Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Make hay while the sun shines & the poem it inspired June 20, 2016

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Baling hay, 17 southern Minnesota


OF ALL THE TIMES not to have my telephoto lens attached to my Canon EOS 20D. But I didn’t, so I missed a close-up shot of three guys baling hay the old-fashioned way on Sunday afternoon in rural Rice County. No over-sized tractor, no round hay baler. Just a basic tractor, hay baler and hay rack.

As the farmer guided machines along a windrow, the baler compacted alfalfa into twine-wrapped packages. A team of two grabbed the rectangles, stacking them in a practiced rhythm of precise placement.

It’s a scene imprinted deep upon my memory. As I briefly watched the trio working the field, I remembered my father and Uncle Mike doing the same so many years ago some 120 miles to the west. I remembered taking lunch to them, sitting in the shade of the hay wagon, eating summer sausage sandwiches, breathing in the intoxicating scent of hay.

Make hay while the sun shines. It’s as true today as it’s always been. The trio laboring in the heat and humidity of Sunday afternoon understood they were racing against time, against the predicted rain that would come that evening.


The scene I photographed reminds me of a poem I wrote several years ago. It was published in the 2012 edition of Lake Region Review. Enjoy this poem, based on my childhood memories from rural Redwood County, Minnesota:


Taking Lunch to the Men in the Field

Three o’clock. Lunch time.
My brother grips the tarnished handle
of the rusty red Radio Flyer as the wagon bumps
along the dusty dirt drive, dipping and curving
past the cow yard mucked with mounds of manure,
toward the stubbled alfalfa where the men are making hay.

Out mother has stowed sandwiches—
slices of coarse, yeasty homemade bread slathered in butter
with rounds of spicy summer sausage slid in between—
inside the tin tub next to chewy oatmeal peanut butter bars
wrapped in waxed paper, nudging brown beer bottles
that jostle and clank as the wagon rolls.

She’s packaged the lunch in a crisp white cotton dish cloth
embroidered with Wednesday Wash Day
and stitches of clothes clipped to a clothesline,
mimicking the laundry she’s hung out earlier,
now stirring in the wisp of a July prairie breeze.

My brother and I lag under the heavy heat of the afternoon,
straining toward the men working the field.
Dad, shaded by an umbrella, guides the International along the windrows
while our bachelor uncle heaves hay bales onto the flat-bed trailer,
his chambray work shirt plastered against his back,
his grimy DEKALB cap ringed in sweat
as he toils in an unbroken rhythm of labor.

We reach the edge of the field as the men finish their round
and the racket of tractor and baler ceases
giving way to our small voices which break the sudden silence:
“Lunch time. We are here with the beer.”

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Poem copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling