It’s a gusty spring morning at Rocky Draw Farm just north of Mancos, and farmer Tyler Willbanks is parking the manure spreader in his barn.
Willbanks leads two massive black and white Clydesdale horses into the yard. The horses, Dee and Belle, stand proud and patient as he hooks them up to the spreader, a piece of machinery that resembles a large wagon, but with paddles in the back for flinging manure into the field. He climbs into the lone seat perched behind the horses.
“OK, ladies,” he says, and they take off. Willbanks drives the ungainly piece of equipment to the barn door and proceeds to pull off a six-point turn, instructing the horses back and forth just so until the spreader is parked neatly inside. It’s the kind of parking job most people rarely achieve even in their automatic transmission cars.
“You get used to it after twenty years,” he says, adding that driving with animals is fun. It requires more concentration. “It makes your tongue hang out a little bit.”
Willbanks would know. The fifth-generation farmer got his first donkey at the age of 11 and immediately began using it to plow any piece of dirt he could get his blade into. (“Nothing was safe,” he says). As a teen, he hired himself out to plow gardens with his mule, and even after splurging for a tractor to work his very first piece of land, he continued to use his mule, preferring the results.
These days, he’s long sold his tractor, opting for horsepower to plow, plant, mow, harvest, and carry out heavy labor on the roughly 180 acres of southern Colorado land he farms with his wife, April.
The 31-year-old farmer has encountered his share of incredulity and derision in response to his chosen method. But he’s unmoving. For a farm his size, horsepower is optimal. He ticks off the advantages of horses over fossil-fuel powered machinery: They are easier to maneuver, capable of duplicating themselves, help grow the food that fuels them, allow for a precision that’s impossible to achieve with tractors, and they keep the pace of life nice and slow.
“The quality of product that you raise is better, because your attention to detail is more,” He says. “You are right down there with the crop, instead of sitting up above in an air-conditioned tractor. You get to know the soil. So it makes you a better farmer.”
Plus, even when it’s 50 below zero, “They still start.”
Willbanks is lean and slight, with a wiry kineticism that indicates strength. He keeps his brown hair trimmed short and his shirts tucked neatly into his Wranglers. And though his work fits into the modern-day hipster ideal of Old-World methods and custom-made small-scale production, he is not playing a role. He has never known anything else.
Willbanks’ father’s family began farming in Montezuma County in the 1890s, while his mother’s family traveled via wagon over Wolf Creek Pass circa 1920 to homestead between Cortez and Dolores. Like most farming families of the era, both utilized horsepower.
Willbanks grew up on his mother’s family farm, the second of three children. He began growing plants as soon as he was big enough to hold a garden hoe, and always knew his life would involve cultivating food.
He attended school in Dolores, but was ill from a young age with Crohn’s Disease — an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal system — and spent a lot of time in and out of the doctor’s office before being home schooled. (At the age of 14, weighing just 75 pounds, he underwent a surgery to remove a substantial section of his digestive tract).
He never formally studied animal husbandry or agriculture, though he learned everything he knows about breaking horses, raising animals, plowing fields, and harvesting crops through hands-on work, and a kind of self-reliance endemic to small family operations.
When he was 16, he enrolled at San Juan Technical College to study welding, working in that field for a couple years to sock away money. By 18, he had saved enough to purchase his first piece of land: 40 acres in Montezuma County, along with a tractor. But after planting the ground with potatoes and oats, he found that he preferred working his fields with his mule.
In 2011, he bought the 25-acre farm he now lives on with April (the daughter of New York State dairy farmers), a high school teacher in Mancos who co-runs the operation. Back then, the farm was a scrubby and over-grazed piece of high desert. A couple years in, Willbanks sold his tractor to help pay for the cost of building a house. Not long after, while working as a game warden to supplement his income, he came across an unbroken team of Belgian Haflingers that he bought for a song. He broke them and put them to work. Pleased at the results, he never did replace that tractor.
Today, Rocky Draw Farm is home to fields and a pond, a house and barn and several animal pens. The Willbanks grow spelt wheat, hay, potatoes, and barley, and raise a sizeable kitchen garden on 157 acres of land near the Mancos River bottom.
They sell milk and cream shares, livestock feed, lamb and beef, potatoes, eggs, whole spelt flour, and livestock bedding. They also breed and break workhorses and offer weed management consulting. In the wintertime, they run sleigh rides near Durango Mountain Resort, and, with the aid of their horses, log and mill lumber.
Upon first glance, it’s a typical small-scale farm. “But the difference between ours and most others is that ours looks like it stalled out in the 1920s,” Willbanks notes. Aside from their trucks and a small UTV being driven around by a farm hand, it’s true. The Willbanks’ stable of horse-drawn machinery is impressive: A grain binder that’s well over 100 years old; a shiny all purpose horse-drawn tractor that can dig, plant, cultivate, disc, and harrow a field; an ancient John Deere plow; and a hay mower, also horse-powered, that brandishes two rows of gleaming tooth-like blades.
They still borrow conventional tractors occasionally for big projects, but mostly use horse-drawn equipment. Some of these contraptions make for wild rides, while others are as comfortable as old gloves. And when you pair them with a solid team of horses, Willbanks says, life doesn’t get much better.
“That’s what my stress reliever is, hooking up to the horses.”
In 2014, April bought a bag of spelt flour after reading that people with Crohn’s Disease can tolerate it. Curious, Willbanks looked into the hardy heirloom winter wheat. Despite having a tough hull that turns many farmers off, he decided to trial it. He bought a 100-pound sack from an Amish farmer in Ohio, then planted, babied, and fretted over the crop like he had rarely done before.
“Off of a 100-pound sack, I ended up with about 2,000 pounds,” he said.
He’s now in his third year of growing spelt, and it’s proven to be a fantastic crop. It makes great hay, nutritious livestock feed, delicious heirloom flour that artisan bakers are keen for (and purchase wholesale), and withstands drought. “It keeps our farm powered.”
And as the Willbanks have grown their operation, expanding their newfound spelt niche, outside doubt about their old-school methods has been replaced by something else.
“Now people actually really respect it,” Willbanks said. “When I’m driving six head of horses and working a lot of ground and logging and making an income, I get some respect.”