A Farm Breviary: Vespers

Evensong, I pull up my chair into the bee-loud glade and sit down in the shade of a young oak. It is a mere child of 15 years, with near two centuries of growth ahead. Yet, already sturdy and full, it provides a cooling shelter for myself and our small bee yard.

Storms build in the west, as the sun, already hidden, prepares for departure, his work done. This is the office for the ending of the day, sung as a work chantey by humming bees finishing up their own day’s labor. Laden like the stevedores of old, they return to their community one last time, legs loaded with pollen. Soon the daybridge will be pulled up in readiness for the night and her watchmen.

In the poultry yard nearby, the chickens join in chorus with the bees and begin the return to roost. They flutter up into the coop, where their elder aunts have already gone to bed. The roosters, giving a last challenge to the fading light, crow once more, then declare victory and retire from battle. In the lower fields the sheep still graze. Soon though, the dominant ewe will signal an end to the day. She will lead the flock in a doxology of contented bleats back to the barn, all readiness for rest and security.

Vespers on the farm is a coming home.

Next to me is a small hive worked earlier in the day, a captured swarm from a friend and neighbor’s apple orchard. Eleven days it has labored in building a new home with the old queen. We were prepared to find it weak, to merge it with a stronger hive. Yet, the queen still lived, busy laying eggs, building brood, surrounded by her attendants. Not yet a strong hive, but with luck, hard work, and the inevitable act of regicide — like the corn kings of folklore — the colony will end the summer and fall strong enough to survive the next winter.

I sit in idleness and rest as these last bees return from the field. I watch as they and their sisters gather, bearding the front boards in tight-knit community. With news exchanged, plans made for the following day, they begin to go indoors.

Rising, I put my ear to one of the hives and listen to the hum of their evening song. It’s a melody picked up throughout the farm. I pause and listen for the refrain, and then, as the poet says, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Fossil Fuels and Haymaking

“With tossing and raking, and setting on cocks, Grass lately in swathes, is hay for an ox: That done, go and cart it, and have it away, the battle if fought, ye have gotten the day.” Thomas Tusser

Haymaking is a battle, a war with time and nature, a struggle whose sole aim is to make “all flesh grass”. We no longer live a village life, an Amish life or a life with any real community where work is shared. Our farm workers now are the accumulated stores of long dead plant life burned as fossil fuels that power the equipment.

One man, with practice, can manually cut an acre of hay per day, rake an acre of hay per day, rick an acre of hay per day. That is steady physical labor, all day, for days on end, for the simple goal of having enough forage to feed his animals during the winter months.

Fortunately or unfortunately I do not have that type of stamina or time to devote to the manual cutting of hay. Instead we have a 45 horsepower Kubota tractor with all of the necessary implements.

45 horsepower: think about that for a minute, the power of 45 horses harnessed by one man for any number of tasks. Remarkable! We all use machines of such incredible power but so seldom reflect on what the power represents if absent from our lives. Absent and the center cannot hold, as Mr. Yeats wrote. Absent and we do not want to imagine the changes in store, cannot imagine.

This seasons first haymaking was fairly uneventful. On a fair Wednesday evening I hooked up the ancient disc mower to the aforementioned Kubota and began cutting hay. A soothing, methodical process of moving up and down the field cutting the fescue and clover at ground level, mowing is a great time to think. Six acres cut in three hours.

The following evening I tedded the field. Ted is an old English word meaning to spread hay out to dry. In the 19th century a machine was designed to spread hay out and was called a tedder. The tedder I use is my four wheel hay rake. An ingenious piece of equipment, ground driven (instead of “PTO”) I ted by changing the directions of the wheels. Instead of all four wheels pulling hay to a single windrow they work against each other and toss the hay around on the ground. This action speeds up the drying time. Time spent tedding six acres was two hours. Done by hand? Six days.

Friday afternoon I took off from work and raked the fields. Using the wheel rake it took two hours to rake six acres into windrows. It was easy work, with a real sense of accomplishment when completed.

Saturday: I woke early to find the sky heavy with clouds. The forecast had moved the incoming rain from late Saturday night to early afternoon. #%$&! A mad scramble to get the baler hooked up, tires inflated, chains greased, new twine installed and threaded through the machine. A quick trip to the co-op for some of that precious fossil fuel and I was ready to begin baling at 10. The first three hours were very slow. The dew still lay heavy on the dry hay causing the hay to jam the baling tines.

The round baler has revolving tines that pick up the hay and feed it into a chamber. Inside that chamber the hay begins to turn. As it turns it creates a round bale that measures four by four feet and weighs several hundred pounds. When the baler reaches capacity an alarm is triggered. I pull a rope that engages the twine which wraps around the bale securing the hay, a pretty nifty and simple action. A lever activated by hydraulic power raises the back of the baler depositing the bale on the ground. It looks like a large metal bird laying an egg.

Sometime between 12:30 and 1 the dew dried and the baler began cranking through the windrows. Loud, dirty and jarring, riding for hours on the tractor while baling the hay is not pleasant. Finally at 4 in the afternoon, the rain still holding off, the baler squeezed out the last bale and I turned to home. Six acres of hay baled in six hours.

Four inches of rain fell on the farm the next 24 hours. A lot of work to get the forage we need to feed the cattle this winter.

But, it could be worse without fossil fuel…indeed, much, much worse.

….From the archives

Reading this weekend: Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: how human values evolve by Ian Morris