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Resolved to bring in the hay

Posted 8/5/2018 7:00pm by Mrs. Funny Duck.

They say when it rains it pours, but sometimes it threatens rain, strikes lightning, starts fires, and your haying equipment incessantly tests your resolve. Thankfully, farmers seem to possess more resolve than any other type of person I know.

2018 has been a lousy growing season, third one in row actually. Trying to harvest enough hay for your livestock when the weather is your adversary is no picnic. In a drought like this year, the yields and quality are low, so you know that you will need every single scrap you can harvest, and you will probably have to cull your herd hard in the fall. But you find a way to make it through.

We’re involved in a project to help maintain habitat for the Bobolink, which is listed as critical on the endangered species list, and we always delay haying in certain fields until after July 15th. By then, the young birds have fledged the nests. These birds are an important part of the ecosystem, and we do all we can to help them. So, we wait to hay the big field where they nest, and the weather leading up till then is perfect.

Then, July 15th arrives. 

The weather turns. 

The perfect haying weather is gone.

The ground is still dry and parched from drought, but now there are constant threats of sudden showers, the humidity soars, and the haying weather windows shrink up and disappear.

To make good hay you need hot, dry, windy weather that sticks around for 2 to 4 days. Some of our fields need 4 days, other fields can be done in 2 to 3 days, if the weather and equipment co-operates. 

A 2-day hay window only works if you know you can get all the hay in and off the field. What you don’t want is to leave cut hay lying on the field to get rained on. And you sure don’t want to leave square bales on the field. You need to know that if you cut it, it will be baled and put away.

So, a haying window comes along. This is far from a perfect window. The humidity is high, the percentage of rain is wobbling from 40-60%, but the actual amount of predicted precipitation is very low, less than 1ml. We take a chance. We need the hay harvested so the pasture can re-grow and we can graze it because it’s a drought, and we need all the grazing we can get. 

We decide to cut two portions in our largest hay field, one at the top of the field, and one at the bottom. We know we need to get it done, but we all have some serious reservations about doing it. The weather window looks lousy, but better than it’s been in over two weeks.

The cutting goes great on the first section, same with the raking. We cut the second section the next day, and we are able to begin baling the first section that day too. Everything is going without a hitch, everything is running so smoothly! 

Part way through loading a wagon, and the knotter on the baler starts to act up. We stop, adjust, and continue but it’s not fixed. We fiddle about, contact some farmer friends for advice, look up as many YouTube videos about New Holland balers we can find, but we can see we are loosing daylight. We can see what part isn’t working, but we can’t really say what is causing it not to work. We stop baling and continue researching parts and repairs. Farmer friends offer to loan us they balers. They know what it's like to have hay on the ground that needs to get baled. Our local farming community is nothing short of amazing.

The next day, we have the baler serviced, and it’s the pin for the bill hook and a couple of brass nuts that were worn, preventing the knot from being made on the one side. 

The parts are replaced, and we are good to go! The dew dries off, and we begin to bale again. Soon after we’ve finished loading the last wagon for the first section we cut. Two of us go to unload the hay, and the other starts raking the hay that was cut the day before. There are only about 25, maybe 30 rows left to bale, and the rows at the end are short due to the shape of the field. We’re going to get it done, even though the baler broke and we lost all those hours! Such a relief!

My husband and I are putting the last few bales away at the other farm property, and as we finish up, dark storm clouds roll in and thunder starts to make angry noises. We head to the house for water and to quickly eat some leftovers before heading back to bale the rest. We check the weather quickly, and looks like the storm is here, but not where we are baling, 6km away.

I’ve told the two kids that are home that rather than come with us to the other farm to help bale now, they should stay here and rest up. I tell them to drink lots of water, and make sure they have a good meal. One seems a bit disappointed. I say to them both, “Look, later on, we might really need you guys to help, and I need you to have energy, because the grownups might be almost out by then, ok?” The youngest seems to accept this logic. 

