Draft horses help young couple keep things organic at their small produce farm

By Stu Watson

Parkdale farmers Ben Saur and his wife, Anastasia Mejia, at the entry to one of their hoop houses full of salad greens.
Parkdale farmers Ben Saur and his wife, Anastasia Mejia, at the entry to one of their hoop houses full of salad greens.

Mention the names Betty and Wilma, and most people think of the TV show “The Flintstones.”

Mention Betty and Wilma to Ben Saur and Anastasia Mejia, however, and they think about a different type of time travel. In an age when everything runs on petroleum and mechanical complexity, the two young Parkdale farmers are taking a page from history and a trip back to when every farmer had horses to plow their land.

Ben and Anastasia have become a bit of a curiosity when they work their ground or hitch their 1,000pound Norwegian Fjord draft horses, Betty and Wilma, to a twowheeled cart and tootle down Trout Creek Ridge Road.

“I knew when we got the property that I wanted to get draft horses,” Ben says. It was far from a casual impulse. Ben had been enchanted with the idea of horses ever since the couple returned from Portland to the upper Hood River Valley in 2011 with a dream of farming.

Ben guides Betty and Wilma in tilling his land.
Ben guides Betty and Wilma in tilling his land.

Local residents who met after high school and married in 2009, Ben and Anastasia followed slightly different paths to the land. Anastasia was working on a degree in art at Portland State University and fell for farming through involvement in a school “learning garden” project her senior year. As she was in school, Ben threw himself into gardening the yards of Portland homeowners, a concept called yard sharing.

“Within six months, we knew we didn’t want to be in Portland,” Ben says. “We dreamed of moving back to Hood River.”

After they returned to the valley, they started farming loaner land.

Friends had property and wanted someone to farm it. Ben and Anastasia volunteered and began to grow a variety of produce.

“It was a lot of driving from one plot to another,” Ben says. “But in a lot of ways, it was good.” Ben and Anastasia paid landowners in fresh produce and goodwill, sold their produce to local restaurants and through the farmers market, and kept meticulous records. Everything they did helped qualify them for a loan from the Farm Service Agency to buy 10 acres in early 2015. Two seasons in, they have two large hoop houses, an acre of tilled soil and more to grow. For a while—until Betty and Wilma arrived—a neighbor lent tractor time, and they used a walk behind tiller.

After returning from Portland, Ben followed a lead from the Small Farm Journal to Fay and Regina Pishion of The Dalles. A native of Wisconsin, Fay had owned and worked horses his entire life. “I called out of the blue, and Regina invited me to come out,” Ben recalls.

Anastasia is nuzzled by one of the two draft horses she and Ben bought last fall.
Anastasia is nuzzled by one of the two draft horses she and Ben bought last fall.

A learning relationship began. “I learned to harness and be around the horses,” Ben says. From there, Ben met Ed Joseph, also of Parkdale, who had draft horses he used to mow and rake hay. “That gave me an opportunity to work with them,” Ben says. “It was like a fouryear apprenticeship.”

In October, eight months after buying the farm, Ben and Anastasia bought Betty and Wilma from a seller in Goldendale, Washington. “I wanted to grow our operation, but I needed horsepower,” Ben says. The question was, what kind of horsepower? “It just made sense that you have an animal, and it’s working for you, and you feed it grass, so it’s solar powered,” Ben says. “And the manure is good for the soil. Plus I like working with animals.”

Anastasia jokes that her contribution to all this is “a lot of poop-scooping.” Less naturally drawn to big animals, she says she has grown more comfortable around them, and they around her. “I can push them out of the way now,” she says. Ben says Betty and Wilma are about 20 years old, and are healthy and sturdy enough that they probably have several years of work left in them. “We’re getting to know each other,” Ben says. “We work two or three days a week.”

Ben has added an assortment of tillage and mowing attachments to his farm’s toolkit.

When they are not working the garden, Betty and Wilma help Ben pull logs from the back of their property so he can stoke the wood furnace that heats their house.

Lest all this strike the uninitiated as romantic and nostalgic, Ben is quick to note it is best to think it all through before leaping into horse ownership. “It’s not for everyone,” he says. “If you’re not good with animals, you shouldn’t be doing it.”