A FARMER'S WORK begins at sunrise. As I walk down the lane to the pasture, I can hear the soft chirping of the sparrows announcing the rise of a huge, golden, mist-covered sun. Out in the field, Vraja and Gita are already grazing. Even through the mist I can see their strong, massive frames. I cup my hands to my mouth and hail them, imitating the sound of a conch shell. Their ears prick up, and they come eagerly, their bodies coming into focus out of the mist. They're never late for breakfast.
The oxen have a good appetite this morning; their heads are soon immersed in the grain buckets. Brown Swiss was definitely the right breed for us, I tell myself healthy, gentle, and beautiful, perfect for showing people what cow protection's all about.
The oxen look up at me, taking a break from their oats. (Did they sense my admiration?) A good teamster has to make sure his team has enough fuel to do a good day's work. I give them a little more time to fill up on hay and water.
Now it's time to yoke up. Today the oxen will prepare a field for planting by disking it.
"Good, Vraja! Good, Gita!" I pat them on the neck heartily. "You know what we're going to do today? We're going to disk the back field and get it ready for planting oats."
I guess people who haven't worked with oxen expect the oxen would put up a struggle when you yoke them. But for a carefully trained team, that's never the case. Instead, with Vraja and Gita I get the feeling they take pride in working with me. To them, yoking means we're going to have a little adventure together and they can impress me with how well they work. In about 1830, British livestock writer William Yuoatt wrote,
When we press [the ox] into our immediate service when he draws our cart and ploughs our land he rapidly improves upon us: he is, in fact, altogether a different animal; when he receives a kind of culture at our hands, he seems to be enlightened with a ray of human reason, and warmed with a degree of human affection.
A Great Gift from Krsna
We're ready to go. I tap the oxen on the rear with the lash. "Vraja and Gita, get up!"
Their huge bodies respond in synchronized motion. We head out to the field where the disk is waiting. As we come up to it, I give the command to stop: "Whoa, Vraja and Gita!" They halt obediently. I lay the lash in front of them. It's a line they won't cross until I give them another command, even if it takes an hour.
They stand patiently as I hitch a chain to the disk, then to the yoke. Now we're ready to work. "Vraja, Gita, get up!"
They lean into the yoke. The disk cuts into the ground and churns up the moist earth. Down go the weeds, leaving a rich brown seed bed behind.
As the oxen pull, I breathe in the smell of the fresh-turned dirt. "I am the original fragrance of the earth," Krsna says. (Bhagavad-gita 7.9)
The swishing sound of the disk working seems like a prayer to Krsna from Mother Earth. We're going to help Mother Earth make her offering to the Supreme Lord.
What a great gift from Krsna to be able to work with these two wonderful animals! When I think of millions of people working in factories and offices, I feel a pang of regret. What they're missing out on! The fresh air, the peace and beauty of the countryside, and above all, the satisfaction of serving Krsna with these noble animals.
Although the oxen are much stronger than I am, they depend on me for their grain, hay, and water. And I depend on them to pull the plow, plant the seeds, and harvest the crops. So as we work together to serve Krsna, we also serve each other. This mutual dependence and service creates a satisfying relationship. Srila Prabhupada writes:
The bull is the emblem of the moral principle, and the cow is the representative of the Earth. When the bull and the cow are in a joyful mood, it is to be understood that the people of the world are also in a joyful mood. The reason is that the bull helps production of grains in the agricultural field, and the cow delivers milk, the miracle of aggregate food values. The [truly] human society maintains these two important animals very carefully so that they can wander everywhere in cheerfulness. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.16.18, purport)
Prabhupada says that the ox is the father of humankind because he works in the field to provide grain for humans (as well as animals), the way a father provides for his children. I'm a father, too, working to provide food for my family. So the way I see it, the oxen and I are a team of fathers working together to serve Krsna.
For me there's another reason to work with oxen. In 1975, Srila Prabhupada visited the ISKCON farm near New Orleans. He saw all the bull calves and asked, "How will you utilize the bulls?" When the devotees seemed unsure, Prabhupada soberly explained that other farmers slaughter bulls because of not knowing how to use them. Our bulls had to be productively engaged.
