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Down on the Farm: Making hay

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If I ever tried to farm, I would want to raise hay. Hay appeals to multiple senses.

Sight: hay fields are beautiful green, sometime crowned with lavender alfalfa blooms. Across the American continent, hay fields grace the most beautiful locations. Early in life, I watched a farmer behind my uncle's home in the Cache Valley of Utah bale an irrigated crop of hay so heavy it choked the baler twice per round.

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Smell: Hay is probably the most aromatic crop in the entire Upper Midwest. It smells great when it is mowed, and smells even better in the bale.

Taste: Yes, hay tastes good, too. Alfalfa right off the mower is too astringent, but let it mellow a while and you understand why cows like it. I used to walk out to the field just to pull a strand of lightly-aged alfalfa out of a bale and chew it into a cud.

Grandpa ordered alfalfa capsules from Shaklee which he gulped down by the handful for health purposes. I figured, why buy pills when you can have the real thing?

I'll have you know I pulled the hay for eating purposes from bales higher up on the stack in case there were dogs around.

To make the fantasy complete, I would have to turn the clock back forty years and get rid of modern haying innovations like swathers and round balers.

An essential part of the joy of haying is watching the crop collapse neatly as it is undercut by the sickle mower. The only visible evidence of the chattering blade is the falling hay.

The ability of the mower to lay that hay down so neatly and fast frightened me as a kid. What would that thing do to my ankles? I imagined the sickle mower as a jump rope with consequences.

I would rake the hay into windrows with an old-fashioned wheel rake pulled behind a drab, greasy Farmall tractor. If there is anything more satisfying than laying the hay flat with a mower, it is puffing it up again into windrows.

Today, mowing and raking is done in one motion with a swather, which ruins the fun. You can't even see it happen.

Sense of touch: as a kid, I would run out into the hayfield and hurdle the windrows until I could hurdle no more. When one of those stubs of alfalfa stubble penetrated my tennis shoe, I felt it.

Sense of sound: First, there are the dragonflies, butterflies and chirping birds that fly up when you wade through a hayfield before it is cut.

Then, because we have traveled back in time forty years, we have the charming clatter of the old clackety-clack bailer with 2,634 moving parts, 100 of which need to be replaced at even intervals each season, which requires trips to town for parts, which creates the occasion to stop at the cafe for pie and coffee. More taste!

Another great thing about hay: most people keep it to feed their own livestock. Where else today do you actually use the commodity you raise?

With haying, there is a sense of putting up stores, sort of like canning tomatoes, freezing corn and cutting firewood. Humans are always always happiest when we are engaged in survival-oriented tasks. Putting up hay feels responsible.

Hay needs no refinement. It will not be made into corn syrup, white flour, ethanol, or noodles. It is what it is and that's that. They tried pelletizing it a while back, but that's about the most hay has been industrialized.

Now, reality: that clackety-clack bailer eventually requires that somebody with a good back stack the square bales. That means going back thirty years to when I was 19. It also sounds like work.

In addition, I can barely change batteries on the TV remote, much less repair rickety sickle mowers, rusty hay rakes and clackety-clack balers.

I could handle the driving-to-town for parts thing, as well as the coffee and pie at the cafe, but people who emphasize those parts of farming generally end up holding an auction.

So we'll stick to reality, keep my hay farming dream a dream, and keep my back intact. Sometimes good sense has to prevail over the other five. 

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Eric Bergeson

Eric Bergeson is the third generation owner of Bergeson Nursery in Fertile, Minn., a business started by his grandfather in 1937. He also writes a weekly column for several newspapers in northwestern Minnesota. He has published four books, including most recently Pirates on the Prairie, which the Minneapolis Tribune called "a Minnesota cultural and historical treasure." You can read more from Eric at his website, The Country Scribe

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