Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Outside of the box

Our baler is essentially a box with attachments. Rolling pickups lift the dried alfalfa from the ground and feed it into a giant screw. The screw directs the alfalfa into a three sided box. When the box is full, a plunger compresses the hay, metal needles and knotters tie two strings around the firm rectangle, and then the plunger pushes a fifty pound bale of hay out the back of the box. Dave repairs the baler when necessary, but most of the work involved with baling takes place outside of the box.

Dave learned to bale from his grandfather fifty years ago. I learned from Dave thirty years ago. We begin baling as soon as the dew dries and put the hay in the barn in the late afternoon when the day is the hottest. For most of the years we've been farming, we have worked with three people building a load on the wagon, one person to drive the tractor and two on the wagon. Then we need three to four people working at the barn, one or two to unload the wagon and three or four in the barn stacking bales. It worked well as long as we had kids at home or friends of kids or kids of friends to help out.

In the last few years, Dave and I baled on our own, taking turns driving and building the load. We hired four Somali boys to help put the hay in the barn. This year Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, fell during baling. During that month, Muslims don't eat or drink anything between sunset and sunset. Dave feels that it's dangerous for the kids to be working in the ninety degree heat in our barn without drinking water so we were at a loss to find workers. A Somali friend asked if we could put the hay in the barn in the morning when it was still cool.

What a great idea. The only change we had to make was to cover the filled hay wagons with big plastic tarps every night in case of rain or heavy dew.

Our young workers were mostly ninth graders, slender and not used to hot, hard work. Ato helped me transfer bales from the wagon to the bale elevator that moves the bales into the barn. Usually, I either did it myself or had one of the boys drag the bales across the wagon so that I could load the elevator. Ato suggested that we lift each bale together. We each grabbed one twine with both hands, walked across the wagon and lifted the bale onto the elevator together. It was so much easier.

In three days, baling had changed. We could do things more easily and coolly just by thinking outside of the box.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


We have finished the spring lamb roundup. They are all weaned, vaccinated against over eating and internal parasites and “branded” with a dot of orange spray paint. The paint is a “just in case” measure. We lift each lamb over the fence after we give it its shots, but sometimes a lamb gets excited and jumps over the fence, or a big group of lambs run right through the fence and knock it down. Without the brands we wouldn’t know who had been done.

This year we also weighed each lamb to see if lambs born in April gain weight faster than lambs born in the cold of February. So far, it doesn’t look like we’ve learned anything useful. Single lambs gain weight faster than twins; twins gain faster than triplets and everybody gains faster than quadruplets. We already knew that. When the quads were born, we knew they’d still be tiny and too small to sell until well into 2014. But they are so much fun we don’t mind. I’ll have to sit down with my salesreceipts from last year to see how early we had 70 pound lambs and how fast the rest reached 70 pounds. As of last Friday, we had one 80# lamb, four 64 – 68 # lambs and a lot of 50# lambs.
We worm the moms first, giving each animal an orange bindi on their forehead after the shot. Then Dave picks up a lamb and hands it over the fence to me. We weigh it, give it two shots and spray a dot of orange on its tail. The lambs practically jump out of our arms to get away. When all the lambs have been marked, we enclose them in a corner of the barn and open the ewe’s pen. We chase the ewes out of the barn and through six pastures, hoping to keep them moving until they reach the farthest pasture from the barn without having any turn around and run back for their lambs. This year things went very well. The ewes all ended up in the far pasture and the lambs settled noisily into the home pasture. It will be several days before they stop calling for each other.

Weaning is hard on everybody. Dave and I each lift every lamb at least once. After they’ve been separated from their moms (by even a few feet) some of the lambs start to cry. Then their moms cry. Then of course, other lambs get upset because of all the crying and they start to cry, and their moms join the chorus. By the time we finish, our arms are weak, our ears are ringing, and our throats are sore from shouting to each other.

We will keep the moms and babies in separate pastures from now on. Even weeks later, if they get together, the babies start nursing again. Moms who are still producing milk very seldom get pregnant. So if we want to breed our sheep in October, we need to have a roundup and wean them in June.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


One of our friends who raises strawberries and beef cattle mentioned that farming is more a life style choice than a livelihood. I think it’s also a culture and as such, has its own peculiarities.

It is a culture of appreciation for new lambs in the spring, for fences stretched taut and gates that are sound, and for fresh hay drying in the field under a cloudless sky. It is a culture of hope against the odds. If you cut too early, the alfalfa has a lot of water in it and dries too slowly and doesn’t come back as well. If you cut too late, the thistles in the fields are beginning to go to seed. If you cut at just the right time, it will still might rain or the machinery might break down. It is a culture of hard work. Each bale of hay weighs 50 pounds and we lift it at least three times to get it stacked in the barn.

Baling is always an interesting time of year.

Dave struggles to make sure that the machinery works – it’s old machinery.
He struggles to find helpers – we have several young friends in the Somali community in town and they round up three or four junior or senior high friends to help. But it is hard to depend on workers whose first language is not English and who have never done farm work before.
I struggle with cultural differences. When I work with Somali boys and men, they persist in trying to snatch every bale from the baler and stack it, leaving me with no job. I know that they think they are protecting me, but I don’t find it charming; I find it a pain in the neck. It is exhausting to build a load on a wagon by yourself. I want these guys to keep working for three or four wagon loads a day. I don’t want them exhausted too soon. The Somalis also have to learn to take orders from a woman. Until we get to know each other they tend to listen politely to what I tell them and then to continue doing things in their own way. If we were working in Somalia, in their hayfield, that would make sense. But we’re working in Minnesota in my hay field and I know what I’m talking about. They have to learn to follow my direction if they want to be invited back to help with baling next month. Of course, just like some of our American employees, they may not want to help bale the next crop of hay. We’ve had American kids and Somali kids work a few hours and suddenly remember they had other pressing previous commitments. We’ve had Somali kids and American kids work hour after hour, day after day, trying to learn what we’re teaching and working as hard as they can to get it right.

This summer, we have a young Somali man who comes to the farm to help after his college classes and his work study job are done and if his wife doesn’t need help with their children. Although he still has trouble letting me pick up a bale, he loves working on the farm.

Farming is indeed a lifestyle choice, a culture of sorts.