Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Remembrances of Making Hay

One of Sandhill's long-time neighbors, Joe Neese, died March 31, succumbing to cancer at 87. I had written a eulogy for Emery Clark just nine days ago, and here it is already time for another. Yikes. I can only hope this is not one of those comes-in-threes kind of things.

Joe was both more social and more liberal than most of our neighbors, which led to his coming by more often to see how we were faring. In the first 10-15 years of Sandhill's existence, Joe was probably the neighbor that most took advantage of Sandhill's availability to provide short-term farm labor. In the summer we'd help bring in the hay…

As I type this, I can immediately image myself riding a wagon hitched behind his John Deere square baler. In the 90-degree days of June (perfect for making hay) I'd be wearing longsleeves (to protect my forearms from getting scratched by the grass stubble) and sweating profusely as I kept pace stacking bales of orchard grass & clover as quickly as they ka-chunked out of the chute. (I loved the geometric challenge of dense-packing about 70 square bales on a moving wagon such that they'd make it all the back to the barn without falling off.)

There was often a crew from Sandhill hired to haul the loaded wagons to the barn, where we'd pack hay to the roof joists. If we got ahead—and Joe & his wife Jacquelyn were out of sight—the crew might sneak off briefly to one his farm ponds and skinny dip in an attempt to wash off the dust and lower our core temperature to something below a simmer.

In the winter we'd help cut wood…

Joe had a monster wood-fired furnace in his basement that could burn four-foot chunks. Once or twice each winter, he'd gather a crew to help transform a pile of freshly cut logs into firewood, using a buzz saw powered by the flat belt pulley on a tractor. Sandhill would often supply a portion of the crew. Typically, there would be two pairs who would alternately manhandle poles up to position at the saw, where the wood would rest on a hinged table that could be pushed into the whirring blade. In addition to the sawyer (who would determine the rate of feed by how hard they pushed the table into the saw), another pair would catch and stack the firewood as it was cut.

I had the feeling at the time that these were the remnants of a dying culture, where farm neighbors came together to help each other out. Today, it's all about relying on technology to do the work of many, and farmers tend to ply their craft in isolation. I have strong doubts about how good this is from a quality-of-life perspective, and it's one of the main reasons Sandhill continues to harvest its sorghum by hand—to preserve the camaraderie of many hands working the land together.

• • •
Though other neighbors teased Joe about having a gloom-and-doom pessimism (about politics, the weather, and farm prices), he enjoyed life and always had a kind word to say about family and friends. That said, his spirit took a major blow when Jacquelyn passed away in 2002. Though he lived another nine years, I never had the sense that "batching it" suited him.

When we first moved to Rutledge in 1974, almost everyone called Joe "Junior." He had been named after his father and that made it easier for everyone to sort of who was being referenced when the two were both alive. However, as a group of 20-somethings we never met Joe, Senior, and it was uphill referring to a 51-year-old neighbor as "Junior"—and it didn't get any easier as time went by and Joe's hair grew thinner and grayer. Stubbornly, we persisted with calling him "Joe" and gradually, as memories of Joe, Senior faded, that's what others tended to called him as well.

Never quite trusting the vagaries of the weather, Joe's main cash crop was raising pure-bred Angus bulls. As the topography of northeast Missouri is mainly rolling hills, the land is better suited to grass than row crops, and it's terrific country for cow-calf operations (raising steers and heifers from birth to weaning). There is a steadier market for beef than for corn, and Joe was successful enough at raising bulls that he was able to increase his land holdings over the decades. A highlight of Joe's farming life occurred in the mid-80s when his son, Bob (there would be no Joe III), returned from doing missionary work in South Africa, built a house next door, and started farming with his father.

Just as he did with his father before him, Bob continues where Joe left off. Maybe Bob will stop by Sandhill one day and share with us why he's bearish about bulls—then we'll know he's his father's son and the circle will be complete.

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