Growing up on the family farms of my youth, July meant one thing; hayfields, hayfields, and then more hayfields.
The month of June was spent shearing our sheep whose population spanned from 300-750, depending. Only the adult sheep were sheared, but the youngúns had to have their tails cropped and the males lambs needed to be neutered. The sheep population would fluctuate based on the number of lambs born in April, and what time of year one counted the herd. Sheep typically have twins, sometimes trips, occasionally singles, but mostly twins. We typically had 200-250 breeder ewes. The lambs would be sold to market in the fall, with a few breeders and/or rams kept to replenish the herd.
So anyway, after a month of being anointed with lanolin 10 hours a day from the sheep, we would move into the huge hayfields that the three family farms we operated featured. Something over 300 acres of hayfields that needed to be first mowed, then raked, then tedded, then baled, then harvested, then packed away in the mow’s of the three barns my family had. To me, haying represented the best and the worst of being a farmer, I loved the steady beat of working all day in the hay-fields, driving the tractors, trucks, and the jeep to accomplish one of the above listed jobs that “making hay“ required, however, packing 50lb bales of hay in the mows of our barns on a July day where temps often reached 90 + degrees, and there was not a breath of air in those mows, still remains to this day the most grueling, hardest, and most uncomfortable work I’ve ever done.
Making hay is a process that requires some experience and knowledge. We never had multiple crops, always waiting until July to begin the process so that the one crop of hay we made was higher quality and our animals would have maximum nutritional value throughout the long cold winter months. Our fields were wealthy with a mix of timothy, clover, dandelion, alfalfa, and the rich green pasture grasses that made excellent hay if cut at the proper time and allow to dry and actually “make hay”. The weather was a major contributing factor to this process, even a quick but intense thunder-storm, which is common in Maine on hot July afternoons, could effectively ruin just mowed and laying grasses. This is why most farmers subscribed to a few weather-related rituals. First, they watched the local news & weather intently, They also practiced their own-passed down from preceding generations-tried and true-weather indicators, and finally, they scrambled to get hay that has been mowed, allowed to dry, tedded (a process that lifts and separates the grasses, allowing air to flow through and aid the drying process) and then raked in winnows so the baler can gobble up the rows of winnowed hay, pooping out 50lb bales every four or five feet, loaded on trucks and wagons and then packed away in the mow, before that afternoon thunderstorm strikes. Hay will mold if put away green or wet. Also, green hay can molder in the mow and actually catch fire through spontaneous combustion.
So with all this in mind, the following is a little story of a typical day in the life of a farm-boy in July 1968, Belfast, Maine.
Dawn was breaking, Jack, the coon hound and family alarm clock, was baying from his dog house behind the chicken house, I could hear the garbled voice of the early morning news announcer wafting up to my second story bedroom from the radio perched on the window sill in the kitchen downstairs, and I could hear my grandfathers tuneless whistle as he prepared breakfast at the kitchen stove. I sat up and rubbed my eyes and looked out my bedroom window. The window, which faced west, featured deep shadows, so I could see only the outline of the trees along the road, and my father’s house sitting across the road some 150’away. The window was open and I could hear the frogs and the peepers, from the farm pond, announcing another day was upon us. Daylight was being a little shy, but another Maine summer day was not to be denied. It was time to get up and get to work. I hopped out of bed, pulled on jeans, a t-shirt, and laced up my work boots, before visiting the bathroom. I could smell the hot butter and last night’s left over supper biscuits toasting, and I could smell the bacon frying as I clattered down the stairs into the kitchen where my grandparents were chatting while Mamie sat at the table and enjoyed her tea, and Pup stood over the stove cooking breakfast and sipped hot black coffee.
