This essay will report on these two western hay-field-trips, made in the summer of 2004, one to the damp west of England and Wales, where hay has been made virtually obsolete by new technologies, and the other to the western United States, where the combination of semi-desert air and well-irrigated valleys still produces a magnificent variety of hay landscapes and hay shapes.
For centuries, the rolling summer patches of coastal Pembrokeshire were windrowed and cocked, as on the wide open fields depicted in the Dixton Manor painting described elsewhere on this site, and even today in the small fields on the peninsulas of western Ireland.
Marion Davies and her family don’t farm anymore. They can’t afford the big machines. Alun, her husband, turned to painting the wonderful Pembrokeshire scenery, and she runs a gallery of his work for the tourists who hike along the 180-mile coastal path or drive down the narrow lane from Llanrhian to the shore. Every June for centuries, the fields beside the lane would have been full of the scent of sweet Welsh hay. In June 2004, these smells and the grass that used to yield them are covered in airtight plastic.
Then, fifty or so years ago, the loose hay began to be replaced by little rectilinear bales that could still be manhandled. More recently, the fields were occupied by fewer, larger bales, rectangular or round, that needed a forklift to lift and move. Now the scenery has taken on the scale and texture of a Christo landscape (for example his Wrapped Trees, installed in Switzerland in 1997).
Huge plastic bundles, usually black and shiny as crows, occasionally white as snowdrifts, or more rarely a soft pastel green, dramatize and dominate the environment and seem to mock the mild, moist western weather which makes the grass so sweet and used to make its mowing and drying such a challenge.
These bundles have been a feature of the similarly damp New England summer landscape for more than a decade, prompting the painter Altoon Sultan to the following amibivalent observation: “this stuff - the silos, manure piles, plastic-wrapped hay, machinery - is exciting in its monumentality and sculptural presence. The ordinary ugliness of a tractor or a mound of old tires is weirdly beautiful.”
British farmers once used all their powers of observation to predict the arrival and duration of sunny dry spells between the almost relentless squalls that roll in from the Atlantic across the Irish Sea. But now they don’t need to. They used to hope for about a week of warm weather to make the hay. Now they can cut, bale and wrap on the same day. Or they can wait four days or so and wrap the half-dried grass into a hybrid called haylage, a tobacco-like material that even horses, if necessary, will digest.
Hay in the arid West.
But during a 3,000 mile journey through some of the western United States, two months later, we saw no silage, and thousands of tons of hay. Its production depended on irrigation water, usually pumped onto startlingly green alfalfa fields from streams and rivers flowing through an otherwise arid landscape.
Further north in Montana, round-bales are ubiquitous: near Townsend in the upper Missouri Valley, near Judith Gap east of the Little Belts, near Melville in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains, and pallisading the grand rolling country made famous by the novelist Ivan Doig, sout of Choteau near the Rocky Mountain Front.
Hay contributes strong formal elements to the scenic grandeur of the western landscape: as lumpy, fragrant hillocks in the Big Hole country; as staddled cottages near Jackson, Wyoming; as loaves baked under the semi-desert sun of Idaho and Oregon; or as powerful, simple squares and cylinders, assembled into battlements under the big, dry sky. In conclusion, here is a sampler of those multifarious shapes, free of the simplifying texture of plastic which protects the wetter hay of the old world west.
"Culture/cultivation: thoughts on painting the landscape,"
Art Journal, Winter, 1998 by Altoon Sultan.
"My interest in the agricultural landscape has continued, however, as the place where actual landscape is constantly being made and changed - where the conventional beauty of undulating fields framed by tree-covered hills coexists with raw power in the guise of farm machines; where unnatural nature (scientifically bred cows, hybrid crops) is raised with chemicals and helped along by mounds of plastic. A major reason that I'm such an avid gardener is that I've seen the way our food is grown in California, with artificial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
"For Americans, farmers, along with cowboys, have been mythic figures, our "rugged individualists." But now the number of farmers is statistically insignificant, whereas when the country began, they constituted 95 percent of the population. The small family farm is now an anomaly, and large agribusinesses are the norm. Our food supply is cheap and plentiful, but at what cost to our health, soil, and water?
