Jerry Nelson: Haystack memories

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

The story goes that a young farmer was driving his city girl bride home from their wedding. Pointing at a passing field, the young lady asked, “What’s that?”

“Those are haystacks,” the husband replied.

“I wasn’t born yesterday!” fumed the wife. “I know darn well that hay doesn’t grow in stacks!”

I know darn well that the lady was correct: hay doesn’t grow in stacks. Hay has to be cut and cured and muscled and molded into those prodigious piles of fragrant fodder.

I grew up in an era when iconic haystacks dotted the countryside like so many house-sized bread loaves. Constructing those stacks was more art than science. It was the sort of thing that only a true maestro of manual labor could pull off, a job that was highly coveted by many but mastered by just a chosen few.

At least that’s what Dad told me when I was still knee high to a Holstein. Dad made the hay stacking process sound so glamorous that I longed for the day when I would finally be entrusted to pick up a pitchfork and engage in an epic battle with the forces of alfalfa disorder.

That day came soon enough. Before I had memorized the multiplication tables, I was learning how to divide wads of hay, adding a fraction of a forkful here or a whole one there. Meanwhile, Dad used a comb-like attachment on our loader tractor to dump gobs of hay that were the size of a boxcar onto the growing haystack. Dad’s sole interaction with the hay began and ended with pulling a couple of levers on the loader.

It didn’t take long soon after itchy alfalfa chaff had found its way into every possible orifice to figure out who had the best job. Maestro, indeed!

We used the “freeform” method for making haystacks, another term for “by guess and by golly.” The footprint of each stack was unique, although their heights were uniform. Our haystacks were exactly as tall as the apex of the loader’s reach.

Completing a stack gave one a deep sense of accomplishment along with a set of blistered hands. It was satisfying to look down from the top of a finished haystack, albeit a bit scary due to the altitude. The stacks were so lofty that their summits nearly tickled the clouds.

Each fall, our neighbor George Tate would haul our haystacks to our farmstead with his truck-mounted stack mover. The stack moving process always fascinated me. First, the truck’s bed tilted until it touched the ground. The truck would then creep slowly rearward as a series of toothed chains eased the haystack steadily upward and onto the bed. When the process was completed, it looked as though the truck had picked up a barn.

George parked the stacks aside one another in a spot that made it convenient to pitch hay to our Holsteins. The humungous loaves of fodder were a playground for my siblings and me.

Clambering up the sheer sides of the stacks was a challenge that was akin to scaling El Capitan. Once on the summit, you quickly became tempted to try to leap from one stack to the next. If you didn’t make it, a layer of loose hay on the ground would cushion your fall.

It was enormously pleasurable to simply sit atop of a haystack and survey the horizon. Being closer to the sky made it easier to dream about our futures. What would we be when we grew up? A doctor? A lawyer? A doctor whose patients are all lawyers?

Never did I imagine becoming a published writer.

When the winter’s first snows fell, Dad would pronounce that it was time to open up a stack. As the pitchfork tore a hole in the hay, the perfume of alfalfa curing in the hot afternoon sun would flood the air with summertime memories. It was like opening an aromatic time capsule. I could see the wisdom behind all that work.

When I was 21, I rented a farm and started a small dairy operation. My cows needed hay, so I purchased two stacks from George Tate.

The newly arrived haystacks proved too tempting, so I scrabbled up one of them and sat on top. Sam, my fanatically devoted Blue Heeler, whined at me from the ground.

“Come on up, you silly dog!” I urged. After a few seconds of frenzied scrambling, Sam reached the summit. He sat beside me, smiling and panting.

As we gazed at the horizon, I said, “It doesn’t get any better than this, does it?”

Sam responded by licking the side of my face. I took that as a yes.

Jerry Nelson