Tractors and Hay

On Thursday, the 13th, the “feels like” section of my favorite weather app said that I was experiencing the equivalent of 96 degrees due to humidity and UV concentration. I was ready to believe it. For the past week the heat had been steadily increasing into one sweltering whirl.

As I marched out toward the field in my heavy black rubber boots— which capture the heat very well, by the way— I was already sweating. This was not a good sign, as I had been outside for just over ten seconds. I was also wondering if the dark clouds on the far horizon were going to bring rain so we didn’t have to water the pumpkins and corn, but the heat was foremost on my mind.

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Over the past few days the fields around our house had slowly bent to the will of mechanized farming as two iconic John Deere tractors first mowed and then rolled the hay growing on the land. We had been promised one of the predicted two rolls that were to come from our own field, and I was going to show the people doing the rolling where to put ours. The man in the bigger tractor with the roller looked old enough to really know what he was doing, and so did his wife who sat next to him. I was pretty sure that if I asked him about something like irrigation his response would begin with, “Well, back in 72’…” but I was instead surprised when he stopped the machine and yelled, “Y’alls the ones that wants the roll of hay?”

His accent was alien enough to my Northwestern ears that I had to ask him to repeat it three times. The rest of the conversation wasn’t much better. Embarrassed at my social fumble, I stumbled off to the pole-barn to show him where to put the roll while he drove off into the field to gut it on his hay spear. The one he’d been carrying wasn’t a “real good ‘un,” he said, and he wanted to get us a replacement. He went halfway out into the neighboring field until he found a roll that fit his apparently high criteria, and then he brought it back and dropped it expertly in the exact spot I’d indicated. I thanked him profusely and then thanked heaven I understood when he politely turned down my offer of refreshments. Then he carefully maneuvered his vehicle around our burn pile and headed back out into the field. I went inside to grab Mom’s camera and contented myself for a few minutes taking as many pictures of the action as possible, marching all over the yard to get different angles.

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The mechanism the roller used was ingeniously simple. A set of fine metal tines like fingers rotated and clawed the hay free from the ground, scooping it up and into the belly of the actual roller. Rubber belts lined the entire rounded machine, turning the hay over and over like clothes in a washing machine. When the roller was full a mysterious and unseen mechanism bound it up tightly with twine. Then the entire back opened up and out plopped the finished hay roll, like an absurdly large marshmallow.

I watched this process and took pictures, feeling maybe a little cheated at how simple the entire thing was. Even the motorized hay rake on the back of the smaller tractor looked more impressive when it threw the grasses into a neat row for the roller to take up and whirl around. It was still hot, but I wasn’t feeling it as much anymore. I trudged down to the corn field to get some shots of the tractors with the plants in the foreground and watched the roller push out another bale of hay with a muffled thump. The man in the cab leaned over to say something to his wife, who laughed, and they went on again. It was surprisingly serene. I could see how a person could actually enjoy this sort of work, and thought back to the story Mom had told me the previous evening about her grandfather’s farm. Her grandfather baled hay. Her father baled hay. She baled hay. And now, I thought, I get to watch other people bale hay on my land.

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It’s a start. It’s at least one thing that has allowed me to see into the lives of three generations of my family. I may not be a farmer, but it runs in my blood. Maybe someday, somehow, I will drive a tractor and bale hay just once. And Mom will make sure it’s a Massey-Furguson in honor of her Papaw.

The sixth and final bale of Floating Axe Farm hay rolled to an embarrassed stop on the now-naked ground, and the tractors started off on their way home. One thrummed deeply as it pulled a green round baler, the other chugged higher notes with a hay rake in tow. I watched them go and wondered briefly if Papaw had taken Mamaw with him at all when he worked in the field.

And then it started to rain.