Art of the deal? It's chewing the fat.

The writer learned the art of the preamble before launching into any farm negotiation.

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    A hayfield near Kalispell, Mont.
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I was at my computer last night as Charlie pondered where to buy some alfalfa hay. It's for the two milk cows brought to the farm by a young friend who has leased the barn and pastures for a new herd-share operation.

When Charlie dialed up Bernie, I knew I was in for a refresher course in rural folklore – one-sided though it would be. Whenever the two friends converse, the subject at hand lies buried like a box within boxes, opened only after the outer wrappings – a multitude of memories and some local history – are patiently peeled away.

Many years ago, Charlie listened horrified as I got right to the point in one of my first dealings with a local stockman over a dairy heifer he had for sale. No, no, no, one did not cut to the quick like that in southern Indiana, he explained. You had to build up a modicum of common ground first.

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Bernie and Charlie have acres of that after decades of supporting each other's farming enterprises. But they still warm up to direct requests with elaborate workings of that ground. Last evening, before the subject of hay was even broached, the two chatted about past acquaintances on Low Gap and Maple Grove Roads, Wabash River levels, their hand-built coffins (both woodworkers, they independently decided to plan well ahead), and a farm loan Bernie's banker son-in-law had granted Charlie based on character when no other financier was forthcoming.

They recalled the time I'd been the only help Bernie could find to bale a hayfield. Used to his muscular grandsons manning the wagon, he'd started the tractor and fallen into a reverie, soon outpacing my ability to stack the 50-lb. bales relentlessly delivered up the chute. When he finally turned to my frantic whistling, the field was littered with hay I'd had to push overboard in order to stay on the wagon myself. Both men still peal into laughter over that one.

The two of them are stockmen extraordinaire and encyclopedias of knowledge about hay grasses, legumes, and herbaceous flora. They know or know of most of the farmers as well as rural suppliers in the surrounding counties, from major equipment manufacturers to individual Amish canvas menders and harnessmakers.

One year when our baler was on loan to a friend, Charlie taught me to put loose cured hay into doodles, the traditional southern Indiana version of the haystack. From Bernie I came to know the cross-country path of the Ten O'Clock Treaty Line, an 1809 demarcation (based, it is storied, on the midmorning shadow of a thrown spear) by which the American Indians ceded 3 million acres of land to the white settlers of Illinois and Indiana.

Not surprisingly, given their vast stores of regional lore and penchant for sharing it orally (and preferably face to face) neither man has expressed much interest in the digital information age. Charlie spoke on our land line while Bernie struggled to work the cellphone his children had recently thrust upon him. As they got to the point of the call, Charlie learned that all the bales from the corner field Bernie typically put up in alfalfa were gone. As they wound down with gruff affirmations of friendship, I turned back to my laptop and checked Craigslist for alfalfa hay.

"Here's some," I spoke up, "$3.50 a bale from someone in Heltonville."

Charlie looked impressed at the speed with which I'd retrieved this information from the little machine. Then he remarked, "Oh, that must be Clovis."

It was my turn to be impressed. Still, he seemed to appreciate the utility of the Internet, at least as a reminder of resources he already knew about but hadn't yet thought of. In fact, he suggested, as if hazarding a big toe into cyberspace, "Why don't you look up somewhere to find a new carburetor for that Farmall H of yours?"

I came up with a couple of possibilities, but neither looked quite right for my 40-something-year-old tractor. Charlie was unfazed, even relieved, assuring me: "That's all right, I think there's one in Poseyville."

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