Monday, 18 July 2011

Haymaking


It's been a big week here on the farm; so big, a journal entry is required. But so big too that, here in the lull that follows, my memory is already confused. I'm setting down events as I remember them; I could be wrong.

The core of it has been hay. We decided, early in the year, to put the majority of the farm down to hay as needing least work. We all knew that this would be a busy year...

We've needed to harvest the hay for a while; it's been ready. Finn had bought - out of his own pocket, as his own property - the basic equipment needed: a mower, a hay-bob, a baler. All of them were old, second hand, sold, in fact, as scrap. But Finn, our smith, is talented with metal mechanisms, and he fettled them up and made them work.

Cutting hay in Scotland is gambling. Once it's cut, it needs to dry in the field for a few days before it can be baled. To aid it drying evenly, one must turn it regularly - hence the need for the hay-bob, a device which in one configuration lifts loose hay up and throws it backwards in a wake as from a speed-boat, and in another gathers it up into neat rows to await the baler. The thing is, you need a run of (reasonably) dry days; you have to time your cut to fit between one Atlantic depression and the next.

The first time I thought we had an opportunity to cut, Finn wasn't ready. The second time, Finn judged the weather wouldn't hold (he was right; it didn't). Last Tuesday was the third time. Alex and I were on the sawmill cutting wood. We were concerned about the hay cut. All the hay cutting machinery is Finn's, and he wasn't happy about anyone else but Willie using it. Finn's first baby was due that day. But, as we were muttering, Finn and Willie turned up, and through the day we saw and heard them working on the north croft, cutting and turning. Also on Monday, Alex and Alice's caravan arrived, on Mark Wilson's huge trailer.

Mark is a farmer from Screel, the other side of the village. He fits every urbanite's stereotype of a farmer, a man more of muscle than of mind but with an inexhaustible supply of agricultural anecdote. His father and grandfather were famous locally for their heavy horses, but Mark's metier is machinery: tractors, diggers, harvesters. The bigger the better.

One day, one croft cut. We had four to cut...

Wednesday, I set the day aside mainly to help with haying, but Finn and Willie weren't ready for help, so I got on with the office instead, with some help from the kids. Outside, Alex and Alice were sawing. Finn's baby was being born. Willie was cutting and turning the electric croft. By late afternoon, Finn was back and baling; Alice and I went down to help by stacking bales, clearing space for the baler to work; about seven, Finn had finished baling for the day, and after some discussion with the others, I walked home over the hill, calling Penny back from hunting rabbits in the hilltop gorse as I went.

Thursday morning as I walked back up to the steading I saw to my surprise what appeared to be a massive haystack on the north croft. In fact, it turned out to be something better: Mark Wilson had returned shortly after I had left, and, with Alex, Alice and some others, had got the caravan off his trailer and stacked it instead with some two hundred and fifty bales. By ten o'clock the whole gang had assembled, and, with the dew evaporating, while Finn continued to bale the north croft, Alex got his mog hitched up to the trailer, and pulled it back to the old byre in the steading. We offloaded the bales by hand, stacked them, went back out to the field, filled the trailer again.

When I was a child we did the hay harvests like this: pulled in everyone who was available and manhandled bales onto and off trailers. At age eleven it was my job to drive the tractor which ferried bales back to the barn, because everyone who was strong enough to lift a bale was lifting bales. But by my teens we used the 'square eight' system: a special sledge, pulled behind the baler, automatically arranged the bales into a two by four square, and released them in that square into the field. A special grab on the front loader of a tractor lifted those eight bales together, and laid them together onto the trailer, rapidly building stacks. Hay harvest became quicker and needed less hands. Since then, of course, most commercial farmers have moved onto round bale systems - bales so large they cannot be manhandled, can only be moved by machinery.

But here at Standingstone, this year and probably for the forseeable future, we're fifty years in the past. We don't even have a bale elevator. We don't ourselves have a trailer suitable for moving bales. And here at Standingstone, on Thursday, with rain forecast on Friday, Finn was still baling on the North Croft. Ruth phoned James Baird, another local farmer who still has old fashioned square baling kit, and asked him to come to turn and bale the electric croft.

