Pulling their weight: Young organic farmers use horses to work the land

On a drizzly Sunday morning, Adam Davidoff gently sets the heavy leather harnesses upon the backs of the two draft horses tied before him. Carefully arranging bridles and bits, two sets of driving reins, multiple straps and buckles, he speaks softly to the gentle giants.

Misty, a chestnut-colored Belgian and veteran farmworker, stands patiently as Davidoff moves between her and Sparky, an ink-black Percheron who’s calm but fairly new to his role in the fields.


Adam Davidoff uses horses to “disk” the soil, breaking up clods of dirt in one of the fields at New Family Farm. photos/liz harrisAdam Davidoff uses horses to “disk” the soil, breaking up clods of dirt in one of the fields at New Family Farm. photos/liz harris

Davidoff, 25, is still learning the ropes — about horses and farming. But that hasn’t stopped him from plunging headfirst into his newfound career, one that melds his core values into everyday life. “Right now, I think I’m the most Jewish I’ve ever been, in the way I live my life,” he says.

There are crops to be harvested, soil to be prepped and produce to sell. In a way, it’s Sukkot all year-round for this young Jewish farmer in Sebastopol.

Davidoff and 26-year-old partners Ryan Power and Felicja Channing operate New Family Farm — which solely uses horses, rather than motorized equipment, to work the land.

The sturdy equines are taller and heavier than many other breeds (they can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, nearly twice as much as the average riding horse). They help till, plow, weed and even harvest the 31⁄2 acres in Sonoma County that produce a bounty of vegetables: carrots, potatoes, kale, chard, winter squash, cabbage and much more.

Neither Davidoff nor Power grew up on a farm. The two met in middle school in Sebastopol and pursued environmental studies at U.C. Santa Cruz, where they got their first taste of farming. Both interned on a working farm that used mules — which clinched their determination to shun fossil fuels for muscle power.

“There’s something magical about it,” Power says. “Both of us have become much gentler, working with horses.”

Shortly after their time together at Santa Cruz, the two young men — along with Channing, Power’s fiancee — settled in Sebastopol. New Family Farm sits a few miles out of town, in a valley at the end of a winding, narrow drive dotted with modest residences, pickup trucks and children’s toys.

Old farm equipment is put to use at New Family Farm.

The partners lease 15 acres from the landowners on a “land-improvement-for-work trade,” says Davidoff. The plan is to double the amount of land they cultivate to “six acres of field-to-field vegetables” by next year, he says, and hire a second farm hand.

“It just sort of jelled for us to start this little farm,” says Davidoff, who studied sustainable agriculture at Santa Cruz. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted to be working with draft animals.”

His father, an Israeli American who also lives in Sebastopol, calls him a kibbutznik. “He says, ‘You don’t know it, but you are,’” says Davidoff, who has visited relatives in Israel at least a dozen times.

Two of the farm’s three horses are on “permanent loan” from a Santa Rosa man in a horses-for-food swap.

Ed Gelsman, a transplanted Philadelphia Jewish businessman who owns the Wine Merchant in Petaluma, found in Davidoff and Power not only a shared interest in draft horses but also a shared commitment to tikkun olam — repairing the world.

“I said, ‘I will give you these horses to use if you give me a certain portion of the food you grow for my nonprofit,’” Gelsman recalls. He also provides them with farm equipment, hay for feed and whatever in-kind support he can.

Gelsman and his wife, Wendy, have a 16-acre farm that serves as home base for their newly established nonprofit, Work Horse Organic Agriculture, or WHOA. “We are committed to giving away as much food as we can” to people of limited means, Gelsman says.

At this point the food is donated primarily to St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County, which operates a free dining room and food pantries. Future goals include breeding and raising draft horses “so we can give teams of horses away to more young farmers like Adam and Ryan,” Gelsman says, and operating an educational program for youths.

Ryan Power sells produce at the Sebastopol Farm Market.

