Horsepower Farm
Thoughts From Former
Apprentice David Fisher
HOME PAGEUnique_Maine_Farms.html
Back to
Horsepower Farm Home PageHorsepower_Farm.html

A special thank you is extended to David Fisher, a former apprentice at Horsepower Farm, who shared his memories of working at Horsepower Farm.  When asked about Paul and Mollie Birdsall, David said, “I have the utmost respect and gratitude for the Birdsalls, who laid the foundation for my lifetime of farming.”  David and Anna Maclay, and their children, Leora and Gabriel, operate Natural Roots Farm, a horse-powered vegetable farm in Conway, Massachusetts.

NEAPFD 2010 Feature Farmer - Honoring Paul Birdsall

It is a great honor for me to introduce this year’s feature farmer, Paul Birdsall, who has truly been one of the grandfathers of the horse powered farming movement of the last thirty to forty years. 

Born in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1927, Paul is a living link to a time when horsepower was the norm on American farms. 

Paul grew up around his grandfather’s farm in Western Massachusetts where horses were the sole source of power.  Though agriculture was not to be in his future for some time after his childhood, the seeds of the farmer were doubtlessly sown in the fertile soul of that young boy.  The Second World War was the backdrop to Paul’s teenage years, and through his early adulthood he bore witness to the wholesale mechanization of agriculture and the implementation of the Green Revolution.  Instead of farming, however, Paul pursued a career in business and then in education for many years. 

It was not until 1973 that Paul and his late wife, Mollie, had had enough of the prevalent cultural and political system and determined that their best course to effect change was to pursue a lifestyle that embodied their values.  It was then that they headed to the coast of Maine, along with their two young sons, to take up the craft of farming on a historic 300-acre farm that they purchased.  It was here that those agrarian seeds, lying dormant in Paul’s soul, came to germinate.

With energy issues approaching a critical level leading up to the last oil crisis, horses seemed an attractive and rational means of power on their newly acquired farm.  With the help of a nearby “old timer” Paul took up the lines and gradually grew into a teamster himself, employing his horses in vegetable, grain, hay, livestock, and timber production in the years to follow.

No sooner had he taken up the craft, however, than he found a young man at his door asking to be his apprentice.  “Apprentice?”  Paul asked turning to Mollie, “what’s an apprentice?”  And so the Birdsalls’ career of agricultural mentoring, teamster training, and proverbial seed sowing of their own crop of young farmers began. 

In addition to raising crops and bringing along apprentices, Paul has also been devoted to preserving and propagating the once greatly diminished Suffolk Punch breed of horses.  He has been breeding Suffolks since the mid 90’s and has raised many foals since then.

Paul’s dedication and determination to implement positive change through agricultural renewal by no means stops at the boundaries of his farm though.  Over the years Paul has invested himself in many other organizations while maintaining his own farm and apprenticeship program.

Paul has been an educator at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair, giving wagon rides with his horses for the first 25 years of the event and also doing horse powered farming demonstrations for many of those years.  Paul has been a co-coordinator for all draft horse events at the fair since it moved to its current location, some 12 years ago and has taught many Low Impact Forestry workshops as well.

Paul has worked tirelessly to preserve and enhance working farmland, not just that which he stewards at Horse Power Farm, but hundreds, if not thousands of acres beyond.  He has served as the chair of the soil and water conservation district board in his own Hancock County continuously since the 1970’s.  He has served on the Blue Hill Heritage land Trust since the mid 80’s, and he has served on the Maine Farmland Trust since the year 2000.

Perhaps most significant among his contributions to the future of agriculture, however, are the 150 plus apprentices that he has trained since that first young fellow wandered onto his farm looking to learn the teamster’s craft back in 1975.  In this way Paul Birdsall has sown perhaps the most valuable crop of all – the next generation of teamster farmers.

I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to be among those that got their start in farming with the Birdsalls, which in my case was in 1997.  I would like to share a taste of that experience as I wrote about it for the Natural Farmer newspaper in the following year.  Here are a few excerpts.