We drive the 6km back to where the raking is taking place. Half the remaining section is raked and ready to bale, but there is a problem with the rake. A rear arm from the tractor got jammed between the double tongue of the rake when turning, and pried it open. A brief amount of time none of us feel we can spare is spent deciding if we have the tools to fix it. Ultimately, the decision to just put in a longer pin is made. Raking continues and baling the second section starts. We’re all trying to ignore the massive storm clouds that seem to be coming awfully close to the field we are working it. The lighting show is impressive, but startling at times.

There are three people, and two tractors running, and I don’t drive the tractors, so guess who’s on the hay wagon by herself? This old girl. I’m ok with it, because I know my sister will be there shortly, she doesn’t have that much more to rake, and my husband is running the baler slower for me. First layer of stacking is easy. Second layer goes well too. 

As I stack bales, I watch the barn swallows. There must be 50 of them flying around us. I love watching them swoop and glide over the field. Cutting hay exposes even more insects for them to feast on. I decide my favourite colour is the steely blue of a barn swallows back. 

We’re all still trying to ignore the massive storm clouds that seem to slouch ever closer to where our hay is laid out dry on the ground, naked and exposed. I say some quick prayers that God will keep those clouds moving further from us.

I see a fire truck with lights flashing go speeding past on the road, I can’t tell if the sirens are on over the noise of the tractor and the baler. I have a few seconds of concern, because there are only about 10 households on the road between our two farms, the sight of an emergency vehicle on it is rare, and its headed towards the house where the kids are.

I have a brief moment where I wonder what if the kids were cooking and there was a fire? But I know they are very careful. The idea of a lightning strike passes through my mind, I think about the animals and the barn, knowing there have been so many barn fires lately, but ultimately, I tell myself the local volunteer fire department is headed elsewhere. 

Moments later, I see a rainbow in the direction of where my kids are. I figure it’s God’s way of telling me that my kids are ok, then I have an instant where I think maybe it’s God’s way of saying they are over the rainbow bridge. I decide He’s saying it’s a sign they are well, and I keep stacking. Someone would call if there was a problem. 

I’m now on the third layer of stacking and things are still going well. I can feel that my muscles are getting tired, there have already been many bales moved today, so I’m being very careful as I climb up and down the stack to place bales. You have to climb up, place the bale in its place, they get back in time to catch the next one so it doesn’t fall off the baler and on to the ground. I don’t want to trip or stumble, no one can afford to get injured today. 

At one point we notice a friend of ours is walking up the field towards us. Lisa used to work with us, and her sister lives next door to me. She had mentioned she might stop by this week, so I was’t surprised to see her. When she caught up to us though, I was very surprised at the reason she had come right then. Lightning had struck about 400 feet from our house and started a bush fire. The house 2/3’s of my kids were at! 

The strike was somewhere between our house and her sisters place next door to ours. It set their vehicle alarms off, which caused a flurry of hasty phone calls to be made. Troy next door responded to the fire by stomping on it whilst wearing fire-retardant boots and pants, until our local volunteer fire department arrived, which thankfully was swiftly. The fire was put out before it spread.

Lisa and her sister had tried to call me, but my phone was inside charging. Lisa had first gone to check on the kids to make sure they were ok, then headed over to where we were haying to tell us what happened. Thank God for good friends and good neighbours! 

Now that I was no longer ignorant of the crisis that had been averted, it was back onto the wagon. The third layer was almost done and I asked for the tractor to go a bit slower for the fourth stack. Fourth stack was almost done and we kept going. The windrow of hay we were picking up was a thick one, and the bales were coming fast, even at the slower speed as I began to form the 5th layer. 

The sun was beating down, and I could feel the heat sapping my strength. The higher the stack, the more wobbly the wagon gets. I could tell that if I wasn’t careful, I would stumble. I gave my husband the signal to stop so I could rest. Jen arrived a moment or two later, and we finished up the wagon load. 

We were almost done. We got the next wagon hooked up and started baling again. We were still trying to disregard the lightning and storm clouds that were nearing us gradually. So close to being done. Just a few more rows to bale.

