While the Sun Shines

The hay harvest is a stressful time

A faint rumble of distant thunder. Safe in my farmhouse kitchen, preoccupied with a dozen other things, I barely hear it. Still, my gut does the tiniest flip-flop. For a second, my brain goes as staticky as an old transistor radio.

We interrupt this moment to worry about the weather. Please do not adjust your sets while we pause to wonder whether that ordinary thunderclap signifies salvation or catastrophe for the hay farm.

The weather has not always had such a visceral hold on me. Once upon a time, in my pre-farming life, I was like practically everyone else I know. Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail really mattered – or so it seemed. What was happening outdoors only seemed to affect me when I was between the climate-controlled vehicle and the climate-controlled building. Oh, sure, it determined what I wore and my power bill and occasionally my social schedule. But until my family’s security rested in the hands of the heavens, I mainly didn’t give a rip what the heavens had in store.

At these moments I am reminded of my younger years and visits to my grandparents’ house on a lake in the mountains of northern Alabama. I couldn’t understand why, virtually every night without fail, they stopped everything to watch the weather on TV. I puzzled over the way they constantly checked the thermometer hanging right outside their kitchen window. It didn’t occur to clueless me that they had vegetable gardens and fishing trips and other valid reasons to care about the climate. Or, perhaps more important, that they were products of an era when Americans were still aware of their connection to the land and their interdependence on nature. Instead, I figured the weather must be one of those things people worry about when they get old and nervous. I vowed that I would never let myself get that old and nervous.

These days, I can’t tell if I am smirking at that know-it-all teenager or if she is smirking at me, because the weather pretty much rules my life. My grandparents’ interest in the temperature and precipitation was a mere passing fancy compared to the nail-biting, sleep-depriving obsessing that goes on in this household.

Our DVR is set to record every single New Orleans TV forecast three times a day. I keep a WWL-TV button at the top of my Web browser so we can get a live radar picture up fast if we need to. The only reason my techno-resistant husband had any interest whatsoever in owning a smartphone is that it would allow him to pull up Doppler while he is on the tractor. We twitch like Pavlov’s dogs whenever we hear the four-note chime announcing “Local on the 8s” – the local forecasts shown every 10 minutes on The Weather Channel. Many a 4 a.m. have I awakened to an empty bed, only to find my husband in the living room, anxiously glued to Channel 362.

To those who have never farmed or known how it feels to have their livelihood riding on a forecast, our frantic weather-watching must seem pretty extreme. Perhaps I should explain. Growing high-quality horse hay may sound easy, but it’s a lot more complicated than just sitting back and watching the grass grow. It’s more like a tango in which every single step revolves around the weather.

Simply put, the farmer needs enough rainfall for a bountiful crop yet not so much that blight and fungi set in. Too little water can stunt the yield and invite still more headaches such as grass-eating army worms that mow down a huge field in days.

Weather also dictates the application of fertilizer, which affects not just the amount of hay we make but also the quality. Fertilizer should be spread immediately before a rain – preferably the right kind of rain with the right soil conditions. If the ensuing rainfall is too torrential and the ground is already hardened from drought, for instance, the fertilizer will simply run off without soaking in. If the forecasted shower never materializes, the fertilizer just sits there, losing potency and doing nothing. Either way, hundreds or likely thousands of dollars have gone to waste.

Finally, after months of work and worry and expense, it all comes down to a split second of opportunity. Harvest time is undoubtedly the single most stressful part of hay-farming. Once the grass is cut, it must be dry and ideally sunny for two or three days. That’s how long it takes to properly cure, bale and haul the hay into a dry shelter. If it rains at any point during this process, hay quality deteriorates, sometimes to the point of total crop loss.

We have several hay fields, and we bale each field several times a season (which is basically May to October).

Inevitably, we lose a cutting or two each season and hopefully no more. That comes with the territory. But it doesn’t make the decision to drop the hammer any easier. Once the grass is “laid down,” we are working without a net. There is not a thing in the world we can do if the sky suddenly decides to open up and swallow our paycheck.

But the local forecast during hay season isn’t the only weather on our mind. Year-round conditions affect us.

Miserable winter weather, for instance, is actually good for our business. Cold horses need more fuel to stay warm, so we sell more hay. In mild winters, we sell less. When spring arrives late, hay socked away for the winter can run short, so that drives our sales. Drought, snow and other severe weather limits pasture grazing and increases the demand for hay, as well as prices.

So the weather is too much with us, and this year is a good example of that. We began the season with a relentless dry spell and searing heat that chopped our early hay production (and income) by half or more. Somehow, we got just enough moisture after that to make a decent second cutting. However, when it came time to harvest (just as we were getting desperate enough to break the piggy bank), it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Not all day or every day – but enough to make cutting hay a desperate gamble. One afternoon downpour was all it would take to sink us, but waiting was just as risky.

The tension was almost physically painful when Harvey finally made the call. He cut early on a Sunday morning when the forecast gave us a so-so shot at three dry days. Then we prayed.

Late Monday afternoon, an ominous glob of bright green and flashing red appeared on the radar northeast of us.

Before long, blue-black clouds stretched to the horizon in three directions. Thunder cracked, and lightning bolts bisected the sky. We closed the blinds and thought about the faith of a mustard seed and Moses parting the Red Sea and anything else we could cling to. Not a drop fell.

On Tuesday morning, the sky was bright blue with some big cream puff clouds and, far away, a few that looked more troublesome. By noon the skies were dark, and the race was on. Harvey worked as fast as our equipment could manage. The last bale left the field as the first sprinkles tickled our arms. It was that close.

There is no worse feeling to a farmer than standing helplessly by as a crop goes to ruin. And there is none finer than looking at an empty field and a barn full of dry hay as sweet rain pours down from on high.
 

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