Shall We Go A-Haying? Remembrances of Harvest Beginnings

Shall We Go A-Haying? Remembrances of Harvest Beginnings August 6, 2018

Photo of a wheel of the year painting on glass


A few short days ago, we celebrated Lammas, the first festival of the harvest season. Many Pagans today may not fully appreciate this particular celebration since so many of us now live far removed from our ancestors’ agricultural past. Even if folks have an idea where they food comes from, they still may not know everything that goes into getting to the market.

While I now live the small town life, I’m still surrounded by farm country very similar to where I grew up. And even though time has changed things between here and there, you can still find plenty of small farms that have been in a family for generations. Those who currently work those lands grew up learning from their parents and grandparents. Local Farm Bureaus and county agriculture organizations have also long helped then learn even more on how to protect their land while getting the most out of it.

There is a lot of knowledge needed in agriculture and I have so much respect for the farmers out in all kinds of weather, either working their land or taking care of their livestock. Cattle don’t milk themselves at 5 am, so there aren’t really any days off. It takes an immense amount of time and work to make a farm successful but catch a farmer at just the right moment and you can see the look of satisfaction on his face. There is a pride in what he does.

Stacked hay bales.
Creative Commons via Pixabay

As a child, back in the, ahem, 70s, I remember hay season starting in July. If you were really lucky, it might be early July or even late June, which could well mean an extra mowing (1). The goal was to have enough hay to feed your livestock – usually cattle – without having to buy any. And if you were lucky enough to get an extra mowing out of your field, then odds were you’d have plenty with maybe some extra to sell to someone who wasn’t as lucky. (Or to the odd person who only needed a few bales.)

When it was time to mow hay (2), both the weather and time were of the essence. You need dry, sunshine-filled days for haying. If left too long past it’s prime, then it goes completely to seed heads and isn’t as nutritious as you want for your livestock. So, as soon as it hits that peak, a farmer tries to be out mowing the tall grasses, which will then need to dry. This takes a few days before it can be baled. My grandfather, father, and uncle try to rake it as often as they could while this was happening. This process turns the hay over, letting both sides get a good airing and exposure to the sun. It also aligns the hay into rows for baling.

Mowing and raking only took, at most, a couple of people to do, but when it came time to bale the hay, it was all-hands-on-deck. This was where many a local high school kid (3) could earn some extra money, as well as get in a good workout. Like many big tasks, it was a case of many hands making the work light. One person would drive the tractor to which the baler was attached while another drove a tractor pulling a flatbed wagon. Some of the help would walk alongside the wagon, tossing on the bales of hay, while one or two others would ride on top, stacking it.

The wagon next went to the barn, where it was stacked in the hay loft. There was a hay elevator (4) on the farm that helped make the work a lot easier. All the workers had to do was toss the bales onto the elevator’s conveyor belt, where it would move up and tumble into the loft. Other workers would be waiting to stack it neatly for storage.

At any point, rain can delay the process, or even ruin your harvest. Too rainy a spell as the hay ripened, and you’d miss it at its best. Rain while it was drying delays the drying time, potentially rotting the grasses where they lay. And wet hay bales would need to dry before they can be put in the loft. The possibility of a barn fire from spontaneous combustion within the bales is a very real threat.

This was just the process with putting in the hay, which was such a huge deal that I can still remember it well. My family also used to put in field corn for the livestock over the winter, which was harvested by machine and then stored in a corn crib.  While you still want to move quickly, harvesting corn doesn’t take quiet as much labor as putting in hay.

That’s how a peek into how the harvest (5) was done in the 1970s and 80s. We had motorized tractors, electric grain elevators, as well as machines to mow, rake, and bale the hay, which all helped save a tremendous amount of time. Modern technology has helped even more. However, if you go farther back in history, you’ll find it was even more fraught with the potential for disaster, requiring much more labor for the harvests.

Agricultural calendar from a manuscript of Pietro Crescenzi, written c. 1306
Agricultural calendar from a manuscript of Pietro Crescenzi, written c. 1306

Our distant ancestors harvested much more than we did on my grandfather’s farm – certainly there were acres and acres of hay and corn, but there would have been large pea or bean crops, oats, and other cereals. These were all crucial to getting both humans and animals through the lean, cold winter months. It’s not being overly dramatic to say that their lives depended on a good harvest in a time when it was all done by hand. Peasants in Europe would not only need to harvest whatever crops they had in their small gardens, but also help with any communal village land. And all of that would have to be done around their harvest work on the lord’s land, which always came first.

There is often just a short window of time to bring in this massive harvest and it was back-breaking work done by everyone. People were very tied in to the changes in the seasons and the cycles of nature. Their lives depended on it. And since everyone participated, everyone also joined in on the celebration, creating a time of celebration and community building.

If you’d like to know more about the medieval harvest season, I strongly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Medieval Book of Seasons, by Marie Collins and Virginia Davis. Published by Harper Collins in 1992, it’s a wonderful book full of period illustrations that takes you through the entire year.

  1. Most fields will only yield two mowings for the season, but if the weather is cooperative, a farmer might get that lucky third. The first mowing tends to be the best quality.
  2. There are different types of hay. What I remember most is what we just referred to as “hay”, but they also one of the smaller fields with alfalfa.
  3. Let’s be honest here, mostly the farm hands were male, but only partly because those bales got heavy. Farm women have their own harvest work to do, including putting canning and freezing garden and orchard produce. It was – and still is – hot, tedious work, but nothing beats your own fruit and vegetables come January. And women would pitch in and help when there weren’t enough extra hands. I remember rolling haybales closer to the wagon when I was 5 or 7 and one summer in my early 20s, I helped unload a wagon when it was threatening to rain.
  4. Also useful for grain, corn, feed, whatever. I think the incline was adjustable.
  5. At least in rural southeastern Ohio.

Brightest Blessings,


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