Cows, horses mean business in Fort Fairfield
Happy trails...bringing the cows home... and getting that earthy feel by being in the Great Outdoors...Steve Ulman can't just get enough of it. The Fort Fairfield resident, once one of the larger potato farmers in Aroostook County, has settled into the saddle of horses for alternative agriculture.
Ulman first arrived in the County back in 1972. He came to work as a speech therapist at the hospital in Fort Fairfield. A Minnesota native, his love for the land got him into acreage by 1977 when he started in growing potatoes at his spread along the river.
Around town in those days, folks heard Ulman talking about his year of enjoyment with horses out in the Midwest and, one day, Duke Reed called him on it.
"He and I talked about the fact that I had stopped riding," reflects Ulman." One day he pulled up with a trailer and gave me a horse, tack and all."
That was the mid '80s, and Ulman chuckles that he decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. The gift started him on the road that is now his bread and butter. Horsetrader is what he is, he says.
In 1987, after 11 years in the potato industry, growing larger and larger with more debt, bigger problems and greater worries, Ulman thought it was time to do something else. With planned determination, he set about letting his land be leased for farming and took a good, hard look at who he was and what he did.
With plenty of land left for him, and barns from the potato days, Ulman got into boarding horses and using a large shed as an indoor arena. Two years ago when a fire destroyed the facility, he took yet another look at where he was and set a new course.
"I quit thinkin' about getting rich and thought about what I like to do," he muses. Steadily, since then, he has bought and sold more horses and worked at developing his herd of cattle. With a more open mind and creative thinking at work, the combination of horses-cattle-potatoes has produced a strange, new focus.
"I've been trying to see how we can mesh needs of the potato industry with those of the cattle industry," he says. Ulman, once the president of the Maine Potato industry group, knew that the cull potatoes were too-good a feed for cattle...what could work?
"A few months ago I decided to mix wood shavings at the ratio of one-quarter to potatoes," he notes.
Using a 150-hp. Blender, Indian Head plywood shavings became a part of the potato-feed recipe. In the last four - to six- weeks, Ulman has seen shinier coats on the cattle and happy cows that are not hungry all the time.
"They'd get too fat on hay and barley, so the roughage works. It also keeps operational costs at a manageable level."
With just one man to help Ulman manage his beef cows down form 40 men and a manager he has back in big potato days the chore of taking care of the livestock is more of a leisure activity than work. Days, he's at the hospital working as a speech therapist. By nights and most weekends, he's checking his spread and managing his horses.
"There's been a great increase in recreational riding over the past several years," he say. He mentally totes up figures of horses coming into the County and where they're going...dozens came in just north of Presque Isle last month, most to be used for pleasure riding.
"Many folks have indoor arenas and work at their riding," he adds.
While Ulman does a good business in trial riding adventures (last week, a group of 20 or so headed off to Mars Hill for an overnight camp and trailride), he also sees trends in a more sporting way.
Team penning will be coming to the County in May.
"It's very well accepted west of the Rockies," he explains. "It's a spectator sport as well that shows off the rider/horse connection."
In this event, teams of three riders/horses are told to cut out and pen three specially numbered cows in two minutes.
"It's like moving three cows out of 30 from one end of a football field to the other into a pen the size of a living room. No rider or horse is ever allowed to touch the cows or it's all over," he laughs.
Starting in May, riding folk who board at his place will start practicing with the cows. It will increase both the rider's skill, and the team of horse/rider communication. Up until now, team penning in Maine has only been done down in the Biddeford Pool area by Al Dube.
"We'll look to get into competition by the summer," he says, noting that official status for the sport here will not likely be in place until '96.
"The trick to learn here will be getting to understand how cows behave. The whole animal kingdom operates on a pecking order, and the horse doesn't always know where it belongs in relationship with man and animals."
Ulman is running out of talk as he looks out over the acres with cattle roaming and, just in front, his horse Kato impatient at the gate. Kato was a racehorse at the Presque Isle track last season, with a forgettable record. Now, Ulman is training him to work with cattle.
"The firs time Kato was in with 170 cows he was scared. By the time he'd gotten used to walking up to one or two, he started to figure he was the boss. By the sixth cow, he sure had an attitude!"
Now, Kato likes being king of the cows. Ulman will work and work him until both of them are in harmony of getting the needs of moving one cow, or a group, to a designated spot.
Ulman drifts to a bit of philosophy as the sunny day starts winding to an end. He sees Kato anxious to get going, and notes he'll have calmed down and will stand and wait much more patiently by the season's end.
"...you have to be who you are..." he says, not really answering any question at all.
Potatoes for cows, trail riding adventures and other ways to honor and use the land are a part of what he's all about.