"When I look at a farm now, all these thoughts are bumping around in my head, motivating my work - but then there's the reality of the actual stuff in front of me. And this stuff - the silos, manure piles, plastic-wrapped hay, machinery - is exciting in its monumentality and sculptural presence. The ordinary ugliness of a tractor or a mound of old tires is weirdly beautiful. I'm more and more drawn to these things in the foreground, so that at times I can hardly call myself a landscape painter."
"Altoon Sultan at Tibor de Nagy - Brief Article,"
Art in America, Oct, 2001 by Peter Gallo
"Sultan's art-historical allusions are sophisticated and subtle: in "Ag-bagger, Danville, Vermont " (2000), at 80 by 60 inches the largest work in the show, a contraption of green and blue sheet metal and translucent plastic set in a citron-green field looks like a giant butterfly chrysalis, or possibly a "desiring machine" dreamed up by Matthew Barney. "Silage Covered by Plastic and Tires, Newbury, Vermont " (1999) presents a pile of old tires and black polyurethane plastic draped over a mountain of hay against a backdrop of irrigation tractors, Atrozine-bleached cornfields and unbearably bucolic summer hills. In a most unsettling way the image calls up both Smithson's earth-works and the figure of the agonized Magdalene in Grunewald's Crucifixion.
"Clearly, Sultan does not go nearly as far as Sue Coe or Damien Hirst to give us the carcasses of the others that have literally fleshed out the structure of what Derrida has called the "system of carnivorous virility." But the simple and stunning heterological compositions of these pictures, their often austere and uncanny beauty, and a realism that does not pastorally distance us from the means of agricultural production, profoundly disrupt any consoling illusion of peace and plenty."
New Yorker, April 16, 2001, p. 16.
"Unsentimental but radiantly sunny, Sultan's Vermont farmscapes offer an update on the state of agriculture, with its heavy machinery and plastic-wrapped silage. Their picturesque crispness belongs more to documentary than to Phot-Realism--they're part of the sober traditions of Eakins and Sheeler. They also hint heavily at Sultan's fondness for abstraction: the giant blue chute of an "Ag Bagger" (the agribusiness equivalent of a Diaper Genie) registers as a surreptitious minimalist installation, like a big Judd basking in a sculpture park."
William Marshall’s eighteenth century improvements in hay management.
Marshall compared to his more famous rival, Arthur Young.
“Arthur Young and the diffusion of knowledge, 1760-1800.” Chapter IX in Ernle, Lord. English Farming Past and Present. Fifth Edition. London: Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd. 1936.
From The rural economy of Norfolk : comprising the management of landed estates, and the present practice of husbandry in that county. London: Printed for G. Nicol, 1795.
[p. 63] “Hay is at all times an article of the greatest value to a farmer and what almost every country is crying out for, if winter is at any time severe, I most urgently [p.64] recommend to all farmers to be more careful of it than they generally are. It is not uncommon to see a fourth or a fifth part of it wasted in the consumption, by being given to the cattle in too great quantities at a time in a loose, slovenly manner. Racks, with close bars, should be observed for horses; and deep cribs for oxen. Sheep are still more apt to create waste, therefore the cutting of hay, in like manner as straw is cut, into chaff, is a frugal and excellent practice; for by this means there is no waste at all: and it is certain, that hay given in this way, will go considerably farther than if given in the old way. It may also, by this means, be often, with great propriety, mixed for oxen and horses, with a small proportion of straw.
“I am so thoroughly convinced of the advantage attending this mode of consumption, that I shall steadily adhere to it, wherever my authority or influence extends. The usual price for cutting in this county, is 3d. for four heaped bushels, and a man, who is expert at it, will earn 3s. 6d. a day.”
From The rural economy of Gloucestershire : including its dairy : together with the dairy management of North Wiltshire and the management of orchards and fruit liquor in Herefordshire. London: Printed for G. Nicol, 1796.
[p. 157] “The recent attempts at laying down arable land to grass, in this district, have been made principally, on the lands mentioned, aforegoing, as being broken up from a state of rough pasture, and sown repeatedly with wheat. But these attempts, I believe, have generally been unsuccessful. The soil, reduced to a state of foulness, by repeatedly cropping it on single plowings, had no other cleansing, perhaps, than a barley fallow; and, in this foul state, was probably rendered still fouler, by sowing over it the seeds of weeds, under the name of “hay seeds.” No wonder that land laid down to grass, in this manner, should, in a few years, require to be given up again to corn.
