Thursday, June 21, 2007

Making Hay

My wife called me at work yesterday. My father-in-law needed help putting up the hay. My voice betrayed my disappointment. I had some work to do in the garden I was planning for the evening. Everything was planted in my raised beds, but I was hoeing up the rows and planting in clover between the beds. I am a perfectionist in my garden, and I strive to make it look as pleasing as it is productive. Fresh Dutch White clover in the rows between the beds, not only adds nitrogen in the soil, but also adds more greenery and is a soft footing to tread upon.

But, I only tend a garden. My father-in-law is a farmer and when the hay has to be put up, he transforms from a good-natured and laid-back farmer into a crazed and hyper man transfixed upon finishing a job before the rain inevitably moves in to spoil the cut. So, when my father-in-law calls, I do my best to help. My garden can wait – the hay cannot.

I got off of work at 4:30 pm and drove out of downtown St. Paul. It is about an hours drive to Marine on St. Croix, where my in-laws have 240 acres of beautiful real estate that they use to grow alfalfa to sell to area horse and dairy farms. It was 92 degree out when I hopped in my car and I was not looking forward to the back-breaking work in the heat until sundown on the second longest day of the year (about 10:00 pm in these Northern latitudes). I turned on the radio and heard the weather report. A massive storm was moving in from St. Cloud and would be in the Twin Cities sometime this evening. The closer I got to Marine, the darker the clouds became looming on the horizon.

After stopping for gas and an ice cream cone (it was hot and I was hungry), I arrived at the farm about 6:00 pm (traffic was heavy). My father-in-law was on the tractor with my five-year-old son sitting proudly on the fender next to him. He was expectantly and noticeably in a panic as I stepped out of the car and he pulled up and asked me if I needed to change. I was still in my work clothes and I guiltily nodded yes. He said, “We’ll go rake a couple of rows and meet you at the wagons on the alfalfa field across the road.” I said, “Okay,” and waved hello to my son as he returned a big grin.

I put on my jeans, sun hat, t-shirt, boots and gloves and then walked to the wagons. I watched as they finished raking and then left to the building to unhook the rake before coming back to switch tractors to the one with the baler. My father-in-laws hurried panic gave me concern for my son’s safety, since usually he was very cautious and attending with him while doing work on the farm. With the dark clouds rolling in, I could see my father-in-law had greater concerns at the moment. However, my son was soaking and basking in his grandpas focused work on the tractor and was attending his every move on the tractor. I could see from his inspired face that he was deeply involved in a learning moment, so I said nothing.

They stopped and got off the tractor and my son ran to me and told me we had to stack the bales in the wagon before it rained. He hopped on the wagon and I guided my father-in-law back to the hitch and then hooked the wagon to the baler and then hopped in back with my son. I don’t look forward to the heavy work of stacking square bales on a wagon as they are thrown back from the baler and breathing in mouthfuls of hay dust. But as we drove away to the field and I looked across the farm at the beautiful fields surrounded by stands of hardwoods and pine with the dark clouds looming on the horizon and lightening stretching across the sky, I could not help but notice the beauty and feel the calm in the wake of my father-in-laws hurried work in front of us. My occasional glimpse of my father-in-laws eyes revealed that he also noticed this and, really, this is what kept him farming at his 70 years of age. He had put up four wagons himself, before I arrived. There was still a calmness in his eyes behind his exhaustion from the hurried work.

We circled the field and the bales flew back. I stacked them as my son heaved against the large bales to little effect. But, he nimbly moved around me and out of the way of flying bales as we bounced along through the field. My father-in-law had the tractor in a higher gear than he normally bales in, due to the limited time-frame we were working in. As the wagon filled, the sky grew darker and lightening strikes became closer with the thunder heard over the hum of the tractor. I adjusted to the rhythm of the baler and my son grew more excited as we climbed higher and higher upon the stacked rows of bales below us. There were five rows circling the field when we began that we had to put up and this would approximately fill the wagon with 150 bales. I could feel the first drops of rain as we rounded the last turn in the field and the sky grew almost as dark as night.

A couple claps of thunder and I noticed the concern in my father-in-laws eyes. My wife came running out warning of a tornado in a neighboring county and my father-in-law said my son should probably get off the wagon for the last go around. The disappointment in his eyes was noticeable, but he climbed down and ran to my wife’s arms and buried his face in her hips as he began to cry uncontrollably. We circled round and finished the last row and then I unhooked the wagon as my son came up with tears in his eyes. My father-in-law called him to the tractor and told him to get on quick before the rain comes. His sadness soon dissipated to pride once again as they drove away to the building and I started up the other tractor and backed it up to the filled wagon.

I made the short drive to the building and backed it in with my son, my wife and father-in-law watching. The rain came down hard just as I got off of the tractor and we stood in the doorway of the building together, covered in hay dust, and watched it coming down. It ended up being a shorter evening than I expected, but I was exhausted and exhilarated standing with my family and taking in the rain and work we had just completed. My father-in-law limped on his bad knee and laughed as my wife chided him over his putting up four wagons by himself earlier in the day. “What is a farmer to do,” he asked? Then he put his arm around my son and patted him on the head. “Right, Ian," he said, as a grin came across my son’s face that lit up all the rest of our faces. We laughed and waited for the rain to subside before running to the farmhouse to eat warmed-up pork chops and muskmelon, chased down with spritzers and beer. It was a grand way to spend an evening after work.