The evening cool is setting in, a light mist is starting to rise over the fields, and the breeze from the day has become still. We sit—myself, Rachel, her folks, and brother—on the front porch tired but collectively savoring the cool, quiet evening and satisfaction of laying in the hay for the winter.
For Rachel and me, haymaking has been an annual summer ritual since our respective childhoods—we both grew up on hobby farms—and it’s a ritual that frequently takes place in the single heat wave of our short northern summer. The heat means sweat and the sweat means that the hay dust—in plentiful supply when riding the wagon and tossing and stacking bales—sticks like glue to a person’s skin. Yet for all its physical discomforts—a person is usually hot, sweaty, and itchy—it’s a tradition we both enjoy.
Making hay was my first “gym membership,” and I’ve always preferred my “working-out” to come in the form of physical labor. Hay making fits the work-out bill perfectly – what can be more meaningful than the time-honored task of securing food for the winter? And there are few things more physically arduous!
I’ve always had the impractical, romantic idea of nixing all the equipment and making hay old, old school – I still have my Great-grandpa’s old scythe. From time to time I hone-up the old tool and take it for a nostalgic spin out in the small patches of field on our five acres.
However, to put up enough hay, in a reasonable time requires machinery and our system—not state – of – the art (!)—operates thus:
Check the weather and hope the meteorologist got it right
Cut the hay and hope that the mower—this machine cuts the hay—functions properly
Let the hay dry—check the weather again and hope that the rain stays away
Rake the hay into windrows and hope that the rake doesn’t break
Check to see if the hay is dry enough to bale and continue to hope that the rain stays away
Bale the hay and hope the baler doesn’t break, ties the bales properly, and the rain stays away
Baling square bales is a two-step process requiring at minimum two people: one person drives the tractor which pulls the baler and the wagon. The other person “rides the wagon” and using a hook, pulls the bales off the baler chute and stacks the wagon load.Hope you don’t lose the load on the way to barn to unload—it’s imperative to have an experienced stacker on the wagon—otherwise, you’re pretty much guaranteed to stack the bales twice
Unload the hay and stack it in the barn
Repeat until you’ve baled all the hay down in the field and hope the weather cooperates
Drink a beer(s)–you’re in Wisconsin, friend!
You’ll notice that the above process includes a lot of finger crossing and hoping, both weather and machine-related. Aggravations come with using antiquated balers, tractors, mowers, and rakes. Each machine— each necessary to the process—has a seemingly infinite number of ways to malfunction and break or in some cases, both.
Our own progress on that weekend was impaired by the stubborn hay baler not wanting to tie the bale twine at the end of each cycle. However, after making ongoing adjustments, the baler finally (at the very end!) functioned with some reliability.
Enjoying a job well-done
As we sit in contented quiet, occasionally someone cracks a wry joke or ribs another person for her lack of hay making skills and I reflect on the last hours. We had spent a chunk of the day putting up the yearly supply of hay. The day had gone fairly typically: filling hay wagons, fixing breakdowns, and stacking bales in the barn. The weather also was typical, the sounds as well. The steady thrum of the tractor and the pounding of the baler in the hot, sultry summer day as the kiddos rode perched on the top of the wagon—along for the ride.
My brother-in- law and I share the last cold beer – the first one having been cold, smooth, and refreshing. The work is hot, hard, and some would say even miserable – but it satisfies a person like no other work. It’s meaningful, it’s life.
There will always be the forest, the water, the fields, the farm, and the hay for the stock. And if you’re in our neck of the woods some hot day late in July, stop by. We’ll put you to work, give you the cold beverage of your choice and I’m pretty sure—hot, sticky, and sweaty though you’ll be—you’ll come back for more next year.
To working the land,