(1997)“One wet April day, Paul said he would be changing the shoes on the horses and asked if any of us would like to watch; I jumped to my feet!  Paul suggested that I might be able to learn some of the farrier’s skills.  I assumed he meant over the course of weeks or months, and so I calmly watched as he unclenched, or straightened, the nails and pulled a shoe off of Babe, who stood patiently munching hay.  “You want to give it a try?” Paul offered, handing me the tools.  “Uh, sure” I replied, not at all expecting the opportunity to touch any of this shoeing business for some time.  “Foot,” I requested of Babe, and agreeably she lifted her right hind hoof.  I set it on a block of wood and with a couple of taps I had unclenched one of the nails.  I looked up at Paul, expecting some commentary: what to do better, differently, or simply next.  Paul, with a twinkle in his eye, only said, “Well, I’ve got to go run some errands in town.  Why don’t you take the rest of her shoes off while I’m gone.”  and he was out the door.  “Eeep!”  my stomach dropped to the floor.  There I was, all alone with a 3/4 ton Belgian in the center of an immense ancient barn, wearing leather chaps that made me look like a cowboy, with a box full of tools of which I knew none of the names.  My knees began to quake.  Then after a minute, frozen in place, a wave of confidence came over me.  No doubt this was inspired, in part, by Paul’s confidence in me.  This experience set the stage for the season ahead.

Well, with that cold, wet spring, we had plenty of time to learn, and when the fields finally dried out in May, we were ready to get down to business.  We got to disking up a storm, let me tell you, with four apprentices, two farmers, eight horses, and a barnyard full of equipment, there was no stopping us.  Two horse, three horse, even four horse hitches we had out, sometimes even six horses were working at once, in two hitches.  Wahoo!  We were horse farming! 

On rainy days we would fix or tune up equipment that we were going to need soon, and on sunny days we would use it: the grain drill, the corn and bean planter, the walk behind cultivator.  Ahh the walk behind cultivator, a wonderful, but potentially dangerous implement if you forget which handle to push down on to make the thing turn left, left! LEFT!!  Whoops!  There goes a few feet of snap peas.  “Let’s just not let Mollie hear about that one, ok David?” chuckled Paul as he walked along side of me, lines in hand, guiding Mayday, the prize cultivating horse, between the rows.”

(For anyone interested in a copy of the complete article of my experience apprenticing with the Birdsalls, just ask me after the keynote.)

After leaving Horse Power farm, I was lucky to start up my own farm within a year and got my first team by the year 2000.  At present, my wife, Anna, and I have hosted about 20 apprentices of our own, most of who are currently employed in agricultural production in one form or another.  One of our proudest moments though, came this year when two of our former apprentices, Micah and Bethany Spicher-Schoenberg got their first team of horses to power Plowshares Produce, their farm operation in central Pennsylvania.  As they continue to refine their systems, they will undoubtedly find themselves mentoring green teamsters and apprentices of their own in the years to come.  And so the cycle continues, seed to seed, teamster to teamster.

Over the years Paul has had his share of challenges to overcome.  Not the least of which was losing his long time farming partner and wife, Mollie, to cancer around the year 2000.  Fortunately he has had the steadfast support of community and family along the way. 

And now, in the year 2010, Paul Birdsall is 83 years old and still farming full time.  With the help of his son, Andy, and daughter-in-law, Donna, Horse Power Farm has continued to thrive.  Recently Paul has been joined by the next teamster in line, his grandson, Andy Jr., age 23, along with his family.  At his age, you might think that the story of Paul Birdsall might be nearing its last chapters.  But with four generations of Birdsalls farming at Horse Power Farm and dozens of apprentices farming and training their apprentices who are now training their apprentices and so on, the legacy of this man will clearly be manifesting change for many more decades to come. 

So with gratitude for all he has done for me, for the community of teamsters in this country, and for the bright future of agriculture, I ask you to please welcome Mr. Paul Birdsall.

The article below was written by David Fisher to honor Paul Birdsall in 2010, as the “Farmer of the Year” at the Draft Animal Power Field Days.