Making Hay While the Sun Shines

The longer we live on the farm, the more we learn the truth of certain expressions and cliches. In this case: you really do have to make hay while the sun shines. If the stuff gets rained on after it’s been mowed and allowed to dry in the field, you’re at serious risk of losing the whole cutting. You may be able to flip it over and let it dry again, but if you rake it too many times it may begin to crumble. And if the rainy weather continues for too long, the whole thing could rot in the field.

It’s really remarkable just how many people have been bringing in hay around here the last couple of weeks. The weather has been nearly perfect for it, and we’ve seen one field after another get cut, raked, baled, and hauled. On our long bicycle rides on quiet country roads, my daughter and I have had front row seats to the action. And I must say: there are few aromas as wonderful as that of freshly-cut alfalfa, drying in a field.

Our hay field is only about four and a half acres. When we have a year of good harvests, it supplies enough for our sheep and goats to make it through the winter. When the harvests haven’t been so great, we’ve had to buy some additional hay from others. And sometimes, we’ve bought some additional hay just for our own peace of mind; you really can’t have too much of it, and the worst time to fall short is in the dead of winter.

The best time to make a purchase is immediately after harvest, when loaded hay wagons are coming out of the fields. The farmer can then deliver it straight to your own barn, without having to unload it into his own barn (and then load it back up again at some later date). And the best way to learn of farmers who have some extra hay they’d like to sell straight off the wagon? Word of mouth. Put the word out that you’re looking for a hundred bales, and you’ll learn of someone who’d be happy to supply it.

Fortunately, it looks like we won’t be having to make any purchases this year. Our field was overdue for fertilizer, which we finally got applied this spring. Our local grain elevator / feed store contracts with a laboratory to test soil, so we submitted a sample from our hay field (drawn from many small test holes dug all over it). The report came back with recommendations, which we were of course able to buy from the same local grain elevator. We had a local farmer apply those tons of fertilizer using a spreader pulled behind his tractor.

That same farmer is the person we’ve hired to do our hay since we moved here. For an operation as small as ours, it hasn’t made sense to buy our own tractor and haying equipment — not to mention the time and practice it would take to learn how to use that equipment properly. It’s a classic example of the value of the division of labor. It makes much more sense for us to hire someone who’s already invested in that equipment, and who has years of experience providing this service for other small farmers in the area.

Back to the fertilizer: it really did its job. We got an explosion of growth, and the grass was thick on the ground after our guy cut it late last week. He returned to rake and flip it, and with the hot weather it didn’t take long to dry.

But what about the final piece of the puzzle? We still needed to get the hay baled and brought into the barn. Neither he nor we like to do work of any kind on Sundays, but this time it didn’t look like we had much of a choice. He had another field that absolutely had to be baled on Monday. I had a commitment for work, with a hard deadline, on Tuesday (today). That left Wednesday — but the forecast was calling for rain before then.

Sunday it would have to be. He came by very early in the morning, before church, to rake the hay one more time. Then, in mid-afternoon, he returned with everything needed to bale it. He and an assistant drove the tractor and piled bales on the hay wagon, then towed it into the upstairs portion of our barn. While the three oldest Yeoman Farm Children and I stacked all those bales, he and his assistant returned to the field to begin loading another wagon. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Hay harvest

Bringing in hay is among the toughest jobs on a farm. The bales are heavy and scratchy, usually have to be hefted high into place for storage (note the stack in the photo above reaches higher than the basketball hoop), and almost by definition this all has to be done while it’s really hot outside. When we finally got the last of the 330 bales put up, just ahead of the sun sinking into the horizon, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and satisfaction. It’s one of the most thorough and gratifying feelings of exhaustion a person can experience. And, of course, there’s nothing quite as nice as going out the next morning and looking out on a perfectly clean field, illuminated by the rising sun, and remembering that it’s all finished. At least until the next cutting, later this summer.

Clean field

As much as I dislike having to do this kind of hard work on Sundays, I suppose the experience did bring one benefit: it helped me appreciate the degree to which Sunday has become a true “day of rest” for us to enjoy with family. The first several years we were married, we didn’t really treat Sunday much differently than Saturday (other than going to church). Then, after a time of reading and discernment, we realized that we needed to make a radical change. Due much to the initiative of Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, we “took back” Sunday for the family. Unless there were some truly urgent necessity, there would be no shopping. No professional work for my clients. No garden work. No butchering animals. No other hard work around the farm. It has been incredibly liberating, and brought tremendous good for our family. Having to disrupt that routine this weekend, to bring the hay in while the sun was shining, reminded me what a treasure the rest of our Sundays are.

