Making Hay and Peaceful Farming
by Laura and Joachim Grevel of Liebenau, Austria
Here in the Mühlviertel region, the big challenge is thanking the neighbors for their numerous favors. For we newcomers have purchased a farm with the goal of self-sufficiency and have gratefully learned that this mountain region has an old-fashioned, neighborly, small farmer soul. The Mühlviertel is the outback of Austria, the least populated spot, northwest of Vienna, northeast of Linz, on the Czech border. A region whose farm representatives actively promote organic farming and experimentation and take small seriously. We have neighbors whose family farms have existed continuously for over 400 years. The area has been farmed since the 14th century and for most of that time, self-sufficiency was the goal. Traditionally, the peasant farmer women made their only cash by growing linseed for flax to make linen; they grew the linseed on little pockets of land left idle by the landowning farmers. Today, farms are usually 30 to 60 acres, including some forest land. Unfortunately, the locals strain to be modern, perhaps because farmers here used oxen up to the 1970’s. In fact, since World War II and the arrival of easy transportation in the form of the milk truck, many farms have operated as small dairies, milking 3 to 20 cows. Some also have pigs, chickens, goats, geese, sheep and Haflinger ponies. They grow most of their feed for the animals, and most table meats (beef and pork) for the family. Everyone has a vegetable garden. But these days, many men have a second job, and the women run the farm. Some farms are certified organic, but most are virtually organic anyway.
We former Texans find ourselves glad that we came, and have already invested two years of hard work towards our goal of a small full circle farm and forestry with draft horses. Our neighbors are flattered by our interest in the old ways, but surprised that we who come from America, and thus represent technology and wealth and modernity to the world, would want to live like people here used to. So against the grain of belief, we have embarked on a great adventure.
Our first and best decision so far was to adopt the former farm owner’s grandmother. She is Ottilie Primetzhofer, 86, and lived here 55 years before us. She has worked hard on farms all her life. Now she lives with us and is our trusted Oma. The first summer, she helped us with firewood preparation and stacking. She likes to make fire starter bundles of sticks (Binkl), as all grandmothers here do. But not with just skinny sticks; she likes to use her hand saw. And she helped us with our first hay cutting. She scythed! All farmers here scythe — for edges, around boulders, cliffs, steep slopes. They use small tractors or walking motorized mowers for the flatter, more open areas. When we made our first cut, our neighbor the diminutive Herr Herman Kern, 77, helped us mow with his beloved 1961 walking motorized mower. We had no tractor and no horses or equipment. By the time we realized the rain would not stop for long, the grass was tall in late June and Herr Kern raced up hill and down after his mower, swinging it around like a bull fighter directing a bull. The tiny Kern ran and jumped and pirouetted acrobatically in the air as he peered nearsightedly and determinedly through the waving green tips. My husband Joachim raced with him, raking cut grass out of the way as fast as he could. Kern is also a scythe expert — he reconditions them for us and Ottillie.
After mowing, Ottillie helped teach us to hang the grass to dry. She hadn’t hung grass in 20 years and our first attempt collapsed on the second day, but after that we built the fences stronger and longer and hung the grass denser. The long greenery hung heady and as proud as Rapunzel’s hair, filled with sweet smelling wildflowers and clovers and grasses. The old farmers came and nodded and said, “Yo” — “Yes. Tractors don’t make fine hay like this.”
We built hay drying fences which are called Schwedenreuter (Swedish riders) after the Thirty Years War (1618-48) when Swedish soldiers mistook drying hay for advancing Austrian soldiers and retreated. These fences consist of posts driven into the ground with counter balancing end posts and wires strung from end to end. The first wire strung is the lowest, about 1 ½ feet off the ground; grass is hung in loose bundles; then the second wire is strung and hung, for up to 5-7 wires. We raked the cut grass to the fence — there’s lots of hand raking during hay season — and then hung all along the fence. When finished with the hanging on a tall Schwedenreuter, long poles are placed on either side of the wall to counterbalance against wind. What poetry those green walls!
However, for the last ten years, with the help of global warming, many farmers cut their grass with tractors and let it dry on the ground for two or three sunny days, fluffing frequently and windrowing for overnight protection against dew. But drying hay is still tricky here and the driest is made cheaply, but with ample muscle, by hanging. It can hang two to three weeks; rain runs off the top layer which becomes fairly repellent. Most of our neighbors dry hay on the ground, but here and there one sees Schwedenreuter. Unfortunately, even hay making is in decline; locals want speed and convenience. From making silage in silos with part of their grass harvest, they are moving toward making plastic-wrapped silage bales out of all the grass they cut.
