Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Common Excellence

Every year I buy hay from my neighbor who lives about a mile down the road. He bales the best brome grass, in small square bales. It is more difficult to find those small, human being-sized bales all the time. Most farmers put up the huge round bales that require heavy machinery to handle.

I start haying my horses in late fall, when it begins to get cold. That means I go to the barn, break open a bale of that quality brome grass hay and place several flakes in two places, at least 75 feet apart, in the horse pasture. Through trial and error, I have discovered the minimum distance required between the two hay servings to prevent Ginger from chasing Annie back and forth because Ginger tries to eat both servings. (What a snot!) I also know exactly how much hay to put out so that there is none left on the ground when I go back to feed them again.

I love the ritual of "throwing hay" to the horses. The bales I get from my neighbor do not accidentally break open. They are heavy bales, which means the man who sells this hay provides quality and quantity. When I open the bales, the faded grass on the inside smells dusty and green. Hay makes everything smell good. There is nothing in my life that reminds me of my parents and grandparents more than hay, stacked in the barn. All of them, parents and grandparents, are gone now and sometimes I deeply miss them. Even when I am not consciously thinking of my family when handling the hay, their memories are permanently linked with everything to do with it. Sometimes it seems as if Grandpa is there in the dark winter mornings, enjoying the fragrant scent of hay, listening again to the lulling rhythm of horses eating.

I marvel over the amount of knowledge, man power and machinery it takes to supply my horses with this quality hay every year. I have had to move a significant stack of bales twice - "significant" being relative to ME, not to some of the ranches and farms who feed hundreds of animals. I had some experience handling bales growing up, so I know how to manage them fairly efficiently but I practically killed myself moving a large stack of bales - twice!

When it comes to handling hay, I am a flagrant rookie compared to my neighbor. He stacks the bales into my barn single-handedly each year. I always offer to help. He is too polite to say it, but I would be a huge hindrance to him, and no help whatsoever. Not only can he stack one hundred bales in a shockingly short amount of time - significantly less than an hour - he also knows how to stack the bales so it is safe and easy to use throughout the winter. The stack does not lean or tip. It is safe to get to the top of the stack and work my way down. I have tried to learn his technique, but he is a master. I am thankful he is willing to stack the hay into my barn. He adds a ridiculously small amount to the cost of each bale for this service, and I am utterly grateful to pay it.

There is an art, skill and knowledge to "putting up hay". A farmer has to know when to cut the hay, when to bale it, how dense and how tightly to bale. If it is not baled tightly enough, the hay does not keep well. If it is baled too wet, it spoils. All of this has to be done in timing with all other crops, weather, and responsibilities on a genuine farm. I am somewhat awed by that knowledge and skill.

I worry sometimes what I will do when my neighbor retires. Will there be a younger man in the area willing to put up the small bales for someone like me who owns only a couple of horses? Will any of the young farmers know how to stack the bales with such expertise? Will they even deliver the bales in the first place? Will I be forced to buy a couple of those huge round bales and set them out in the pasture at the beginning of cold weather? I would miss the ritual of using the steel hay hooks to pull down bales. I would miss breaking into them for a dusty breath of summer. I would miss the silent presence of my grandfather at those early morning feedings.

My grandfathers baled and handled literally tons of hay in their lives. They grumbled, just a bit, every year when it came to haying. Picking up hay bales is hot, itchy, work - hard labor, actually. It is work for younger men. And it is endless. It is the drudgery of farm work, the way dishes are the drudgery of housework.

Yet, I think a man would be satisfied seeing his barn full of the hay he baled and put up himself. I think the heat and dust and itching skin would be immediately forgotten once that last bale was stacked. I wish my grandfathers were still here to tell me what they knew so well, to tell me all about the common excellence needed for successful farming. They were genuine farmers - like my neighbor.

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