When I heard about Prabhupada's instructions, they sank into my heart and impressed on me how important it is for the Krsna consciousness movement to properly engage the bulls so that people can see their value. When a cow gives birth, about half the time the calf is a bull. Without showing how to engage the bulls, any formula for cow protection or even kindness to animals remains incomplete.
By now, we've done three laps around the field. I keep tabs on how Vraja and Gita are doing. It has been about twenty minutes. As I watch the area behind their rib cage, their breathing tells me they're starting to tire a little. Time for a break. "Gita and Vraja, whoa!"
It's hard work, but satisfying, and we break at comfortable intervals. Rested, we go back to work and continue for several hours. When the sun hangs overhead, hot and bright, it's time to break for lunch.
Everyone is hungry. Vraja and Gita need hay and water, and I need prasadam. I unhook the chain from the yoke and walk the oxen to a shady grove in the pasture. My wife, Chayadevi, brings a lunch basket, and we sit and take prasadam in the shade.
It's a typical southern summer day, very hot and humid. We spend an hour or an hour and a half in the shade of some oaks. Part of the time I take prasadam, read, or chant Hare Krsna, and the rest I spend grooming "the boys" with a currycomb, an event they thoroughly enjoy.
As I comb under Gita's neck, he stretches his handsome head up high and closes his eyes. A beast of burden with a noble soul. A beast with intelligence.
Our lunch break has ended, and it's time to finish work on another field, which we started a couple of days ago. The oxen disked it and made a smooth seed bed by pulling a spring-tooth harrow and a log drag over it. Today we're using a three-row grain drill. Since the field is about an acre, to plant it should take us about two hours.
I glance at the oxen lying under the shady trees. "Okay, Vraja and Gita, lunch time is over."
They slowly lift their massive bodies, weighing a ton each, and stretch to their height of 5-1/2 feet at the rump. They may yet grow another half a foot. We yoke up and walk out to the field, stopping at the shed to pick up the planter and oat seed.
The grain drill is a small wooden tool with handles. Someone has to walk behind it, guiding it to plant straight rows. Today Chayadevi takes this opportunity to get out of the office for some exercise and fresh air.
We quickly arrive at the field. Chaya guides the grain drill as carefully as she would sew a seam on the Deities' clothes. We need straight rows so the oats can be easily harvested a few months from now.
Another plus for low-tech farming: It's a wholesome way to associate with your wife. That helps promote peaceful family life, which makes spiritual progress easier. My wife and I work together to produce food for the Lord. Everything fits together in Krsna's plan. Who could say that for factory work, or even commuting to an office? Manmade arrangements are against family life and against spiritual life. I'd rather take Krsna's plan.
As the sun moves across the clear sky, the day passes. Plowing, disking, cultivating, and planting a good day's work with the oxen. I think about our part in the day's productivity. Krsna has provided the seeds, the rain, the nutrients in Mother Earth, the warmth and light of the sun, and the oxen. Everything is Krsna's; we haven't provided anything except our service. We're simply Krsna's servants. Exhausted but happy servants.
Days like this are a gift from Krsna, a valuable gift we would like to be able to share with others. Surely they too would become happy in a life like this.
"Agriculture is the noblest profession," Srila Prabhupada says. "It makes society happy, wealthy, healthy, honest, and spiritually advanced for a better life after death." (Light of the Bhagavata, Illustration 9, purport) Thanks for letting us in on this important secret, Srila Prabhupada. You've changed my life, and you'll change the lives of others, too.
Balabhadra Dasa and his wife, Chaya-devi Dasi, are disciples of Srila Prabhupada. They are managing directors of the International Society for Cow Protection (ISCOWP), which farms with oxen and helps others get started with ox-power farming. They recently produced a two-hour video on ox training, entitled "Buck and Lou Get Up!" The video is available for $15 from ISCOWP, 4607 Timberwood Trail, Efland NC 27243. Phone: (919) 563-3643.