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The Longest Day Is Too Short a Day


Havre de Grace. -- The longest day of the year 1995 began to DTC grow light well before the sun appeared at 5:40, exactly on schedule. By sunrise, lots of farm activity was already well under way.

Urban acquaintances of mine, perhaps picturing a man on a tractor plowing an endless furrow toward a Midwestern horizon, often seem to have an idea that farm life and farm work are both fundamentally solitary. That's an illusion.

Even in a highly mechanized era, there are times of the year when most farms still need people, sometimes quite a few of them. Ours is no exception. And perhaps paradoxically, some of the most satisfying times on a farm are the busiest ones, with a lot of people working together.

On our place the full-time staff consists of Larry Rawlings and me. But as spring accelerates into summer and the work to be done increases even faster than the daylight available to do it, we start looking for extra labor. Some we hire, but luckily for us, much of our summer help is volunteer.

This summer's helpers thus far include Louis and Trish, who live on the farm and rent a barn from me; Amy, who works part-time for Louis and Trish; two teen-age Mikes, our seasonal employees; Marty, a history teacher who enjoys putting up hay; Jim, Ken and Vince, deer hunters all; and Bill, neighbor and part-time farmer.

On the longest day of the year, when I got to the barn around six, Louis and Amy were almost finished their morning's work. Louis trains race horses. Amy, a former jockey, owns one of the horses he trains, and comes over most mornings to exercise for Louis. In the hot weather they start especially early to avoid the heat and the flies.

I thought the flies seemed worse than usual. My horses came in shaking their heads, glad to escape into the gloom of the barn where the flies, for some reason, don't go. When Larry arrived a little later we moved an electric fence and let the cows and calves into a fresh field. They were fighting flies, too.

Then we checked on the hay we expected to bale that afternoon. The morning was hot, overcast and humid, with no air moving, and the hay, although well cured, seemed as dank as a newspaper left all night in the grass. It would need direct sunshine if we were to bale it that day.

On the way back to the barn the dog, who had been half-asleep, suddenly launched from the truck like a Sidewinder missile, homing in on a groundhog that had sat up in the hayfield about 50 yards away. The groundhog saw him coming, but decided to stand and fight. That turned out to be a fatal mistake.

About 8:30 that morning, as one of the Mikes was moving the final load of last winter's manure out of the big cowshed, the manure spreader collapsed with a broken axle. Larry went for parts. I went to the office for a couple of hours. The Mikes cut weeds.

By early afternoon the temperature was in the 90s and the heat and some hazy sunshine had dried the hay. I baled, while Larry and Marty and the Mikes stacked the bales in the barn. Stacking in the dusty airless hayloft was heavy work, and by 4:30 the entire crew was glad to stop. Marty went home and Larry took the Mikes for a swim in the pond.

I kept on baling until after 6. We put the last three wagonloads under sheds, to be unloaded the next day in the cool of the morning. Thunder was rumbling as I came in with the last load, and the sky was getting very black. The leaves were rustling the way they do before a storm. But it all blew by us to the north, and never rained at all.

Sunset on the longest day of the year occurred at 8:36. Taking advantage of the long evening, I walked along the woods near the house after supper, looking for the first black raspberries of the season. I found a few, but as usual the birds had been there first. On the way home I heard the watery song of a wood thrush.

In the night I woke up after 12 and noted that the longest day of the year was now over. There had been a slight change in the weather, and the wind, such as it was, had moved around to the east. It was a little cooler. The dog shifted his position on the porch outside the bedroom window, and a cow called quietly for her calf.

Some small corners had been turned. Summer had now truly begun, but we had also begun the long downhill slide toward the equinox and fall. Each of the next 90 days would be imperceptibly shorter than the one before. In the morning, the sun wouldn't be up until 5:41. There wouldn't be time enough -- but then there never is.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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