Sunday Morning Excitement

Our weekly “day of rest” got off to an interesting start this morning. While heading to the barn at about 7:45am, I heard an unusual commotion in the distance. About 50 yards down the road to the west, I spotted a man and woman who’d parked their pickup truck near the edge of our hay field. They were thrashing around in the brush with sticks or rods, and shouting.

Given how few people are usually even up and moving around here on a Sunday morning, let alone one as cold as today, my initial assumption was that they were hunters in hot pursuit of something they’d wounded. It is, after all, still firearm deer season in Lower Michigan. But why would a hunter with a firearm not use that firearm to finish off the deer? They were acting more like they were after a pheasant or a wild turkey, but I don’t think either of those are in season.

As I continued watching, now both curious and a little nervous, something truly odd happened: a large dark object began inching up a scrawny tree, like a flag being hoisted up a flagpole. The larger of the two people was shouting and swinging a stick at this “flag,” but to no avail.

Realizing that this “flag” must in fact be some sort of varmint, I ran inside and grabbed my twelve gauge shotgun. Once back outside, I shouted and waved at the pair (who were now both swinging sticks at the varmint), and jogged across the hayfield toward them with the shotgun.

“It’s a coon!” the man called out to me.

“Great!” I called back, jogging nearer. “I’ve got a shotgun!”

The couple, who I assume were husband and wife, explained that they were out early delivering Sunday newspapers when the coon had run across the road in front of them. They’d stopped and given chase with makeshift clubs, knowing that a small child lives in the next house down from us.

“And we have kids and livestock,” I added. “I appreciate it, because we’ve lost lots of chickens this last year. I hate these things.”

I loaded the shotgun with buckshot, disengaged the safety, and prepared to line it up with the coon. The thing was about ten feet off the ground, which was most of the way to the top of the scrawny tree. And the sucker was huge. Wouldn’t have surprised me if it’d feasted on several of our chickens and ducks.

“Wait,” the man said, as I drew the shotgun to my shoulder. “Do you want the pelt?”

“I just want it dead,” I replied. “Why? Do you want it?” I’ve never tanned hides, and had no interest in getting started today.

“Yeah,” the two of them told me. “Can you shoot it in the head?”

I told them I’d do my best, but a twelve gauge is a twelve gauge. And I wasn’t going back inside for my .380 pistol with the laser sight. A buckshot shell contains nine large pieces of metal, which will spray when launched, but the odds were better than using birdshot. I aimed high, and the fairly close range meant the nine pieces of shot would remain pretty much together on impact. With one squeeze of the trigger, the big coon tumbled from the tree like a bag of wet cement.

The man kicked the coon over. When it didn’t move, he picked it up by a hind leg and announced, “Huge hole in the head!” Indeed, it looked like half its skull had been blown off — but the rest of the body was untouched. In all honesty, it was a much better shot than I’d been expecting to make, given the coon’s vertical (head upward) orientation on the tree trunk. The man handed the coon to his wife, who tossed it into the back of their pickup.

They thanked me for letting them keep the coon for its hide, and for dispatching the coon before it could hurt the little boy who lives next door. I told them how much I appreciated their stopping and making so much of an effort chasing the thing down, and giving me the chance to take it out.

They seemed like a nice couple, and pure “country folks” without any pretentions, who really wanted to do the right thing. Which is what I like so much about living out here: no matter what we might do for a living, or what kind of vehicle we might drive, or what kind of property or livestock we might have, we’re all pretty much of one mind about a lot of things.

Like what you do when you catch a big fat coon crossing the road.

Rest

As mentioned one of this blog’s earliest posts, our family has grown to have a great appreciation for the custom of Sunday rest. Unless some kind of true necessity arises, such as unavoidable professional work or bringing in hay before the rain ruins the crop, we spend Sundays going to church and hanging out with family or close friends. We try not to even shop on Sundays, apart from last-minute dinner necessities that may arise.

I was initially skeptical — and resistant — about this new approach to Sunday, but Mrs. Yeoman Farmer insisted we give it a try. For that I am grateful; it’s really changed our family for the better. I can’t imagine trading our current Sundays for the ones we used to spend.