An educational component already has been added to New Family Farm activities.

Over the summer, Davidoff hosted a group of Jewish teens from Camp Tawonga, in the debut of Tawonga’s Teen Service Learning “food and farm” program. The high school kids helped pull weeds, harvest garlic and cook, among other tasks. They volunteered at a few farms “in order to gain a better understanding of where food comes from and different ways it can be grown and brought to the table,” explains teen program coordinator Aaron Mandel.

Mandel and Davidoff met as co-counselors at Tawonga, where Davidoff spent many years as a camper and then as a backpack trip leader. The Jewish camp, he says, “got me thinking about environmental consciousness, social justice, and it gave me confidence in myself.”

He also credits his two years as a Diller Teen Fellow with helping to shape his values. Program director Ilan Vitemberg “was extremely influential. He got me thinking critically about this stuff.”

The two still keep in touch, though many teens have come and gone since Vitemberg’s first year as program director, when he and Davidoff met. Vitemberg, now Israel Education Initiative director at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, still remembers interviewing Davidoff about 10 years ago, when the incoming high school junior was one of 40-some kids vying to be one of 20 chosen for the teen leadership program. “It’s kind of telling that I [still] remember” the details, says Vitemberg, 45.

That Davidoff chose to pursue such a challenging career path “doesn’t surprise me,” Vitemberg continues. “He was always passionate about the outdoors [and living] green. He has tons of integrity.”

Davidoff and Power appreciate their good fortune: The trade arrangements  — even Sparky is on loan from a neighbor — enable them to make a go of it in an area where land is expensive and the cost of living high. Once known for its apple orchards, Sebastopol gradually has given way to more housing, antique shops and other trappings of encroaching suburbia.

“It’s important to us for people to know how grateful we are for everything they do,” Davidoff says.

Adam Davidoff

The two close friends fully embrace their hardworking life. That means 10-hour days in the fields (which can stretch up to 16 hours during harvest season). It means loading up their truck long before dawn, three times a week, to sell at area farmers markets. It means providing a half-dozen restaurants and grocery stores (including the Sebastopol Whole Foods) with high-quality, certified organic produce. And it means taking care of the myriad livestock — goats (for cheese and yogurt that Channing makes), chickens and sheep (for slaughter) that roam about.

The horses must be healthy and well-cared for, from head to plate-sized hoof. Once harnessed and ready to go, they are hitched up to old-fashioned equipment with heavy rotors that plow and “disk” (chop up) the soil, carve beds for planting, dig up potatoes and other root vegetables and loosen weeds.

Row by row, field by field, the horses are guided with a slow and steady hand, from start to finish. Should they not move and stop in sync, any one of several possible disasters could occur: from injury to man or beast, to loss of crops.

One of the goals Davidoff and Power share is to disprove the widely accepted current models of agricultural production.

“One thing I’ve been thinking about lately, there’s a lot of doubt that small farms can feed the world,” Davidoff says. “We’re all about proving that model of industrial agriculture wrong, by feeding people as efficiently as possible.”

He and Power are “extremely, extremely motivated people,” he says, who strive for efficiency and aim to “cut anything out if it that seems a waste of time.”

Even so, their workdays are long, their days off few. As for vacations, “I was really lucky,” Davidoff says, “and took five days off this summer to see my mother” in the Mount Shasta area.

Future trips to Israel to visit family — including his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor — lie on the distant horizon.

Still, he has no complaints. “I absolutely love my work,” says the bearded, dark-haired Davidoff, who on a typical day sports a worn felt hat, suspenders and baggy trousers.

The horses provide a large measure of satisfaction, he adds. “We [people] move so fast. I like this work that teaches me to slow down.”

And how do his parents feel about his chosen lifestyle?

“My family loves that I’m a happy person. That is important to them,” he says. “They see that in my face and they see that I’m excited, and growing, and nothing is stagnant.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.