In addition, the list of poets who’ve waxed lyrical about haymaking is infinite, from Marvell in the 17thC, Dickinson in the 19thC, and, in the 20thC, Frost. Then there is our own Louis MacNeice:
Last Before America
A spiral of green hay on the end of a rake:
The moment is sweat and sun-prick … children and old women
Big in a tiny field, midgets against the mountain,
So toy-like yet so purposed you could take
This for the Middle Ages.
The last line of MacNiece’s poem doesn’t necessarily ring true today with the development of agricultural machinery on a grand scale. Given the acreage of some of our fields these days, haymaking couldn’t be conducted without the use of giant machines such as combine harvesters. Over the years, we’ve become used to these monsters on our roads, often looming out of the dark on late summer evenings.
But what of the smallholder with average size fields … such as those found in much of rural Ulster, including the Kingdom of Mourne? Here, while machinery on a smaller scale is still mostly a necessity, much of the heavy work … as in MacNiece’s poem … is still done by hand. As I recently learnt, bringing in the sheaves can be backbreaking work. And should you be unfortunate enough to suffer from hayfever … well, I leave it to your imagination.
I confess to being a newcomer to haymaking and largely ignorant of the technical terms used to describe the process. However, in late summer I’ve grown used to the obsessive conversations of my farming relatives, who avidly watch and listen to weather forecasts, trying to decide when there might be a window of opportunity to cut and dry their hay. In Northern Ireland there may not be many of these ‘windows’, even in high summer, so I was fortunate to be there this year when one occurred. It seemed the hay was ripe for cutting and … praise be … the sun was shining.
The first issue is finding someone to cut and bale your hay as many smallholders don’t possess the necessary machinery. Time to call in the neighbours, who, as I discovered, are only too willing to help at harvest time … for soon they will be cutting their own hay and the favour will be repaid in kind.
Along then comes the farmer friend with his tractor and mower. Weather permitting, the sea of yellowing grasses soon lie in cut swathes and the field has become a hunting ground for local birds, including the growing kite population. As the tractor chugs around the field in neat circles I watch a pair of buzzards hover and dive, picking off exposed field mice, while a flock of acrobatic house martins feast on swarms of disturbed insects.
Now the farmers’ conversations about the weather become ever more frenzied. The cut hay must be raked regularly, turned over to allow it to dry out properly. This hay will provide winter feed for my relatives’ horses. Should it rain and the hay not be properly dry when baled it will be poor quality, the high moisture content making it fit only for haylage.
Fortunately, with a few scares along the way, the weather holds, and for three long days the hay is regularly raked and turned, until dry enough to be baled. With the rake attached to the tractor the farmer performs this task several times a day. Although the fields are just average size this can be a very time-consuming job, not to mention a very dusty one. Most of the farmers I came across didn’t wear any protection at all and by the end of the day had red-runny and painful eyes as a result.
Finally … the hay is ready to bale. Back comes the friendly farmer with his baler and soon the loose swathes become bound bales, scattered about the field like gold blocks from a Minecraft game. Time to load and store them in the big barn, all ready for winter forage. This is not a job for one or two people so by late afternoon more friends arrive. Several tractors and trailers … of varying antiquity … begin their work. The weather forecast gives rain overnight. The hay must be stored before dark. The whole countryside buzzes with the noise of tractors and balers. Everyone is urgently making hay.
Time now for the hardest work of all: if you’re a newcomer to the task you learn pretty quickly that bales are heavy and tossing them up onto a trailer requires considerable effort. Then you watch the experts, the friends who’ve come along to help. It’s clear there’s a bit of a knack to this job and soon, the task becomes a little less onerous. Grab the bale here, get your knee under it there …. Still, if the bales aren’t tightly bound … as is the case … the whole process becomes just that bit more difficult. In some rural areas, machinery is old and much-used. Some tractors and balers may have been around for decades. Over time the bales become looser, harder to grab without wrecking the bale.
As darkness falls, the workers hoist the last remaining bales onto the trailers and the tractors head down through the fields for the final time. Storing the hay is a feat in itself, as it grows ever higher in the barn, always stacked with the cut side upwards. You don’t want that lot to fall on you so care is needed right up to the last minute.
Then, with the barn stacked to capacity with its sweet-smelling golden bounty, it’s time to repair to the farmhouse kitchen. Everyone is dusty, dirty and sweaty … a far cry from the artists’ romanticized vision of rustic charm. In the hot kitchen, though the hour is late, a hearty meal awaits … and beer to slake the thirst that everyone’s built up. All the workers are dog-tired and the task will have to be repeated tomorrow, this time on someone else’s farm. Nonetheless, the mood is jolly. Everyone’s laughing and cracking jokes. Yes, the weather held and the hay is in. The horses will be well-fed this winter.