The Mechanics of Farming
by Rosalind E. Finn of South Strafford, VT
Why did I ever think that farming was about livestock or agriculture? How wrong could I be. Forget the sheep, cows, pigs, soy, beans, whatever, because I’ve finally realized that farming is about none of the above. It’s about machinery.
Machinery great and small, simple and complicated, mostly very noisy and mostly costly. Farming is the greatest excuse in the world for men to legitimately have large, greasy, smelly toys to play with. And – with apologies to my fellow females of this world – I’m sure that it was a man who invented the wheel.
First in a long line of mechanical objects to arrive on our fledgling sheep farm (or “ranchette,” as a southern friend once described it) was a big GMC 3/4 ton truck. Jim built wooden sides onto the back, and it proved very useful for moving around livestock, furniture, shavings, and old scrap metal (which like most old farms we have an abundance of) for the recycling center. In fact even his mother-in-law was once honored with a ride back there. Then he purchased a very ancient small tractor. For a while these two machines were all we needed because we had not yet started to hay our fields for we had neither the equipment nor the expertise to tackle this major task. About forty acres of our land is hayed and for the first two years we lived here our neighbor, Gile Kendal, came over to cut for us. He cut everything – and I mean everything – regardless of the cant of the slope. If it was green and growing it was mowed. I conceived a great respect for this skillful Vermonter, and learnt once again that although one can acquire a great deal of knowledge at college, one can also become a master of art from over eighty years of practical application of brain to brawn. In fact I think what Gile really merits for mowing is a Ph.D.
In January of our third year we decided that we knew enough to tackle the following summer’s haying season ourselves. In order to facilitate this we would need more machinery (of course!). In fact, quite a variety of it. The most important item to start with was a bigger, stronger tractor. This was a serious piece of shopping for Jim. After weeks of research, which involved much brochure perusing, miles and hours going to view different breeds of machines, and endless discussions with other members of the tractor fraternity. Jim settled for a John Deere model 1050. On the day of its arrival the barn was swept clean. Our old tractor, looking very forlorn, was parked outside with a tarpaulin over it and all but a red carpet was laid down for the grand arrival. I didn’t realize that I was now about to become that well-known farming figure – a tractor widow. Jim practically slept on his new acquisition. He certainly dreamt about it night and day. He really came to identify so closely with it that when he came into the kitchen one morning and announced dramatically, “My plunger went through my wad-board,” I wasn’t sure whether to call the Fast Squad or our baler repairman.
Next came the haying accoutrements. Any self-respecting tractor (not to mention tractor owner) needs lots of these – front parts, back parts, parts to pull, parts to push… the list is endless. And over the following months our farmyard began to look like a used machinery lot. First Jim bought a couple of extras for the tractor: a frontend loader (with eight ferocious teeth) and an auger for drilling holes. Oh, the bliss now of putting up fencing. Then came the big time spending on the haying “team.” After assiduous attendance at farm sales we managed to put together the whole shebang: mower, tedder, rake, and lastly, the grand old man of them all, the baler. I have the greatest respect for balers. Even after years of watching them working the hayfields, I still find them miraculous. First the raked hay is sucked into the baler’s maw; then, amidst great churnings and clankings, the hay is stacked into a series of flat wads (called flakes) which are compressed into a bale about two feet long. Next comes the really clever part of the proceedings. Twine is stretched round the bale in two places and tied neatly with knots. Finally, the neatly-packaged bale is slowly squeezed from the rear of the baler to await transport to the barn.
Over the years, our ownership of machinery has gradually grown. We bought a trailer to move our flock around, then an ancient but serviceable ATV, and a gas driven weed-whacker, as well as the hand-held sort. The tractor was given yet another addition to its wardrobe in the form of a brush-hog, to keep the weeds down in the sheep and horse pastures. Finally, glory of glories, last year I was inducted into the Hall of Bona Fide Farmers when Jim bought me my very own tractor. Admittedly it’s not a large one, it’s a diesel Kubota 15 horse power and has the neatest little flail on the back of it. It’s marvelously useful for cutting down our animal paddocks, which are too small for Jim and his big machinery to operate efficiently in. With the flail I’m at last able to bid a cheerful goodbye to such horrid weeds as burdocks, gill-on-the ground, thistles, rhubarb and nettles which produce ad nauseum all summer. On a family note, however, word went round to our rather irreverent children that the old lady had finally lost it and was now known to be flailing around in Vermont.