I gave my grandmother a hug and got a smile in return, and I sauntered over to the stove to inspect the morning meal. Pup was fixing one of my favorites-milk toasts with thick slices of home-cured bacon on the side. He had toasted biscuits-cut in half-in home-churned butter in one fry pan, had the bacon sizzling in another, while he was building the sauce in yet another. Milk, butter, salt & pepper, with enough flour to thicken, which then was poured over the biscuits, with more butter slices laid on top…mmmm-mmm, a meal that was some tasty and stuck to a fella’s ribs. My mouth began to water and my belly rumbled as I peered over Pup’s shoulder at this fantastic concoction. Pup chuckled,
“Eat hearty this morning Mitch, it’s gonna be a long day in the fields, and a long time before supper tonight.”
I was just a week from turning 12 years old and had already developed a reputation as a …ahem…”a boy with an extraordinary appetite”, or as my Dad pointed out, “a pig” and wondered if I had worms. I was wafer thin, but tall for my age. I could never seem to get enough to eat. And I wasn’t fussy…I would eat as much as most men, and I loved everything that landed on my parents or grandparents tables. So I suffered the good humored jabs from my elders with a happy smile and a mouth full of food.
I heard the shed door open and low volume conversation as multiple footsteps approached the kitchen. In walked my father and my youngest uncle. Dad was having breakfast with us and then would be off to work at Dead River, where he was the service manager. Unc Stub would be working the farm with the rest of us boys, my grandfather, and my oldest uncle, Gene. We ate our breakfast and chatted, with me taking a second helping and smiling as my Dad teased me, then ruffled my hair with a grin. Pup told him that I was gonna need the extra calories today as the hayfields were calling.
We headed out through the shed and it was full on daylight by now, about 5:30 a.m. Dad headed out in his company van, the rest of us trudged to the chicken house to start the day’s chores. It took about an hour and a half to clean the waterers, fill the feeders with grain, pick up the dead, and otherwise tend the 20,000 + chickens we had at my grandfather’s farm. My Unc Gene and cousin Genie-bub were doing the same with the 20, 000 + at their farm three miles away. After the chickens were fed, Unc Stub and I checked the hen house for eggs, slopped the five hogs in their pen, and fed the 30 turkeys in their coup, while Pup milked the five milk cows in the tie-up of the barn, and then put them out to the pasture. It was now about 7:30 a.m. and we piled into Pup’s old ’56 ford pickup with the 5’ high rack body, and headed over the road three miles to “The Other Farm”. The Other Farm was the big farm that abutted Unc Gene’s farm on the Poors Mills Road. While the chickens, milk cows, hogs, turkeys, and the 10 + acres of gardens were housed at the “home farms” of my grandparents and oldest uncle, and these farms offered fields that were hayed, the majority of the hayfields, along with the sheep, cattle, horses, goats, a donkey, and a couple of mules, were at the Other Farm. We rolled into the driveway of the Other Farm and saw that Unc Gene and Genie-bub were already there and were greasing the tractors and farm equipment that we’d be using that day. After about an hour of light maintenance on the equipment and a quick walk through the upper pasture to check on the sheep, Unc Stub, Genie-bub, and I jumped in Emma, our ’47 Dodge rack-bodied dump/farm truck, and lurched and sputtered our way to the lower east field where we had left off yesterday, and which still held about 150 bales of hay. The sun was up and it was getting hotter by the minute, but the bottom sides of each bale was still damp with dew…so, we dutifully walked from bale to bale flipping them over to give the bottom sides the sun for an hour or so before we loaded them on Emma to be packed away in the mow.
While we were doing this, Unc Gene and Pup took the pickup over to Bowen’s store to buy the days supplies…which consisted of a case of Narragansett beer, and a case of root beer, filling the 50 gallon barrel with a hose and hand pump attached, strapped in the corner of the truck body, with gasoline for the tractors, a few cans of dip, a can of Prince Albert tobacco and some zig-zag rolling papers for Pup, a pack of Pall Malls for Unc Gene, ( with a few sneaked to Ed Muskie-the donkey-he loved ciggies). When they returned from the store we all congregated for the day’s work plan and assigned duties. It was now about 10 a.m., the sun had burned off the dew, and we could start the haying process.