“HAY SEEDS, however, is an indefinite [p. 158] term. Seeds collected from known hay, of a well herbaged ground, cut young, shook or thrashed upon a floor, and sifted through fine sieves, to take out the large seeds of weeds, with which old grasslands abound, might be eligible enough; provided still purer seeds might not be had. But what is generally thrown upon the land, under the denomination of “hay seeds,” is a collection of the seeds of the ranker weeds, with few or none of those of the finer grasses.
“One of the finest grass grounds, I have seen in the vale, was laid down with hay seeds, about five and twenty years ago; but it was with seeds of the former description: and the management, in every other respect, equally judicious. The land had been in bad hands, and was becoming extremely foul with couch; it was, therefore, summer fallowed, But the season proving unfavourable, it was deemed, the ensuing spring, not yet sufficiently clean. It had, therefore, a second year’s fallow! – By repeated plowings and harrowings, across the ridges, they were pulled down from roofs to waves. The next ensuing spring, it was sown with barley [p. 159] and hay seeds; the most spirited instance of this practice, I have met with , in this most important branch of rural economics. And the event proves its eligibility, in a striking manner. Before this two years’ fallow, the land let for 10s. an acre: foul as it was at the time it was broken up, no crop could grow in it; it was worth nothing, to the occupier for one year. It is now worth 25 to 30s. an acre.
“On the other hand I have had opportunities of observing several instances of lands, which have been lis down with “hay seeds,” and which, at present, lie a disgrace to agriculture. This spring, I listed the plants of a piece laid down in this disgraceful manner.
“In May, the only grass was the bromegrass – (oat grass—loggerheads—lob.) Bromus mollis, -- and of this but a very small quantity. The weeds were as follow: corn horsetail, --broad plantain, --common thistle, groundsel, --crowfoots, convolvulus, --docks, &c. &c. Half the surface was actually bare: no appearance of a quarter of a crop; even of weeds. In September, -- I found it overrun with the ox-tongue (picris echioides) [p. 160] whose seeds were blowing about, to the annoyance of the neighborhood. And this, I am afraid, may be taken as a specimen of the present method of laying land down to grass in the vale of Glocester.
“The only reason given, for preserving this unpardonable practice, is that no better seeds are to be had; RAYGRASS being “ruinous to the vale lands!” – “Smothering every thing: and impoverishing the soil, until it will grow nothing!”
“In the next article, it will appear, by the catalogues there given, that the predominant herbage of the old grasslands of the vale, is RAYGRASS [rye-grass]. But lest the general account, which will there be given of the grasses, should not be thought sufficiently conclusive, I will here copy a series of memoranda, made on the subject, in the autumn of 1783: before I became acquainted with the rooted antipathy, which I have since found to be formed, against raygrass.
“ ‘Hatherley, 10 Sept. 1783. Observing in a small inclosure, which has been lately laid down (or more accurately speaking, is laying itself down) to grass, some green [p. 161] swardy patches beginning to make their appearance, through a carpet of couch and other foulness, I examined the species, which were thus employed in rendering the land, in spite of bad management, useful to the occupier; and found them to consist, wholly, of raygrass and white clover, This led me to a more minute examination of the adjoining ground, esteemed the best piece of grass land in the neighborhood, and from the seed stems which are now remaining in the stale patches, I find the blade grasses to be chiefly raygrass, with some dogstail, and a little softgrass.
‘Sept 11. In my stroll this morning, in the center of the vale, I met with an extensive suite of cow grounds (by the side of the Chelt in Boddington) the soil five or six feet deep. The herbage white clover and raygrass: the young shoots of the raygrass as sweet as sugar! Much sweeter than any I have examined. These grounds (late Long’s) are, it seems, very good ones for grazing; but are difficult to make cheese from.
