Ox Power or Horse Power?

Complexity: 
Easy

Supplies of petroleum are dwindling, and that poses a special problem for farming. In his book Family Farming, Marty Strange summarizes a study at the University of New Hampshire:

By 2020, domestic supplies of both oil and gas will be depleted, and if agriculture’s technological base does not shift, 10 percent of the oil and 60 percent of natural gas consumed in the United States soon after that will be used in food production.… A farming system so dependent on fossil fuels can’t last forever—not even for long.


Our recent experience in Kuwait shows that military needs and destruction of resources could exhaust supplies of fossil fuel even sooner than we once thought. Nearly a decade before Saddam Hussein ordered retreating Iraqi troops to torch the oil wells of Kuwait, Marty Bender considered the problem of dependence on fossil fuel and proposed an alternative. In an article called “Industrial Versus Biological Traction on the Farm,” he wrote, “It is estimated that the United States has three decades of petroleum and natural gas reserves at the current level of production.

We will then have to rely mostly on foreign imports of petroleum until the world’s reserves are depleted in another generation or two.…”

He suggested, “By 2013, the United States should try to have a sizable population of working horses and mules … if we are to have a food supply that does not require importing foreign fuels.”

Articles like this acknowledge the critical vulnerability of farms powered by petroleum, but often the remedy proposed is farms powered by the horse. So we may ask, how does horse- powered farming fit in with the development of spiritual communities?

“Where Are the Oxen?”

Our first clue comes from Srila Prabhupada. Paramananda Dasa, a disciple, once told how devotees tried to impress Prabhupada with their efforts toward self-sufficiency. During one of Prabhupada’s first visits to a West Virginia farm, they harnessed a team of horses and showed him how they could work the animals. Prabhupada responded: “Where are the oxen?” For Paramananda, that was the end of working horses. From that moment his interest shifted to oxen.


Not only would horses deprive oxen of rightful employment, but as Prabhupada was well aware, horses are temperamental, and their health can be shaky. So when one devotee wrote him about buying a horse to get around on the farm, Srila Prabhupada advised against it: “If you keep horses you have to take care of them, and for a little convenience of transportation you have to take so much botheration to keep the horse fit.”

From the Battlefield to the Farm

Before the horse, in most countries the ox was the main animal used for plowing. For the battlefield, passion and speed made the horse better suited. In “What Pulls the Plow?” an article in Country Journal, Ronald Jager writes, “The English Great Horse, immortalized in legend and art, was not a draft animal but originally a war horse, large, fast, strong for armor bearing, and high-strung.”

As the Medieval Crusades came to an end and the horse collar was invented, people found that horses could plow land faster than oxen. So in northern Europe horses began to push the ox off the farm. The transition was not without debate, however, and writers from Walter of Henley in the 1200’s to Sir Anthony Fitzherbert in the 1500’s spoke out in favor of the ox. (In the New World in the 1700’s, Ben Franklin continued to argue for the ox.) Oxen, they pointed out, “produced better manure, were cheaper to keep, were more versatile, and were often healthier than horses.” Sir Anthony concluded, “All thyngs consydered, the ploughe of oxen is moche more profytable than the ploughe of horses.”

Central to Sir Anthony’s argument was this: During idle winter months, oxen could live on hay alone, but horses “must haue both hey and corne to eate.” So horses were far more costly. But despite the extra cost, on European farms the horse gradually won out.

Society Shifts to the Mode of Passion

One topic absent from the dialogue of the time was the effect of horse power in transforming society from rural to urban. But modern scholars have picked up on the shift in social structure:

The invention of the horse collar and traces literally revolutionized the power situation on European farms.… Modern European agriculture made it possible for a farmer to produce much more than any farmer had ever produced before. For the first time in the history of mankind it became possible for the urban population of a region to exceed the rural population, because, for the first time, one farmer could produce more than enough to feed his own family and another family in the city.

As we have described in this column before, horse power set in motion the urbanization that helped bring on the industrial revolution. Although this chain of events is often applauded as a sign of progress, it has degraded our environment and our society. The fact is, horse power was an important step away from a simple rural life in the mode of goodness.

The Only Nonviolent Choice

Another argument against horse power, lost on contemporary scholars, is implicit in Prabhupada’s remark “Where are the oxen?” The bull calf is an automatic by-product of milk production, and unless the bull is productively engaged, economic necessity says he must be slaughtered.

From time to time we hear admiration expressed for several old-fashioned religious groups who rely largely on horse power. For anyone in touch with these groups, it is apparent they are very pious people. Beyond that, they are expert in numberless details of self-sufficiency which they are kind enough to share with neighboring Hare Krishna devotees.

Unfortunately, however, their gentleness cannot be complete with their present system of farming. Because the bull has no job on their farms, they have to cut his throat. This was brought home to me at Gita Nagari, our Pennsylvania farm, which the devotees bought in the 1970’s from an Amish dairy farmer. There the building we used as a shed for garden tools was formerly a smoke house for the meat of slaughtered cattle.

Not Enough Horses? Try Oxen

Using horses for farming means bulls must be killed. Inverse corollary: If you don’t have enough horses, you can use oxen. This idea seems to have slipped by Marty Bender. He advocated (in 1984) that the U.S. should at once begin breeding its eight million recreational horses and mules into twenty-five million working horses and mules.

But according to 1990 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. has ninety-nine million cattle and calves, from which fifty million oxen could easily be bred in just one year. If trained, they could be out working the fields in just two years more. So why go out of our way to breed more workhorses when the energy-efficient, disease- resistant ox is so readily at hand?

But Don’t Wait Too Long

With about a hundred million cattle, you might think we needn’t worry about having enough oxen to work. But we have to see this figure in perspective. With prices rising for land, fuel, and chemical inputs, the number of cattle in the U.S. has dropped steadily for the past couple of decades. In 1975 we had 132 million cattle; in 1980, 111 million; in 1985, 110 million; and in 1990, 99 million. During an energy crisis, as we have mentioned before, farmers send more cows to the slaughterhouse. So we don’t have unlimited time to train oxen as an energy alternative.

Father Bull or Father Horse?

The final argument in favor of ox power over horse power is subtle, but should not be overlooked. According to Vedic literature, when a spirit soul comes to earth to take a human body he first takes the form of grain. So whoever plows the field is in a sense the first father of a human being.

For most of us born in the countries of the West, our original father was Father Tractor, so it’s not surprising we are easily enamored of machines. Even the horse, a passionate animal used for war, cannot be the best father for human society.

The ideal father is Father Bull, the embodiment of religion, the very symbol of goodness. Part of the reason Father Bull can raise the best human beings is not so mystical as it may seem. A society that depends on the bull for growing grains must be centered in the country, the place most favorable to spiritual life.

And when cows are protected the human father will naturally be a gentle man, satisfied with living simply and working honestly for Krishna. He’ll be a man who works at home and shares in bringing up his children. And that gives a human being a most fortunate start on the journey back home, back to Godhead.

The Cubans saw the logic of ox power. To make up for some of the petroleum they no longer get from the Soviet Union, they developed a nationwide program to train 400,000 oxen for transport and farming. Unintentionally, no doubt, they rescued those 400,000 animals from the slaughterhouse, at least for the time being—an example that devotees in the Hare Krishna movement should take as a challenge to surpass.

It may be that Krishna wants to reciprocate with Cuba’s unintended efforts toward cow protection: Devotees are now proposing an ox-cart Padayatra to bring the holy name through Cuba.