We were all tired and exhausted, because during haying the other farm work doesn’t stop, not one bit. There are still animals to be fed and watered and milked, there is still rotational grazing fences to be moved almost daily, there is still gardening to be done, CSA prep and planing, and of course admin work is always there eating up hours of each day. Baling hay was just one more thing to add to the list.

Seeing the end in sight, we all shook aside the feelings of being over-tired and over-heated, and I ignored the blisters on my feet that were getting worse by the moment. Turns out Jens feet were giving her grief too. All I could think was a few more rows and we’re done and I can take my shoes off. Neither of us says anything about our aching feet. Just a few more rows to go. 

Then the tractor stops. A tire on the baler is flat as a pancake. But we’re almost done! Why now? Why now when we have so little left to do, and we’re running out of day light? 

Jen runs down the field to get the compressor, charge it, and bring it back with the truck. Aaron and I start to turn single windrows of hay into doubles so we can bales faster if the tire will hold long enough to finish the job. There are only about 5 or 6 more rows now that we’ve compressed them. There isn’t enough time to get another baler. We need the hay off the field now. 

Aaron and Jen work on the tire and can see it’s damaged beyond repair, there is no inflating it to finish picking up the bales. We decide that we are going to feed the baler the last of the hay by hand. 

We make a quick call to Grandma and ask her to fetch the kids at the other farm. We call the kids and tell them to get their haying clothes on, to get pitchforks from the barn, and to wait for Grandma in the driveway. She said it looked like some bizarre version of American Gothic when she arrived there for them.

We limp the baler to the middle of the field, and using pitch forks, pick up the hay in the windrows and feed it to the baler. It’s hot, and its dusty, and it’s exhausting. But we know every pitchfork of hay is more mouthfuls of feed. We cannot spare to leave any feed behind on the field. Not this year when hay is so short.

As I’m moving hay closer to the baler, I’m trying to ignore the sick feeling in my gut watching Jen and Aaron work so close to all the moving parts that we all usually steer very clear of. I know how tired we all are, and how easy a mistake could be right now. The baler is hungry, but the animals will be hungrier this winter if we don’t do this.

So we rake and carry. 

As you move towards the baler and tractor, it gets so loud. The baler picks up the hay from the ground, packs it into tight bales, then ties it, but makes an incredible racket to do this. 

Ka-thunk-BOOM! Ka-thunk-BOOM! Ka-thunk-BOOM! 

When you are stacking hay on the wagon, it’s a rhythmic, hypnotic sound. Almost encouraging, like marching music, or some type of primitive song that makes your body want to move.

But on the ground, as you get close to the dangerously powerful and fast spinning parts, it sounds so angry, and so hungry; like it will never be satisfied until it eats all the hay and anyone who stands too close. 

My mind tells me this is too hard, that we can’t do it; then I think of the farmers in Australia, and the massive drought they are faced with now. I think of them having to shoot their flocks because there is no feed anywhere, and how many of them think of using the last bullet for themselves. What we are doing right now is not too hard. We have hay, we just need to feed it into the baler. Nothing we are facing compares to what they are right now. I keep moving.

The kids arrive, and I am so thankful that there are now three more bodies holding pitchforks, three more bodies to move hay. As the first two reach me I say, “Remember how I asked you guys to rest up? Yeah, well this is your moment. We really need you guys right now.” I hope they can tell by my tone and my appearance that I am incredibly serious. 

We set them up working away from the baling equipment, and have them moving hay into piles so the adults can move it over to the insatiable baler. 

Ka-thunk-BOOM! Ka-thunk-BOOM! Ka-thunk-BOOM!

It never ceases, even with its rotten, ugly, defective wheel.

We move hay. We watch the storm clouds. We see this incredible sunset. It’s so beautiful... the fields look lush and green in the failing light, the animals are off grazing in the distance, and the sun is massive and red on the horizon of the hill past the top of the field we’re working in. The trees on the horizon and our bodies are in silhouette as we work in front of the suns deep red light. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve see all day, and I want to Instagram that shit so bad, but there isn’t a moment to stop. The baler is hungry. 

Ka-thunk-BOOM! Ka-thunk-BOOM! Ka-thunk-BOOM!

