by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty and Laura Littlefield
All was silent as before —
All silent save the dripping rain.
– H.W. Longfellow
As I sit and watch rain fall on new mown hay I can’t help but think of the experiences of farmers of yore. I think in particular of the Hjorts, George and Kristina, who100 years ago lived in the house where I now live and mowed hay in the same river-bottom fields I now mow. I wonder that an accurate weather forecast was not available to them, a fact almost unbelievable to a culture grown accustomed to computer generated weather models, satellite images, 24-hour TV weather channels and hourly smart-phone updates.
Over the last couple of weeks I have almost obsessively checked the weather — waiting for five sun icons in a row to appear on the computer screen. That would be enough time early in the season to get a few acres of mixed meadow grass cured and stored in the haymow.
The 4th of July dawned sunny and beautiful and the next several days looked favorable. June tends to be gloomy, but July typically turns lovely in the Pacific Northwest and our farming forebears in this region made hay in that month. So I greased up the John Deere Big 4 and, in deference to tradition, celebrated the 4th with my family and friends and waited to mow until the 5th. As predicted the sun was shining and summer seemed to have finally arrived. We tedded the hay each day, aerating it with the old machine’s lifting and fluffing action, very nearly approximating a man working through the field with a pitchfork.
Incidentally, the term “ted” comes from the Old-English “tend.” Haying around here really does require a lot of tending. Grass simply won’t cure itself just laying there on the ground the way it does in arid climates. Despite the favorable forecasts and with only a 20% chance of rain called for, seemingly out of nowhere the clouds rolled in and the rain fell for two days.
Thinking of my forebears, I reasoned that George would also have cut his hay on the 5th. I imagined him, like me staring out the kitchen window at the pouring rain, coffee cup in hand shaking his head at his misfortune. Or would he? Perhaps he would have been more resigned than I? More accepting, more at peace with the unpredictable nature of the weather and the way his and his family’s life was bound up with its fickle disregard for human needs and desires. Would his lack of up-to-the-minute weather forecasts have affected his choice of tools and techniques?
I know from the jaunty old photo of George’s sons Torvald and Conrad that they made haycocks here on the farm, so I imagine they must have just expected it to rain — cut when you can, but expect rain and hope the sheltering effects of a properly made hay cock will get you through. I, however, am addicted to the labor saving action of the loose hay loader and so don’t build haycocks. I’d like to think that our modern forecasting tools can let me do my haying at opportune times and thus avoid the work of building hay cocks and in turn hand loading them on the wagon.
After a day of rain the sun has returned and as I write this I can hear Joe out driving a Fjord team on the tedder, the machine clacking and clanging away, tending to the wet grass, which we still hope to turn into cured hay. Even when it is humming along that old machine sounds like a runaway and not infrequently makes my heart skip a beat. Rain is much more destructive to three or four day old cut hay than to one or two day old and I think this crop, with ample fluffing still has the potential to be surprisingly good considering the amount of rain that fell yesterday.
This evening I raked the hay into windrows with the side delivery rake. Inevitably when the rake picks, folds and flips the hay we find that there is always some on the bottom that is seemingly untouched by tedder or sun and looks as green as the day it was cut. The rake does a nice job of bringing this green hay to the top of the windrow for further curing.
The forecast does not look promising. Looks like we have two more days of dry weather before the rains return once again.
After a couple of decent days I made the decision to hook up the hayloader and get some hay in the barn. It has cured nicely though in a perfect world I would wait one more day, as there are still a fair number of slugs in it. In the Northwest not only do we have multitudes of garden slugs that like to munch on crisp lettuces, but we also encounter slugs of another kind. A hay slug is a little green wad of hay tucked in with perfectly cured hay. A few are ok and in our loose hay system always dry down nicely in the barn. However, loading the hay this afternoon there were more of these hay slugs than I like to see so we will have to limit the amount of hay that goes into the loft. Loose hay fluffed nicely and not stacked too deeply will finish curing beautifully in the barn. Seeing the amount of green still in the field I know that I have more than I dare safely put in the barn.