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Horse-powered grains

The horses' tack clinks and clangs musically in the morning air. Unperturbed by the young couple braced behind the draft team, birds swoop toward the freshly turned furrows, eager to snatch displaced bugs. The din of machinery is conspicuously absent on the rolling tract that produced pears for more than a century.

Subtract David Mostue's dreadlocks and Alyssa Jumars' boyish garb and the scene could be one from the farm's earliest days when Mostue's great-great-uncles, Alfred and Leonard Carpenter, broke ground for orchards that eventually covered 70 acres of east Medford hills.

"The whole farm was opened with horses," says Mostue, 25.

Ailing pear trees gave way within the past few years to vineyards, hay fields and vegetable patches dedicated to a community-supported agriculture program. To further diversify the farm, Mostue and Jumars are raising chickens for eggs, goats for milk and have sown several grain crops. They hope American Belgians Beth and Breeze can replace petroleum-powered equipment in the fields and end Dunbar Farms' dependence on outside resources.

"We're sort of growing our own power on the farm," says Jumars, 24.

Dunbar's 90 acres of hay will provide much of the 7-year-old mares' feed, while grains and legumes will help sustain the laying hens and dairy goats. Depending on yields and the feasibility of milling grains locally, shareholders of Dunbar Farms' CSA may be able to purchase barley, rye and wheat, planted last fall and harvested in late spring and early summer.

"Small grains are kind of the buzz right now," says Jumars.

"A lot of these grains are perfectly edible boiled and whole," adds Mostue.

Realizing that vegetables can provide only a small amount of a community's calories, small farmers like Mostue and Jumars are starting to explore how they can grow grains on a scale that hasn't been profitable for a half-century. While Butte Creek Mill is a convenient option for processing grain crops, the historic Eagle Point structure also stands as a reminder of the Rogue Valley's agricultural heritage — and modern-day potential.

"Really, around the turn of the century, there was a lot of grain," Mostue says. "They look like they're a really compatible crop for the soils."

With partner Avery Briggs, 24, Mostue and Jumars are growing a dozen different varieties of grain that historically thrived in the Pacific Northwest. The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation — a seed bank in Fort Collins, Colo. — provided free samples, Jumars says. After this growing season, Dunbar's farmers will decide what crops seem most suited to their land.

"I think these crops are just beautiful," Mostue says, standing in a field of barley that soon will be ripe for harvest.

Along with the barley, Dunbar boasts three varieties of winter wheat. The Rogue Valley's relatively mild winters are hospitable to many grains, which don't need irrigation if planted in the fall, Mostue says. A cycle of fall sowing and spring reaping would allow Dunbar to focus on vegetables in the summer, Jumars adds. Profits from the "veggie club" purchased Beth and Breeze from an Eastern Oregon breeder, one among a small, underground group of horse farmers scattered around the state, Mostue says.

"There's some holdouts," he says. "It's actually a really economical way to start farming if you don't have equipment."

The draft team cost about 1 percent of a new combine's purchase price, Mostue says. They may work slower and require no small amount of human effort, but horses contribute to the health of a farm while machinery gobbles gas and pollutes the air.

"It takes more time to do things with horses, but you don't regret any of that time," Jumars says.

Trading his elderly draft horses four years ago for a tractor, 62-year-old Charlie Boyer misses his registered Percherons and Clydesdale cross-breeds when it's time to hay his 40 acres outside Eagle Point.

"It was so quiet and so peaceful ... and on a small scale, they actually could farm," he says, adding that riding a tractor is hot, loud and smelly work.

"Horse farming is appropriate technology in the right place," Boyer says.

Yet machine technology appropriate to the era of horse farming is in short supply, Boyer says. Obtaining horse-drawn plows, binders, cultivators, hay rakes and balers in working condition is a major challenge facing new, young farmers like Mostue and Jumars, Boyer says. A Madras auction organized by Small Farmer's Journal is among the only sources for such machinery, but farmers can find themselves bidding against antique dealers, Mostue says.

Subsidized by his family's interest in orchards, vineyards and hay, Mostue admittedly doesn't face the financial challenges of many small farmers who lease land and must harvest a profitable crop in their first season. However, Dunbar Farms has some tough rows to hoe, namely bringing Beth and Breeze up to speed. The 1,800-pound horses were broken to pull wagons and plows but need to learn the ropes of raking hay and cultivating, or weeding between crop rows.

"We're definitely at the beginning of a long and steep learning curve," Jumars says.

"We have so much ground to cover so quick when it comes to agriculture," Mostue says. "We know agriculture from the books, and we want to change where it is."

Horse-powered grains