David Burnette and his wife Diane do things the old way.
“One thing just led to another,” David said of the couple’s self-sufficient lifestyle.
On this day, while David shows a visitor around the couple’s Haywood County homestead, Diane thins out sorghum seedlings in preparation for planting hundreds of the tiny plants this week. All told the couple will tend about an acre of sorghum, made up of different varieties and with different maturity dates. They’ll harvest the sorghum in the fall and make over a hundred gallons of molasses to sell and give away.
David said he’s always had an interest in old timey ways and things. That interest is in full evidence at their home on Dutch Cove Road outside of Canton. There are dozens of plows that David has saved from being turned into metal scrap, plus various cultivators and horse-drawn sleds. These aren’t just on the farm for appearance sake, however.
The Burnettes use workhorses to do much of their plowing and cultivating. They also raise chickens and pigs, one of their sons raises Boer meat goats on the homestead, plus they operate a sawmill and sometimes log land using the team of horses.
David remembered that his father always kept a horse or a pony. But his first experience in working animals wasn’t with horses. Instead it came when David used a bit of broken harness to make a collar for a goat. David soon had that goat pulling a Radio Flyer wagon around the farm. That beginning with the goat led into a lifelong fascination with working horses.
“I like to fool with them,” David said. “To me there’s a lot of satisfaction not to be dependent on anybody’s oil, foreign or domestic.”
David uses the horses to plow and cultivate on the farm. He was getting ready to use them in the next day or so to cultivate his potatoes. Throughout the year he’ll mow hay with the horses, too. David and Diane are popular figures at the Cradle of Forestry, where each spring they participate in a living history event, “Old Time Plowing and Folkways.” The couple in April plowed the Cradle of Forestry’s vegetable garden for the benefit of visitors. Many who watch have never seen horses work like this before, David said.
“A lot of people don’t know where their food comes from,” David said. “There was one lady, who was 30 to 40 years old, who’d never seen a horse before. People are disconnected.”
Making a start
When he was 12 years old or so, David and a friend built a log cabin together, and that interest in building and making things led David into taking machinery at Asheville Buncombe Technical College. He later took classes such as welding at Haywood Community College. He learned basic blacksmithing from a fellow that lived in the area.
“I wanted to be able to do it all,” David said.
Today David teaches hand-wrought metal in the professional crafts program at Haywood Community College.
David took a keen interest in his father’s farm as he grew older, which is the same land where he and Diane live today. David as a young man started cutting hay and working the property. After he and Diane married, David bought a colt, a draft-horse mix, and started working with her on the farm. He and Diane were growing tobacco then and found they needed more horsepower, however. They bought the colt’s half sister and paired the two as a team, marking the beginning of David’s ongoing venture into working horses. Diane, as well as David, works the horses.
Staying connected to the land
Soon the couple bought a team of Belgian colts and broke them to working, too.
David said it took him two or three teams, however, to find ones that truly suited him. The horses temperaments have to match up with the owner, he explained. You might have one team that likes to work fast, another more slowly — it takes time to find exactly the right ones, he said.
“They have different attitudes,” David said. “You have to get horses that are suited to you, that matches your personality.”
You also have to try to pair your team as closely as possible, though he noted “you’ll never get a perfectly matched team.”
David tries to match his team in terms of temperament and height and build. Unlike some folks, he doesn’t worry much about color. That’s just aesthetics, and that doesn’t really count for much when you’re really working them in the field.
David said there seems to be a lot of fairly new interest among people wanting to learn about working horses.
“There seems to be a resurgence of people getting into it,” David said, adding that this has meant it’s becoming easier and easier to find equipment for horse-drawn teams. Even new equipment is being invented these days, he said, as more and more folks get involved.
“I think this is as good a time as it has ever been to get into it and practice it,” David said.
David believes that people wanting to work with horses would be well advised not to also keep tractors on hand, though he does. That way, the horses are always being worked and the person working them doesn’t have an excuse to go crank up an engine-powered machine in place of the horses. David does use tractors, and with his background in machinery and welding he’s able to keep all his machines up and running.
“Horses like to work,” David said. “A tractor will just sit under the shed and be there a week later.”