Straw houses

Farm Forum

The story of the three little pigs – that intrepid trio of real estate tycoons – is best known for its building code violations.

As you may recall, the first little pig built a house made of straw. The big bad wolf came along and asked the porker to join him for dinner, an offer the little pig wisely refused. The wolf took this rejection badly (he was bad, after all) and responded by blowing the straw house down. This tragedy was later compounded when the shell-shocked shoat filed an insurance claim and was informed that his policy didn’t cover “losses due to huffing and/ or puffing that are of a lupine origin.”

The implied moral of this part of the story is that straw is a substandard construction material. I would have to take exception to this implication.

Straw is a byproduct of small grain production. It’s a common substance that is often repurposed for other uses, much in the same way that 80s rock tunes such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” have been repurposed into karaoke songs.

Small grain harvest takes place in the middle of summer. Its straw is baled immediately afterwards, which means that straw baling operations often occur when daytime temperatures are approximately a million degrees in the shade.

Dad always raised a few acres of oats each summer. The grain was destined for calf feed and its straw was baled and used all around the farm for animal bedding. Our oats field was essentially a huge mattress factory for our cattle.

We could have planted other small grains, but Dad insisted that oat straw was the softest. My experience was that oat straw was the itchiest.

At least that’s how it felt for me as Dad pulled our baler back and forth across the seemingly endless acres of straw windrows. The ca-chunking machine slurped up the golden rows of straw and hammered them into 50-pound rectangles of itchiness. It was my brothers’ and my job to ride on a flatbed that was hitched behind the baler and catch and stack the bales. The field was often rough; stacking the straw bales was like building a Jenga tower while riding on a pitching rowboat.

Once we had filled the flatbed, Dad would tractor the load of straw to the farmyard. We would ride atop the fruits of our labors, surveying the surrounding countryside like kings upon a swaying, gilded throne. Hellish waves of heat rose from the stubble field and washed over our high perch.

Dad would back the flatbed up to the door of the haymow on our dairy barn. It having been determined that bale elevators were for sissies, it fell onto me to heave the bales up into the barn. This wasn’t too difficult at first but it became progressively harder as the load disappeared and my platform shrank. By the end of the load, virtually every bale had to be hoisted above my head. Clouds of itchiness rained down on me with each grunting toss.

It wasn’t much better in the haymow. All seven of my siblings were recruited to carry the bales to the far end of the hayloft, where the straw was stacked nearly to the rafters. A haze of straw dust obscured the air. It was like doing an aerobics workout inside a dust-filled blast furnace.

But the rewards were tremendous, and I don’t just mean in terms of our cattle having cushy beds.

After the weather cooled, the stack of straw bales became our playground. We repurposed the bales to build castles and forts and complex networks of secret tunnels. A thick hemp rope had been attached to the apex of a barn rafter and we used straw bales to construct a platform from which we would swing. Our parents informed us that our Tarzan yodeling scared the cows so deeply that they gave curdled milk.

Mother cats birthed their litters in hidden niches deep inside the straw stack. There was no greater thrill than the treasure hunt that ensued when we noticed that an extremely pregnant mama kitty had suddenly become skinny. We would prowl through the bales, looking for clues, listening for the tiny, high-pitched mews. It was crucial – every bit as important as beating the Russians in the space race – that the kittens be found so that they could be named and tamed.

The straw stack in the hayloft was our wonderland, our Fortress of Solitude, our Kingdom of Oz. The only limits were those imposed by our vivid imaginations.

So as you can see, straw can actually be a superior construction material. You simply have to know how to repurpose it properly.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His new book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.