Working on a farm as a teenager was one of the best and most memorable summer jobs I ever had. For three summers, I woke up early each morning and drove about thirty minutes out of the city to get to work. The farm produced mostly crops but also had a herd of sheep. The couple who owned it were family friends and graciously agreed to take me – a skinny, awkward, A/V nerd with no farming experience – on as a farm hand.
My summers on the farm consisted mostly of mundane tasks like feeding sheep (not the brightest animals), painting never-ending field fences and spraying weeds – except during hay time. Then, I became a master wagon stacker. I’d ride at the front of a flat wagon which was hitched behind the bailer which in turn was pulled by the tractor. Square bails of hay would squeeze down the chute towards me and I’d swing a big metal hook (picture something that could have been a pirate’s hook, except painted red and with a handle) to spear the incoming bail and haul it onto the wagon. Then, I’d fight the swaying wagon for three or four steps to carry the bail to the back of the wagon and heave it carefully where it belonged. Up and down the rows we'd go, clanking under the hot sun, until the wagon was full.
Stacking a hay wagon with square bails requires more thought and planning than you might first think. Without a strong foundation, the stack will become unstable once you get five or six rows high. The first layer of bails is the easiest to lay, but also the most important to get right. Each layer must become progressively tighter so that the stack narrows as it goes up. To accomplish this, the first layer needs to have a bit of space between each bail – a couple of inches at most. Each layer also alternates the bail direction, to provide extra stability. I describe all this to make the point that each bail has a precise place that it needs to end up, and you can’t go back and change bails once they’re in place. Kind of like a giant game of Tetris or Jenga, but worth quite a bit more money and not something you want to end up falling all over the road. If a picture is more your style, try this.
The physics of hay aside, anyone who’s ever worked bailing hay knows that it’s hot, itchy, physical and high-pressure work. It’s really not all that much fun to be honest. Hay rashes are most of the reason. The fact that bails weigh forty pounds is the rest of it. It’s even less fun when you get behind and the bails start piling up at the front of the wagon under the bailer chute. You end up rushing to try and catch up and more often than not, misplacing a bunch of bails. This leads to a poorly stacked wagon and inevitably, the need to stop and re-stack (and probably endure some cursing from the tractor's driver). The best and most useful advice I was given to avoid falling behind was to always “move quickly, but never rush.”
That piece of advice is as close to universal as any I’ve ever been given. All at once, it acknowledges the importance of planning, focus and clean execution while reminding us that the precipice of error is never far for those who rush. Put another way, only move as quickly as your plan and capabilities allows. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve applied it to something in my life entirely unrelated to stacking hay. Also, I haven’t done any hay stacking since those summers on the farm.
Reflecting on my farming experiences fifteen years out, I realize just how much I learned during those summers. I learned about hard work, the price of slacking, getting through tough tasks and the divine pleasure of a cold freezie (or even better, a cold beer. Don’t tell my Mom) after a day of hot, hard work. Summer jobs end up teaching us a lot more about ourselves than we might realize at first. It’s only with the context and experience that comes with time that we’re able to apply – or even recognize – those lessons.
Even with so many lessons from the farm and other summer jobs, I still come back to “move quickly, but never rush”. It continues to serve me well.
Thanks Rob and Gwen for trusting and teaching me.