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Rated: E · Non-fiction · Experience · #2274977
Tougher than dishwashing, but more rewarding
Farming is hard work. For me, a lot of the labor took place in cold rain and wind, or in sweat-drenching heat, or early in the morning, or around livestock that had it in for me. And since a lot of that work was done for my parents, there was a good chance I’d not get paid for it. But there were certain types of labor for which I was off the hook- things that could only be accomplished by professionals. Like haying.
Grass hay- unlike straw, which is suitable only for bedding and stuffing scarecrows- is a cheap source of food for cows and horses; at least cheaper than alfalfa, which my parents could rarely afford. Since we always seemed to have a few cows and horses hanging around, hay was what they were fed, supplemented with Albers pellets from the feed store.
I was never certain what kind of hay grew in the fields behind our house. All I knew was that it was green and tall, and that we’d catch hell from Dad if he saw us kids crawling around in it, making paths through vegetation that we smashed down in our knee-driven travels. There was something intoxicating about the privacy of those paths, the smell of the grass, the way the thick hay blocked out external sounds, the feeling of being in a temporarily hidden world that was all ours. The sun was hot on those out-of-school June days, except down within that tall, green corridor, the blue sky a narrow, vertical band above, nothing else mattering.

I stood in front of the Black Anvil Tavern on that July morning, waiting for my 5am ride, grateful for work. Through a connection at church, I’d been introduced to Don Miller, a farmer who needed help with his hay harvest. His family would provide water and food. I only had to bring a pair of gloves, and be sure to wear jeans and a thick shirt. On the ride out, I wondered if I was the only beginner in the group. Bucking bales was something that required upper body strength, a modicum of coordination, and some skill with hay hooks. It had been a couple years since I last loaded hay, and that had been an ugly experience. I’d volunteered to help pick up bales on the church farm. Far as I could tell, not many of our group knew much about the work, evidenced by the lack of gloves present. And once I got a look at the bales, or tried to lift them, the pain began. This was not your attractive Timothy hay or bluegrass, but instead a mixture of straw, dead grass, thistles, and other aggravating forms of worthless flora. Due to the additional presence of rocks and dirt clods, the bales were some 75-100 pounds each. And since few of us had hay hooks, we had to grab the thin, skin-damaging twine that held together these blocks of crap. Backs were thrown out, hands were cut, the skin over our kneecaps was punctured, and the air polluted by cursing Christians.

After stopping by the Miller home for hay hooks and jugs of water, two or three trucks drove out to the field. It didn’t look that large, but when I saw the rows and rows of bales, spaced some twenty feet apart and stretching off into the distance, I knew I was in for a workout. Stepping out of the truck, I breathed in the dry, heady smell of hay stubble moist with morning dew. Waves of memory filled my head as I was reminded how that hay got to where it now sat, bundled and waiting to throw out the back of some unskilled laborer.
As a kid I’d watch for the Man with the Tractor. Dad would watch for blue skies, anxious to get the cutting scheduled and done. Northwest Oregon was notorious for raining at the drop of a barometer, and many were the farmers who cursed the sky after having the hay cut, only to watch a generous amount of the wet stuff come down from the heavens and soak their newly mown grass. If the sun came out within a day or two and dried the cuttings out, all was well. But what was more likely to happen was a day of rain, followed by another couple days of fog, drizzle and general malaise, after which the sun came out, but too late. The hay was now moldy and beginning to rot. And considering what was at stake- especially for parents like mine, who didn’t have excess cash lying around- fear of unforecasted rain bordered on the superstitious.
When the Man with the Tractor arrived, he’d unload it and the mower- that is, if he wasn’t a local who drove the tractor down nearby country roads, waving impatient motorists past him, all the way to our place. Starting at one edge, he’d mow in a circular pattern until he’d reached the center. Then he’d drive off the field, collect a check from Dad, and be on his way.
Next came the raker, along with continued paranoia about errant rain showers or downpours. He’d use a tractor-drawn implement to gather the cuttings into continuous rows. A day or two later the baler would show up. Towing a baling machine behind his tractor, the operator would straddle the row of raked hay while a mechanism pulled it up and into the machine. I found it all very mysterious- that this noisy device could pull the hay in one end, and after a minute or two, push a chugging bale of tied-off hay out the back, where it would tumble to the ground. Output was everything; if there were bales coming out every twenty or thirty feet, that meant a high yield. But if the baler was pooping out a bale every sixty to seventy feet, the grass hadn’t been as thick as planned, which meant having to buy hay somewhere else before winter set in, and at higher prices.

So here we were, ready to go at those bales. I grabbed a pair of hay hooks and stood by the first bale I came to, then sunk the hooks in and hoisted it up to a loader in the advancing pickup. As he placed it in an orderly, tightly packed row, I went on to the next bale. After a few minutes our group of five or six men got into rhythm, but one with minute-long breaks for water. Off came my jacket, the temperature already rising into the seventies by 8 am, the nineties by 9, etc. And with the advancing heat, water intake increased exponentially. I was soon sweating more than I could imagine, my dedicated gallon jug of half water and half ice draining quickly. By the time we finished, I realized that for once, I didn’t have to take a piss. The water never made it past my sweat glands.
Soon enough the truck was full, so we hitched a ride back to the barn, where the unloading process took place. While less strenuous than before, my muscles were crying out for relief from the unaccustomed exercise. But on the other hand, it felt good. I was handling the workload, and keeping up with seasoned workers. Then we were into the pickup bed for another ride back to the fields. By the time we started the last load, it was close to 11 am, and the heat was increasing in inverse proportion to my energy. That and I was starving. About the time the last bale went onto the truck, I was ready for lunch.
Into the Miller’s home we went, the sight and smell of cooked burgers, hot dogs, biscuits, baked bread, potatoes, and gravy something I don’t believe I’ll see again this side of heaven. After we consumed mass quantities, Don took me back to my apartment and I crashed for a while, recuperating from work to which my body was not accustomed.

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