Tuesday, July 12, 2011


What does one do with 15 acres of hay and no money to buy tractors, mowers, tedders, rakes and balers?  Can't just let the hay lay down. Weeds and cedar trees take over a field in short order. What to do then? I have made the choice of an Austrian style scythe for my hay mowing needs. Crazy you may say. I don't think so. For certain it is physical work, for sure it is sweaty and hot at hay time. Some men drove past with a truck and trailer load of square bales looking at me like I was an insane person. Perhaps.  I have used this tool quite a bit.  Without the beef cattle roaming and trampling in the barnyard as they were last year, the barnyard has grown up in dock and other assorted broadleaf weeds.  I mowed them all down in about 20 minutes, and collected the cuttings for green compost. If I had tried to do this with my Husqvarna string trimmer it would have been a nightmare (even though the Husky is a fine tool that I appreciate very much). The stems were just too tough, and though the trimmer would have triumphed eventually, it would have been with great effort. The trimmer is actually more tiring than the scythe in uses like this. It is heavy and needs multiple swipes for the same effect.

The real beauty of this tool is in mowing hay. First, I have to say that the key to enjoying this is that you have to want mow hay by hand to begin with. If you have all the hay mowing implements and want to save time, it is highly unlikely that you will derive any pleasure from this work.  There is something akin to meditation in the process.  You swipe the scythe from your waist, and keep your arms extended. The core of your body does all the work. With practice the swing of the stroke becomes rhythmic and even, and the natural tempo I would guess is a multiple of your heart rate and breathing once you get in a groove.  The magic is the first time a slice arcs through the hay and makes that beautiful ringing scritch sound, the hay falls to the left in a windrow. The activity lends itself to certain songs of your liking and that fall into the natural beat of the snath.  I sing to myself as I go along.  Pick a song, any song, the right one will settle into your brain.

Then there is the raking and turning and curing. I defy you to have an easy time buying a long handled hay rake with wooden pegs like gap teeth. Even on line, all you can find is some hardscrabble permaculture guru with a blog on how he made his own from scratch (it is very nicely done by the by). The other alternative is to visit the old junk shops and antique booths on consignment, and hope someone has cleaned out Papaw Clive's barn and put a rake up for sale. It is equally difficult to find a real deal pitch fork. Not a spade fork, not a manure fork but a real deal 3 tine pitchfork, you know, for pitching hay. Again, we raid old Clive's tools of the trade to turn the hay as it dries, and then to neatly pick up the hay and put it loose in the barn (shut your mouth! no bales?). Or "gasp" make a haystack.  Besides reviewing the paintings of the French Masters to see a haystack, one has to visit Romania or some other like place where they have perfected the technique and still make outdoor haystacks. Modern farming scoffs at this, but truly it is no different from the practice of leaving round bales out in the field for 3 years. Do some checking, you can even rake the external hay down the sides of the stack and make it lay just so, such that it sheds rain. Alas, what we have all forgotten in this country.

So we watch the sky, we "make hay while the sun is shining".  No joke. A good rain or two can turn nice cut hay into something no better for animals than having them eat rope. The sun is at once a friend and and an enemy to hay. The hay must be dry before it is put away for storage, but it can also parch the nutritional value out of it. Many a barn has been lost to the heat generated by rotting green hay in a big mass. There's a knowing to curing hay.  My father tells a cautionary story about rotting hay. My Dad has some great farming stories from his youth:  Old man Gass (this is what Dad calls him) across the street put up all his hay in a beautiful old barn one season. Clearly the hay was still uncured. Sometime in the night, the barn and hay caught fire from the heat of decomposition, all three stories of it.  It burned so hot that it melted the shingles on the roof of the nearby farmhouse.  Richardson, the living  great grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier came running down the street from his farmhouse a mile away, wearing a night shirt, night cap, boots and toting an oil lantern, ready to lend a hand. American Gothic, neighbors looking out and caring. Nothing the fire department, Gass or Richardson could do would put this blaze out.  It lit the night sky, and hay and barn burned to the ground.

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