Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Haying Time

For local farm, annual chore yields bounty more valuable than crop

On a hot summer day, an old red tractor rumbles along through a big open field kicking up dust. The tractor, a 45-year old Ford, affectionately called "Old Red," pulls a hay tedder, a rake-like piece of machinery that turns over the crop. Bouncing along at the wheel of Old Red is 8-year-old Paul Wettemann III. His father, Paul Wettemann Jr., stands on the running board, keeping a watchful eye on the young farmer. Father and son are both are smiling.

The image is reminiscent of an earlier time, when the father was a boy taking the same ride, in the same field with his father. Paul Wettemann Jr. recalls, "My father used to love haying. He loved tractor driving." The hay was cut yesterday. Today, it must be turned so the underside can dry. The tedder has a series of spinning tines that kick up the hay, and hasten the drying process.

Twice a year, Paul Wettemann, Jr., cuts and bails the hay from his 40-acre North Guilford farm, carrying on a tradition that spans four generations. This seasonal chore yields a bounty perhaps more valuable than the crop -- it preserves a family.

Ninety-eight years ago, Paul's grandfather established a dairy farm on the property. He planted apple trees and grew vegetable crops. The hay that was cultivated was used primarily as feed for the cows.

Today, the land is used for boarding horses and raising Hereford beef cattle, and haying is still an important part of this farm.

"A lot of farmers will tell you even though haying is a lot of hard work, it's a fun time." Wettemann said. People will say `you've got be crazy,' but the rewards are getting a nice hay crop. Nobody is checking, but deep down inside, you have a feeling you are getting the job accomplished the way it should be."

Except for new technology, haying has changed little over the years. The work typically begins in mid-June when the crop reaches its peak. The hay is cut, tedded, raked, collected and then stored in the barn. In late summer, the fields are cut a second time. This second cut yields fewer bales, but produces softer, more desirable hay.

Haying is a race against time and the weather. The crop must be cut after it is fully headed but before it starts to brown. Once cut, the crop is left to dry in the field for several days. If it rains, the hay will brown quickly and become unusable for feed. The crop could be sold as mulch hay or bedding if the damage is not severe, otherwise it's a loss.

Wettemann always keeps an eye on the weather.

"I've already watched two weather reports while I get my clothes on in the morning." he says. "I may look at three or four weather forecasts, the weather channel, and all the local stations. I'll do this every morning and then sometimes you guess your best."

Once the decision to cut has been made, it becomes a commitment for the whole family. The hay must get into the barn before the weather changes. Delays put the crop at risk. Wettemann's fields typically yield about 4,000 bales per season, with each bale weighing approximately 50 pounds.

The resolve, as well as the fitness, of friends and family members will be tested as the hay is hauled to the barn. The work is relentless, going from sunrise to sunset until the crop is all stored.

"Most people go into the beginning of the season really excited, but I can definitely say that after doing it for weeks on end, you definitely look for the end." Wettemann says.

Family members are ready to lend a hand when needed. They stop by the farm before and after their own jobs to help empty the hay wagons. The process doesn't stop until all the fields are cut or the rain falls. Despite the grueling work, it's a time for family members to get together.

"As we get older and get married and we aren't all on the farm any more, it becomes a social thing." he says. "It is a chance for us to get together, to get the hay in, and to have a cold beer or drink. It is catch-up time."

Wettemann recalls going to Chatfield Hollow with his parents as a reward for a long day in the field. He can remember large picnics with family and friends celebrating the end of haying season.

"Farming, whether it is making hay or whatever, is very demanding work, but it is one of those things families do together." he says.

Riding his tractor through the field, Wettemann has plenty of time to reflect on his life, his family, and both the past and the future. He can remember his grandfather working in the same field, guiding a team of horses to pull a sickle mower to cut the hay, and a dump rake to gather the huge piles. His grandmother, father and uncles used pitchforks to load hay onto a wagon before bringing it into the barn.

These days Wettemann cuts his hay with a tractor-powered haybine, a large machine that cuts the grass and cracks the plants hard stalks to help it dry faster. Tedding flips the hay over to allow its underside to dry before it is raked into windrows. A bail­er collects the loose hay, packs it into bales and ties it with string. The "kicker" shoots the bail from the bailer into the hay wagon, saving lots of labor.

Haying can he a dangerous activity. The equipment is noisy and unforgiving, and the process long and monotonous. Safety is always paramount, so Wettemann introduces his son slowly.

He observes, "Too many accidents happen because people are in a hurry." and then adds "The last couple of years before I go out in the field, I say a quick prayer, not only that everything goes smoothly, but if I have a problem, to give me the knowledge that I can figure something out."

Wettemann estimates that 15 to 20 farms are still making hay in Guilford . Many of them do it to "hang onto a piece of heritage" and because they already own the land and the equipment

"Farming is a tough thing to get into. Startup costs and debt are astronomical. You could never afford the land." Wettemann says.

This hay season has been a struggle against the weather. Constant threats of rain in June made the first cut difficult, while the summer drought prevented the second cutting from reaching its potential. The fields were too dry for the grass to grow to its full height, and subsequently the fields yielded only 250 bails, a mere tenth of the first cut. Wettemann will most likely need to purchase hay from other farmers to feed his animals throughout the winter.

When "Old Red" comes through the field again, will the fifth generation Wettemann be at the wheel? Haying offers this family an opportunity to come together, to share in a common goal, and to follow in the traditions of parents and grandparents. Paul Wettemann can think of nothing greater. Even when he is tired and sore from the work, he knows that he spent the day doing something he loves, with the people he cares about. He says he could not imagine any other life for himself.