The Art of Hay Making

The Art of Hay Making

There are few longings quite as strong as those that crop up in the cold and dark of Winter. The days of warmth and color seem so impossibly far away when the world is cold and battleship gray. My Winters are haunted by dreams of warm rivers and sunshine and the smell of freshly cut grass, but there’s one that every year, in the cold and dark of winter nights, comes back to me. I dream of hay season.

For some, Memorial Day is the start of summer, for others, baseball’s Opening Day, but for me (and I suspect millions of farmers past and present), the long days of summer are heralded by a sea of tall grass waving in the hayfield, windrows, neat and straight, and the smell of freshly cut hay, that no matter where you go, you’ll never forget. There are beautiful places in this world but very few compare to a hayfield at dusk, littered with bales, as the sun streaks red and gold and yellow and gives everything that golden hue that makes the mundane look magical and ordinary things hint of heaven being right here on earth and you get that achy feeling down deep in your chest. That’s what I dream of in the depths of Winter.

I’m sure my ag.  extension agent would disagree, but hay making is an art. Good hay is the culmination of sunshine, rain, good soil, nutrients, temperature, and time, all Good things take time. As a kid we used to block out the whole of May for hay season, not because it took that long to complete but because there’s no certainty in life or in farming. Take this year for instance, the old timers are saying this is the latest hay season they can remember (judging by what my grandpa remembers these days, that may not mean much). There’s something to be said for something that is ready in it’s own time. The rest of our lives are ruled by clocks and time, the hour is always appointed, but hay doesn’t take any heed of our plans, it comes in it’s own good time, when it’s ready and not a moment before. I remember being a kid, too short to see over the hay, and walking with my dad to check and see if it was ready. He’d reach out, grab a handful of grass, stare at it and turn it back and forth in his hand, then he’d toss it on the ground and talk of funny things like alfalfa and orchard grass, fescue 31 and bluestem.

Once the hay is just about ready, there are four steps. First you’ve got to mow it. This entails a big, noisy contraption that cuts the hay near the ground and strips the glossy outer coat off the grass to help it cure faster. The mower spits the grass out in rows that lie straight and flat like something broken and run over. The grass is wet and still green, certainly not ready to be baled. Most farmers these days then come through with a tedder after the field has been mown. A tedder is a big rake looking contraption that has circular metal tracks with metal teeth extending down. It’s job is to flip the hay, spread it out, give it volume, and allow air and sun to more evenly dry the cut grasses. The further you throw it the better, so we grab high gear and hit the gas. Once at speed you just go back and forth. It’s the type of job that doesn’t feel like work. Your mind wanders. The sky is baby blue with big, stark white clouds, slow and puffy and in no hurry to go anywhere. You think about lunch or fishing or girls, anything and everything that really doesn’t matter but seems important at the time, and you’re happy; speeding around on a tractor, throwing hay in the air, thinking of everything and nothing and not really thinking at all. Is that what they mean when they urge people to “live in the moment”? Is living one of those conscious decisions we can make or is it one of those things that sneaks up on you when you’re not really focused on anything? It seems to be a lot like vacation in that sense. The first couple of days are spent worrying about work, the house, your lawn, the neighbors, the bank, anything and everything, but after awhile of this you just forget to keep thinking, at all, about any of it, and then at the end of the week, when you look back you realize just how nice it was not to think at all. That’s the place I was last week, speeding back and forth, my brain on autopilot, when I noticed the smoke. Turns out I’d forgotten to take off the emergency brake. Maybe my grandpa was right when he said “Son, get your head out your backside and think. THINK, dammint!.” So much for living in the present.

The hay will lay like this for a day or so, depending on the weather, sun exposure, moisture content, and a million other variables that old timers speak of with reverence. After it looks ready (ready being something that can only be measured by taking a stalk of grass and chewing on it for a minute or two), you hook up the rake and head back to work. The goal of raking is to gather the hay into long, straight rows, called windrows, so that the baler can come by and roll them into a bale. Balers are finicky, kind of like the wide receivers of farming equipment, and without a nice and even windrow, they’ll have trouble spinning the hay into a tight, even shaped bale. Our rake rakes left to right, picking up the hay in it’s path and depositing it in a long, rounded row, like a lumpy grass worm. You go down one side of the field raking it to your right, then cut back and rake the other side of your windrow, back onto itself. Don’t worry, it sounds more complicated than it really is. You’re left with a strip of grass where all the hay has been swept and hopefully, a neat and tidy windrow. When you’ve been in the field all week, the hot sun baking your head, and rehydrating with coffee and Mountain Dew, you start to equate raking hay with creation; like you’re creating order out of chaos, structure and form in a topsy-turvey world. Maybe that’s a stretch but it sure looks pretty, the gentle curves of the windrow tracing the gentle curves of the field, and you sitting there on your tractor, knowing you had a hand in creating it. What’s a farm without romanticism? What’s life without a little joy found in something as mundane as raking hay?

The last step is baling and even at 24 years old, I’m not entrusted with that kind of responsibility. Every year I ask my dad if he’ll teach me, and every year he grumbles something hard to hear about “important”, “timely”, and “easy to break”, so my job effectively ends when the hay is raked into windrows. Baling is complicated and quite frankly, easy to mess up and break something important. The tractor pulls around a big noisy box on wheels that uses tines to pick up the grass from the windrows and through a system of spinning belts, twine, and a healthy amount of luck, spits out 800# of compact, round, hay bale. At least in theory. Reality is a far cry from the New Holland Hay Baler manual and usually involves my dad breaking shear pins, using an old saw blade to unclog the hay intake, foot stomping, and cursing. It’s not hay season if someone doesn’t have a meltdown and a sore foot from kicking a tractor tire. Hay making is an art, and every artist suffers for the sake of his art.

Writing in a coffee shop surrounded by students, the wind blowing the last of the season’s leaves around, their shadows chasing one another across the parking lot, hay season seems romantic and quaint and a long ways away from here; but when you’re in the field, 35 acres of hay on the ground, the light almost gone, and the weatherman flip flopping on his forecast, the stakes feel pretty high. Like many things in my life (coffee, whiskey, love, etc.), I can’t decide if I love the thing itself or the idea of it. I think I love hay season most because we’re all together, mom making dinner and bringing it into the field for me to eat, dad riding around on his big green tractor as it spits bales out the back, and grandpa sitting in his truck watching the next generation take up our timeless connection to our past and to our future. There’s something powerful and simple about hay season that makes me pause and smile and dream of those green hills waving in the wind and our family brought together by a timeless art.

Breck Light

November 12th, 2014