Our neighbor Oma Kaltenberger, 70, came down the hill one afternoon as rain threatened and helped scythe and hang — she had observed us working hard. She also brought us four heads of lettuce as a gift! She said her family used to put up twenty Schwedenreuter, each 80 to 300 feet long, twice every year. We finished hanging; then, the Oma picked up her sweater and went home to cook lunch. The Omas and Opas here usually have certain jobs on the farm — gardening, cooking, firewood; the delineation of work makes everyone boss of certain areas and maintains pride and peace. The generation currently running the farm is the ultimate boss. The heir has traditionally been the youngest son.
For our second and final cut of grass that first season, the volume was less and we had picked up seventeen, free, well-aged, hay drying devices called Heuhäuserl — in the next region’s style — like wooden trellises. A pair lean together; they are easy to assemble and hanging the grass is quite simple. These are made of wooden posts. Though we picked up the grass a little damp, it still dried nicely. For small, hilly areas, these racks are very handy and hang a lot of hay.
The second summer we had the luxury of sunny, warm weather in May and June and spread our hay making out over weeks. We made more hay and it seemed easier. But since mid-July, it has rained. There were devastating floods in Central Europe in August; our region was hard hit. By comparison, we were lucky only to have had water in the cellar for weeks; that’s the luck of living at the top of a mountain. The extreme wet weather has continued for three-and-a-half months making work difficult.
But we’ve survived through almost two full cycles of seasons and learning. We have accomplished some renovations on the house, 1976 vintage with a non-farm bent, and barns, 40 to 200 years old, and two chimneys, one for smoking meat. We’ve built one stall area and outside corral. We’ve bought two Noriker, Southern German breed, draft horse colts — Bert and Jack. They are one-and-a-half years old now. Joachim will train the horses to help him in the forest and in field work, as he trained our Suffolks in Texas.
We’ve built a round horse training corral with 200 upright, 9’ tall wooden posts sunk in 3’ deep. See picture __. For aesthetic reasons and visual strength, we intertwined hazelnut saplings for side pieces; in addition, there are three electrified wires around the inside of the round pen. We’ve built summer and winter chicken quarters. We’ve raised meat chickens and laying hens and incubated eggs. We’re heading back to mixed purpose, heirloom breeds, and have an Altsteirer flock now. We are currently waiting for the arrival of a pair of Mangalitza swine, an heirloom Balkan’s breed. We’ve started ten ducklings in spring with various trials and tribulations. We’ve gardened and weeded; root vegetables and cabbage and potatoes and berries grow easily here. Our earth cellar is well stocked for winter. We developed recipes that made us love cabbage and red beets. We’re composting and mulching now that we are rich in horse poop. We share ownership of some equipment with neighbors: 50% of a tractor, wood splitter, and motorized, walking mower, and 1/12 of a septic tank pump. We foresee more opportunities to keep costs down. Sharing certain equipment is traditional here.
A note from Joachim: “I constantly say, ‘I am a stranger here myself.’ I grew up no more than 80 miles away but my parents were strangers to that place, and I was never part of the rural culture. I am delighted to find old methods not yet forgotten. The weather also helps; it rains here and it’s never too hot to work. Basically, it is all about firewood and hay. If these two commodities are in the barn, the farm lives. Self-sufficient farming is not hard here — all it takes is work. Neighbors with outside jobs earn wages but stumble and struggle, and after 10 to 20 years, stop farming. It seems they have all one needs (i.e. money) and yet they fail. The curse of expensive machinery on small holdings of land is evident. Most here own two to three tractors and much more. Yet, folks don’t get it. They think more money and more machines are the answer. What an interesting case study.”
We are getting used to the culture here: great neighbors, snow for sure December through March, short and cool-to-just-warm summers which keep the ground moist even if rain is meager, fresh mountain air at 3000 feet and few flat areas, turtlenecks and snowsuits, green hills all summer; that the cool climate makes firewood a year-round job, that hay is the main summer work; that the locals speak Mühlviertlerisch (accent sounds like a New Jerseyan) and that every little region in Germany and Austria speaks a different dialect — the more rural the more different from standard German.
We are grateful we can raise our kids with so many blessings: three languages — German, Mühlviertlerisch, and English, a peaceful neighborhood full of farms with Omas and Opas and all the love they offer, in winter snow-sledding and a fairy tale Christmas, in summer a parade of ripe berries and the moist humus smell of forest and green slopes to roll down, in fall edible mushrooms everywhere. And just as my Texas grandfather taught me was the right way to greet people, everyone shakes everyone’s hand here — Opas’, Omas’, babies’, and all the other family members. So while there is always a deep yearning for our Texas history and friends, we love these friendly, tightknit, hard working, religious — zache-wurz’n, tough roots — Mühlviertler people. They teach us to root tough.