Making Hay While the Sun Shines

By Joe Tougas

Cold Comfort Farm took the “Farm” seriously. We thought of ourselves on the model of agricultural co-ops. We wanted to be independent, creative, revolutionary. We were pretty smug about our accomplishments. Although our knowledge of small-scale farms was spotty and romanticized (not to mention borderline illegal) we were proud of our worn-out overalls and home-grown strawberries and broccoli. Our most ambitious ventures were in the field of animal husbandry. We kept a couple of goats, dozens of chickens, a couple of barn cats (outdoor only), a flea-bitten German Shepherd, an indeterminate number of rabbits, a horse or two, a lamb and its mother, some geese to act as security patrol, and, ironically, pigs.

The animal population would fluctuate seasonally. For example, the new batch of chicks would arrive in the early spring, and they would go into a large cardboard box in an out-of-the-way corner with a fifteen watt bulb. They were sexed, sort of, and quickly grew to the size of pigeons. Soon it became clear that the chicks were not all female. At that point the season of killing began. A litter of kittens here, a lamb there . . . it’s called “culling the herd.”

The amazing—and terrible— fecundity of life, by which we come to understand how farmers make their living, and then shared their bounty with the rest of  us parasites. Every generation needs a few girls and boys who stand ready to play the role of gatekeepers of the idyllic life of the barnyard. And these children, soon to be young farmers, need an older farmer to wield the knife and shovel. A mentor who is wise in the ways of country life, willing to share that wisdom with those new would-be farmers who are just coming along, whether they were long-haired and bearded, or straight-laced and devout. One such mentor was Henry Winn. 

“Hank” was a hay farmer who lived between Olympia and Shelton, at the end of Whitaker Road. Judging from the outbuildings totally buried in twelve-foot high blackberry brambles and the rusting hulks of antiquated farming equipment this was obviously a declining family enterprise of several generations. And Hank was in need of a younger recruit to keep the place going into the future. “I ain’t getting any younger,” he often said over a glass of sweet wine. There were several houses on that road, and Hank’s sister, brother-in-law, as well as several nieces and nephews shared fragments of the family homestead. Most of them shared the family name. None of them seemed to have any interest in raising calves and repairing old tractors, not to mention hoisting sixty-pound hay bails.

Times were changing, and those changes were disrupting the usual pace of life in this corner of southwest Washington. You could hear a kind of curious unease if you paid close attention to what people were talking about in the older, established shops and businesses. You might hear worried conversation at the local tavern, a place called Character’s Corner, at the intersection of Whitaker Road and Highway 101. One way or another the word got around that there was a bunch of hippies who had moved onto a piece of semi-forested land not far down Bloomfield Road. The consensus at the bar was that this was part of the flood of students who had been attracted to the area by the new college that had just opened. There was the expectable gossip about how the newcomers might behave, dress themselves (or not dress themselves), and what their coming might mean for property values.

Over the course of several weeks that topic had more or less run its course, mainly due to the lack of any new information about the counterculture invasion. But then one evening one of the regulars at the tavern showed up with some fresh grist for the conversation mill: One of the local farmers had been approached by a young couple enquiring about buying some bales of hay. Apparently they were planning to raise goats. That farmer had to give them the disappointing news that he had sold off the last of his hay, and that he wouldn’t have any more until the new crop was cut and baled. He was, however, able to tell the young folks that he thought old Hank Winn still had a few bails in the back of his hay barn. Country folks keep track of such things. The next evening Hank showed up at the tavern with a big smile on his face. This was not an everyday occurrence, since Hank was a pretty low key individual. “Heh Hank, you look like the cat that ate the canary. I think you must have made a fortune in the hay market today. Shame on you if you just took advantage of a couple of starry-eyed, would-be goat farmers, selling them straw for alfalfa.”  

“No, actually I gave it to them cheap on account of it being the last of the old crop. No, I’m not smiling because of last year’s hay, I’m smiling about this year’s. I think I just hired me a crew to help me with this year’s bailing. Now all I need is a weeks of good weather.”

“Ya, well good luck on that buddy.”

One of the “starry-eyed farmers” who actually knew a thing or two about farmers was Mike Nordstrom, a.k.a Wyoming. As the nickname suggests, Mike was a country boy. Mike had a sincere love of hard outdoor work, topped with a glass of wine, sitting on the porch, watching the sun go down. He soon became good friends with Hank, who could provide the three essential ingredients: the porch, the work, and the wine. Hank’s hay crop was excellent, both in quality and quantity. Mike could recognize the challenge Hank was facing. In order to have a successful year Hank needed to get his fields cut, bailed, and stacked in his barn when the moisture in the bales was just right. An untimely shower, or even a couple of misty mornings could cause molding which could decrease the value of the product. Worse, it could cause fermentation of the hay, which could generate enough heat to cause spontaneous combustion and a fire that could destroy the whole place.

As Mike and Hank sat together that hot August evening they had no need to discuss, or even mention the perennial dangers facing farmers. They had more interesting, and more exciting things to talk about. At 6:00 a.m. the next morning the bailing would begin. Over the last several days, Hank and Mike had gone over every piece of equipment needed to do the job: the New Holland  bailer, the tractor, lowboy trailer, the electrical conveyor belt, the hay rake, etc. Mike had noticed the previous day that Hank had neglected to purchase the big spool of hay-wire. He sped off to the farm supply store and came back spouting jokes about how the whole thing could have “gone haywire.” 

Mike was especially excited about the crew from Cold Comfort that would provide the manpower to get the bails on to the trailer and stacked in the barn. The gang consisted of Mike, Bill, Dan, and me. Richenda, Ernestine, and Cindy would be arriving at noon with a big jug of iced lemonade, a large roasting pan of chicken and dumplings, and a huge salad, fresh from the Cold Comfort garden. As we sat down to eat there were no snide remarks about the bourgeois Americana—we looked like a Norman Rockwell version of a day on the farm with the men and the women playing the stereotypical roles. We were hungry and the food tasted great. We knew that at the end of the day we would have another great meal, only with beer instead of lemonade for the first course.

By the middle of the afternoon Hank knew that he had made the right decision in hiring the “hippie crew,” as the guys at Character’s Corner insisted on calling Hanks scruffy looking team. 

It was August 8, 1974, the day of Nixon’s resignation.