‘I have no longer a doubt about the herbage of the rich ground, noticed above, consisting at present (the middle of Sept.) [p. 162] in a manner wholly of raygrass and white clover; for, in my walk this evening, I carefully examined several plants of raygrass, which had both seedstems and blades belonging to them; and, on examining the blades with a glass, and comparing them with the turf of this field, I find they are identically the same. In taste, however, the different specimens vary considerably; and, perhaps, the taste of raygrass might be taken as a criterion of soils; and, perhaps, with the assistance of a glass, not only this, but any other grass, may be known, with certainty, by the blad alone.
‘Sept. 15. Tewkesbury lodge, a charming grassland farm: a bold swell covered with a rich warm soil, occupied by a luxuriant herbage; chiefly raygrass! Some white clover; and some few of the finer blade grasses. “All green:” not a foot of plowed land!
‘Below Apperley,-- an extensive whole year’s common, stocked with horses, young cattle, sheep, and geese: the site of a dead level, subject to be overflowed; the soil, a redish loam; the herbage, raygrass – (saccharine in a superior degree –literally as sweet as sugar!)—with some white clover [p. 163] and from what I can judge by its growth, some marsh bent. It is eaten down so level and so bare, that the geese, one would imagine, could scarcely get a mouthful; yet the young cattle are as sleek as moles: it is esteemed, I understand, without exception, the best piece of land in the country.’
“In proof, however, of raygrass being wholly unfit for the vale lands, I have been shown a piece which was laid down with ‘ryegrass:’ and certainly a more shameful piece of ley was never shown. Perceiving, however, from the rubbish upon it, that the seeds of the rubbish, not those of raygrass, must have been sown, I made inquiry into the the complexion of the seed, and found that it was bromegrass—‘lob’—‘loggerheads’—fetched from the hills, where that grass abounds, which had ‘smothered every thing’ (even the raygrass which might have been sown among it) except a few of the ranker weeds. And similar evidences of the ruinous nature of ‘ryegrass’ I have met with, in other districts.
“The bromegrass and other weeds, which have been sown, hitherto, under the name of ryegrass, are certainly improper for the [p. 164] vale soils; and it is possible that even the variety of real raygrass, which is cultivated, may not be eligible. In Yorkshire, I found a variety (in a garden) which had evidently a couchy habit.
“But how easy to collect the NATIVE SPECIES, which abound on the old grasslands; and thus raise a new variety, adapted, on a certainty to the vale land. The difficulty of doing it would vanish, the moment it were set about: it only wanta little exertion: a small amount of indolence to be shook off.
“If real raygrass has ever been tried, alone, and without success, it has probably arisen from too great a quantity having been sown. Be it raygrass or rubbish, I understand, seldom less than a sacful, an acre, is thrown on: whereas ONE GALLON, an acre, of CLEAN-WINNOWED REAL RAY-GRASS-SEED, is abundantly sufficient, on such soil as the vale in general is covered with.
“Or, perhaps, the miscarriages have arisen, in the strength of the vale lands; in their being naturally affected by raygrass, and in the want of these valuable qualities being duly tempered by proper management.
“The forcing quality of the first spring of grass seems to be, here, well understood.
‘No matter how short the grass, at this time of year, so the cattle can get hold of it; --they are sure to thrive amain.’
“The reason is obvious: there is not, at that season, a blade of any other grass, than ray grass: no alloy, to lower its value: it has, then, full scope; and, in this case, the Glocester-vale graziers experience its use, as sensibly as the Norfolk farmers: these, however, are grateful; because they know the effect proceeds from raygrass: but those,unaware of the gratitude they owe, stand foremost to revile its character.
“In Norfolk, and on the Cotswold hills, the lands are comparatively weak, and have, perhaps, long been used to raygrass: the graziers, there, find no difficulty in keeping it down in the spring. Here, on the contrary, the land is rich, is peculiarly affected by raygrass, has much of it lain, for ages, in a state of aration, and is of course peculiarly prone to the grasses. The graziers, it is highly probable, are not aware of the stock it will carry, for a few weeks in the spring; twice, perhaps three times, as much as their old grass grounds.”
[p.196] “IV. The OBJECTS of the grassland husbandry are hay and pasturage.
“It seems to be well understood, here, that grounds ought to be mown and pastured, alternately; an, in some instances, the principle may be attended to in practice. But it is generally convenient to have the ‘cow grounds’ near the milking yard. The distant grounds are, of course, more convenient as ‘mowing grounds:’ they are, however, ‘grazed’ occasionally, by fatting cattle.
