On this part of the Beautiful river we cut our hay whenever we think we have a good chance of five days without rain – six, if the temperatures are under eighty-five. Seldom in late May do we have promise of even five consecutive rainless days, but this has been a dry spring, and we brought the last bales into the barn this evening under a cloudless sky. There is still one meadow drying tonight, but we are not worried. Tomorrow we will break the Sabbath without sin, for hay on the ground is assuredly an ox in the ditch, and when the dew is off the grass we will bale and lift the last hundred bales or so and get them in the barn.
In the first years at the Sow’s Ear we cut hay, ten acres of it, with string trimmers. We raked it with wooden hay rakes, lifted it loose into the truck, and packed it into the loft of the white barn which back then housed goats: a buck, seven does, and assorted kids. We cut enough to last the winter, and this fact is used in family arguments as incontrovertible evidence of parental lunacy and a violation of the letter and spirit of the child labor laws. The experience unquestionably contributes to a universal and deep appreciation at the Sow’s Ear of the marvels of mechanical hay harvesting.
Not that we are by any means a state-of-the-art operation. The forty-year-old red New Holland baler has all the cranks and fidgets of superannuation, requiring to be lubricated here and adjusted there, scratched and rubbed and kneaded like an old dog whose rest on the porch is disturbed by the arrival of the evening paper. When properly cajoled in this way the baler will condescend to scrunch around the hayfield grazing crackly windrows and pushing out at its hinder end a succession of bales loose, tight, or of that distressing class, the banana bale, wherein one string is tight, the other loose. The banana bale is curved like one of those vile white grubs you dig up in the garden, and if not handled with the greatest care will pop open and spray flakes of hay all around. Banana bales break easily and stack poorly, but we still feel they are to be preferred to the loose hay of our early days, and we crank the old baler around and around the field with a full appreciation of the convenience of heavy equipment.
The long yellow sickle bar mower had to be completely rebuilt when we bought itith w all its teeth worn or broken, several harvests ago. The hay rake is of a similar vintage, but is of that class of simple yet ingenious devices which does exactly what it is designed to do, well. Five circular rakes on a single axle lift the cut hay and throw it to one side or another, twisting it as they do so into a sort of dry grass vortex, perfect for the revolving teeth of the baler to pick up. The cranky Massey Ferguson tractor is consistent with the implements, with a worn transmission pad and leaky steering, but it is equal to whatever is demanded of it. The men tease, please, and baby it into good behavior. This is about all our heavy equipment, and all some of us ever hope to have. It suffices to bale the thirty or so acres we take hay off of, and if it is an inconvenience, it is one to which we have become accustomed.
It must be said that the man on the tractor has an unenviable job, hot, loud, and nerve-wracking. Farm equipment is dangerous. We never forget how easily a tractor can kill you; and, vigilant though we may be, it will usually demonstrate its deadly qualities several times in a season on unwary or incautious rabbits or even, occasionally, a couched fawn. These events we try to keep from the knowledge of the small people, who, accustomed though they are to animal mortality, have their limits. So do we all, in fact.
The men — -and women – working on the ground, however, have satisfactions built into their work. We work our way on foot down the hayfield with a long wooden rake, lifting and turning the dry, crackly clover and orchard grass which has flattened as it dries until it lies too low for the hay rake to reach it. At the ends of the rows, and wherever the tractor has had to turn, the windrows are broken, scattered, or clumped, and it is the job of the person on the rake to walk the field reordering the displaced hay so it can be picked up in the next go-round by the guy on the baler. It is a satisfying and mindless thing to do, like folding a load of cloth diapers. The swing of the light wooden hay rake is an easy motion, however many times repeated. The smell of the drying clover is very heaven. Sun on sweaty limbs imbues one with a sense of strength and capability.
The two farm pickups come and go with loads of bales stacked by a team of three, one driving, one lifting, one stacking. The bales are counted and shared between the landowner’s barn and our own, for this is one of our labor-for-lease fields, our own fields being too small, and much too steep, to be mechanically harvested. The rumble of tractor, the hum of truck engine, are bass and cello to the brass and woodwind of man-voice and child-voice. The sunlight glints in flakes from shiny hay stem and fluttering leaf.