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If Columbus had bales

A neighbor, Woody, had what seemed like a simple enough request for me one summer day. He had a field of oats he had combined. He was going to bale the straw and wondered if I’d help move the bales off the field. They would be big square bales, so there would be no heavy lifting on my part. It’s not that I’m lazy. I prefer to think of it as labor-efficient. To entice me, he said he had “checked around and nobody moves bales like Jeff Ryan.” That, and the fact that money would change hands, was all it took to get me on board.

The plan was to bale the 105 acres of straw and haul them to a hay shed Woody has on a farm he rents a mile south of Harmony, MN. There was one decent shortcut between the oats field and the shed, so it didn’t seem all that bad to me when I agreed to do it. If the straw yielded like we thought it would, there would be at least 20, maybe 25 round trips to make for the whole job.

The first problem we ran into was geographical. A bridge on the shortcut was being replaced, which meant taking a much longer route. Rather than firing up the pickup and flatbed trailer and flying over the bridge like Bo and Luke Duke in the General Lee on The Dukes of Hazard, I had to do my best Christopher Columbus impersonation and find a different route to the new world. No offense, Chris, but I was hoping my world would be flat. Sadly, it was not.

Next came staffing requirements. Woody planned to remain in the tractor loading bales in the field. I dropped off my skid loader at the hay shed to unload the bales and stack them in the shed. That left me with two trucks with flatbed trailers behind them. I would run one and another staffer would run the second one. When we’d pull into the hay shed yard, we would unload the load and go back to the field for another one. Each driver would remain with his respective truck.

That was a great theory. In practice, it didn’t fly. First of all, the staff did not seem to see the appeal of this job like I did. They have no sense of adventure whatsoever. They each started coming up with excuses in a big hurry. “Gotta do tax returns.” “Gotta power-wash the nursery before the next group of pigs shows up next week.” “Gotta grind feed.” “Gotta watch C-Span.”

That sound you just heard was the bottom of a barrel of excuses being scraped. I lobbied one staffer with the right tactics long enough to get him to play along. To protect his identity, we’ll call him The Chairman Emeritus. Negotiation is all about compromise. TCE would not run the skid loader. He would remain in a truck at all times. When we would meet on the road with our loaded and empty trucks, we would stop and switch places so that he was never near the skid loader. That’s what it took to close the deal, so I agreed to his terms.

The next day my cousin Red Randy (because he has red equipment and his corporate cousins have green) showed up with his big square baler to start baling. It was a little after 2:00 when we got our first load of bales loaded. I headed north toward Harmony with them. We opted not to strap down every single row of bales on this trip. That was going to take a lot of time to put four straps on 20 or 25 loads and then only drive 15 or 20 miles with them through reasonable country. We chose to strap only the back row of bales. Each trailer held square bales stacked two high and three rows wide. One trailer was 26 ft. long and held four rows long. The other one was 24 ft. long and held three rows long, plus a fourth row placed sideways on the back. The big trailer held 24 bales; the smaller one held 20 bales.

Red Randy made good progress with his non-green equipment. We made good progress hauling bales all afternoon. By the end of the day, we weren’t quite half done with the field. We stopped to have some lunch in the field before hauling our last loads of bales to Harmony for the night. As we were ready to depart, TCE requested a check of lights on both trailers. Gotta keep those guys with badges and guns happy if you’re motoring after dark with a trailer. Everything checked out fine, so TCE took off with his load. I followed behind by five minutes.

Grab an Iowa road map. Find Cresco. Go east to the intersection of Hwy. 9 and 139. Head north on 139 until it jogs straight east. Keep going east a mile until it makes another 90-degree turn and goes north again. That’s the corner where we went from gravel to the clean comfort of pavement. The problem was that we were going from an east-west gravel onto east-west pavement immediately before it encountered a 90-degree turn to the north. That makes for kind of a hairpin corner. Those aren’t always trailer-friendly.

