As this video demonstrates, some of the new hay baling machines appear to be a cross between a carnival ride and a futuristic time machine. I imagine some manufacturers have robot balers that completely keep the human touch out of the process. There were times as a teenager when I would have been happy to throw down my work gloves and download a “hay field app” on my smartphone. But itchy chaff and broken twine bales aside, I do miss those hot summer days “on the rack.”
Fifty-pound Bales, Wild Drivers, and Drunken Sailors
Every summer, a rural intoxication returns to our part of the Midwest. When farmers cut the first crop of hay, I drive to my folks’ farm, 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 new-cut hay still has the aroma, and anyone who rode a rack will remember the heat, the lifting, the hypnotic sound of the baler—and the satisfaction of a job well done on the last ride in at sunset.
by dan gogerty (top pic from livingthecountrylife.jpg and bottom pic from locusthill.jpg)