For its sheer drudgery, getting in hay on our Montgomery County, Tennessee, farm was one of the jobs I dreaded most. The work was more taxing than hauling manure and cutting tobacco, partly because it was unrelenting in the race to finish before rain came. One year rain unexpectedly came right after Daddy cut the hay, and we could only watch helplessly as the crop rotted in the field while the rain continued for several days. But normally, by the time we put the last load of baled hay in the barn, my forearms were raw and bloodied, my body was sore and aching, and my energy level was next to nothing.
My participation in “haying time,”—as the process is sweetly known by those who recall farm life through Currier and Ives’ romantic images—ran roughly for a decade from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. By July each summer, Daddy, my older brother Nolen Robert, and I had already harvested one crop of hay and were soon to harvest our second. Tennessee summers are hot, but the heat is often made worse by high humidity, especially in the lower altitude middle and western parts of the state. In the years when rains were adequate, our alfalfa hay grew profusely because it liked the combination of heat and humidity.
Currier and Ives print. (photo credit)
My earliest memories of work with hay were when we harvested it loose. Daddy first cut the hay and left it to dry out for two days. Then he raked it with an old-fashioned rake that originally had been pulled by horses or mules, but he modified the hitch so it could be pulled behind our tractor. He rigged a rope from a lever on the rake that released the hay when the prongs filled up, tying the rope near the tractor seat so he could reach it easily.
As soon as he finished raking, Daddy hitched up the trailer behind the tractor and drove from pile to pile as Nolen Robert and I loaded the loose hay onto the trailer with pitchforks. While this was physically easier than picking up tightly packed bales of hay, it was less efficient. Because the hay was loose, we got less on each wagon load, requiring more frequent trips from the fields to the barn to unload it—thus taking more precious time. Nolen Robert was a strong teenager by then, so he forked the hay up into the loft while Daddy and I moved it with pitchforks farther back into the barn, making a huge, high pile of hay. The smell of freshly cut hay in the barn was always pleasant, and it was more concentrated under the metal barn roof where there was little or no breeze. Our cows must have salivated at the aroma as they waited for the winter to enjoy it when the pastures were freeze dried.
By the mid 1950s Daddy hired someone to bale the hay. This was cheaper than buying our own baler because we only needed a baler four or five days of the year. That was when the drudgery kicked in for Nolen Robert and me. Each rectangular bale was about two feet by two feet by four feet, and weighed about 80 pounds. Wire held the bales together in the earlier years, but was replaced by heavy twine. The shape of the bales allowed us to stack the hay higher on the wagon than loose hay, so this and the greater density of the bales greatly reduced the number of trips from field to barn.
Rectangular hay bales. (photo credit)
Nolen Robert and I wore long-sleeved shirts to protect our arms, but the protection was limited. Lifting a bale by the wire or twine meant the bale itself rested against our forearms as we loaded it, with cut stems poking and scratching us through our shirts. After doing several hundred of these lifts a day, by day’s end our forearms were scratched, poked, and irritated.
Today’s hay bails are predominantly large and round, typically handled with power equipment. Many of these bales are now wrapped in plastic to protect them from weather, meaning they don’t need to be stored in a barn. They can just lie in the field where they come out of the baler until time to rip them open for livestock to eat.
Round bale wrapped in plastic. (photo credit)
My experience with hay is becoming increasingly rare. Mechanization is at the heart of the change, as is the related rural to urban migration of the last century. Still, having the experience has been valuable throughout my life. It helped me learn about endurance, efficiency, teamwork, and completing what I start. It helped me learn what I did not want to do for a living.
Some of my most useful experiences, like harvesting hay, came from things that I never really wanted to do. My memories of “haying time” are not romanticized, but are composed of various aspects of the discomfort, pain, and exhaustion involved. Still, I’m glad I had the experience.