Exploring The Last Green Valley – Haying Season in The Last Green Valley
Exploring The Last Green Valley, Haying Season in The Last Green Valley
“Make hay while the sun shines.” Old Proverb
As of this writing, June has been mostly dry with few prolonged rain storms. Our dry weather has caused me to water my vegetable garden more than usual this month but it has also provided excellent weather for making hay. There is an old saying “rain in May, barn full of hay.” Rain in June, however, can ruin hay, so this year hay makers are glad for the dry spell.
This week my wife and I loaded 200 bales of hay into our barn and so began our annual chore of putting up hay for the year. Hopefully by the end of the month we’ll add another 200-300 bales which should last us – or should I say, last our horses – until next June.
For several years we have purchased our hay from a good friend in Woodstock. He mows, cures and bales several acres of hay each year. He puts up most of it for his beef cattle and the rest he sells to a few horse owners like us. Best of all – he delivers! He’ll arrive with a long flatbed trailer that holds 100 or more bales and with the use of an electric-powered hay bale elevator, the rectangular bales are lifted from the trailer right to the hay mow on the second floor of the barn.
Depending on size and moisture content, the bales can weigh up to 40 pounds, so the elevator is an important piece of equipment. As we lifted the bales off the elevator and carefully stacked them in the barn I got to thinking about our farming heritage and haying traditions.
From 1978 until 1987 I worked in the historical farming program at Old Sturbridge Village, first as an historical interpreter demonstrating early 19th century farming practices and then as Coordinator for Agriculture until 1987. During those nine years I came to understand and appreciate the process of putting up hay.
Old Sturbridge Village demonstrates farming as it was done in the early 19th century – before gas-powered tractors, mowers, balers or bale elevators. The hay is cut by hand with long-handled scythe blades, cured and “tedded” with hay forks, loaded by hand into ox-drawn carts and finally unloaded by hand into the upper hay mows of the barn.
The repeated “by hand” description above is testament to the fact that haying was hard work. To farmers past and present, the intensive farm chore of hay-making can be the most critically important task of the year.
New England Yankee farms of the 19th century primarily raised cattle for either milk by-products like cheese and butter or for beef. Many farms also raised sheep and most kept a horse or two for transportation and one or more teams of oxen for heavy work.
During the late spring and summer months, cattle, sheep and horses were put out on pasture lands for grazing and fattening. But during the fall, winter and early spring, hay was their primary diet. The success of a good hay crop would affect how many animals a farm could afford to keep through the winter, thus determining the annual success or failure of the farm.
Making hay at Old Sturbridge Village was strenuous work and for me the hardest task was the actual mowing with a scythe blade. That first year I worked at Old Sturbridge Village, I anticipated the hay-making season. I found an old scythe in my grandfather’s barn and brought it to work so I could use the tool he used. The blade wasn’t authentic for the era depicted by the museum so I had it refitted with a more appropriate blade.
With a freshly-sharpened blade attached to my grandfather’s wooden “snath,” I would trudge out to the hay fields first thing in the morning before the dew evaporated and the wet grass was easier to mow. Along with other farm interpreters, we would follow each other across the field of timothy, red top and clover and cut our wide swaths or windrows of hay. Reaching far to our right and pulling the blade in a wide arc to the left, we would cut as much hay grass in each pull as we could physically manage. Keeping the heel of the blade close to the ground would ensure a finely mowed field with little wasted. Around and around the field we would mow until the entire field was laid out in neat windrows of fallen grass.
The idiom “to cut a wide swath” means you are making a great display and comes from the task of mowing hay. Those who made big sweeps of the scythe while cutting hay certainly made quite a display of wide swaths. My experience is that is also a very good way to tire quickly.
This week as I stacked fresh bales of hay into our barn, I thought back to those summer days almost 40 years ago when I was a mower of hay. The smell of the cured hay is still as sweet as I remember. My sweating arms and neck itched from the loose chaff just like before. The rush to get the hay in before a thunderstorm is just as maddening as years gone by. The smiles and pat on the back for a job well-done means just as much as it always does. The clink of cold beverages passed among tired hands is just as refreshing.
Next time you pass a freshly-mowed farm field and see a tall wagon stacked high with bales of hay, be grateful we live in a region with strong farming traditions. If your car travel is delayed behind a farm tractor pulling a mower, just smile, slow down, and enjoy the farmer’s view of a country road.
Next time you pause to enjoy the placid view of horses and cows in a roadside field, remember that lots of labor, sweat, and good old-fashioned hard work went into making that peaceful scenery possible. On small hobby farms, local vegetable farms, orchards and vineyards and on large dairy farms, our farming traditions are alive and well here in The Last Green Valley.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the previous article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.
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