The following is written by columnist Jennifer Anderson:
Driving past the first fields of perfectly-formed, rectangular hay bales evoked many memories for this farm kid. If you’ve never done it before, putting in hay is a grueling, hot, sticky, sweaty mess.
After the hay is cut, raked and baled, the clock starts ticking. The 60-pound bales need to be quickly gathered before the dew sets in and packed into the barn before they get wet. Wet hay bales lead to mold and spontaneous combustion – both of which are frowned upon in the barn.
A farmer will solicit all the help he can get in the hot, dry timeframe he is working with. This includes the farmer’s wife, kids, neighbors, helpers, brothers-in-law and anyone willing to wield a hay hook.
Attire consists of gloves, which will become drenched in sweat in no time at all, and long pants. These will shield skin from the sharp, dry grass that can penetrate a person’s epidermis more easily than a hypodermic needle. The gloves will not, however, prevent blisters from forming under the knuckles when grabbing the skinny orange baling twine to maneuver the bales.
Hay helpers need to decide between a long-sleeve shirt to protect the forearms or short sleeves to prevent overheating. Upon choosing the latter, one needs to be prepared to spend the next week appearing to have arm wrestled with a roll of barbed wire.
There is a swift, smooth technique that must be mastered (quickly) while loading the hay. Bales need to be lifted with both hands to the thighs and kicked up to the chest with one knee, then pushed up to the stacker riding on the truck or trailer, all while walking alongside the train-o-hay. Throwers need to be fairly precise to avoid getting chewed out by the stacker.
The stacker needs to be somewhat agile and not afraid of heights. Their job is to balance on top of the mountain of hay while simultaneously building it in a fashion similar to the game of Tetris. Often, bales come from both sides of the bobbing train-o-hay. So, efficient, tight stacking is a must.
Those lacking the strength to hoist bales above their head become drivers – no matter their age. Drivers will navigate the tractor or truck, usually pulling a trailer, between rows of hay. Speed is very important here – not too slow or you won’t finish before sundown and not too fast or your ears will be met with a series of unfriendly whistling and hollering from the hay throwers flanking your trailer. It is important to choose the smoothest route possible when weaving around the obstacles of bales scattered throughout the field, which is a challenge in a bumpy pasture meant for livestock. Hay stackers get kind of cranky if you knock them off the hay mountain by traveling over a bump too quickly or taking a corner too sharply.
You may remember from previous columns, I was a terrible laborer. This automatically made me a driver and I wasn’t very good at that, either. One time, while taking direction from throwers, stackers and managing bystanders (my dad), all at the same time, the green 1970-ish Ford Ranger I was driving slowed to a crawl. Assuming I had hit an incline, I pressed the gas pedal to continue forward at a steady pace. Instead, the engine just revved, so I pressed a little harder. The truck lurched ahead over what I thought was just a bump. It was actually a bale of hay. Oops. I tried putting the truck in reverse. More revving. This drew the attention of several workers and my dad sauntered over to the scene of the crime. He had to summon several tired, sweaty workers to come and lift the front bumper over the bale while I accelerated in reverse. The bale was finally dislodged from the pick up, with twine broken and chunks of loose hay piled on the ground with several tufts still poking out from under the bumper, evidence of my mishap. Oops.
My brother was a much better hay-putter-inner than I was. He could even complete this task solo. He was skilled enough to put the flatbed truck in a low gear, leave the driver’s side door open and run along beside throwing bales onto the back of the truck. When the truck approached a turn or bales needed to be stacked he would sprint up to the cab of the truck and become the driver.
I like to pride myself in being better than my brother at stuff, but this is one of those things I will let him win. I could barely fulfill my role as a driver, let alone be a one-woman-show!
Although I find the sight of those perfectly arranged bales in the sunlit field nostalgic, it’s not something I would voluntarily do again. Ever. If you’re seeking hay help, I recommend looking for a high schooler capable of jogging alongside a moving vehicle in 90-degree heat without collapsing. Or call a Huizenga kid; their family keeps them well versed in the language of hay bucking. And they are nice boys; actually, grown men now.