With the advent of the Machine Age arriving at Maple Avenue Farm, I found that I not only had to learn a whole new vocabulary, but in some ways I also had had to get used to a new way of life. Like any good farmer’s wife I was always expected to drop whatever I might be doing, however important it might be to me, if any haying equipment broke down. I got used to rushing over to South Royalton for such extraordinary sounding things as clevis pins, bill-hooks, dog-springs, not to mention the aforesaid wad-board. But I’ve always felt that it’s good to have one’s knowledge expanded.
Speaking of expanding one’s knowledge, but still on the subject of machinery, in our new career we found we had to be more than usually careful to avoid accidents. As any insurance company will tell you a great percentage of life’s disasters happen on farms or with farm machinery; and we are very particular about who rides our ATV or operates the weed whackers or tractors. But Murphy’s Law tends to prevail over even the most cautious. One summer’s day we had a mishap of a rather strange nature…
We’d been haying our topmost field. I had just departed slowly down the steep hill with the final truckload of hay to be stacked in the barn below. My young crew was jubilant. It had been a hard hot afternoon. As we bumped out of sight, Jim (who is the most careful of men, I am the absent-minded one) dismounted from his wheeled Bucephalus, attached to the baler by its long shaft (rather like a metal umbilical cord.) He had parked the pair carefully on a small flattish plateau and now needed to answer a call of nature while, of course, admiring the glorious view. However, with the elation of finishing the haying season, his usual caution had forsaken him; and although he had thought to leave the machinery in a good position he had unfortunately forgotten to put the tractor’s brake on. To his horror it began to creep forward. Now as everyone knows, nature has not designed our bladders to stop in mid-pee, and so there poor James stood, helplessly transfixed, as the two machines started inching slowly off downhill. As the slope steepened faster and faster they rushed, swerving from side to side, bumping over the newly shorn field, breasting hummocks with glee. One could almost imagine the tractor shouting “Yahoo” with joy at this newfound freedom after weeks of heaving slogging work, while the baler was yanked willy-nilly along behind.
At the barn it gradually dawned upon us that something peculiar was happening on the hill above. Loud clanking noises echoed down to us, with the occasional shout from Jim. All at once a stupendous crash resounded through the air – even the sheep stopped grazing and raised enquiring heads. Then silence, heavy and ominous, fell over the farm. Slowly we retraced our steps uphill. In a steep, wooded area between the upper and lower hayfields the tractor, Jim’s pride and joy, lovingly embraced a stout tree. Behind it, still attached although now at a grotesque angle, lay the baler. Behind both was my heartbroken husband, executing a kind of war dance of mortification.
A kind and sympathetic neighbor was contacted to help pull out both machines and drag them down to the farmyard. The tractor would have to be hauled away to “hospital” in South Royalton and I was instructed to telephone Ralph Whitney immediately about the baler. For those of you who don’t know Ralph, he is the farmers’ Patron Saint of Balers. Every spring this wonderful man visits our farm and lays his magic hands upon this machine, which then works with well-oiled ease all summer. Like many Vermonters Ralph is a little laconic at first introduction, but he warms up over time and eventually becomes quite talkative. When I told him of the accident he sounded, for Ralph, very excited. Obviously this was going to be a challenge – perhaps the challenge of a lifetime. Less than an hour later I heard his old truck grind its way round behind our barns. After some time I wandered up to see how things were going.
Ralph had his head deep into the inner workings of our injured baler with Jim, like a surgeon’s assistant, hovering anxiously beside him. When I asked how things were progressing (this with great trepidation because I didn’t really want to know the answer) the “surgeon” looked up and with the greatest disappointment in his voice informed me that he “reckoned it wasn’t all that bad.” Well, poor Ralph’s challenge might have evaporated, but my husband and I were mighty glad of his verdict.
In time Jim had both of his beloved machines restored to him in perfect working order and peace reigned over the farm once more. I suppose the moral of this little adventure might be “Never pee down a hill when your tractor is up a hill.” I bet Aesop never heard of that one.