I'm not a farmer, but I play one in summer. And if farming is a tough, thankless task for those who do it for a living, it's an even more puzzling calling for a volunteer.
"You mean you work all day on a tractor for nothing?" people ask. I not only admit it, I go on to tell them I spend a lot of time off the tractor, too. In recent years I've also helped birth and castrate calves, I've strung fences, and I've swung a lot of hay bales.
In fact, I'm working on a powerful hurt right now because this summer's drought with its too-late rains has taken away a few days' worth of farm work I've come to depend on as an end-of-summer ritual--the third hay cutting at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Clagett Farm, near Upper Marlboro. In years featuring that foreign thing called normal rainfall, the third cutting generally takes place in mid-September. The two or three days it takes to get the job done are reliably muggy, and do not at all suggest that the end of summer is almost upon us. More often it feels like the end of the world; the heat is that bad and the work is that draining, that uncomfortable.
You'd think only the cows who'll go without meals this winter because the clover is stunted and not worth baling would be mourning the lost chance for a third cutting. There's nothing about the work that looks even faintly like fun, but I've enjoyed more hours slinging bales under the blistering sun on Clagett Farm's 300 acres than I ever enjoyed in an air-conditioned office inside the Beltway.
Go ahead, call me an idiot--you won't be the first.
Michael Heller, the manager at Clagett, clings perversely to the old way of doing things. You've seen the new way hay is harvested--those SUV-size rolls strewn across fields along the interstate as though a careless giant had spilled a bowl of shredded wheat. One person can handle that job from an air-conditioned tractor cab. There's even a machine like a big Glad Wrap dispenser that covers them in plastic like loaves of bread.
Heller sniffs at these advances, says his red Angus herd can taste the difference between hay left to fester in the elements and sweet hay, properly baled and cured beneath a barn roof. He may be right, but we pay a hard price catering to his connoisseur cattle.
The thing about baling hay his way is that, unlike stereotypical farm chores, it can't start at daybreak, with roosters crowing and everything cool and shady. First you've got to let the dew evaporate from the windrows of hay, cut and raked the day before. If not, the bales will weigh nearly twice as much as they would dry. They'd also mold and rot incredibly quickly. Wet bales have even been known to generate enough heat to set whole barns on fire.
So you've got to wait until mid-morning, when the heat is building to an insistent hum much like that from the cicadas in the woods nearby.
It's usually just the two of us when the work finally gets going, Heller on a flatbed wagon, me on a John Deere--and a 20-year-old New Holland baling machine between us. That's how it's done on his place; you drive the tractor along a windrow at 6 miles an hour, the roaring baler rakes in the windrows and extrudes bales measuring 4 feet by 2 feet by 18 inches, and the dude on the wagon stacks them in interlocking layers until there are about 200, stacked 12 feet high. Then you exchange the full wagon for an empty one and keep going.
I'll admit driving the tractor is easier than stacking the wagon, even though it puts me at the eye of a peculiar eddying hell of heat, dust, engine exhaust, flying chaff, biting insects and the din of the baler's chopping and binding innards. I know Heller has it worse, stooping and wedging his fingers beneath the rough strands of twine that bind the bales and carrying his 45-pound load across the wood floor as it bucks over pitched and rutted ground. He has to heft each bale into place strategically atop the others and scoot back to grab the next before it falls from the conveyor.
But hell, it's his idea to do it this way. Besides, I'm a lousy stacker. I've had full loads collapse before we could get them out of the field. And on top of that, I know driving is only a temporary reprieve. My time is coming all too soon.
Loaded wagons, after all, must be unloaded, and it usually happens that we've filled the three Heller owns by early afternoon. That means heading for the barn in the most dread heat of the day. The drive across the farm's rolling fields then is at the pace a kid walks when ordered by a parent to go out and find the switch that'll be used for his punishment. I have to be careful not to lose the load, but I'm not in any great hurry to get there, either.
On a 90-degree afternoon, a tin-roofed barn gives new meaning to the term "canned heat." It's seductive at first, seeming less intense than in the open fields because there's no direct sunlight. Then the lack of breeze becomes noticeable. And then I remember that the higher I climb into the loft where the bales are stowed, the farther I climb into a zone of mirage-inducing heat beneath the groaning tin, where oxygen and the ability to think clearly are fried away like water from a skillet.
The bales won't go up there by themselves, Heller reminds me, and it's then that I slip my own delicate fingers beneath those rough bands of twine, feel the ragged ends of dried clover and orchard grass bite into my cuticles and puncture my palm.
I scale a 15-foot wall made of bales from earlier cuttings and reach to stow the latest ones along the upper layers, while itchy chaff and the occasional desiccated poison ivy leaf fall onto my sweating face and down the front of my shirt. The bales are just big and heavy enough to be awkward. They don't slide or roll into place; they must be wrestled. In short, they don't cooperate, a maddening thing in that soupy, suffocating atmosphere.
By the time a wagon's unloaded, my fingernails are bleeding, my back is screaming, and my face is slick with a sweaty plaster so thick I look as though the intolerable heat has finally snapped my sanity and I've wallowed like a hog in the mud for relief. Then it's time to go into the field and get more.
It's also right about this time, making the slow journey back out into the sun and toward the waiting windrows, that I begin to question why I'm doing this. I'm 40 years old, college-educated, and there are better things I could be doing than breaking my back for a bunch of bemused cows who watch us from beneath a bank of shade trees, no doubt thinking, "And they call us dumb oxes."
Then somebody flips a switch. It seems to happen that quickly. I'm still pondering the question when a cooling breeze suddenly licks at the windrows. I look ahead and see only a few more stretched ahead of me. Shadows from the trees along the western fence lines lengthen and reach toward us. Chimney swifts and barn swallows take to the field, the swifts cruising 12 feet above the stubble, the swallows at about six feet, feasting on the insects we've stirred. A red-tailed hawk sweeps down from the thermals he's ridden all afternoon to see if we've flushed any mice or rabbits. And when we finally shut down the baler, its shrieking flywheel coasting to a stop, a sweet silence descends just like that hawk.
We haul baler and wagon to the barn again slowly, taking care not to tip the final swaying load and give ourselves yet more work. We park the wagon to be unloaded in the cool of the next morning, then drive the unburdened tractor, fast, down the dirt road to the house and dinner beneath a sky bled of its haze and turning red in the west. The wind dries the sweat at my temples so quickly they itch.
And then I remember why I do this. Certainly there's some macho masochism involved, like the guy who hits himself with a hammer just because it feels so good when he stops. But there's pride and satisfaction as well, at having helped a neighbor and survived a job so apparently objectionable that Heller literally can't pay anyone to do it anymore.
More important, I've spent the whole day outside, put some muscles to work and done a job that requires more energy, more determination, more honest attention than any I've held in an air-conditioned office. And I'm missing the third cutting now as much as those hungry cows will come winter.