Rare Ashfield horses grace new U.S. postal stamp

  • Roy Nilson with Maggie and her sister Molly, American Cream draft horses, at his Haywood and Father Farm in Ashfield last December. Molly is featured in the U.S. Postal Service’s new Heritage Breeds stamp series. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Roy Nilson with Maggie and her sister Molly, American Cream Draft Horses, at his farm, Haywood and Father Farm, in Ashfield, pictured in December 2020. Molly is featured in the United States Postal Service’s new Heritage Breeds stamp series. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The Heritage Breeds stamp collection features Ashfield farmer Roy Nilson’s American Cream draft horses, as seen at the Greenfield Post Office. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

For the Recorder
Published: 7/28/2021 11:58:29 AM

ASHFIELD — Those who frequent Norton Hill Road may have noticed a striking resemblance between farmer Roy Nilson’s American Cream draft horses and the equines posing on the U.S. Postal Service’s new Heritage Breeds stamp series.

The side portrait of Nilson’s horses, Molly and Shepherd, is the advertising image for the stamp series, which highlights 10 pure breeds of livestock with deep American roots. The American Cream draft horse, for example, originated in Iowa and is the last existing breed of draft horse originally developed in the United States.

Having his horses publicized so prominently is incredible, Nilson said, though this collection is about much more than that. To him, these stamps call to attention these rare farming breeds and the need to preserve them.

Nilson has been reflecting on preservation of these rare heritage breeds for years, since his work earlier in life teaching agriculture. He feels nothing compares to the old-fashioned varieties of livestock that the world has lost to commercial livestock present in agricultural practices now.

“It’s a hugely overlooked issue because we’ve lost hundreds of breeds of various livestock over the years,” he explained. “We have a chance to try to hold onto some of the efficiency of the past, and some of the truth about our history and our connection to nature through animals and livestock.”

The connection between Nilson and his horses is not just something he feels, but that others witness when seeing them interact. Aliza Eliazarov, the photographer behind not just the draft horse image, but all the images in the Heritage Breeds stamp series, still remembers photographing Nilson’s horses now, almost six years after she found herself at his barn on assignment for Modern Farmer Magazine in the winter of 2015.

“I collaborated with Roy, who loves his horses and is a horse whisperer,” Eliazarov said. “He is very committed to his animals and it was really a very special experience seeing the bond he has with his horses, his commitment to his horses and the partnership they have together.

“To have the privilege to photograph it was a beautiful thing,” she said. The photos of the American Cream draft horses had lived in her archives until she was invited by the Postal Service to include her work in this series for the stamp collection.

Nilson said the connection with his horses, to the outside eye, may be a thing of beauty, but what he sees as beautiful is the work this breed of horses can accomplish. Their efficiency, when compared to the commercial breeds and modern tractors and trucks, he said, is truly remarkable. While some may think that horsepower and small-scale livestock raising are obsolete, Nilson thinks they are some of the only things that can keep humans connected to their land.

“That efficiency and autonomy that they had (when people relied on horsepower), that’s something that we remember. It belonged to people all over the world, and in America it took the form of American Cream draft horses in Iowa,” he explained. He believes in the closeness people had — and some groups continue to have in different parts of the world — to their livestock, with very little separating them from their land.

“People had a connection to the land that did not need to be interrupted by middlemen or by petroleum very much at all, and to see it completely disappear in the loss of these rare breeds, it is a tragedy. It is a tragic mistake. It is giving away our living history and the living proof of who we are and where we came from.”

Nilson feels lucky that there are some of these breeds remaining. He acknowledges that the circumstances and desire for the work of draft horses like his will likely never be the same as they were in the past, though he still thinks that in appropriate and traditional uses, they can create opportunities to move forward, putting carbon “in the soil and not the sky.”

“It is so easy to demonize livestock because of the environmental impact of giant industrial farming,” Nilson reflected. He hopes that people begin to understand that some livestock, especially heritage breeds on smaller scales, are not a part of that environmental degradation, but “an important piece of the many different ways to a more sustainable planet and way through life for humanity.”

“I hope that people will recognize that small-scale livestock and rare breeds are part of that true, efficient collaboration with nature and land, that is a key to, I think, our survival,” he said.

Nilson’s “critically rare” American Cream draft horses are the only ones of their kind that he knows of in Massachusetts. He welcomes those interested in visiting his horses to reach out to him at Haywood and Father Farm, at 229 Norton Hill Road.

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