Everyone is silent, weary from a long day in the sun. My hands and arms are stinging from being pricked by stiff dry hay. My neck and back are itchy from bits of it stuck on my sweaty skin. Although I am only young, just half way through my teens, I share a sense of relief that the hay will be safely stacked in the shed before the rain arrives tonight.
The heavenly smell of freshly baled hay rises up beneath me. I pull a shaft of hay from a bale, put it between my teeth and taste its perfect sweetness. There’s a feeling of completeness having been part of the team today.
It was my job to drive the tractor, guiding the trailer to collect the rows of oblong bales. The men did the heavy lifting, grabbing the bales by the twine that binds them and stacking them on top of each other on the trailer. Now that we’re back at the shed, my day is over, but the men won’t stop until the last bale is under cover.
The harvest season started six weeks ago when paddocks of long, green grass were cut for silage. The grass was dried in the sun till two thirds of its moisture was gone, then picked up in a bin on the back of the tractor and piled in a great big mound. My dad and my uncle took turns to drive the tractor over and over the mound, for hours at a time, till they had squeezed out all the air. As the mound got bigger I became more afraid that the tractor might tip over.
Today’s load of hay was cut a few days ago when the grass had grown as tall as it would but hadn’t yet started to flower. Hay is no good after grass has gone to seed because by then it has lost its nutrients.
Every evening Dad checked the weather forecast, every morning he tapped the barometer. He willed the weather to stay warm enough to dry the grass so it could be baled before the next storm.
The grass was fluffed up with a tedder to lift it off the ground and circulate the air. Then along came the rake to whisk it into windrows. When it seemed the grass might be ready to bale my dad took a handful and twisted it to test for moisture. He knew it was cured to 15 per cent when no juice dripped out at all. That’s when the race was on to get the baler and his team of carters in. Dad hoped there wouldn’t be a hold-up on someone else’s farm.
When the baler arrived the whole family swung into action. Mum cooked two hot meals every day for the workers, made billy tea and scones for morning and afternoon breaks.
My brothers and I did what we could. It might be driving the tractor to rake another paddock or hauling the trailer to collect the bales or helping to milk the cows. My dad and my uncle worked hard from before the sun came up until after it went down.
Sometimes, later in summer, I would wake in fright in the middle of the night to the telephone ringing. Another hayshed was up in flames. This happened when hay bales were stacked in the shed too damp. Dad, like most of the local farmers, was a volunteer fireman and raced off to help put out the fire.
That was the 1960s and 70s. Now, decades later at the same time of year, big round shapes appear in paddocks across Phillip Island, Bass Coast and beyond. The black and pale-green plastic shapes are full of silage (fermented grass) fed to cattle in summer when pastures are dry and low in nourishment. The straw-coloured rolls wrapped in netting are hay, a source of nutrition in winter when the grass grows barely at all.
Hay and silage are cured much the same way as when I was a girl, but now hay is bundled up into big round rolls that don’t have to be put in a shed. The round bales can withstand the rain, so although the harvest is still a game of timing, there’s less strain than there was before.
I love to see those big fat shapes sitting in the landscape. Maybe it makes me nostalgic, triggering memories of growing up on the farm. Maybe it’s a natural response to a successful harvest, celebrated down the ages in festivals and feasts.
Maybe it’s also that the harvest in the fields is pleasing to the eye. Monet, Van Gogh and Pissarro are just a few famous artists who must have thought it so.
I would like to thank my mum Irene Cuttriss for her recollections and my dad Len Cuttriss for adding his detailed knowledge to my memories.