Especially when I’m forced by circumstances to revisit those “bad old” Sundays, as I was a couple of weeks ago. Two Sundays before Thanksgiving, we planned to spend the day visiting MYF’s brother and his family in the Detroit suburbs. We hadn’t seen them in awhile, and the timing was also good for delivering the Thanksgiving turkey.

The day didn’t go as planned. Oh, we made it to church just fine that morning. We came home and got ready to go to Detroit just fine. We got onto the freeway just fine. But less than a mile down I-96, I heard the unmistakable sound of one of our minivan’s tires blowing out and rubber flapping on pavement.

I managed to steer onto the shoulder, and got out to inspect the damage. The right rear tire was basically shredded, so I prepared to fix it. Keep in mind the weather was cold and overcast, and cars were whizzing by a few feet away. Mrs Yeoman Farmer was in the car with all four kids, plus our new dog (Pepper), who we can’t yet leave alone at home for extended periods. We also had the frozen turkey in a cooler, of course.

On a Dodge Caravan, the spare tire is under the chassis and must be lowered by turning a bolt inside the vehicle. I’d done this once before, so was familiar with the mechanism. However, unlike that other time, on this particular day the tire refused to lower itself. The bolt turned fine. The cable of the winch system played out just fine. But the tire itself remained stuck to the bottom of the van. I pried at it with the minimal tools available. It wouldn’t budge, no matter what I tried.

Thank God for AAA. They got us a tow truck within about 20 minutes, and the driver (a really nice, younger guy) had fortunately seen this exact problem before. After a couple of minutes of fiddling and prying with his crowbar, the spare tire dropped free. He filled it to maximum capacity with air, lifted the van with his hydraulic jack, removed the old wheel with his impact driver, and had the spare installed in no time flat. He even gave us a jump start, because we’d run our four-way flashers so long the battery no longer had enough power to turn the motor over.

We thanked him, and were again on our way toward Detroit. This was my first time driving with one of those lousy temporary “donut” spare tires, and it was as bad as I imagined. Even fully inflated, it wasn’t safe to drive more than about 55-60 MPH on the freeway. The handling was terrible. We stayed in the right lane, and let everybody else buzz past us.

We arrived very late, but all in once piece. I dropped everyone else off at my in-laws’, then headed up to the local Sam’s Club in search of a new set of tires. There was no way I was driving 70 miles home that night, in the dark and in the cold, on that temporary thing, with the whole family in the car and no spare to fall back on. Given that we’d put over 70,000 miles on this set of tires, I figured it was just a matter of time before the rest of them started going. This was definitely the day to get a whole new set.

Unfortunately, the Sam’s Club just up the street didn’t have a tire center. The tire store in the same shopping center was closed on Sundays. As was the Belle Tire a few miles down Grand River. My brother in law suggested I try the Sears Auto Center at the local shopping mall; they did in fact turn out to be open. But because they were pretty much the only place open that day, everybody and his brother had come to get their cars worked on. (With the cold snap that morning, they apparently were doing a booming business installing new batteries.) They did have a set of tires in my size, but said it’d be 90 minutes to get them installed. I had no choice but to get my car in line and wait.

And wait. And wait. They did have a football game on in the waiting room, which was nice. But I’d a thousand times rather have been hanging out with my in-laws, watching the game at their place with them. The game dragged on, and then the late game came on. Sears ran into problem after problem with my tires; first, they turned out not to have the cheaper tires in the right size for our vehicle and had to get my permission to spend lots more installing a more expensive set. Given that I was basically stuck, I told them to go ahead and do it. Then, as they were pulling the old tires, one of the mounting studs snapped off. They had to find me again, ask if I wanted to pay for a new one, and then search around to see if they had the part.

Once it became clear my van would be unavailable for a lot more than 90 minutes, and I’d lost interest in football, I decided to take a stroll through the Twelve Oaks Mall for a change of scenery. All I can say is: I am never going to willingly set foot in another suburban shopping mall again. Especially not on a Sunday. The place was jammed, and already decked out with Christmas decorations in mid-November. Kids were getting their photos taken with Santa. But the worst part was the cacophonous noise, and the impossibility of escaping from it. That, and the utter frivolity and idiocy of so much of what was for sale. Not just the skanky lingere stores. Or the “clothing” aimed at teenagers. So much of what the stores were peddling were frivolous trinkets, and junk I couldn’t imagine letting my kids waste their money on.

