Some folks are already in church and at prayer in their Sunday best. Others have strapped on holsters and guns and are patrolling neighborhoods in new squad cars, looking for trouble. Then there are the sunbaked, red-necked farmers who have climbed aboard their sturdy John Deere’s and their durable New Holland’s and who are at work in fields, though the sun is still low on the horizon and there’s a cool breeze in the trees. It’s a near-perfect day to make hay in the hay makin’ time of the year in northern California, a time that will go on and on for weeks and even months. There’s a lot of hay to make in a lot of fields; too many fields to count, too many to see in one day because they stretch from Anderson Valley to Sonoma Valley and beyond.
In my eyes, the men who make hay are a strange, though not an unfriendly, lot. They seem more solitary than most other ranchers and farmers I know, perhaps because they sit by themselves atop their tractors. They can be a quiet lot, except when they get together with fellow haymakers. Then they’re all chatter about the wet, wet winter that’s now just ended, the condition of their fields—it’s rank because of the heavy rains—and about the hay-makin’ machinery that they sometimes share because it’s expensive.
There’s something about laboring men and their machines that seems so very American to me, uplifting and emotional gratifying. That might be pure romanticism on my part. In fact, I am sure it is. Still, I find inspiration in the very idea that farmers wake up early in the morning, even on Sundays, put on boots, jeans and T-shirts and tromp through thick, green pastures. “Pastures of plenty” I call them. The haymakers I know are men who are eager to work and who enjoy laboring in the outdoors, without a roof overhead, except the sky, and without walls to close them in. The act of makin’ hay seems to get them high. Usually they don’t have anyone standing over them, clocking them in or clocking them out. They’re their own taskmasters.
The haymakers do honest work and they do it without asking for applause or recognition. Doug Mosel is one of them. The founder of the Mendocino Grain Project, he’s been busy makin’ hay in Anderson Valley and workin’ round the clock. The other day, he was too busy to talk to me, except briefly and then he turned the subject to the Mendocino Grain Project, his pride and joy. “See me again in July,” Mosel said. “I’ll have time to talk then.” And then he was gone.
But Mosel’s friend, partner, and fellow haymaker, Stuart Schroeder was in the mood to chat. So we chatted about hay and horses on a Sunday morning when bombs were no doubt exploding in distant lands and when refugees were no doubt running from drones and soldiers in and out of uniforms. It seems a miracle that a small corner of the world is at peace, that Schroeder doesn’t have to worry about snipers and explosive devices, though on the Sunday I visited his farm he did have to move the irrigation pipe in his field before he could get on his tractor and make hay. But that was no big deal, and I helped him do it. Schroeder irrigates his fields after he cuts down the hay; another farmer uses it to graze his cattle. So that field works doubly hard.
“Because of the rains this year there will be a lot of hay on the market,” Schroeder told me. “Some of it will be crummy and some of it will be top notch and really good for horses.” Schroeder added, “Horses have sensitive stomachs. Some of them pig out and get fat and that’s not good. You have to keep an eye on your horses.”
Schroeder grows some of the best hay in northern California. Maybe that’s because he knows when to cut it. “I time it,” he told me. “I cut it when it’s in bloom and has peak energy. That’s before it goes to seed.” Schroeder hopes to sell a bail of hay that will weigh between fifty and sixty pounds for $5. When I asked him how many bales he expected to have at the end of the hay makin’ season, he said, “I don’t think that way.” That seems like a good idea. The pot farmer who thinks about the total weight at harvest is probably too focused on profit to pay attention to the process of growing. It’s the same for the grape grower who adds up the tonnage before the first grapes are picked. Better to be in tune with the seasons and to go with the flow than to be driven by the dollar and the weight on the scale. That’s how I feel about it. That’s how it has worked best for me.
Schroeder has horses that eat the hay that he makes. He uses the horses to plow the fields in which he grows vegetables and melons and that he sells to loyal customers. Using the tractor to cut hay saves a lot of time and energy.
When I first arrived in northern California forty-two years ago, I thought that fields dotted with bales of hay were some of the most beautiful sights to behold. I still feel that way. Now I know the stories behind the bales of hay, and now I know the lives of some of the men who make hay when the sun shines and when spring is in the air, and red-winged birds tart overhead and the whole earth comes to life again. Hay markers may not think of themselves as artists but I do. Their fields are their canvases. Looking at those fields is an aesthetic experience for me. See if you don’t agreed. Next time you pass a field filled with bales why not pull over to the side of the road and take in the spectacle. You might have a new appreciation for the art of makin’ hay.