Meantime, under bright warm sunlight, with Mark's huge trailer filling like a top-heavy Spanish treasure galleon, we cruised around the North Croft collecting another great load of bales, and ferried them back. At some stage we stopped, briefly, for lunch. At some stage, Ruth, going down to the village for more diesel for the tractors, returned with ice lollies. By four it was clear that we would struggle to get all the bales in - we were not finished on the North Croft, not started on Electric Croft - and we phoned round friends to try to drum up more help. Friends came, and we worked through the evening, bringing home a third great galleon-load. And though it was hard work, I think the whole crew were finding it fun.

Finally, every bale from the North Croft - dry and pale and sweet smelling - was safe in the old byre. I arranged tarps over the damaged skylights in the byre roof. We ate an impromtu evening meal at Ruth's. and then went to stook the bales on the Electric Croft, to expose them to air; they hadn't really had enough drying time, nor been turned enough. Cloud was blowing in threateningly from the west, but there was no more we could do. The light was fading from the sky. All of us were stumbling with exhaustion. We went our various ways home, and, as usual, I collected Penny from her happy hunting ground in the gorse.

Friday was an altogether different game. Alice, Meg and Rosie had a dental appointment. Finn was caring for his new family. Willie, who's mother's funeral had been on Thursday, was (unsurprisingly) not back. Also, it was cold and windy, and the threat of rain was lowering on the air. So it was a reduced crew - Alex, Ruth, Gavin, Kein, myself and, after a short while, Girl Alex - who set to work.

Our plan had been to make stacks in the field, and get as many bales as we could back to the Void to dry under cover. But there weren't enough of us, and we were all exhausted. So we built one stack - not very large, and frankly, not very good - and filled the big trailer just once before the storm came in. In the wind and the beginnings of stinging rain, we struggled to get tarpaulins over the lot; the rest of the bales we just stooked. Fortunately, James arrived with fresh muscles, and helped greatly.

I staggered home through wind and thin rain, made myself a good meal, and turned in early.

I was awoken at half past three in the morning by torrential downpour combined with wind which whipped my wood, setting the summer palace swaying. Spray drifted in on the wind, making everything damp. I thought of my impromptu tarpaulins on the skylights, and realised that they weren't likely to survive this weather. So I got up, and dressed, and trudged up to the farm, and spent two hours fighting with tarpaulins before the rain front blew through and I went back to my damp bed. But I was up again before lunchtime, to go into Castle Douglas to buy some corrugated plastic sheet as a better repair to the skylights. With help from James, I got that in place. And then I went back to bed.

While all this was happening on our land, beyond the dyke the Wickerman festival - still in theory a week away - was starting to set up its tents and staging. For fifty-one weeks of the year, my wood is one of the quietest and most undisturbed places in Scotland. This week? Not so much. Machinery, shouting, bashing and clanging, and the occasional blast of over-loud music goes on from dawn until dark. Nevertheless, through Sunday I mostly slept.

Today is Monday. The stooks on the Electric Croft are mostly still standing, but they're awfy wet. The tarps on the stacks are still in place. My home, too, is wet, and bitter cold forbye. The wild weather persists, and the noise beyond the dyke destroys the peace. I'm still tired. I'm damp - my bed is damp, my clothes are damp - and I'm filthy. I hate being filthy...

In truth I'm a little demoralised. Thursday was brilliant. We all worked together. We had a great time. But we got one croft's worth of hay won. Another croft is cut and may still be won, but the longer it sits wet in the field the less chance we have of winning it. And whether we win it or not, we'll have to pay James Baird for baling it. Two crofts aren't even cut, and, if they continue to be beaten down by the weather, won't be worth cutting. Even if we can cut them, I'm not sure we can get the gang together for that sort of heroic effort again. And our late sown barley is looking very poor, while our neighbours is already in ear and starting to ripen. I think it's likely that we're going to make a loss on farming operations this year.

We've also exposed tensions that we need to resolve, about how we manage the land. Amongst all the other things the question has suddenly blown up over whether or not our produce is certified organic - because the farm has had no money, we've been delaying paying our dues to the Soil Association. Now, they're insisting on us getting our return in today. Amongst everything else on Friday there were tense discussions about whether this was worth it. And the issue of the farm having no machinery of its own, and having to hire Finn's or bring in outside contractors, also needs to be addressed.

There's been a great deal positive in this week. But it's also been tough.
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