Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Making Hay...?

"No, I never said that." So claims the woman at the end of the line, bringing me to the end of mine. Back in June, she said she could get us a winter's worth of haylage from her fields. We were jubilant--the favorite winter food of our cattlefold, sourced locally from another Farmer Woman. "Put us down," we said, meaning, "Add us to your official customer list."

Yesterday we learned that she had, indeed, put us down... that is, she dropped us.

We had called at the request of Iona, Cattlefold Matriarch, who announced with insistent mooings that the pasture grass was about used up, and the musty henhouse hay just wouldn't do. How lovely--how luxurious-- it felt to ring someone up, knowing we'd planned in advance. How wonderful it felt to rest and wait for an answer, knowing her supply would be there to meet our demand... Then came the awkward pause, followed by denial. "I never said that! No, I don't have enough to feed my own!" Turns out the fellow who was supposed to hay two of her fields never did the job.

We asked who, and she gave out a name we've heard for years. It's Farmer Drown, the same guy we tried to get hay from last year, the same guy we get referred back to EVERY time some other tractor operator claims they're just too busy to work our fields. "Why don't you call Farmer Drown?" they all say, "He lives near you." Then we explain, once again, that we have indeed called him. For three years, we've been trying to buy his hay, trying to hire him for tractor work. Farmer Drown never calls back. That's the point where the other guy usually scratches his neck, looks away for a sec, then says, "Yeah, he IS kinda hard to get ahold of..."

"So," we ask Hay Lady, "what's up with Farmer Drown?" After a few choice but unprintable words, she finally blurts what we've suspected, but never dared confirm: "the guy's crawled inside a bottle by noon." Now the familiar knot of anxiety rises in our throats, the well-known dread sinks back into our bellies, and the fragments of the tale fall into place: One man--one capable, strong, experienced local man with barns, livestock, good equipment and fine farmland--has allowed his personal demons to hold not only his own farm hostage, but ours and others as well. Because of his bond with the bottle, animals and families go hungry all over town. Because of this, we must thumb back through old phone logs and retry last year's exhausted list of potential hay suppliers. All this unfolds as the Almanac trumpets a coming winter of bone-chilling, mind-numbing cold.

The cold has settled over us early, indeed, though the thermo- meter shows the mid-sixties. We are cold in anticipation, shivering with stress and fear. We walk outside when the light is most golden, trying to warm ourselves with the beauty of the farmstead. We murmur appreciations at the well-feathered hens strutting in the green September grass, the fattening pigs with their deep bass welcoming grunts, the dear shaggy cows that come running... Then we wearily admit that their affections depend largely on being fed. Our minds spiral back to bald pastures, empty haylofts, and ever-higher grain bills. Back and forth we perilously swing, hoisted and hanging between two passionate extremes: "Why the hell are we farming?" and "Oh, we love this farm so!"

How grand it will be, someday, to look back and laugh at this year's comedy of errors. We'd been congratulating and comforting ourselves all summer over the hay--securing this supply was the one thing we'd done right. Meanwhile, we made the rounds of the aforementioned tractor-operators, trying to find anyone who could disc-harrow our newly-stumped fields. Most had traded in their disc harrows years ago: "Good luck finding one. Nobody uses them now." A few guys had disc harrows, but--curiously enough--were overbooked with work. A handful actually had the grace to come walk the fields and talk the job over, but they all admitted a hearty disinterest, citing other projects with better payback and less "fussy-work."

The last guy showed up two weeks before the last possible pasture-seeding date. We walked down and perambulated the potential pastures. Yes, he had the right equipment, and yes, he could do the job, but it wouldn't come cheap--see, he'd rather be working on his own house, to have it ready for the winter, so he'd charge us a premium for his time! Trying to hide our shock, dismay, and a fair amount of disgust, we continued on with our little farm tour, taking him over to see the orchard and the pigs. "Well, shoot," he said, shoving his John Deere cap back on his balding head as he caught the scent on the mellow breeze, "you didn't tell me you had PIGS."

Leaning towards us with a confidential air, he adjusted his bombast to an almost conciliatory tone: "Now, I'm always happy to save folks money if I can. You don't need me. You don't need my fancy equipment. You've already got most of the equipment you need. Here's what you do: get your lime spread, then lay out some temporary electric lines and fence those pigs out in the new fields. They'll work it over and till it up real fine. Send 'em off to the butcher, hunker down and let the snow fly, then--come Spring--it'll be plantin' time!"

Well, didn't we feel dumb. Good little Luddites like us, spending a whole summer in thrall to the Big Lie of Heavy Equipment, when we could have had our pigs out there tilling. Worst indignity of all--it took a Big Ol' Tractor Man to point the whole blessed truth out to us!

September 15th is the last frost-free sowing date for our "hardiness zone." We still have the pigs, but not enough time to get grass established in this calendar year. That means we can't fulfill the requirements of our farm's Conservation Plan, which had us scheduled for completion of "pasture/hayland planting" in 2008. Our farm has benefited from conservation programs--without them, we could not have afforded good fencing or the field hydrants we had installed last year. Unfortunately, due to this summer's misguided and fruitless tractor-quest, we'll miss out on this year's cost-shares. The money spent for stumping and lime delivery in preparation for tilling, (over $4,000), will haunt us like a phantom limb, aching long after its severance.

So, time to wrap up this entry and get on the phone. Time to see who, among the farmers in nearby towns, might have some hay or haylage they're willing to sell. Then it's time to finish off this year's pigs--maybe with a few weeks in the new fields--and sell all the pork to pay for that hay. Come February, sure hope those cows still appreciate us!

Some farmers make hay while the sun shines. Some farmers make way toward the cheap wines. And some farmers--like us--buy hay while we stun swines.

Wait 'til next year!

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