Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hay Good Lookin' (or The Buck Stops Here)

After several months of silence, I am picking up my pen once again and etching the exciting details of my summer for all to see (okay, so its not really a pen, more of a keyboard, and my silence was strictly proverbial. As for exciting? Well, that's up to you, and it really depends on what you have or haven't done with your summer.)
I am writing on what may have been the hottest day of the year. With a high close to 100˚ and humid, I think that today safely dispels the mythology of a perpetually rainy and mild Washington. And, of course it stands to reason that this life-sappingly hot week should coincide with that staple of summer in a farming community: Bucking Bales.

Last night, I helped my family pick up our modest harvest for the year: 463 bales. The backbone of bale bucking, and the most essential step once the grass is cut, is assembling a hay crew. When the Gibsons put up hay, it is, at its core, a family affair. We are like the Von Trapps, except with dead grass (Although I guess we did sing for a bit while loading the wagon last night.) In addition to our five family members filling various tasks on the field and in the barn, we usually call in several friends to join the team.

A farmer gathering a hay crew strongly resembles a college attempting to recruit athletes. Since most farms tend to put up hay at the same time, the competetion to procure the best workers can be fierce. Thus, employers must offer competitive pay (generally upwards of $10/hr), and perks such as lemonade and food. Once your prospective "buckers" sign with your hay crew, the game can begin! (By game, please realize that I mean sweaty, horribly horribly exhausting, dusty labor) This year, we signed two rising all-stars in the haying circuit, Andrew Dickson and Brent Lindquist.

For the benefit of those who have never bucked bales before, I have taken the opportunity to provide you with a bucking glossary of sorts:

Field: Place where grass grows, is cut, raked, baled. Hay crew is responsible for loading bales onto wagon.

Gloves: A necessity. Do not think that you are impressing people by going "commando." Others will think less of you for it, and you will come to regret it the next day, when your hand is permanently stuck in a fist.

Driver: The one who helms the tractor or truck which pulls the hay wagon. Ironically, the driver is often the crew member without a driver's license.

Wagon: That which will contain the hay.

Bucker: Typically 2-4 on a crew, buckers walk on either side of the wagon, picking up bales and placing them on said wagon for stacker.

Stacker: Typically 1-2 on a crew, the stacker stays on the wagon and receives bales as buckers bring them, stacks them in the most efficient manner possible.

Roller: Rolls bales out of way of driver. This job is typically assigned to children and the elderly.

Backswath: The outer edge of the field, where bales tend to be heavier. The backswath sucks.

Barn: Place where wagon is eventually unloaded, and hay is stored.

Elevator: Conveyor machine that transports hay bales from wagon to barn, when unloading.

Encourager: Serves no other vital role, little more than an observer.

Anti-histamines: Keeps those with hay allergies alive.

Wee-folk: Refers to the smallest people on the crew, who are capable of stacking in especially tight places in the hay loft.

Food preparer/Lemonade bringer: Unarguably, the most important person on the crew.

Before we even set foot on the field, we came face to face with a devastating obstacle. My brother, Ben, who has served as our designated stacker for several years, found out he would have to work late at Haggen that evening, and therefore miss out on haying. My dad, a veteran stacker, took Ben's place, while Brent, Andrew and I bucked the bales onto the wagon. My sister drove, and my mom alternated as roller and food preparer/lemonade bringer. As I scoured the fields, picking up bale after bale, the twine digging into my gloved fingers, I began to feel a sense of satisfaction at the hard work I was doing. However, the field work was merely a warm-up.

We pulled our full wagon up alongside the barn and scaled the wooden ladder into the hay loft. Defying all laws of meteorology, the temperature inside the hay loft was perhaps 500˚ hotter than the temp. outdoors just several feet away, on the other side of the wall. Also, it immediately became apparent that fresh air was a luxury, not a right. Sadly, it was a luxury the loft could not afford. In flipping on the lone lightbulb which shone dimly from high in the rafters, we were amazed to find that we could actually see what little air was in the loft simply by looking for clear gaps in the haze of dust.

Then, a familiar loud, rickety sound echoed through the loft: the hay elevator was running. As the bales rode up the elevator single-file, advancing like a small grassy army of the dead, we came to meet them head-on. We would grab the bales as they approached the end of their lemming-esque march and stack them from the corner out, building an imposing wall of hay along one side of the loft. As we built higher, we would send one of the wee-folk (Andrew and myself served as wee-folk on this particular occasion) up to the top of the stack, allowing us to keep building in areas beyond our reach. As luck would have it, a group of neighboring farmers, who were putting in hay of their own on the other side of our barn, pitched in. Soon, we had our own army amassed at the end of the elevator, lined up, each of us waiting to claim a bale.

In virtually no time at all, we had unloaded the first wagon, and could emerge into the refreshing evening air (which we had previously, and might I add, foolishly, thought to be too hot and humid) for a lemonade break. Although the time in the loft was brief, every second felt like an eternity. Each breath taken decorated the lungs with several pounds of hay dust. We realized that we had found muscles we didn't know we had and had begun to sweat profusely in places where we had thought we couldn't. After spending time in the loft, a return to the field sounded like a veritable vacation. Andrew, in particular, was so overcome with zeal that he was moved to lead our crew in repeatedly singing the first line of the Dean Martin classic, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie" (that first line being all any of us knew). Of course, it became tiresome to try and sing raucously and buck bales at the same time, so we stopped after repeating the one line about twelve times.

As we finally approached the house for dinner, a night of haying behind us, we silently reflected on the work that we had done, the honest labor that had taken us from the field, to the barn, and now back to the house. The reflective silence was broken when one of our numbers remarked in amusement that his snot was black from the hay dust. We all started to laugh in agreement, then groaned horribly in pain when we realized that it hurt to laugh.

While our hay work only took one evening, many farms pick up thousands of bales over the course of several days. Imagine waking up, your whole body itchy and sore from the previous evening's work, only to repeat the process for yet another day or two. Needless to say, I was glad to put it behind me for the year. Yet, in spite of my relief at being done, I do not think that summer would be summer without that evening (or two, or three) of back-breaking, bale bucking, dust sucking labor. Truly, bucking bales is a staple of the summer experience.