Mathew and Andy Bienvenu
Melissa Bienvenu photograph
I’m at the wheel of our battered old F150, driving slowly through a field of Bermuda grass. In the driver’s-side mirror, I’m watching dried grass clippings tumble and crest like waves, rolling the hay rake behind the truck. The fresh, sweet smell of hay perfumes the air. Beside me, our sweaty cotton-top naps peacefully on the seat, thumb in mouth. Soon, his big brother will return home from the little league game and his own field of dreams. Just then, my husband’s tractor roars past in a cloud of hay dust. Behind him, the baler stamps out a trail of neat squares stretching from one end of the field to the other. Right on schedule, customers arrive and begin stacking their trailers high with hay. As the shadows grow longer, friends show up bearing ice-cold beverages. We sit around on tailgates, appreciating the view and the satisfaction of a perfect day in the hay field.
On days like this, I let myself hope that this crazy farming thing just might work out after all.
Back when my husband and I were still dating, one of my relatives asked Harvey if his family’s 225-acre dairy farm was a “working farm.” Harvey, bless his heart, just stared at her as if she were speaking Swahili. Here in Washington Parish, the epicenter of the Louisiana dairy industry, there was almost no such thing as a farm that didn’t work or a farmer that didn’t work. You bet your sweet acidopholus a dairy farm is a working farm.
Or at least it was up until the fall of 2003, when market conditions and industry politics collided to produce the kind of bottom-scraping milk prices not seen since the 1970s. Like a lot of other desperate dairy farms, we were circling the drain. Then, along came an unexpected opportunity to get out. We jumped on it like it was the last lifeboat out of the Titanic but the surprise of it all caught us with no Plan B.
What does a working dairy farmer do when there are no more cows to milk? For the last four years, this has been the worrisome question underscoring our very existence.
At first, we talked about getting “real jobs” with regular paychecks, (an ever-fascinating topic in the household of a self-employed farmer and a self-employed writer). But what really happened was we started growing watermelons and vegetables.
Three summers of back-breaking drudgery later, we concluded that produce farming wasn’t the solution for us, either. Then, it dawned on us that the answer to our predicament may have been right there under our noses – or feet – all along.
Back when we were dairy farming, I noticed Harvey liked some parts of the job better than others. Let’s not mince words: He liked making hay for the cows more than he liked the cows. And I, for one, didn’t blame him.
Unlike dairy cows, hay didn’t have to be milked every 12 hours, 365 days of the year, not excluding hurricanes, Christmas or LSU football Saturdays. Hay didn’t tear through fences and go frolicking on the highway, precipitating 3 a.m. phone calls from the sheriff’s department and impromptu Wild West roundups. Hay didn’t fall down sick, sprawled out and helpless, in the middle of the biggest, frozen mud hole it could find on the most miserable night of the year. And best of all, hay didn’t demand to eat every single day, regardless of the price of milk or how scary your account balance was at the feed mill.
Hay, Harvey liked. And, more importantly, hay he knew – ever since he was a little boy building hay tunnels in the barn with his brothers and sisters.
For those who don’t know hay, it’s dried grass. Simply put, you make hay by mowing and curing the grass, then gathering it up into bundles known as “bales.” We grow Bermuda grass, bahia grass, crabgrass and browntop millet. We harvest hay from May until September or October. And we sell round and square bales, mainly for feeding horses and cows.
In the hay business, timing is everything. Grass must be cut at just the right stage of maturity. Then it needs two or three consecutive days of hot, dry weather to cure. The ironic joke in these parts is that if you want to make it rain, just “lay down” some hay. At our house, we live and die by Doppler radar. You know your husband watches too many weather forecasts when not only does he know the name of every meteorologist on TV, he starts giving them nicknames.
Perfect weather conditions are important for several reasons but there are two biggies explaining why you must “make hay while the sun shines.” Reason one: Hay baled too wet can mold and moldy hay can kill a horse. Reason two: Hay baled too wet can rapidly decompose, go through “a heat” and catch on fire. Many a barn has gone up in smoke because of hay that spontaneously combusted. Neither scenario would be all that swell for your hay business.
Once the grass is properly cured, a hay rake full of whirling tines sweeps the clippings into narrow columns or “wind rows.” Next, the hay baler moves up and down the field straddling the wind rows, sucking up the grass and shaping it into densely-packed bales. It ties them with twine and spits them back out. The real grunt work is done by a plunger housed in a box-shaped chamber. Like a fist at the end of a long arm, the plunger violently pounds the loose grass over and over, compacting it into a dense, rectangular shape. When I saw this machine, I finally understood why boxing announcers sometimes refer to a knockout punch as a “haymaker.”
Harvey Bienvenu “making hay.”
In fact, not until I became a farmer’s wife did I realize how many sayings in the English language reference the hay-making process – a lingering reminder of hay’s fundamental role in America’s history. Livestock powered the farm equipment that produced food and hay powered the livestock. Hay was truly the fossil fuel of its day, the building block on which all the rest of it hinged.
Here on our little family farm, hay is still the glue that holds life together. Some days – lots of days – our life feels more like that Edward Muench painting The Scream. And our ongoing struggle to keep this farm working feels like looking for a needle in a, well, you know.
But on other days – like that golden afternoon not long ago – it seems like everything is finally falling into place. Then, I believe we really can see the bright light at the end of these dark and twisting hay tunnels.
If you’d like to contact Melissa Bienvenu with questions, comments or stories of your own, e-mail her at: TheRuralLife@LouisianaLife.com.