Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Military veterans invited to farming workshop on draft horses

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 10/29/2012 2:37 PM

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STAPLES, Minn. — Mike Sams had mixed emotions when he returned to his Staples farm after serving 11 months in Iraq.

The Wadena National Guard staff sergeant felt excitement, exhilaration as well as sadness. Talking to others about those feelings was hard.

"There aren't many people who understand what you saw unless they experienced it themselves," he said.

Sams, whose unit served with Company A 1st Combined Arms Battalion 194th Armor Regiment, forged a special bond with his horses.

"It's like they have a seventh sense," said Sams of his eight Belgians. "They can tell when you are having a good day or a bad day. A tractor is a tractor. It's an inanimate object that breaks down. But a team of horses...they are always there for you. They are always there to work with you."

Sams will share his experience with draft horses at an Oct. 20 workshop geared toward veterans, especially those who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sams will be a keynote speaker and among the presenters demonstrating horse farming methods. He will also discuss other opportunities for working with draft horses.

The workshop, sponsored by the Sustainable Farming Association, will be in the Central Lakes College Ag Center in Staples from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Several teamsters — many of them veterans — will help at the event.

Field demonstrations and integrating draft horse power into a tractor-powered operation will be featured. A noon meal will be supplied by the Wadena VFW.

Working with draft horses is almost therapeutic, Sams says. There's something peaceful about sitting on the horse-drawn equipment and smelling the soil as it's turned over while the horses move across the field.

"That's something you can't experience when you sit on a tractor," he said. "You can't hear the sod rip."

Sams says his brand of horse power is less expensive than the mechanical kind. He plants open-pollinated corn so he can use his own seed and the oats he planted came mostly from his bins.

"With the use of horses, it isn't so much what you make on it as in what you save," he said. "If you use them right, they will generate their own feed through the fields they work. We are not paying the BPs or the Exxons the additional money. It can come down in the end as a positive thing if a person wants to take that time with the horses."

Even with a 75 to 80 bushel yield on 12 acres, with corn at $7, the end results aren't too bad, he said.

He owns 127 acres and rents other land around his farm. Most of the land is pasture. Besides the Belgians and 13 saddle horses, Sams also has 50 Angus-Hereford cross cows.

His son, Matthew and son-in-law, Seth Connell planted 24 acres in corn, alfalfa and oats using horse power this spring.

"That doesn't seem like many acres, but, when you do it with horses, well, it takes a little bit longer, obviously," he said.

Sams, who has retired from the National Guard, is a heavy equipment instructor at Central Lakes College and works on construction crews during the summer. His wife, Mary, is a dental assistant in Brainerd. They have two children. Matthew lives on the farm and is a second year lineman school student at M-State in Wadena. Their daughter, Rachel, is married to Seth and lives near Wadena. Seth, an electrician's apprentice, served two tours in Iraq.

The Staples farm is their second one. They sold the first when Sams' National Guard unit was preparing for deployment.

Sams enlisted in 1983 and started his Pequot Lakes area farming venture from scratch in 1987. He built the farm to a 130-head cow/calf operation with 208 owned acres and another 350 to 550 rented.

As he trained with the Guard at Camp Ripley, Sams always asked the same question to comrades.

"Is it time to sell the farm?" he'd ask at the meetings. "They'd tell me, 'No Sgt. Sams. It's not time to sell the farm.'"

When it seemed likely the unit would be deployed, Sams' fellow soldiers said it was time. And he did.

Rachel was 15 and Matthew was 12 at the time, he said.

The farm they purchased near Staples is located on a highway. Many of the neighbors were retired servicemen. One neighbor, George Call, could see the place from his house and watched out for the family.

The unit was deployed in the fall of 2004.

They trained at Fort Dix and served in the Diyala Province in Iraq. The unit provided security for convoys, conducted route clearance and personal security details, he said.

The first few months, the soldiers thoughts focused on their own mortality. At the mid-point in their deployment, returning home became their focus, Sams said. When he learned of an area farmer who was selling his horse-drawn equipment, Sams made arrangements from Iraq to purchase the horses and equipment.

During his deployment, Sams was injured. He returned to the duty and, when he was discharged, received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

In April, more than 30 horses plowed his fields, he said. Many of those driving teams were military veterans.

For more information on the Oct. 20 event, contact Kent Solberg at (218) 445-7580.