The breeding farm is a living organism
by Russell C. Williams, USTA President
The entrance to Hanover Shoe Farms is on Pennsylvania Route 194, which was built in 1928 on top of the Hanover and Littlestown Turnpike, which had been laid out in the 1800s atop the Monocacy Rd., which in turn had been laid out in 1740 on a trail used by indigenous peoples for hundreds or thousands of years. On May 27, 1781, about 800 soldiers in the Continental Army under the command of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne marched past what is now our main entrance on their way to the decisive Battle of Yorktown. George Washington passed by 10 years later, on his way from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia.
There was a homicide in the 1750s on what is now our main farm, arising from a dispute about whether the land we now occupy was in Maryland or Pennsylvania at the time. The Mason-Dixon line of 1763, drawn eight miles to the south of us, resolved that dispute. A mill that was so important that it is shown as a town on several colonial maps was in operation on what is now our main farm as early as 1738.
We maintain 14 classic Pennsylvania bank barns, one of which was built in 1805 and just recently had to have the last section of its original shingle roof replaced. We are preserving one of the last pony truss iron bridges in Pennsylvania. We were protector and caregiver for a white oak that stood for more than four centuries (sadly, it died of old age about 10 years ago).
Unlike land developers, we are ardent preservationists and have participated in many county and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania preservation programs. At Hanover Shoe Farms, we are conscious that the land we occupy is saturated with Pennsylvania history.
The land we occupy, about 3,000 acres, is also composed of superb agricultural soils, qualifying as “prime farmland” as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our pasture and forest lands have been in the same ownership for almost a century; therefore no urban or industrial character has intruded, even on a small scale.
We are close to the Boston-Washington Continuum, however, and we feel the heavy, relentless pressure of residential development. Developers all around us are steadily skinning off the topsoil and selling it before littering the landscape with new houses. Prime farmland in the eastern United States is disappearing fast, and it can never be brought back. Like the guards at Fort Knox, we at Hanover Shoe Farms feel a steadfast sense of stewardship of Pennsylvania’s irreplaceable prime soils.
An average of 900 horses graze over this land during the year. Bands of mares with their foals roam the rolling green terrain, groups of yearlings spar with each other in their own fields, stallions regard their surroundings imperiously in their separate paddocks, and about 140 retired horses just enjoy their lives with good grass and normal veterinary care. That number of retired horses makes us one of the larger horse sanctuaries in the United States.
Our pasture lands are organized under about 200 miles of fence, and we keep a local fence company busy all year long, building or repairing. These fences contain our horses, our most precious resource as a horse breeding farm, which includes the greatest band of Standardbred broodmares ever assembled. We are mindful of our role as caregiver for a multitude of living creatures.
Under Pennsylvania law, farms with more than 500 horses in residence are classified as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and are subject to an entire encyclopedia of regulations. These regulations center on nutrient management concerns, so we must monitor the integrity of waterways or potential waterways, wetlands, soil permeability, grazing rotation and a host of other concerns.
One of these other concerns is that we must account for every bit of horse manure that falls in the fields or in the stalls. Where the stalls are concerned, in 2020 (a typical year for this commodity) we shipped 9,349,520 pounds of manure and straw to Pennsylvania’s mushroom growers. Our farm is the largest single source of what is for them an essential requirement to operate. At Hanover Shoe Farms, we are conscious of our stewardship of the ecosystem and of our importance to other Pennsylvania agribusinesses.
More than half of our 80 employees live in the 47 dwelling units that are located throughout the farm. We need people to be where the horses are, and—as an esthetic bonus—the farmhouses have stunning views that you can’t possibly get in a housing development. We pay well above the minimum wage on top of the free housing, and we provide hospitalization and retirement benefits to our employees.
A few of us who work at Hanover Shoe Farms are second-, third- and fourth-generation employees. Most of the children raised here, however, go to the local schools and then on to higher education and good careers in the outside world. Either way, Hanover Shoe Farms is definitely a good place for Pennsylvanians to get started in life.
About 200 Pennsylvania-bred racehorses get started here every year. Most of them go through the annual Standardbred Horse Sale in Harrisburg. For one week a year, the eyes of the world are on Pennsylvania as thousands of customers from all over the U.S. and Canada, plus Scandinavia, Great Britain, France and the Southern Hemisphere bid on our horses at the mammoth Farm Show Arena. Because most of our customers come from outside the Commonwealth, Hanover Shoe Farms has the economic effect of importing millions of dollars directly into the Pennsylvania economy.
We spend the proceeds from our sales on three-million pounds of straw, four-million pounds of hay, plus a half-million dollars’ worth of feed, all from our local area. Wages, taxes, fencing, painting, machinery—all of this benefits the Pennsylvania economy.
The racehorses that we send out into the world benefit the racing economy, more than any other breeding farm in Pennsylvania or elsewhere in the world. In 2019, racehorses that started life at Hanover Shoe Farms won $35 million, which is a record for any breeder of any breed of horse, anywhere.
Anywhere in the world, when anyone in harness racing thinks of the best, they think of Hanover Shoe Farms in Pennsylvania.
Hanover Shoe Farms will celebrate its 96th year in Pennsylvania in 2022. In the modern era, we have had to face unprecedented threats to our existence.
Disregarding 300 years of Pennsylvania history, a recent governor decided that he would try to destroy its native racing and breeding industry just to raise money to promote his future political career. Meanwhile, an elite sliver of the Thoroughbred industry has engineered an expensive and unnecessary federal regulatory program that is to be superimposed on the horse racing industry nationally, turning an industry that employs hundreds of thousands back into a hobby for a few rich spectators. Either of these threats, if carried out, could put us out of business.
As this column tries to explain, Han-over Shoe Farms is a living organism, the parts of which—people, horses, agriculture, history—deserve support and protection. Nevertheless, whether in the courts or the halls of the legislature, Hanover Shoe Farms will continue the fight as a mainstay of Pennsylvania agriculture and world harness racing. We will fight hard, right to the finish line.
The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at email@example.com.