Eyes on the Land: Haying Requires Endless Calibration, and Sweat

  • In the early evening, Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., joins her haying crew to help load after baling in Corinth on June 22, 2018. Guenther has been haying this field on and off since 1989. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther, of, Corinth, Vt., prepares to, drive back to a neighbor's barn to unload that day's hay in Corinth on June 22, 2018. Her son Silas Pollard helps to tie down the load. Friend and hired helper Austin Pedro, of Strafford, Vt. was loading that day. Guenther has a free lease on the hay field, which she calls the "great field." She has been haying it on and off since 1989. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • With almost all of the hay loaded in the loft, Liz Guenther and partner Michael Dathe, of Strafford, Vt., dance a few tango steps. Guenther was about finished haying for the day in Corinth, Vt., on June 22, 2018. Guenther has a free lease for the barn from generous neighbors Doug and Anne Jenisch. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After loading hay at a neighbor's barn, Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., takes a minute to talk with her haying crew after a long day of haying on June 22, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., points out the route her son Silas Pollard should take when driving their truck and wagon loaded with hay up the steep hay field in Corinth on June 22, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Liz Guenther, of Corinth, Vt., takes a short break after a long day of haying on June 22, 2018. Guenther and her haying crew had just finished loading hay into neighbors Doug and Anne Jenisch's barn, where she has a free lease. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Tuesday, July 03, 2018

June 27

When the twisting branches of the tall black locust trees that curl up and around our barn are finally fringed with their first small leaves, I know it is June, and nearly time to mow hay. As we stack this year’s hay into the loft, we will inhale the honey-sweet fragrance of the locust blossoms, and listen happily to the bees that come every year to these trees. Haying takes all summer, and we’ll be grateful for the gentle shade. We are lucky to have these old trees, thoughtfully planted long ago near many a farm site for their welcoming shade, promise of honey and their stately grace.

We are mostly in the hay fields these days, long days in the sun that make the shady barnyard a real respite. Ours is a small haying operation, in keeping with our small cheese-making enterprise, and herd of between 10 and 12 cows. Each year we make approximately 2,000 bales of hay, from three fields generously offered to us by friends and neighbors. I buy and bring home another 300 to 400 bales, mostly from a nearby friend who is a careful farmer and makes beautiful hay in some of the highest fields in Chelsea, where the orchard grass my cows like so much grows well.

For years I mowed, raked, and tedded hay with a team of horses. The experiences of those years were so vivid, they inflect the way I think about everything I do now with a tractor. Today on the farm we keep one tractor, a modest 46-horsepower, four-wheel-drive Kubota that my son Sam spotted, barely used, on a construction lot. It has wide, relatively smooth “industrial” tires that compact and tear the soil less easily than the narrower, more aggressive tread of conventional “ag” tires, and a loader with an extra-large, heavy-duty bucket. It was a big purchase and is serving the aims and purposes of the farm very well.

Our haying equipment is an assortment of motley but precious implements gathered up or handed down from earlier farms and farmers. None of it is new, and some of it is older than I am. “So treat it with respect!” my sons Silas, 19, and Sam, 21, grew up hearing me say, with a wink, but also with honest concern, and we drive a bit more slowly in the fields than our neighbors who drive newer, stronger equipment. To lubricate our tractor and equipment, we buy food-grade grease that is rated for heavy machinery, at nearly triple the cost of standard petroleum-based grease. We mow with an old John Deere seven-foot sickle-bar mower. This three-point hitch mounted mower received an extensive overhaul three years ago, after we fetched it out of a barn in Chelsea and first fired it up, with pretty mixed results. During the past two years we have gradually learned to adjust and tweak the mower mount, cutter bar lead and lift, and the angle of the knife, according to the type, thickness and moisture level of the grass we are mowing, so that the mower runs smoothly.

We also learned along the way that we can predict and head off many potential problems, just by constantly feeling for heat. A hot knife section may mean too tight a clearance between the section and its guard, and can be adjusted. Heat along the bar or at the knife head indicates stress, and misalignment such as a lagging cutter bar. This will result not just in poor cutting, but in a hard-running bar, eventual failure of some component, and more work for whatever is driving the mower — something I always think about, having worked with horses.