My arm and wrist is aching from carrying loads of hay on the pitchfork, even though I know my loads are smaller than Aaron and Jen’s. How the hell are they getting so much on their forks? I know everyone else is hurting too, so I just keep moving. My feet are so sweaty and gritty and I’m sure I can feel the blisters on the bottom of my toes opening up. 

Again I start to feel like we can’t do this, then I think of the farmers in Australia, and I keep going. This is nothing. Tonight I can hop in the shower, and tomorrow we will put the bales away. We don’t have to kill our animals to save them from starving to death. This is nothing.

I try to take my mind off the pain and disturbing thoughts by telling myself stories. When my kids were little, I used to make up bed time stories each night. They always started with “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…” and they would always be about one of the kids going on an adventure then finding their way home to finally go to sleep. 

...Once upon a time, in a land far far away, three little children were stolen by a cruel witch. The witch had a big steel leg, and when she walked, it made a terrible sound, Ka-thunk-BOOM! Ka-thunk-BOOM! Ka-thunk-BOOM! 

The story went on to have the children escape to the cool forest on the edge of the dry, dusty field she had them working in, and eventually they made their way home to find their parents. 

Telling stories was obviously taking my mind out of where I was, as my sister became worried about me. She said I looked like I was in bad shape. I was, but at least my mind was in that cool forest.

From time to time, I would worry how the kids were doing, but I would hear their Aunty Jen making jokes and keeping their morale up. There was talk of haying being like Navy Seals training, and then next thing you know they are talking about baby seals. Who doesn’t like baby seals? Everyone loves baby seals. I could hear little bits of laughter from them being carried on the wind. 

We kept feeding the baler until the last of the hay was off the field. Finally, the baler is shut off, it is quiet, and we can hear the crickets chirping. 

We did it. The hay is off the field, and the bales on the wagon. Jen takes a picture of us to capture the moment. The moment that shows we didn’t give up, we resolved to get the job done. I wish at that moment we had one of those stupid selfie sticks so she can be in the picture too, but I know that the photographer is always in the picture, just on the other side of it.

We head back to the farm house to eat the meal that Grandma and my eldest has spent the day preparing. The foods are amazing, exactly what we need, and so are the two desserts. Yes kids, you can have two helpings. 

The kids say how hard the job was, say that even baling hay the regular way is hard, and ask how we can do it year after year. 

I’m not sure how to answer really, so I shrug and say, ‘We just do it”.

...

Farming is a gratifying job, probably largely in part because it is a hard job. I want food to be affordable for everyone, but it bothers me that a dentist or orthodontist makes in a day what most farmers make in a week or more. It bothers me when people in $500,000 homes say they can’t fit local food into their budget. It bothers me that fewer and fewer family farms are running each year, and more and more multinationals are taking over the food supply. Multinationals that probably have little interest in your health or the health of the planet. 

I have yet to meet a family farmer that doesn’t care deeply for the land and the animals they tend. I have yet to meet a family farmer who doesn’t want to grow everything the very best they can, but can take only what the current market will pay. If farmers charged what the food they grew actually cost to produce, no one could afford to eat. 

I don’t like subsidies and hand outs, but we need to find a way to make sure the best, most healthy food is available to everyone, not just those who can afford it, and the farmer isn’t just making pennies to provide this essential service. 

I don’t know what the full solution looks like when it comes to farming and climate change and food affordability and food security, and all the other big problems we are faced with in agriculture, but I know it starts with supporting farms. 

It starts with taking notice when the government makes changes to agricultural programs and supports. Because changes have been made. 

It starts with buying local when you can, and understanding why it is that the farmers market or your CSA may not have a full selection like a grocery store. 

It starts with learning why it costs so much to produce good food, and why processed food is so cheap.

When your farmer looks weary, give them some encouragement. They may not always tell you what they are up against. 

I love that our CSA members get all this. I love that they understand this and are always learning about the food system and how we can improve it. I love that many of them donate their food baskets to needy families when they are away on holidays. Our members are why we keep doing this.

Even when the odds are stacked against us, we have have the resolve to get through, and to keep going.