Zen of Hay
summer of itchy, painful, time-consuming—but rewarding—meditation
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
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
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
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.
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