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Tillers International: How the Program Began

Follow the path of Tiller International's history as a nonprofit organization, school and historic museum

(Tillers International continued, page 2 of 2)

Oxen pull the plow at Tillers International
Courtesy Tillers International

As Roosenberg became acquainted with old timers who still held first-hand knowledge of animal-powered farming, his dream began to coalesce. In 1981, he partnered with the Kalamazoo Nature Center, a nonprofit organization in Kalamazoo, Mich., to start the Tillers Small Farm Program.

The Tillers Program began with just two oxen--Nip and Tuck--in an old barn at the Nature Center. The program started offering classes, attended mostly by the staff of historic museums and interpretive centers around the United States and by staff and volunteers of such agencies as the Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

A small number of international trainees also came there to work with Nip and Tuck, learning farming techniques they could take back to their own countries; the first arrived from Senegal in 1985.

The Tillers Program evolved and grew, and after a couple of years, Roosenberg quit his day job as an attorney to work full time on Tillers. By 1989, the program had grown to such a point that he decided it was time for Tillers to become its own nonprofit organization.

He gathered a board of directors that supported the mission, and they incorporated as Tillers International. The mission expanded from strictly teaching droving to researching and fine-tuning a number of low-capital techniques and technologies, such as intensive rotational grazing or using remote, solar water pumps to complement the animal-powered farming systems the organization had promoted from the start.

Tillers International moved to 12 acres of land, with a barn and an old farmhouse, and continued growing. They began offering more classes in sustainable practices and served as an advocate for a more rational food system. By 2003, they had outgrown their site, and its owners (a manufacturing company) had also grown to need the land, so Tillers moved again—but this time the move was to a permanent home. Through donations and a mortgage, Tillers purchased almost 460 acres at Cooks Mill in nearby Scotts, Mich.

“This is such a beautiful place,” says Dulcy Perkins, Tillers farm coordinator. “It is rolling, hilly country. We have about 80 acres of woods that we log with animals and a mill pond and wetlands. We regularly cultivate about 7 acres exclusively with animal power. And we make hay on about 115 acres--50 acres of which we do strictly with animal power, and the rest is done on shares with adjacent farmers.”

Perkins grew up on a cattle ranch in the west and came to Tillers eight years ago for a draft horse workshop, but then found herself falling in love with working oxen and Tillers’ mission.

According to Perkins, the crops are grown in a six-year rotation. If an acre is in corn its first year, it’s followed by a fallow year. Then there are two years in which other crops are grown, such as oats, wheat, sorghum or beans.

Finally, the acre is planted in clover for two years before returning to corn. The rotation not only improves soil but also “allows us to have land available for plowing with animals in both spring and fall,” says Perkins.

The farm includes a number of functional buildings--some historical, moved from other sites and saved from the wrecking ball, others modern structures built specifically to meet Tillers’ needs. There’s a blacksmith shop, a woodworking shop, a museum and a guest house where students bunk.

The giant 1870s barn is one of the rescued buildings, moved from Walker, Mich., when the structure was threatened by development. The spring house is a brand-new addition, built by a stone masonry class.

It harkens to the days before refrigeration, but it isn’t simply for show and tell: It’s a working spring house, cooling vegetables from the raised-bed gardens and milk from the herd of heritage Milking Shorthorn dairy cattle (with milking goats soon to join the expanding dairy and cheese-manufacturing operation).

Belgian draft horses, sheep, poultry and Honey bees round out the critters that call this farm home.

Classes are held throughout the year, and about 250 people from around the United States visit to learn practical skills. Many of the courses are geared toward animal-powered farming, but others teach students how to make a broom or process sorghum into molasses.

Classes such as blacksmithing and furniture making, or cheese making and soap making, are also popular. The farm hosts a number of special events during the year, including the annual community harvest festival, and staff participate in events around the country, such as Horse Progress Days, an annual event held in Mount Hope, Ohio.

Think Locally, Act Globally
Tillers has certainly evolved since its inception. They spend more time today teaching practical techniques and technologies that benefit small-scale producers and traditional-skills enthusiasts in the United States.

For example, Roosenberg says they now have a number of CSA operators and other small-scale sustainable farmers taking their classes each year--people who are applying what they learn at Tillers in commercial operations here in the United States.

But a cornerstone of their purpose has remained tied to international relief work. (In fact, the interview for this article with Roosenberg took place via an Internet telephone connection to Northern Uganda, where he and other Tillers staff and interns were helping 120 farmers learn the drover’s art.)

Their recent mission to Uganda follows a two-decades-long war that has left about 1.5 million people in displaced persons’ camps. According to Roosenberg, Catholic Relief Services has provided teams of oxen to about 60 communities around the Pader region of Uganda.

Each team will initially service 20 families, and Roosenberg and a crew from Tillers was training two farmers from each of these groups of families.

“These are skills that truly benefit people,” he says. “About a year and half ago, the insurgency ended. With peace now relatively secure, they are moving back to farms and clearing the land.”

Roosenberg explains that the effect of their efforts doesn’t only help the 120 families who are currently part of the program; the effect of the donation of livestock and training becomes viral. Those farmers will go back to their villages and train the rest of the families, and as more cattle are available, they’ll help spread animals and knowledge.

“The first two years that I worked in Dahomey, all those years ago,” he says, “there were five farmers who asked us to train animals with them. By the third year, it was up to 20 farmers. But when I went back 15 years later, there were 500 farmers in the area using oxen that came from those first animals.”

Back to the Future
Roosenberg sees a point in the future where animal power might again play a more critical role in American food production, with economic instability or things like peak oil forcing us to change from our current industrial model.

"The Amish do still use animal power as their primary motive force, and it is cost effective and profitable,” he says. “But they have evolved the technology, using things like a forecart that works with the small implements that were originally designed for tractors. So we can now use oxen to pull a baler, and they reduce fuel use by about two-thirds. The use of this hybrid technology, coupled with animal power, can be competitive and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.”

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About the Author: Carol Ekarius is an HF contributing editor and author of many agricultural books, including Small-Scale Livestock Farming (Storey Publishing, 1999) and Hobby Farm: Living Your Rural Dream for Pleasure and Profit (Bowtie Press, 2005). 

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Tillers International: How the Program Began

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Reader Comments
how I wish it was closer...it's along way from Dubai...but it sounds just the place my husband and I would like to visit to learn.
gail, Dubai, YT
Posted: 6/2/2009 11:10:47 AM
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