Hard-Harvested Beauty

First cuttings, like many firsts, give cause to celebrate. As the new spring grass falls to the mower, cures in the waxing sun, and piles up into windrows under the spinning rake, the sheer weight of the task ahead always fails to register. In my mind, early-June haymaking with cleaned, primed equipment is the stuff of song. The inaugural wagonload, stacked in a small, lonely tier in the back of the barn, whets the appetite for more. Which is fortunate, since we need between 4,000 and 5,000 bales to see our dairy herd through the winter.

But time expands throughout June, and our enthusiasm remains high. After a winter of relative leisure, we welcome the real work of haying in between milkings. With energy to spare, I can barely wait to rake the newly mown fields into long swells of crisping green. Charlie holds me back until the grassy moisture has largely baked away and it smells "cured" to him. With the blessing of his satisfied nose, I proceed, first with the raking, then with the stacking as he pulls baler and wagon over the windrows with his tractor.

By the end of June, we've fallen into the steady rhythm of the season. I work with a more regulated energy as I stack the bales angling up from the New Holland's chute onto the wagon. My son Tim, 12 now, and thinly muscled, lends a hand. One wagon holds four stacked pyramids of 25 bales each. The barn begins to fill as we transfer wagonload after wagonload up the elevator: 1,000 bales, 1,500, 2,000. The baler meter ticks them off one by one as the summer solstice, then fourth of July fireworks, come and go.

Inevitably, usually by mid-July, a mechanical glitch temporarily shuts us down.

Often a small homemade adjustment puts us back in the field within a day. But we're well-known to the local community of machinery-repair specialists, and on a first-name basis with welders, wheel aligners, and tire retreaders. These folks recognize our look of "hay down, and rain threatening." When we come in wearing it, they make every effort to provide same-day service.

As the severity of equipment problems escalates - usually by late July - other, costlier measures may be called for. Long drives to southern Indiana's dwindling number of farm-machinery and service centers are particularly noisome while the sun shines - when by rights we should be making hay, not patching parts.

This year, we faced the farmer's version of Armageddon, as virtually every piece of our haying equipment rebelled against the season's demands, on a scale of 1 (two patched tires on the baler) to 10 (the final demise of Charlie's old tractor and the soul-searching purchase of its replacement). We began to question the value of what we were doing - not just privately in moments of doubt, but out loud, to each other.

Dairy farmers can take stock quite literally: heads to feed, costs of producing the fodder, hundredweights of milk sold. We took stock personally. Just now, everything is up and running. We're within 500 bales of our seasonal goal. Walnut and sassafras leaves mingle in the windows, promising autumn's cool hand on our sweaty brows. The melting edge is already off the sun's heat. The barn swallows have moved south, and the nighthawks, or bullbats, are passing overhead.

This morning, we awoke to the sight of 50 to 75 Canada geese grazing the pasture for late-summer seeds among the cows. Both species moved with a slight swaying from the hips, though at two distinct levels. It was a moment of true beauty and unexpected harmony - one all too easy to miss.

School has started for Tim, but I'm doing fine even without his help on the hay wagon. The bales emerging are duller green than earlier in the season, but they look almost good enough to eat myself. To a cow's palette in the dead of winter, they will smack of summer. And each time we cut the twine, a burst of heady fragrance will remind us of the heat, the frustration, the gradually filling barn, and the geese among the cows - of all that, by our reckoning, hay season is about.

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