Ok, the title is misleading. We haven’t made hay for 25 years–or more! But we still think about it. We still live surrounded by the fields we used to make hay on, and we watch the season progress from the first signs of green in the spring to the moment when, in a perfect world, the hay should be cut. It’s never a perfect world, as we learned during our 15 years of farming. The moment when the hay was at its highest nutrient level, rain clouds moved in and stayed for a week. Or the tractor was broken down and we were waiting for parts. But we were always done by the end of July.
Now, the hay on our fields is cut by someone else who has his own farm to cut first, so it’s always well in August before he gets here. We sit on the deck, looking out on the fields, and shake our heads as the timothy grasses gradually turn brown.
Haying is not what it used to be. And if we were still doing it, I’m sure we’d say that’s a good thing. What used to be two or three weeks of intensive labour with a crew of six is now done in a week with one person on a tractor. But since we’re not doing it anymore, we look back fondly at the frenzy and camaraderie that defined our summers. Cousins, nieces and nephews living with us for the season. Kids leaping into the river mid-day to cool off. Jugs of icy eggnog–made from our own milk and eggs–nourishing the crew on the field. Late-evening suppers for an exhausted crew who worked until the dew fell.
Back to the deck, here’s how it looks now.
The hay was cut a week and a half ago, left to dry on the field, then baled into huge round bales a few days later. Yesterday, the tractor arrived with three long wagons. All those hot afternoons are compressed into a few days of work in an air-conditioned cab.
Is this an improvement? You betcha. We’d have switched in a heartbeat. But in the 1970s and 80s, this equipment was the reserve of big-time prairie farmers. Now, even in this backwater, only the farmers making hay for sale use the old square balers.
But if you ask our kids or the kids who worked for us what they remember most about summers on the farm, I’m betting every one of them will say “Haying.” It was hard, hot work, with a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment that it’s hard to match.
Here’s a glimpse of those haying days, from Shifting Currents:
On a July day, I straightened my back and smeared the sweat from my face onto my t-shirt. Before I could stretch my shoulders back, another bale catapulted from the baler onto the wagon. More than a thousand bales worth of hay lay on the ground, and the weatherman was calling for a thunderstorm. All hands were on board to get the hay in before the rain…
I bent down, looped my fingers under the taut twine that held the 50-pound rectangle of hay, and heaved it up two tiers to Erica, who shoved it snugly against the last one. She grinned, loving the fact that she was really part of the crew. Before we finished this day, four or five more loads would be stacked on wagons, then unloaded, bale by bale onto the elevator, and finally stacked in the haymow. Dan was driving the tractor; he now was a lanky 16-year-old, clad in a long-sleeved cotton shirt and a broad-brimmed hat, with a red kerchief around his neck. Robin—old enough and big enough to be a real help—was helping Jody unload bales from a full wagon to the elevator, leaving Jack, as always with the hottest, heaviest job of all—picking the bales off the elevator and packing them tightly into place in the haymow. When they weren’t packed snugly enough, we stumbled dangerously on them all winter.
The sun was high in the sky, the temperature in the high eighties, and the work relentless. I gazed across the field at the foot wide windrows of freshly raked hay snaking across at 10-foot intervals, creating fluffy, pale-green stripes that stretched a quarter of a mile from the road to the edge of the bush. Round by round, the baler was erasing the stripes, leaving a field of short-cut grass that looked like a vast, well-manicured park.
Idly, I did the math. At 50 pounds a bale, 120 bales a load, we were talking three tons. Three tons of hay stacked on the wagon. The same three tons moved from the wagon to the elevator. Then again, stacked in the barn. Nine tons worth of handling per wagon load. And that didn’t count feeding them a few at a time throughout the winter.