We square bale the hay with an old International 46 twine baler. We barely take our eyes off its spinning flywheel, surging plunger arm, scooping packing fingers and, farther back amidst the ever thickening chaff, the needles and knotters, while watching to be sure the hay feeds evenly into the pick-up. I’ve been baling hay with this baler since 1979, when my parents bought a small farm in New Hampshire, and handed the farm equipment and haying off to my brother and me. For years the baler’s knotting mechanism gave us trouble, and when we brought the baler to Vermont in about 1989, it continued to be cantankerous. In 2007 it received a machinist’s touch in Neil Hochstedler’s driveway and shop in Vershire, where he dismantled part of it, straightened it, fabricated and machined new parts for it and sent it home with me rebuilt, reassembled and essentially reborn. It has baled roughly 20,000 bales since then, “missed” about 10, sheared one or two pins, hiccoughed once or twice, and we remain very grateful!

All this time-consuming adjustment and constant attention is its own reward. During the past week I put in two long stints on the mower, five hours one day and four the next. The knife clogged only twice. Dry weather and dry ground help, of course. But the real test came as I stopped the mower and hopped down to feel for heat. I don’t think I’ve ever mowed five hours and felt a knife head completely cool to the touch. I left the field pleased that there’d been little toll on the old mower, and the grass was all neatly cut.

Finishing my final round on the first day of mowing, I was reminded of another reason I am content to work at the slower pace our older fleet of equipment suggests to us. Coming through a section of tall, thick grass near an old barnyard, a fawn barely 18 inches tall leaped up not more than a foot in front of the cutter bar and its flashing knives. One jump and it was to the side of the mower, which I had instantly stopped, along with the tractor. But it went down in the grass, and I greatly feared I had severed a leg or legs, it had all happened so quickly. To my huge relief, before I could climb down to investigate, it sprang up and bounded away, untouched and unharmed. I could very well have maimed it, but I like to think our small tractor, which keeps us just 3 feet off the ground, and our slower pace improve the odds for at least some of the wildlife with which we share the field.

With Sam recently moved away and Silas at work nearly full-time, I have been on the tractor in the fields a lot lately, so I have had time, while I tedded, to consider the condition of the fields, and the hay. We are at work in the largest of the hay fields, a beautiful high sloping field that falls away to the east with a view across the Connecticut and off to Mount Moosilauke. Lower down the field opens out again, forming a gentle knoll that rises out of the deep evergreen woods where Meadow Brook flows secretively along, and facing the steep shoulders of the eastern end of Hurricane Ridge.

Bales per acre matter, and the yields in this dry year are down. I have to fill my barn, or there won’t be enough Stilton cheese at the Norwich Farmers Markets this winter. But it seems to me that the blessings of hay season are many, and mysterious. We don’t own this field, which we know as “the Great Field,” or pasture it, but we have grown to love it. I hayed here with my brother in 1989 and ’90. Sam and Silas have hayed it with me for the past three years, and we all have learned its steep corners and hidden rocks, but also where the vetch is tallest, where the orchard grass is thick, and even where the wild strawberries, in the poorer sections of the field, are most delicious.

We have met friends and learned to know our neighbors better haying this field. Jerry Flye, who lives across the drive from where we park the tractor and equipment, offered his impact wrench two years ago when a rear wheel’s lug nuts kept mysteriously, and alarmingly, coming loose. Jerry’s son Jason lent us his flatbed trailer last week, and saved us returning to the field a second time. His friend and neighbor David Johnson walked into the field one afternoon to say hello, and has been cheerfully, steadily, throwing bales ever since, in exchange for grass-fed steaks and burger from our freezer. When our tedder broke down last week, our neighbor Sarah Nolin offered her spare for us to use.

Finished mowing at 8 this evening, I stood by the old cellar hole in the lower part of the great field, and watched the last colors slip away over the top of Hurricane Ridge. In the deepening quiet I noticed fog, or steam, above the trees where Meadow Brook winds through the woods, and a steady, powerful rumble of water over stones that I had never heard at midday. A single bat passed overhead; the only one I have seen this summer. I stood just a moment longer, and reflected on all the moving parts of the haying process, all the helping hands.

Haying has changed since Sam moved away to a new job just a week ago. More than a right-hand man, he has overseen the equipment for the last three years, gotten us out of dozens of mechanical and automotive snafus, expertly set up and driven the persnickety mowing machine for us and been fun to work with all along. As I raked hay a few days ago, each long windrow seemed to whisper his name, as if wondering when the careful driver they expected would pass by again, and the afternoon seemed long.

But as I headed out later with the baler, Silas showed up early from work, strode into the field, jumped up on the tractor, and took over the baling so I could go stack. He returned the next afternoon to load hay with a couple of good friends; they all know how to work, and enjoy doing it. They loaded one trailer while Dave and his grandson, Austin McCullough, loaded another, and I finished the baling. Back at the barn, my partner, Michael, and I took a few tango steps past the top of the hay elevator, and then set to work with the rest of the crew, stacking the fragrant, light-green bales of hay into the barn. Many hands make light work.