If you tuned in last week, you know I experienced a light bulb moment of clarity on my journey into ag media.
My career in haymaking was very similar. It too, had a stark reckoning concerning my natural capabilities.
Almost as if on a too-hot Texas summer day the door to a creaky old farm truck pulling a half full trailer of coastal bermudagrass square bales was thrown open mid-pasture and the words “GET OUT” were yelled at me.
No, wait. That’s it. That’s exactly what happened.
Now, before I start this story, let it be known that yes, it includes hay. I’ve attended a lot of year-round grazing extravaganzas and I know that the most profitable way to produce a beef animal is to force them to harvest their own food in a shockingly slave-labor like act that somehow sounds more humane to the modern consumer than delivering them “cake” daily. Go figure.
But, I also have grown up on a Texas farm and I know that not everyone has the time or want-to to keep Bessy’s boogers out of their back pocket long enough to mess with a diet-restrictive strip of floss down the middle of the pasture.
So, instead, we made hay.
On the eve of my 15th haymaking season, I was very very excited. I was finally old enough to apply for and participate in the more finesse levels of haymaking. Helping to stack and feed bales was something I’d done as long as I was big enough to lend a hand.
But, at 15, I would be trusted to help out more and drive a truck or a tractor to get some learning experience in. I was ready. I set out my summer staple wardrobe of shorts and t-shirt and ball cap and rubber boots out early the night before and was actually excited to wake up before the sun the next morning. (It also didn’t hurt my excitement level that a crew of high school boys from a neighboring town turned out to help., if I’m being honest.)
Now, I’ll manage your expectations for my skill level right off the bat by telling you that I had never driven a vehicle in preparation for this day. Aside from being the designated steerer when my dad got the truck stuck in the pasture and needed to push it out, I had never been behind the wheel of a vehicle — not a golf cart, or side-by-side, 4-wheeler or even a Barbie Jeep. Nada.
So, even though belief in my abilities and my cuteness in a ball cap were high, my actual skill level was laughably (and dangerously) low.
Nonetheless, my dad and his ag teaching partner (our other head crew member) had faith in me.
My first task was manning the rake.
I was not initially a horrible hay raker. With a little bit of instruction, I was comfortable on the tractor – a cabless, probably 70s model Deere with a sunshade. There’s something soothing about endless rows of smell-good, freshly cut grass pulling up in pretty rows and something satisfying about preparing for the coming winter.
On our last Editor Encounter, Linda Bolin, said with equipment prepared haying can be an absolute pleasure. And, I wholeheartedly believe that, with one caveat… it goes good as long as there’s a cab on the tractor.
As I rounded the corner of the field closest to the woods, I got a little company on my haymaking excursion, first one wasp. Then two, then three and soon a small swarm formed.
I just kept an eye on them, determined to keep going and prove I could hang with the haymaking big boys. One passed my head and I dodged it easily, and so-on until I had come round to the clear end of the field where I could catch my breath.
I didn’t make it long before the baler operator was flagging me down.
“Hey, uh, what happened back there?”
I turned slowly around in my seat and looked.
If Stan Herd had attempted to recreate The Scream, that’s about what it looked like behind me. Like my perfectly plumped rows had melted into a squiggled mess. I guess where my attention went, my steering hands went also. Needless to say I called it a day.
I returned the next morning! A little failure wasn’t going to keep me down!
This time, I got put in charge of driving the truck and trailer while our high school crew threw the small square bales we’d made up on the back.
Personally, I thought I was capable of throwing bales myself, but I wasn’t going to turn down the cushy job in the truck, no matter how daunting driving a standard for the first time might feel.
I got a quick set of instructions about keeping it slowly rolling in granny gear and not dumping the clutch. And, once again I succeeded.
The first pass around the field went of without a hitch. At least, until we got to the barn with a full load and I knew I couldn’t quickly and safely back my own trailer. So, I asked for help.
Only, when my helper finished backing, he didn’t put the truck back in gear for me.
That’s fine, I thought, I’ll just put it back in myself.
How hard can it be? There is literally a map on top of the gear shift.
Turns out, it can be hard. It can be real hard.
I slowly, ever so slowly, lifted my foot off the clutch and promptly killed it.
“That’s okay, just try again,” my supportive passengers called from the back of the trailer.
So I tried again and again. My supportive passengers devolved from sitting patiently to pacing and tossing their ball caps down to the trailer bed.
And then, they said the three words they would quickly regret.
“Just floor it.”
And I did, and it worked! And…I was in third not granny. So I took off like a shot, bumping over gopher holes and hearing faint cries of whoa, whoa, whoa.
When I came to a stop, one of my fairweather passengers was stomping up through my side mirror, looking rumpled and dusty and hatless and MAD, while his compadres guffawed behind him.
I guess he hopped up off the ground too fast for me to see him when he fell off…