“It is observed here, and is observable almost every where, that if grass land be mown, every year, it is liable to be overrun [p. 197] with the YELLOW RATTLE (Rhinanthus) which, being a biennial plant that sheds its seed early in the spring, is increased by mowing. But pasturing the ground, even one year, is found to check it. The reason is obvious: the major part of the plants, being eaten off with the other herbage, are prevented from seeding. Pasturing two years, successively, and carefully sweeping off the stale herbage, when this plant appears in full blow, would go near to extirpation.
“V. MOWING GROUNDS, and their management: --divisible into
1. Spring management.
2. Hay harvest.
“1. SPRING MANAGEMENT of MOWING GROUNDS. In this district, where grass lands vary much as to their times of vegetating in the spring, the time of shutting up the inclosed grounds, for hay, provincially ‘haining’ them, is regulated by the nature of the land. Cold backward lands are seldom eaten in the spring: while the free-growing more early grounds are pastured till the beginning of May. This distinction is a masterstroke of management, which I have [p.198] not observed, in the ordinary practice of any other district.
“The time of shutting up common meadows is guided by custom. Some are shut up at Candlemas, others at Ladyday, others at Mayday. A very extensive meadow, immediately below the town of Glocester, is, by ANCIENT PRIVILEGE, pastured, even with sheep, until the middle of May. The consequence of this custom is, that in case the spring set in with drought, the crop of hay is in a manner lost. This year (1788) the wormcasts were not hid, until the latter end of June!
“But injudicious as that RELICK OF ANCIENT CUSTOMS may now be, viewed in a general light, another, in its tendency, abundantly more mischievous, is preserved, in a meadow of some hundred acres, in the same neighborhood. Over this valuable tract of mowing ground, two horses range at large, while the crop is growing!!! with, of course, the privilege of doing all the mischief to which the wantonness of horses, turned loose in so large a pasture, can stimulate. The reader, I am afraid, will scarcely give me credit for what I am relating. No other authority than my own [p. 199] sight could, I confess, have induced me to believe, that an evil so great—an absurdity so glaring—could, in these enlightened and liberalized times, have existed in this country. Tradition says, that stallions, alone, were formerly entitled to this diabolical privilege; but, at present, any two horses are admitted to it. Whatever may have been its origin, it would be doing injustice to the present laws of England, to suppose them capable of giving countenance to any act whose main tendency is the wanton destruction of the produce of the soil. No man, now, has a privilege of doing the community wanton mischief. The full value of the pasturage is, no doubt, the rightful property of the claimant.
“2. HAYING. The state of ripeness—the age—at which a crop of grass ought to be cut—is a subject of no small importance. In the ordinary practice of this district, as in that of every other district I have observed in, grass is suffered to stand, much too long, before it be mown for hay. This evil practice may have originated in common meadows, whose aftergrass is unstinted, (or frequently belongs to separate owners:) a species of mowing ground, [p. 200] which, formerly, was common to this and most other countries.
“There are, however, in this district, men who are well aware of the advantages of early cutting;--who know, from experience in grazing, the value of the aftergrass of early mown grounds; as well as the fatting quality of hay, which has been mown in the fullness of sap. Hence we find, in this country, more advocates for early cutting, than in most others, where the fatting of cattle, on hay, is nota practice. There is, in an ordinary season, much grass cut, in different parts of the district, at six or seven weeks, old.
“In mowing, it is observable, the Glocestershire laborers cut remarkably level. In some cases, not a stroke, or scarcely a swath-balk, is discoverable. This is chiefly owing to the narrowness of the swath-width, and the dhortness of the sithe, in use in this country. The mowers of Glocestershire, and those of Yorkshire, work in opposite extremes of the art. The Yorkshireman drives a width of nine or ten feet before him, the Glocestershireman of six or seven feet only. I have measured across a series of swaths, which, one with another, have not [p. 201] measured six feet wide. The one makes the operation unnecessarily laborious, and causes, almost unavoidably, a waste of herbage, --the other renders it unnecessarily tedious. A good workman may take half a rod (eight feet and a quarter) with sufficient ease to himself, and at the same time leave his work sufficiently level. It is prudent, however, on the part of his employer, to see that he keeps within due bounds; and, more especially, that he does not exceed the medium width.
