Making Hay While the Sun Shines

When I was a teenager, my dad up and moved us from Northern California to Southern Indiana. I was not amused. There is no love lost between me and Hoosier-land, though I did and still do love the caves and karst topography. But I did learn things there. I learned that cow tipping is indeed a thing — a thing one should never do sober, or maybe not at all. I learned that the best pies are served in church basements and that you never, never, never want to know the recipe. And I learned how to farm — from what grows where to what will bring the best government subsidies. I learned how to milk a cow, both with and without machines, and how to kill a chicken as humanely as possible (only did that once and hope never to do it again). I know what good soil smells like and what the ditch weeds are telling you about run-off. I know where to site the chicken coop. And I learned that the best gas prices and generally most knowledgeable service folks were at the farm co-op.

We lived in town, but I had only a few other friends who did. Most of the kids I knew lived on a farm. Living on a farm meant being a farmer — by default, though honestly I think most of my friends secretly loved it. Farming back then was still diverse and mostly small scale. A few hundred acres was a large place; most were between fifty and one hundred. Combine tractors were a new thing that cost more than several years worth of yield returns, and most of the farmers I knew did not have one. Most farms used conscripted teen labor.

July was hay-baling season. Every sunny day in July was a chance to make good money if you weren’t afraid of hard work and more than a bit of scraping on the forearms. It doesn’t matter what kind of material you have for sleeves, straw will penetrate — or just climb up inside. It is a well known fact that straw is sentient and has every intention of putting the hurt on you specifically. Pain notwithstanding, I had a college fund to feed and a 1969 Gremlin to keep alive, so I baled hay every chance I could.

It went something like this. If there were a few days of warm dry weather predicted, the hay would be cut one glorious afternoon. The grass would be left to dry for as long as possible — sometimes a gamble was lost and the whole field turned into compost. But a few days in the sun would cook it enough, even in Midwest humidity. So then farm parents got their kids to call everyone they knew. Teens would converge on the farm in the morning with work gloves and coolers and milk jugs filled with sun tea, and everyone would head out to the field to follow the baler.

The actual baling was done by machine. It sucked up the dried grass and spat out rectangular bales. Fancy places had those winsome round bale things, but those just sat in the field to dry. They didn’t require labor. I also didn’t know anyone who actually did that. I think it was an affection that some farms put on for postcards and autumn festivals. I did not live in an autumn festival sort of place. It was all real river-bottom dirt and cow manure and sentient straw.

The job the teens got to do was follow the baler with a trailer and load up the bales. Inevitably the resident teen got to drive the trailer-pulling tractor. The others got to pick up the bales and load them in fairly neat stacks onto the trailer. This was understood as a test of the bonds of friendship. A bale of dried hay weighs over fifty pounds. If it’s not dried well, it might be as much as a hundred. But those are going to set your barn on fire, so you don’t want them to be that heavy. This was one of the tests of good dryness. If the average skinny teen could still lift the bale, it was fine. If it was beyond even the farm boy bruisers, then, yes, it was wet enough that it would decompose quickly and very likely spontaneously combust. At best, a pile of wet bales would mold and create an awful slimy black stink.

When the trailer was full, we all followed it back to the barn where we unloaded it. Most barns had upper level hay lofts — because it stays drier up there, of course. So the lucky teens got to toss the bales onto the elevator, and the unlucky teens got to pull the bales off the elevator and stack them neatly in the roughly blast-furnace heat of the hay loft. Because this is a race against the weather, a whole field needs to be baled and stored within a day. So there were many opportunities to get caught in the hay loft. A trailer would be loaded. We’d trudge to the barn to unload it. Then we’d ride back out to the field to load it back up again. I sort of remember doing huge piles of hay by the end of each day. I might be embroidering memories, but I don’t think there were too many farms that needed more than one day of loading bales to fill the hay loft with winter feed. So maybe we did do huge piles each time.

I got to thinking about all this recently as I was recording the weather and noticing that there is not one day in the ten-day forecast for Vermont that is going to be dry. This, after a June of drought that probably didn’t grow much in the way of grass anyway. And I found myself wondering about hay-making. Then, I remembered that hay isn’t baled like that anymore. Now, it gets binned up in giant plastic disks to ferment into silage — right in the field usually. At most, it gets hauled to some shady spot that won’t grow grass next season. But I think the mechanics have to be similar. Too wet and the silage will still just rot, not ferment. Too coarse and dry and there won’t be any nutrients, just cow roughage.

So I wonder how the hay-making is going this year. Or if it’s going. And what happens if it doesn’t? More corn feed for cows? Because, well, the cow rumen does not like grains. It is made for digesting grass. And we seem to have enough cow farts already.

But I also wonder what is lost when teens don’t have to or even have the opportunity to do real work like baling hay. As I said, we made good money. Even the poorest farmer paid the kids pretty well. But we also learned to work. We learned just what our physical limits were and that they were usually further out there than we thought. We learned self-motivation and group cooperation and devised endlessly variable and effective sub-routines to get the job done. And we all learned a little bit about what went into making our food. Storing hay sounds simple enough, does it not? But it is actually quite complex with some nasty consequences if done wrong. And that’s one of the easy farm tasks.  At any rate, it was a good experience.

Perhaps those sorts of jobs will come back as things change. I hope my grandkids get to bale hay. 

I just hope there isn’t a similar revival of cow tipping.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021