Tillers International: Preserving Traditional Farming Techniques

Tillers International in Michigan farms the traditional way by preserving traditional farming techniques, with no modern machinery, which teaches lessons from the past and history.

| June/July 1997

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    Alex Crockford inspects a cart made in the Tillers woodshop.
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    Herb Nehring demonstrates tong making for Mike Hilton in the blacksmith shop.
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    Richard Roosenberg with a team of oxen.
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    Chart: Tillers International 1997 Classes and Activities.
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    Janet Ott and Kizza Josephine train oxen Peter and John to pull a cart in Uganda, Africa.

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Learn how Tillers International is preserving traditional farming techniques. (See the Tiller farming photos in the image gallery.)

Picture yourself in an open field under the radiant sun walking behind a pair of one-ton oxen. The heavy animals plod rhythmically through the soil and you watch dark clumps of earth fall to either side of the plow, creating a furrow for planting. The oxen are wearing a handmade yoke from the woodworking and blacksmith shop and they respond to your "gee" and "haw." There is no hum of a tractor and no smell of its exhaust. You are in southwestern Michigan working the land the traditional way at Tillers International, an organization committed to preserving historical rural skills.

Located on 30 acres of country land at the edge of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Tillers International has offered training in rural skills for over 15 years, preserving traditional farming techniques. International rural innovators, American farmers, historical interpreters, craftspeople, and hobbyists alike travel from around the United States and abroad to sample classes in animal power, farm crops, construction skills, metalworking, woodworking, and international rural development. Class participants plow fields with draft horses, build yokes for oxen, forge fireplace tools, and even travel to Africa to develop and share rural skills abroad.

Hands-On Farming and Homestead Experience

"Tillers is a skill-based organization," says director Richard Roosenberg, with the small classes structured around hand-son practical experience. In the Sweet Sorghum Molasses class, for example, people from ages 10 to 70 spend the day cutting and preparing sorghum cane, pressing it with animal power, and evaporating the juice to molasses. Participants in the Introduction to Blacksmithing class go home with their own handmade coal chisel after covering the basics of hammer skills, heat treating, and forge welding. Blacksmithing classes are limited to eight people so everyone uses his or her own anvil and no more than two people share a forge.

The practical experience of Tillers classes draws students, volunteers, and interns to the organization. "Right from the start I knew Tillers was a hands-on experience where you were learning and working to support agricultural endeavors," recalls former Tillers intern Alex Crockford. Interested in farming from an ecological standpoint, Crockford says he came to Tillers from the perspective of wanting to live on the land appropriately and act as a steward of the environment.

Janet Ott, another former intern, recalls being thrown into the middle of everything during her first few days at Tillers, from the workshops to the animal care and the day to day living. Animals need to be fed, watered, and taken out to graze and crops need to be tended. Now the spring plowing, disking, and planting make way for the summer cultivating. "There's no typical day at Tillers;" Crockford says. "It starts with chores and ends with chores."


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