It was near dusk. As I pulled up to make my 342-degree hairpin turn, I noticed something didn’t look right on the pavement. Right there in the middle of the oncoming lane were several big square bales of straw! Yet there was no sign of TCE anywhere. Seeing as how this was a Saturday evening, that meant tons of recreational tourist traffic to and from the likes of Kendallville, Bluffton, Lanesboro and every other beautiful burg in the area. Tourists love farmers — as long as we stay in the field or the yard where we belong. On the road, we are Public Enemy #1.

I parked at the intersection and made a lightning-quick assessment. Sort of a bale triage. The two bales in the center of the lane needed to be moved NOW. The two near the shoulder were less important. But how to move them? Yeah, well, you know how people move burning cars off the occupants trapped beneath them? The brain has this area called the caffeine afterburner. When properly motivated, even Sherman from Accounting turns into Lou Ferrigno when his caffeine afterburner is firing on all cylinders. Four bales were soon on the shoulder of the road. The pavement was clear, except for a thin layer of mulch.

I headed for Harmony. As I got out of the truck, TCE was taking the strap off his load. He looked at me a tad sheepishly and asked, “Say, did you see four bales along the way anywhere?” I informed him of the location and details of “the incident.” We reviewed the caffeine afterburner concept. He wondered if Medtronic had a product to help that.

I informed TCE that we would unload his load and then we’d take the skid loader back with us and put the bales on his trailer. That way we would remove the evidence entirely. He reluctantly agreed.

When we returned to the scene, we were not alone. A truck was parked across the gravel road intersection. I pulled the trailer onto the gravel road and immediately got out to unload the skid loader. The other truck didn’t appear to have any damage to it, so I assumed the driver hadn’t hit the bales. He was parked there to draw attention to the bales in the opposing ditch. I quickly shot across the pavement and retrieved the first bale, placing it on my trailer. Then I grabbed the second one. It was after dark now, so some more light would sure be handy, I thought. Darn the luck! My prayers were answered. Illumination was upon us. It came in the form of several motorists’ headlights from the west and, um, well, red flashing lights from the north.

I was just about to cross the pavement to get the third bale when the deputy pulled up. He got out of his car with his flashlight and surveyed the situation. I kept on task. Bale #3 and bale #4 were placed on the trailer while TCE and the guy in the truck chatted with The Heat. After my bales were loaded, I strapped them down extra securely and then loaded the skid loader. By that time, TCE came back to the truck and we jumped in to leave.

It seems that some tourist type saw the bales on the side of the road and immediately called the Cresco Police. You know, seeing as how this was four miles out in the a different county than Cresco. TCE said when the deputy walked up to them, he asked if everybody was happy. TCE informed him that we were moving bales for a neighbor and retrieved a couple of them that had come loose. Notice how he neither incriminated himself with that statement nor gave any specific information about the who, how, when and where of the situation. The neighbor in the truck lived a hundred yards away and was a farmer, so The Heat probably assumed he was the owner of the bales. Nothing like the fog of ambiguity to clear things up, right? Maybe it was the darkness, but the neighbor in the truck didn’t recognize TCE. Without even being told by The Heat, they all went back to their homes, “because there’s nothing more to see here.”

That Sunday, TCE opted to attend the Annual Ryan Family Reunion in Cresco instead of hauling bales. One day of bale conveyance was plenty for him. I shuffled my cards and conned, er, uh, motivated another executive into helping me. It went better than I expected, but there were still concessions to be made. This exec wouldn’t run the skid loader, either. Too chaffy for him. Allergies, you know. Right.

The whole process ended up better than predicted by my skeptical staff. Woody was so happy to be done so fast and have his bales under a roof that he paid me my fee and tossed in a generous tip as a bonus for timeliness. We ended up moving just under 500 bales of straw 16 or 18 miles one way in a day and a half.

Think of the bale math this way: Put three big square bales in the back of a pickup and drive from New York to California to New York in 36 hours.

Hey, wait, I just remembered! There’s this one shortcut in Kansas...

The Hay Dude

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