Dec. 1 2023 11:12 AM

My love of farming and strong work ethic trace back to summers spent making hay on my uncle’s farm.

Recently, I received a gift from my cousin Anne. It was her father and my great uncle Murray’s old milking pail and a picture of the old barn we stored hay in. While these memories are always with me, this gesture really brought them to the forefront. Her accompanying letter chided me about how I got my start in farming. While I won’t bore you with all the stories, (and there are some good ones!), I thought maybe readers would be interested in an old style, low input way of haying.

I was about 10 or 12 years old when I started helping with haying on “The Ponderosa” as we called Uncle Murray’s farm in North Bennington, Vt. Uncle Murray had income from off the farm, so little money was spent on fertilizer or equipment. Haying time came in early July for his two cows (they weren’t pushed for production). Somehow Uncle Murray was able to gather several men, relatives and friends, which included his nephew, my Uncle Bernard. I was always invited to visit my Uncle Bernard and Aunt Millie and to spend time with my cousin Kenny at haying time.

Anne, being the oldest daughter, drove the tractor. Mary, Uncle Murray’s youngest daughter, had the unenviable task of keeping track of me and Kenny. We weren’t bad kids; we just didn’t put a whole lot of thought into our actions.

The hay was mowed by my Uncle Bernard and his old Ford tractor and sickle bar mower. Mowing with a sickle bar was much slower than the speed of modern discbines today. I can still hear the chatter of the sickle bar moving back and forth as my uncle raised the blade to start another swath.

After a day of mowing, the “crew” was gathered for the hay hunt (again, Uncle Murray did not use much fertilizer). It was only after I saw what an average yielding hay field produced did I fully appreciate the joke in calling it a “hay hunt.”

With the hay dry in the field, we raked it with an old dump rake pulled behind a Jeep. When using a dump rake, you drive perpendicular, or across the windrows gathering the hay, and dumping it in line with the previous dumps to form a windrow. Kenny or I were often the trigger men (pulling the rope to raise the rake) while one of the men, seems it was usually “Wheaties,” drove. There’s a delay between pulling the rope and the rake fully raising, making it hard to get the windrows straight, especially with the Jeep traveling several miles per hour. Needless to say, our crooked windrows were the butt of many a joke.

At lunch time we would all head to the farmhouse and eat a hearty lunch that Aunt Margaret had prepared. Some would eat at the kitchen table; others would take their meal and sit on the back step or under a shade tree to eat. Uncle Murray always had hot green tea at lunch, no matter the temperature. He would pour it from his cup to a saucer to cool a little then drink from the saucer. Uncle Murray claimed it cooled you off. I never tried it, so I don’t know. Throughout the heat of the day Aunt Margaret would make sure to send out jugs of water and a snack to keep the work crew satisfied.

In the early years, we were then sent out with pitchforks to “cock” the windrows. This involved making small haystacks four to five feet tall out of the windrows. This was a hot, boring job. Thankfully, this step was eliminated at some point, as being unnecessary.

Next it was time to bring the hay to the barn. Anne would drive the tractor. Tied to the back of the tractor was a large rope maybe eight feet long and one and a half to two inches thick.

This rope was tied to a wide oxen yolk. Then a long rope probably 60 feet long (or longer) and one and a half to two inches thick was securely tied to a clevis at one end of the yoke and the other end of the rope was tied using a slip knot to the other clevis making a long loop. The tractor would slowly drive straddling the windrow, with two men, Uncle Bernard being one of them, with pitchforks on each side of the loop. These men would start out with one foot on the rope to weight it down and the other foot hopping along. As the hay gathered against the rope, the two men would put both of their feet on the rope. The pitchforks were used to gather the hay and distribute it evenly as the stack grew. The tractor continued slowly gathering the windrow in the rope behind. The two men would continually move up toward the tractor as the stack grew. Small children and others loved riding on top of the haystack, feeling every rise and dip in the field.

Once we had a full stack we would drive to the barn. The barn was set up to drive right through, with a large opening on each side big enough for the tractor to drive through and with the hay fork on a rail overhead. Once in the barn, the slip knot would be untied and as the tractor drove off the rope still attached at one end to the yolk would snake out from around the stack leaving the barn for another load, leaving the haystack behind.

The hay fork would be lowered to grab the haystack. Hay forks can move a tremendous amount of loose hay in a hurry when operated by a person with experience. The operator would pull the rope, raising the fork full of hay to the ceiling. Then another rope would send it over the rail to the hay mow where it would trip dropping the hay to be stowed.

Kenny, me, and by default, Mary were usually the ones in the haymow, with an experienced operator manning the hay fork. Our job was to use our pitchforks to move the hay into the corners and then tramp down the hay. Tramp down meant forcibly walking all over the hay to condense it so more would fit in the mow.

In later years, maybe when I was 15 years old, I got to be one of the men who rode the rope in the field. This was a big deal for me. I felt I was finally becoming a man.

Anne was right! This was where I got my start in farming and from there, my interest only grew. I learned so many lessons in those hayfields of southern Vermont, such as what tool a pitchfork and hay fork are. More importantly, I learned the value of hard work and teamwork, and that hard work can be both fun and satisfying. To this day, one of the most satisfying things about farming to me is the ability to look back at the end of the day and see all that you have accomplished. Haying on “The Ponderosa” was my first time experiencing the satisfaction of farming.

Maybe it was a little backward for the times. But I wouldn’t trade my time and those memories of haying on “The Ponderosa” for anything.

Ed McGarry
The author and his wife, Diane, have dairy farmed for over 30 years in West Berkshire, Vt. They have four children, of which the youngest is taking over the farm. Ed earned a bachelor's degree in animal science and agricultural resource economics and a master's in agricultural resource economics from the University of Vermont.