In this year of mild temperatures, a rural intoxication returned earlier than ever to our part of the Midwest. Farmers are cutting the first crop of hay, so when I drove to my folks’ farm a few days back, I could roll down the windows and let the aroma from a neighbor’s field seep in with the dust from the gravel road. If the hay is lush and fresh, and if a warm humid breeze carries the scent of alfalfa, orchard grass, and a few remnants of clover, you can feel the memories activate, and you can catch visions of an era gone by.
Nowadays, the few farmers who bale hay in our area use high tech equipment and generally produce huge round bales. Some decades ago, the ritual was more complicated. Everyone used machines that produced square, fifty-pound bales that we could stack and transport to the barn. We boys would grab the bales as they came out of the chute and then stack them on the rack in hopes that the load would hold together. If the bales tumbled off on the trip to the barn, you deserved all the ridicule you were sure to get at lunch time.
As we got older, we could hire on with baling crews, and if you joined up with old Clarence, you were in for a wild ride. He wore bib overalls and a tan safari hat while driving the tractor that pulled his customized baler equipped with a powerful “Wisconsin engine.” As my cousin Tim says, “He could bale trees with that machine.” Clarence would put it in gear, seldom look back, and rarely slow down. If the field was bumpy, we were like drunken sailors on the rack, and the only thing that held us down was grabbing the bales. They were extra heavy because Clarence used wire instead of twine, and we occasionally had to team up to hoist a bale to the top row of the stack.
Speed was fine with us, since Clarence paid by the bale—a whopping penny a bale—so if the machinery didn’t break down and rain didn’t set in, you could make twelve dollars or so in an afternoon. That bought a lot of gas for a ’56 Chevy back in 1967.
Those images are gone as most hay fields now have seven-foot tall round bales casting shadows in the evening sun, but when I pulled into my parents’ farm and saw the large, red barn, a few more memories kicked in. The building won’t make a Barns-R-Us magazine cover, but it’s still sturdy and proud. Dad says it probably hasn’t changed much since it was built in the 1890s, but parts of the roof have metal rather than wooden shingles, and the classic cupola is gone from the top.
Since small, square bales are rare now, the barn is nearly empty inside, but you can still imagine the activity when the loads came in decades ago. Someone on the rack secured eight bales with grappling hooks, a kid on a tractor (a horse in days before) would pull the rope, and a pulley system lifted the bales to the open barn door and then in. We bale stackers made sure we weren’t under the bales when they dropped, and we also tried to make some symmetry out of the piles.
The best things about barns came a few years before we were old enough to do the heavy chores. A full barn can be scary when you’re little, but my brothers, cousins, and I would play hide-and-seek or tag there. We’d make caves and tunnels in the bales and hope that the next time we crawled through, chickens hadn’t laid eggs or raccoons hadn’t “laid” something worse in the narrow passages. The barn was a place to hunt pigeons with BB guns, shoot hoops at a crooked basket when enough bales were used up, and play king-on-the-mountain when it was time to rough house.
I hear they’re using biotech alfalfa for hay in some parts of the country. I know folks argue the pros and cons, but I haven’t looked into it enough to know the particulars. I just hope that if the neighbors use GMO alfalfa, the same sweet smell will be there with the first cutting. Somewhere there’s a kid crawling through a haymow tunnel counting on it. by dan gogerty (top right photo from livinginthecountry.com; left photo from locusthill.com)