By Kori Flowers
The worst job I’ve ever had wasn’t so much a paid position for an employer as it was a necessary chore.
I live on 247 acres of land that my parents, in their words, “pretend to farm.” They both have steady jobs of their own, so the farm—just north of Mille Lacs in Wealthwood Township—is more for the pleasure of raising animals and growing our own food than for generating income. Besides my parents’ desire to live away from the city and enjoy semi-self-sufficiency, I believe a large reason for our moving “up North” was because I, as a typical little girl, really wanted a horse. And to sustain the first horse and the next horse and other animals that followed, we needed lots of feed.
Rather than buy feed and bedding from outside sources at considerable expense, we choose to grow and harvest our own oats, corn, rye, and hay grasses. Planting certain crops requires multiple participants, but nothing brings the family together like baling hay. Depending on the size of the field and how cooperative the machines are, this can take several hours. It’s boring and necessary work, and something that I’ve been required to do since I was ten years old.
Harvesting the hay begins days before the whole family gets involved. My father or grandfather (who still helps out on the farm, because he will never, ever retire) will go out with a mower towed behind the largest of our tractors, the Massie. This is noisy work, and hot too, because the grass needs to be cut and dried when there’s no rain forecast, so the “best” days are the most uncomfortable. The cut grass then lies in the field for a day or so, depending on how hot it is and how thick the hay is piled.
On the afternoon of baling, my dad or grandpa will go out on the Cub—a little, rusty red Farmall tractor that came with the farm when my grandparents got it—and rake the grass into straight lines. This isn’t so bad because the rake doesn’t require a motor and the work goes pretty fast. In fact, I think the elder Flowers males enjoy the job to some degree. But then it’s time for all the other participants—my mom, my brother (if he’s home), and me—to bale the hay as soon as it dries.
We don’t make big round bales for our horses; they prefer square bales. This means we have to use the John Deere baler and stack the bales on a wagon towed behind the baler as we go. The whole parade is pulled by the Massie.
I used to be delegated to stacking the hay with my brother as my dad drove the tractor. But since I proved to be skillful at driving the tractor, that has been my assigned job for several years. I sit on the Massie’s decaying seat, framed by the high fenders covering the wheels taller than my head, and drive clockwise around the field. Clockwise is the preferred way to go because of the way the baler is positioned behind me. It’s my job to catch the hay on the ground and make sure it’s feeding into the baler mouth correctly. This means I constantly have to shift my route to reflect the lines. When I have to make a corner, I have to overshoot my route before I make the turn to compensate for the hay lines and the baler. The fields are properly laid out so that I only have to make right turns; left turns are notoriously difficult to navigate and cause me to leave hay behind.
The Massie isn’t one of the giant tractors commercial farms utilize, with air-conditioned, soundproof cabins for the driver. Because I’m in the driver’s seat, I get the full blast of the noise, heat, and fumes from the tractor motor. Combined with the miniscule particles of grass and dust that get kicked up, and the heat of the sun and tractor, I’m a sweaty, grimy mess before we’re out there very long.
Driving in a straight line and turning a few corners isn’t an easy job by any means. I’m constantly moving, turning around in the seat to check the baler behind me, then forward to check my path, then behind me again. I have to stand up when I turn corners, so I can see what the hay is doing and know when I can turn. Fortunately I can wear tank tops and shorts while driving; those handling hay have to wear long pants, sleeves, and gloves because of the stabbing potential of the hay.
Because there’s a noisy baling machine between me and those on the wagon behind, if they call out instructions to me I have a very hard time understanding them. This leads to a few comical—but mostly confrontational—occurrences between my dad and me.
On a perfect day, we can get the job done in a few hours, averaging about a hundred bales for an average-sized field. I have yet to encounter this perfect haying day. The John Deere baler always breaks down. This is not an exaggeration. There has never been a time where it hasn’t broken down in some way. Most often the baling twine will snap within the tying mechanism, which means we have to stop, reset the twine, dump the hay that escaped back into the catching mouth, then start all over again. Not only does this mess up the bale count, it’s also long minutes where we aren’t making any sort of progress. I’m stuck in the driver’s seat manning the controls, so I can’t jump down and help. Just this season, the baler broke down spectacularly. The tines that collect the hay and bring it into the machine froze because a chain was damaged. We were nowhere near being done, so we had to pile the hay and feed it to the machine by hand. It was almost dark by the time we were done.
The worst experience of this terrible job happened not on our land but someone else’s. A family friend asked my grandpa if he would bale a field for him, and since my grandpa technically still owns the equipment, we had to help.
It was the worst possible field I have ever worked on. The grass was dirty, there were sticks and other debris in the way, and the field itself was the most irregular field I have ever seen. I made the left and right turns as well as I could, but I still missed a lot of hay. The baler also broke down a lot because of the bad quality of hay it was picking up. My dad said it was the worst hay he’d ever seen. He also said we wouldn’t be going back there ever again. It was the first time I’d ever been paid for my baling services. Twenty five dollars for two-and-a-half hours of work. After what we went through, it almost didn’t seem worth it.
The job is uncomfortable, but it has its moments. Because I’ve been driving tractors for so long (one of my first memories is sitting on my dad’s knee while he drove the Cub and pretending to steer for him), I’ve gotten really good at collecting the hay perfectly, better than anyone else in the family. Once this summer, when I was at my actual paying job, my grandpa had to be the substitute driver. The next day, my brother and I had to go back to pick up the hay he left behind. And, on one occasion, where I had to make a necessary left turn and then make a difficult jump to the next trail of hay, I pulled it off perfectly. I stood up in the seat and cheered, then looked back and saw my dad laughing at me. But I thought it was worth the celebration.
Work on the farm is necessary because we have to support ourselves, the animals, and the land itself. We may resent it at times, but deep down we all know that the times when the family has to get down and dirty together are the best we can have.
Kori Flowers has attended Bemidji State University for three years and has lived in northern Minnesota most of her life. She likes to write when school and work allow it.