I grabbed a cup of coffee and retreated to the relative peace and quiet of the Sears Auto Center waiting room as fast as I could. Our van didn’t get finished until nearly 6pm, so I had plenty of time to be alone with my thoughts. I was grateful for several things: that we homeschool, and our kids aren’t asking to dress the way most kids at the mall were dressing. That we live so far away from suburban shopping malls, and don’t need to visit them for anything but emergencies. That we’ve rejected the frivolity and consumerism on such blatant display at these places. And, above all, that Sundays have become such a welcome refuge for our family from all this noise and chaos. When I was single, and living in the Detroit suburbs myself, I used to regularly patronize this very same mall on many Sundays…and used to think nothing of it. In fact, I used to enjoy getting out and going there. Now, as I sat in Auto Center Purgatory, I couldn’t imagine any more foreign place than a suburban shopping mall to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Once the van was ready, I hurried back to rejoin the family for what remained of our Sunday refuge from the world. Dinner was just being served as I arrived, and it was absolutely wonderful. Not just the food, but especially the company. I was sorry to have missed so much of the day, but grateful to at least be spending the main meal together. And especially grateful to Mrs. Yeoman Farmer for her insistence that we live the custom of Sunday Rest the way we have. Catching a glimpse of what life is like without that rest was a powerful confirmation of its value.

And I must add one more thing for which I’m grateful: the AAA dispatcher, the tow truck driver, those folks at Sears Auto Center, and all the others who must work on Sundays to ensure that families like ours can still get the essential services we might need. I sincerely hope that all of them are able to get some other day of rest with their families during the week.

God’s Plans, and Ours

A few years ago, I attended a week-long theology workshop taught by a very holy and learned priest. One subject had to do with Natural Law foundations for morality, and proofs from natural reason for the existence of God. At one point, the priest posed a question to us: “How many of the Ten Commandments are knowable from natural reason alone?”

Various people threw out various guesses, ranging from “six” to “all ten.” The priest shook his head after each one, and we ran out of guesses. Then, with a wry smile, he gave us the answer: “Nine and a half.”

“Huh?” we collectively responded. “What’s the ‘half’?”

Still giving the wry smile, he explained, “We can know from natural reason that human beings need a day of rest, but we need God to reveal to us which one it should be.”

As I explained in one of this blog’s earliest posts, we’ve grown much more appreciative — and much more observant — of Sunday as a day of rest. We’re not Pharisaical about it, but we try to avoid doing any kind of hard labor or other work that isn’t strictly necessary. Livestock certainly need to be cared for on Sundays, but the garden certainly doesn’t need to be weeded and laundry almost never needs to be washed. We try to spend our time seeing and hanging out with extended family, taking bike rides with the kids, catching up on some reading, or having other families over for dinner. The idea is to avoid shopping for anything but emergency items, trying to clear backlogs of work, and other kinds of “running around”.

This weekend, an unfortunate necessity loomed over our Sunday: Haying. Thanks to a timely application of fertilizer last fall, we have a bumper crop of hay this spring. We hire a local farm family to cut it, flip it, rake it, and bale it; we assist with hauling it to the barn and stacking it. The farmer did the cutting late last week, and thanks to some hot weather it was nearly dry enough to bale yesterday afternoon.

Nearly dry enough, but not quite. The hay was so thick on the ground, it hadn’t all dried even after flipping and raking. But by his estimation, Monday might be too late; the hay could be so dry, much of it would crumble into dust and be lost.

We reluctantly decided that we’d better bale the hay on Sunday afternoon. In this case, as backbreaking and exhausting as the work is, it was necessary if we were to feed the livestock. We decided that this week, our “day of rest” would be Monday.

We decided. But, as it turns out, God had other plans. I awakened this morning, threw back the bedroom curtains, and observed a surprise: rain. Not a hard rain, but the ground was definitely wet. Going out to take care of chores, there was definitely a steady drizzle. Everything, including those five acres of neatly-raked and ready-to-bale hay, was wet. Not soaking wet. Not we’re-going-to-lose-it-to-rot wet. But definitely too wet to bale today.

Fortunately, the drizzle has already let up, and it’s supposed to be sunny and warm all afternoon and Monday. It’s not supposed to rain again until Tuesday. I suppose we’ll let the top of the hay dry today, flip it, allow the other side to dry Monday, and bale it Monday afternoon.
Regardless, it’s looking like Sunday will indeed be our day of rest this week. And thank God for that.