Drafting a Future

Walt Bernard drives a team of draft horses plowing a field.
Walt Bernard drives a team of draft horses plowing a field.

Pair of horses plow the foundation for an organic farm

By Craig Reed

Ruby and Amber would be proud that the farming tradition they helped start is plowing ahead on a grand scale.

The two Belgian draft horses will never be forgotten by Walt Bernard and Kris Woolhouse.

The certified organic and biodynamic farm is named after the four-legged creatures: Ruby & Amber’s Organic Oasis.

Vegetables continue to be grown in the ground Ruby and Amber first walked and turned over about 20 years ago. Those vegetables, sold at their own farm stand, at farmers markets and through a Community Supported Agriculture program, feed many people in south Lane County.

The two Belgians were instrumental in the development of a second business, Workhorse Workshops. Under the guidance of Walt and Kris, the horses were mentors to younger draft horses being taught their roles in farm work.

“It is quiet,” Walt says of having horses pull equipment over the farm’s ground, preparing it for one of the 50 varieties of vegetables that are planted and grown. “Working with the horses is a living relationship, and you can’t beat that. You can’t have that with a tractor, but you can have it with a horse. There’s gratification in having a cooperative relationship with an animal, and being successful at what we want to do.”

Kris says working with the horses is “immensely satisfying.”

Kris Woodhouse plants flower starts alongside a greenhouse.
Kris Woodhouse plants flower starts alongside a greenhouse.

“I think the horses enjoy it,” she says. “There’s satisfaction in getting the work done with the horses and getting food out of it at the same time.

“The horses certainly aren’t as noisy as a tractor.”

Ruby and Amber have passed on to horse heaven in recent years, but their work ethic and leadership will always be remembered by Walt and Kris.

Ten draft horses now help out on the farm. Some of the horses have become experienced field workers and some are in training, with Walt handling the reins and providing the guidance.

He trains draft horses for other owners, or both owners and horses can attend a Workhorse Workshop for introductory or more advanced instruction.

Walt began holding the workshops and teaching horses and people 12 years ago. He has had 30 people attend the workshops in the last few years.

“When they are trained well, they can be like a second person,” Walt says. “Whether mowing or plowing with horses, they figure out where they need to be to help out.”

Walt says the horses are good at pattern recognition, walking down a furrow and staying off the vegetable plants. A tractor must be steered or it will roll over plants.

Walt says the criteria for a horse to become a good worker is similar to that for a person: reasonably intelligent and fit and the ability to get along with others.

“Once you get a horse to do something good that it is willing to do, it is gratifying for the animal,” he says. “It’s the same with a person.”

Walt has a 90 percent rule when training horses and their owners. If he is not sure one or the other is 90 percent ready to pull equipment or to work the reins, he postpones that step in the training.

He says it is important the human and the horse have confidence in what they are learning. If they are not ready to advance, any confidence gained can be lost. That can be a step backward—especially for the horse, says Walt, who says it is best to progress slower.

His training philosophy includes having plenty of patience, clear communication, developing a relationship with the animal and being safe—the latter applying to both humans and horses. Anne Peterson and her Haflinger horse Bella are in their third season working on the Ruby & Amber farm. They also help teach and mentor at the workshops.

Kris works with Sara Geonczy, left and Anne Peterson.
Kris works with Sara Geonczy, left and Anne Peterson.

“Bella really likes to work,” Anne says. “I think she’s more satisfied when she’s able to, and it’s nice to see the growth of the vegetables and flowers after putting in the hard work. I find it very satisfying, and I think Bella does, too.”

Walt says there is another important aspect to having horses work on the farm. Their manure can be com- posted along with that of the cows and chickens. The mixture becomes fertilizer for the fields.

Working the ground was not the initial career calling for Walt and Kris. Both were in the medical profession in Santa Cruz, California, when they decided in their late 30s they wanted career and location changes. They couldn’t afford acreage in California, so they looked north and found their farming paradise in a Dorena-area valley in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

With the help of Ruby and Amber, they first turned the ground and started planting in 1999.

Through the years, 12 hoop houses have been added to the operation, allowing the farm to grow and sell vegetables year-round.

“It’s really satisfying work,” Kris says. “You don’t make a lot of money, but it’s a healthy lifestyle.”

Kris and Walt have a stand at their farm during the heavy summer harvest season. They also sell their produce at the weekly Cottage Grove and Lane County farmers markets, to some Eugene area restaurants and 30 members in the farm’s year-round CSA program.

The farm’s mission was originally established with the help of Ruby and Amber. It continues, “Cultivating nutrition with live horsepower.”

For more information on the farm, visit www.Rubyandambers.com.