The Haystack Project

The Haystack Project

by Molly Hamel of Jackson, ME

The acronym WHOA (Working Horse & Oxen Association) represents more than the interaction between human and draft animal; it also represents a way of life. WHOA is attempting to demonstrate, through the use of affordable, low-tech harvesting – in this instance the harvesting of hay – how draft animals can partner with small farmers in accomplishing many farm tasks using traditional techniques, low impact practices, and non-fossil fueled equipment. This project, under the auspices of MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association), is being funded through the Harvest Fund of Maine Initiatives Funding for Change. Its purpose is to build community – through its planning, infrastructure construction, its adaptation of traditional techniques, and finally the cooperative efforts of several men and women with their animals on this haystack.

Below is a description of the project as it was worded in the grant proposal:

The Haystack Project
Tony Rice rakes hay with Dakota. He has acquired a team of Suffolks to work his farm.

The Working Horse & Oxen Association (WHOA) was formed to create a network for men and women interested in working with draft animals, particularly to perform traditional farm tasks. Its purpose is to give anyone who wishes the opportunity to work and to learn together, recapture skills, and extend knowledge of these skills and techniques across to future generations. The group is attended by novices to experienced teamsters and is open to everyone interested – whether or not they are owners of a draft animal. It meets regularly at MOFGA to exchange information and ideas, its goal being to encourage the revival of interest in farming with draft animals.

The goal of the Haystack Project is to research the techniques required, to collaborate in designing and building the infrastructure, to mow, rake and gather hay on the MOFGA fairgrounds, and to pile the hay in the traditional, efficient techniques of building a stack.

The Haystack Project
Nancy Brubaker is ready to pull the release for the forkful of hay at Susie O’Keeffe’s signal. Bill Philbrick, left, managed the forks at the hay wagon.

While this project will not harvest food for human consumption, it will demonstrate the value of simple technologies, how the effective use of low-cost capital investment can be an integral part of successful sustainable farming methods, and implementation of available resources. The technologies enable beginning farmers to utilize draft animals or low-horsepower (low-cost) machinery without the exorbitant cost of purchase and maintenance of modern mechanized hay making equipment, and alleviate the need for financially burdensome infrastructures (hay barns) required for larger scale hay making. Draft horses allow Maine farmers an affordable means of farming by not requiring expensive, fossil-fueled machinery. They provide nutrients for the soil, and have minimal impact on the environment in which they work. Among the many tasks that can be accomplished by a farmer and his draft animal in cultivating the land are plowing, harrowing, fertilizing, planting, and harvesting. Clearing the land for fields to plant, gathering firewood and maple sap, and many other essential tasks also add value and importance to knowing how to work with draft animals. According to a University of Maine Research report, a buck rake was proven the most efficient machine for handling hay.

The Haystack Project
Bill Philbrick watches Susie O’Keeffe’s direct placement of the forkful of hay he’s just taken from the wagon.

When the haystack is completed, there will be research to analyze hay quality and percentage of spoiled hay.

The entire project will be achieved by volunteers donating an estimated 3840 hours of time and labor. Further, there will be WHOA volunteers available at events to answer questions about the process.

The completed haystack, on display at the MOFGA fairgrounds, will be a learning experience for people from Maine and beyond. Signs will describe the project to the public and illustrated panels will explain the derrick’s construction and importance to storing the hay.

All phases of the project from the haystack derrick construction, the haying mowing and gathering, through the stacking will be documented in a journal and photographed. Results of the hay research will also be published in the document. The intention is to have the results duplicated as guides, and as teaching tools in the classrooms where students have too little knowledge of the farms that produce Maine food products.

The Haystack Project
Dakota takes a well-earned break. MOFGA fairgrounds headquarters is in the background.

The Haystack is representative of activities that brought Maine’s communities together in history. It represents farming in its many facets – the research that every farming endeavor requires, the application of the knowledge gained, and the gratifying results of working the land and feeling the accomplishment that comes from providing food and sustenance from it. It is a symbol of a work ethic that needs to be recognized for its value today as it was in the past.