From the farmer’s field of vision
Share The Road
by Kate Tvelia Athearn
I’m sitting on a rough wooden bench in the back of Fred Fisher’s horse-drawn wagon, wedged between my two kids and a dozen other passengers, mostly parents with small children. We plod up State Road in Vineyard Haven, and the rhythmic motion of the carriage, coupled with the clop-clop-clop of horse hooves on pavement, lulls me into a sense of being in another time, a simpler time, a time when life was slower. The familiar route suddenly looks different to me.
At this pace, and out in the open like this, I can take in so many more details I hadn’t noticed before—the brightly colored mailboxes, and all the different types of trees along the road. I make eye contact with pedestrians on the sidewalk. We smile and nod ‘hello’ to one another.
“Mom, there’s, like, a HUGE line of cars behind us,” my 8-year-old interrupts my nostalgic reverie, apparently nervous about the departure from our usual errand-going hustle. I assure him it’s okay, and that Fred
and his daughter Prudence, who is riding next to him and helping direct traffic, know exactly what they are doing.
Fred grew up with horses. His parents bought Nip n’ Tuck Farm the summer before he was born. They always had working horses—all of their haying was done exclusively by equipment drawn by their equine workers. So it makes sense that he has made a name for himself in the horsedrawn wagon business. If you happen to come upon a wagon ride on the Island, it\ is most likely Fred and one of his children driving his teams of strapping Percherons and Belgians. There are other people who have working horses and might give carriage rides to their friends, but he is the only Islander who carries the insurance to provide public wagon rides.
As if to prove my earlier point, Prudence, noticing a break in oncoming traffic, turns and waves half a dozen cars around us, then puts up a hand to signal that it is no longer safe to pass.
After the ride, I have a chance to chat with Fred about his years of wagon experience. He says most of the year it’s not too bad, people are used to horses and tractors on the road. But in the summer, when the roads fill up with cars from other, less rural places (their drivers perhaps not as accustomed to coming across horses on their way to the beach or the grocery store), he doesn’t feel as confident.
“The thing that pisses me off, is when people don’t follow our signals,” he spits out, letting his surly side show for a moment. He is referring to people stopping when he wants them to pass, or passing when it isn’t safe to do so.
I can understand Fred’s bitterness toward poor road manners after years of driving his wagon, plus tractors, animal trailers, and other heavy equipment on public throughways. He’s seen how tempers are tested when traffic backs up on a busy August afternoon. When people get impatient, they are likely to do unsafe things: passing without waiting for his signal, traveling too fast and too close to the wagon, things that can frighten the horses and put everyone in danger. Although he himself hasn’t been involved in such an accident, he has friends off-Island who have. He knows that wagons and tractors are tall and wide, and it’s nearly impossible for a driver to judge on his own whether it is safe to pass. He knows that tractors tip easily, often pinning cars beneath them when they do.
Fred has the luxury of being able to choose when and where he gives his wagon rides. He defends his right to share the road, but acknowledges the benefit of responsible horsemanship. He stays away from over-crowded, unpredictable situations as much as possible. Driving tractors on the road doesn’t offer as much choice.
There are times when tractors need to get out to the fields. Plowing and harvesting can’t wait until the busy tourist season ends.
So the next time I find myself behind a putt-putting John Deere, I still my inner impatient 8-year-old and remember that farmers aren’t only our friends and neighbors, but they devote their lives to nourishing
our bodies. It makes sense to respect their rights to use public space, and to keep them safe. After all, agriculture isn’t confined to The Farm. It spills out in ways that may inconvenience our daily commute, but are integral to the creation of the fresh, local food we all love.