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The Zen of Hay

A summer of itchy, painful, time-consuming—but rewarding—meditation


It’s 5 PM. Sweat is leaking into my eyeballs, dirt seeps into my pores, hay dust makes ringlets around my neck, sharp pieces of hay have made their way under my nails and into my palm as slivers, and all I want is a glass of water. We start unloading the fifth load of hay.

This has been every summer vacation in my life so far: Three long, hot months filled with shaky red wagons, itchy, spiky hay and dozens of hungry cows, keeping the former in constant action.

Haying is a fairly simple process: Grow, cut, rake, bale, and unload—again and again and again and again, in a necessarily evil cycle that creates a smoglike cloud on every hot or dry day.

The “summer vacation” originally was created to allow schoolchildren to help their farming parents garden and put in hay, explains Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Wikipedia tells me the same. “This tradition is entrenched in the present day, even though only a very small fraction of school-aged children in developed countries live on livestock farms,” wrote the Wiki scholar.

The apparently lost or misunderstood meaning of the summer-vacation period is not wasted on my family, however. I spend all of the late spring and early summer eyeballing the yawning fields around my house, daring them to even think about growing second cuttings during September.

Once the alfalfa and timothy is long enough to cut, the haybine is put into action. The process often takes many small animal lives with it, an unfortunate occurrence that has earned our haybine the affectionate nicknames “fawn filleter” and “bunny basher.”

After the cut hay is raked into neat lines, the mix can be baled into 70- to 100-pound rectangular bales (my farm’s form of choice), huge 700-pound round bales, or even huger 2,000-pound square bales. While the larger bales can be stored outside after transportation, small bales need to be unloaded, thrown and stacked in the barn.

This is where I come in. An elevator is the only additional tool needed in haying, and is also the equipment that inevitably breaks down during the unloading stage. The elevator that runs from the wagon to the upper “haymow”—the upper loft area over the cows in the barn—will begin to delicately shake before its entire chain releases from the track, and then the elevator needs to be stopped. This little problem, which actually happens about four times during a normal load of hay on our farm, has inspired a special job dubbed “switch.”

The person working “switch” (usually me) has the princely privilege of sitting on a bale of hay in the barn door, hand on the on-off switch to the elevator, vigilantly guarding the elevator chain in case of a slip.

When I was delegated to work “switch” during my high school years, it was a major blow to my farming confidence—a definite downgrade in the hay pecking order. I’m not quite sure I’ll protest as vehemently to sitting instead of lifting this summer, but I can understand why my 14-year-old brain was repelled by the notion.

There’s a certain calmness that comes of putting in hay, despite the itchy red scratches that proliferate like mosquito bites on my arms and the heated yelling and stress that accompanies any type of family farming.

The zen of hay is found somewhere between the empty bottles of Gatorade flung into the loose piles and the rich farmer’s laugh that echoes over every load. It’s in the between-load waiting, with everyone listening for the tractor coming down the road, and making the same grumbles before heading back to the barn: It is sort of nice, right?

The zen of hay is in my father’s face, his deep wrinkles and sunspots, and in his secret reluctance to buy a round baler. (Most farms now use round balers.) There’s an underlying culture there, a peaceful one that makes me think I almost know what my dad is thinking when he looks out across the fields with that slow farmer’s stare. The only real way to absorb this feeling is to be on the wagon, hay blowing into your eyeballs, hands wrapped around a piece of sharp baler twine. The “switch” just doesn’t cut it, and I know I’ll feel cheated again this summer.

—Carlene Willsie

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