was more concerned by how it worked than how it looked, he did a bit of painting anyway. "It was pretty well froze up after sitting for so many years," he says. "I had to loosen up the gear boxes and put a tongue in it. The wooden tongue had probably been gone for a long time." He also needed a small spring-action piece that pushes seed through the plate. "I was surprised the local John Deere dealer still had it," Alan says. "I bought the last ones he had in stock. The new ones are made out of plastic instead of iron."
Other parts were harder to replace. Discovering some of the check-wire parts were missing, Alan decided against using the planter to check plant. "Besides," he says, "my field is too narrow. I would have been turning all the time to make it work."
A few years later, though, when he found a complete John Deere 999 planter at an auction, he reconsidered. "It even had the wire," he says. "I thought if I ever wanted it to be authentic or wanted to check plant, I'd better have it." Alan kept the original planter as a parts source.
Since Alan purchased those first pieces of vintage equipment, horse-drawn implements, especially planters, have become increasingly rare. "You don't see many planters around here anymore," he says. "And that's not surprising. The implement companies stopped making horse-drawn equipment during World War II. All the young men were off to war, so there weren't enough people to work horses in the fields."
Many implement dealers simply stopped making horse-drawn equipment, he says, spurring growth in tractor sales. "Some of the horse equipment could be adapted to use with a tractor, but most of it couldn't," Alan says. "Implement companies had a lot to do with farmers switching from using horses in the field to working with tractors."
Farming with horses allows Alan to restore and use vintage farm equipment. But he says he also gets a lot of satisfaction from working in the field in the same manner his father and grandfather once did.
"When you use horse-drawn equipment, everything is so much quieter," he says. "You're close to the ground; you can smell the soil when you're working it. The horses seem to like having something to do. None of the work is that hard, especially when you're only working 5 acres. And it's kind of neat to be able to understand some of the challenges farmers faced when they lived here in the 1800s. You get a lot better understanding of them and their lifestyle when you're actually working like they did." FC
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment.
E-mail her at email@example.com.