Unc Gene would take the John Deere 10-10 and start mowing the lower middle field, cutting four foot swaths with the attached sickle bar, while Genie-bub took the ol’ Bee John Deere with the tedder attached to the lower west field to essentially toss the laying four foot rows of grass that Unc had mowed yesterday, into the air, to help with the drying process, where later I would I would take the Ford tractor with the four large pronged wheels of the rake attached and rake the four foot swaths into winnow rows. Then Pup, driving the tripod “40” John Deere with the baler attached would gobble up those rows of grass made into hay and spit out bale upon bale weighing about 50lbs each. While all this was going on, and in between times, while we waited for the sun to do its job, Unc Stub would be in the body of Emma as Unc Gene drove around the field with a contraption attached to the running board of the driver’s side that would grab a bale of hay and lift it up and over the top of the five foot high rack body, where Unc Stub would wrestle it and stack the truck body full of hay bales to take to the mows in the barns. Pup would drive the old Willy’s jeep with the wagon attached and Genie-bub and I would run around the fields and grab bales and toss/stack them on the wagon too. Once truck and wagon was loaded we all would head to the barn to off load. Emma had large bubble headlights on her fenders and me and Genie-bub would ride with those headlights between our legs to the barn.
The Other Farm boasted a cold water spring not far from the barn just inside the tree line that we would guzzle gallons of this elixir each and every day. We would usually fill up just before climbing up the conveyor into the mow of the barn to ensure we had hydrated and to give our bodies plenty to sweat out. On the other side of the barn was a farm pond about 30 feet in diameter and was a popular hangout for ducks and geese. Me, Genie-bub, and Unc Stub would climb up the conveyor into the breathless, airless, sauna known as the hay mow. Unc Gene and Pup would feed one bale after another onto the conveyor who endlessly deposited them to us up in the mow. We would all be shirtless, every pore on our bodies almost squirting perspiration, and the hay chaff would penetrate and cover our sweat soaked torsos while we coughed and hacked from breathing it in. It took about 20minutes to unload a truckload of hay bales from Emma and stack them in the mow, where the temperature was often over 100 degrees. When the conveyor finally went silent, meaning the truck was empty, we would slide down it out of the mow and the hot upper 80 degrees on the ground level felt cool compared to the climate in the mow. Me and Genie-bub would hot-foot it to the duck/geese poop laced farm pond, stripping off our jeans and boots and hopping in the cool water to experience one of the most wonderful feelings of relief I’ve ever experienced. While we paddled and splashed around for a few minutes, the men would be sitting in the shade of the huge sugar Maples where there was usually a breeze, sipping on a cold “Nastygansette”. After this 15 minute respite, we would head back to the fields to repeat the cycle. We would continue our day until the fields were either empty of hay bales or if the general consensus was “no rain tonight”, we’d leave some bales in the field and knock off around 6:00 p.m.
Sounds like a grueling hard day of work dunnit? It is…very hard work. However, with my Unc’s and my grandfather singing dirty little ditties, telling jokes, and filling my ears with incredible fishing/hunting yarns and past adventures, as we worked, and as weary as I was at the end of the day, I couldn’t wait until the next morning to be able to do it all over again. I knew, even at that tender age, that I was living an enchanted lifestyle. I had the privilege of spending my day with a variety of animals on what I felt was the most beautiful land in Waldo County, with a family that worked hard together, who loved one another and the farms we so fortunate to be part of. I think back to those July’s of my youth and I realize those hay-fields and those hay mows represent the struggles that many of us have today in distinguishing the good, the not so good, and the necessity of both, in life.
Even though there are not as many farms as there were in my youth, most of us know a farmer…consider offering that farmer help for a day, but I warn you, if you do, it can become addictive.