In 1981, we began as the Tillers Small Farm Program at the Kalamazoo Nature Center. The Center’s Director, Dr. H. Lewis Batts, Jr. and Dick Roosenberg agreed that Tillers could use the Center’s historic farm land and building, their DeLano Homestead, in exchange for our bringing draft animal powered activities back to the fields. Dick had worked oxen with the UN-FAO as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin (West Africa). He recruited farmers and mechanics from the Allegan Draft Horse Club and from the Kalamazoo Valley Tractor and Antique Machinery Club to contribute skills and tools. Tillers remained at the KNC for the next eight years, building skills, starting an internationally distributed newsletter, and training international guests and historical enthusiasts in workshops. We started an internship program in 1984.
In 1989, Tillers left the Nature Center to strengthen its funding base. Carroll Abbey and family invited Tillers to squat on their farmstead on Sprinkle Road in Portage, MI. The farmstead had been in the family since 1925 with few changes and had historical authenticity. Carroll was gathering a large collection of historical farm tools on land next door. Tillers quickly incorporated as an independent non-profit, Rural Futures International, and qualified with the IRS as tax exempt. In 1992, we built a blacksmithing shop as a moveable shelter that we assembled several times at the Michigan State Fair to help forge a state-wide reputation for metalworking. In 1994, we built a timber framed woodworking shop. Being at Abbey Farms gave us the independence to pursue more international projects such as the manual hay baler with Walter Moru from Tanzania. In 1995, on invitation of ATRADO, an animal traction organization in Uganda, we took a crew of 5 to Tororo, Uganda to teach improved ox training and tools. That trip cemented a number of relationships with participants and partners that have grown over the years.
By 2003, Carroll had passed and the future of the Abbey farmstead was uncertain. An extensive land search turned up the 430-acre Cooks Mill property. It was owned by the Peter Linssen family, dairy farmers. With the help of donors, we raised $600,000 cash, financed $1,000,000 with a Greenstone Farm Credit mortgage, and another $500,000 with a friendly second mortgage. Now in 2015, that debt has been reduced to $750,000. Tillers’ ownership of this beautiful piece of land, even though it had few facilities, encouraged donors to invest in buildings and facilities. Beginning that first year we built the Nehring Blacksmithshop, and later the Abbey Toolshed, the Abbey Cow Barn, the Springhill Barn, the Tillers’ Museum, Meyers Woodshop, and the Draft Animal Barn.
We now have about a 13,000 bale hay storage capacity. That hay supports about 6 oxen, 4 draft horses, a 50-cow breeding herd of Milking Shorthorns, and 40 Merino sheep. There is a crop rotation of corn, oats, wheat, and clover maintained with draft animal power. We have started a market garden incubator program to encourage creativity with draft animal cultivation. In 2009, we reached an important benchmark by launching our first continuing overseas training program by partnering with Land O’Lakes International Development. That project continues today along with numerous others throughout east and southern Africa.