A Hayfield of Dreams

April 23, 2009

By Joanie Stiers

Sunny days and storytelling arrive with season's first Illinois hay bales.

Fresh hay bales are as much a symbol of summer as a Popsicle that melts faster than my toddler can eat it. To my family, the first bales of the season signify that we can spend more time outdoors until bedtime because lengthier sunny days have arrived. The bales also become an eye-pleasing addition to the rural Illinois landscape, especially for our daughter, who likes to count items and identify shapes.

The shapes and sizes of this livestock forage dictate our discussion of them in the minivan, our daughter’s primary bale-spotting vehicle. I explain that most bales today are round, taller than Dad, and entirely created and moved by machine. The cows from the nearby pasture enjoy any edible shape, but only the “small squares” win a badge from Grandpa for proving endurance and work ethic.

The traditional, laborious method of making, gathering and storing square bales happens less often in farm country, but when it does, the task proves a challenge for even the fittest of high school football players. And so comes the storytelling.

Perhaps one night this summer I will share a bedtime story about baling from my high school days, but Great Grandpa could tell some better ones.

Baling remains one of the most physically demanding jobs of my grandpa’s nearly eight decades of life. Traditional square baling in modern agriculture today is as close as I can get, considering he started farming with horses.

Many farmers reflecting on today’s youth will often express general disappointment in their work ethic. Hence the phrase, “It’s hard to find good hay help.”

Few want to endure the manual labor – one of the reasons that manufacturers have developed more modern hay production methods.

But expense and heritage keeps some farm families baling small squares the same way they have for decades.

One method dictates that the baling team rides an open hayrack like surfboarders, and they are armed with pirate-like hooks. They stab the hook into an approaching 60-pound bale and pull it onto the rack. Someone grabs the bale by its strings and lifts it into position.

Despite the heat and hard work, I still begged to substitute for Mom on the square baling team in exchange for babysitting our daughter a few summers ago. I wanted to prove I could remain in the class of “good hay help.”

I also needed an updated bedtime story to share.

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