“The making of hay is an inexhaustible subject. Every district, if we descend to minutiae, has its shades of difference. The practice of this district resembles, very much, the practices of Yorkshire; not only in the first stages, but in the remarkable expedient of forming the hay into stacklets (here called ‘windcocks’) previous to being put into stack. But, here, the practice is carried a stage farther; the hay being sometimes made into small stacks, of several loads each, in the stack yard; and, while yet perhaps in a degree of heat almost suffocating to work among, is made over again into one large stack.
“The same reasons are given for this practice [p.202], here, as in Yorkshire: namely that of being able to make it fuller of sap, in this way, than it can be, by the ordinary method. There seems, however, to be an additional motive to it, in this country: namely, that of being enabled, by this means, to make it into very large stacks—of fifty, or perhaps a hundred loads each. Such stacks are fashionable. They are spoken of with pride; and it seems probable, that the pride of great stacks has some share, at least, in the practice of giving hay a double heat.
“Be this, however, as it may, it is a fact, well ascertained, that the hay of these vales is of a superior quality. It is found to bring on fatting cattle nearly as fast as the green herbage from which it is made; passing thro them with the same appearances. And the produce of butter from hay, in this district, is extraordinary. But whether this superior quality be owing, in part, to the method of making it, or wholly to the soil and the herbage from which it is made, is by no means well ascertained. That there is something in the soils of these vales, which gives a peculiar richness to whatever they produce, is to me evident; and to endeavour [p. 203] to preserve, in hay, as much as possible of this richness, is indisputably good management.
“The degree of heat, to which hay ought to be made liable, is an interesting subject, which is seldom agitated, and little understood; even in this country, where some little attention is paid to it. Something may depend on the species of stock, it is intended for. The prevailing opinion, here, seems to be, that, for fatting cattle, it ought to be moderately or somewhat considerably heated. For cows, however, there are dairymen, who say it should have little or no heat; giving for a reason,--that ‘heated hay dries up their milk.’—These, however, I mention merely as opinions. They may be well grounded. If not, they may excite a spirit of inquiry, into a subject of some importance, in a grassland country.
“The expenditure of hay, in this district, is chiefly on cows and fatting cattle; to which it is given either in sheds—yards—foddering grounds—or the ground it grew on;--in the manner, which will be mentioned, in the articles cows, and FATTING CATTLE.
“3. AFTERGRASS. I find no regular management [p.204] of it, here. The unstinted meadows are frequently turned into, the instant the hay is off the ground; and sometimes while no inconsiderable share of it remains in the meadow! Horses, cows, sheep, fatting cattle, and haycocks, being mixed in a manner sufficiently picturesque for the purpose of the painter; but in a way rather disgusting to those, who are aware of the waste they are committing: not of the hay, but of the aftergrass. In eight and forty hours after the whole of the hay is out, the meadow, thus misused, has the appearance of a sheep common in winter; not a bite of green herbage is to be seen; the whole wing nibbled out by the sheep and the horses, or trodden into the ground by cattle: nothing but the stubble, or dead stumps of seed stems, being left to cover the soil. These meadows, however, being free of growth, sheep, and even horses, may continue to get a living on them; and cattle may be kept from starving;--but cannot bring home any advantage to their owners.*
“*This, however, is not general. Some of them, by ancient custom, are kept until the middle of September, before they are broken.
“Nor is this illjudged practice confined within the unstinted meadows: but is frequently extended to inclosed grounds. A full bite of aftergrass is (this year at least) a rare sight in the country: I have seen very little fit for the reception either of cow or fatting cattle.
“The line of right management is frequently difficult to draw. Different directions have their advantages and their inconveniencies. By turning into mowing grounds, as soon as the hay is out of them, the Glocestershire farmer gives a loose to his pasture grounds; it is a move for his cattle: and if he would forbear a few weeks, to let his aftergrass rise to a sufficient bite, his management would, in my judgment, be much preferable to the Yorkshire practice; in which the cattle are kept in the pasture grounds, without moving, until the aftergrass be overgrown.”