Updated: Apr 25, 2022
By May Davidson
When haying season arrives, I think back to the days when my husband, Jim, and I were sheep farming. Harvesting hay is an activity dependent on the weather, and our attention was focused on both forecasts and all the folklore we knew.
My diary notes of those days remind me of a typical day of bringing in the hay. Fog and rain can be the biggest problems at haying time. So, when the weather man came through with a glorious forecast of at least three consecutive days of sun, out came the hay mower, rake, tedder, and baler. On this day particular day t was all a snare and a delusion. In full faith of the forecast, Jim mowed the field on the first sunny day. The next day came in cloudy with rain predicted for the afternoon. So much for the three days of perfection.
When the hay was down, we were committed. So, as we had often done in the past, we scrambled together our usual hay-loading crew and Jim tedded, raked, and baled hay for the entire day (a tedding machine drawn by the tractor fluffs the hay and helps it to dry). There had been little dew the night before, and the crop was dry enough to save if we could get it into the barn before rain. On every trip around the field we glanced often at the sky. Clouds darkened by the hour and the wind smelled of rain.
Our process included Jim never getting off the tractor, me watching the windshield and side mirrors of the big and old logging truck I was driving, and the crew bending and lifting and throwing bales that thunked onto the truck to be carefully arranged by the stacker. The diesel tractor hummed, the baler pounded the hay into the baling chamber, the knotters clanged as they tied and cut the twine. Sound and motion was smoothly executed, the symphony of the harvest. There was no stopping in that long day, and we got every last wisp of hay off our field and stuffed it into the barn just as the rain began. The satisfaction was like winning a contest. Mowing a big area of good hay and then losing it to rain is a hard loss.
Hay is a unique product, a wild natural growth full of nutrients, especially if cut and dried quickly. Each variety of grass provides qualities of its own—timothy, clovers, red-top and cow-vetch, its purple-blue blossoms, and that of the rose and white clovers perfectly preserved in sun-dried color. Cows and horses like the coarser stemmed grass while sheep nuzzle around in the hay racks for the finer fibers, particularly relishing the vetches. A barn filled with fresh, sweet scented hay is to farm people as a bank full of gold would be to a miser. The crisp bales are eagerly awaited by the animals.
As we traveled around the field with the tractor, truck, and mechanical equipment, I thought back to how my father harvested his hayfield bounded by saltwater. He used a huge scythe which constantly needed to be sharpened with a whetstone. Then we raked with big wooden-toothed rakes, followed by pitch forking the loose hay into a long hay rick. It was pulled by a team of draft horses, then offloaded by pitch fork into the hay mow of the barn. It was heavy, hard, time-consuming work.
A hay field next to the ocean is the worst to deal with weather-wise because of its proximity to fog. Satellites, radar, and informed weather forecasters didn’t exist when my father hayed. Those who farmed, fished, and spent the better part of their time outdoors developed a sense for the weather as well as some sayings to help their daily plans, such as:
“Clearing skies never come from the east.”
“Blue sky in the north generally means clearing will occur that day.”
“If there is a ring around the moon, however many stars are within the ring is the number of days before rain or a storm.”
“When dew webs appear on the grass in the morning it will nearly always be a clear day.”
“If the wind blows so the underside of tree leaves are showing plainly it will rain within twenty-four hours.”
“A sun dog, a rainbow colored appearance a short distance from the sun, means a storm within a day or two. As does a mackerel sky.”
For us, when the wind brings the ringing of the New Harbor bell buoy, we know a storm is coming soon. This omen rarely fails. Not all folklore is infallible, but it comes amazingly close to accuracy. We are now in an age when the grain and grocery stores can help make up for a family farm’s harvest loss. But way back then, we all survived only on what hard work and weather savvy could produce.
The sweet sweep of a newly mowed field soon produces an emerald velvet cover, and by September it will provide a second crop of tender, leafy hay. To the sheep, and cows this crop is dessert. The haying equipment will come out of the barn again, we’ll listen to NOAA, scan the sky, keen the wind, and hope not to hear the New Harbor bell buoy toll out our rain signal.
May Davidson, author of the memoir Whatever it Takes, was born and raised in Maine. Over the years, they worked at a variety of jobs, including owning a chicken farm, raising sheep, owning a sawmill, and crossing the country as long-haul truckers. She decades she also wrote a column in The Lincoln County News. Many of the essays in her new book, Salt and Roses, first appeared in that newspaper.