Race to beat the rain

The hay’s in the field and rain clouds are coming. Time to get to work.

This age-old scenario was repeated Thursday evening when James LeClaire brought a crew of novice bale buckers recruited from Pot-Belly Deli out to his farm across the highway from the Blue Fox Drive-in.

Traditional rectangular bales of hay are largely giving way to huge round rolls that look like enormous biscuits of shredded wheat in the fields, but on this particular day LeClaire had bales to deal with. He didn’t have time to stop and talk, but he managed to get in a few words while tossing bales onto a trailer pulled by a pickup driven by his wife, Mary.

“We’ve got 600 bales and five hours to get’em picked up and stacked in the barn,” he said, as his crew unloaded bales in the big metal barn. He would have preferred the round bales which are mechanically hauled into the barn. But there wasn’t a round baler available and the weather looked ominous.

Mary drove the truck at a quick pace, challenging the bale buckers to keep up. James Ryan stood on the trailer as James LeClaire, Mike Ratigan and Sam Owen lugged the bales off the ground and carried them over to the moving trailer. They’d shove the bales up to Ryan, who manhandled them into proper position.

It was a cool evening but the young men were covered with sweat. Like LeClaire, they’re all in the Navy. But unlike LeClaire who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, this experience was all new to the crew. They just happened to be at the deli when LeClaire was rounding up workers.

“This is the first time I’ve done this,” said the stocky Owen, wiping his brow. “I’m from L.A. But I volunteered and I have no regrets.” He seemed to enjoy lifting the 50-pound bales, but Mary LeClaire said he’d pay the price later.

“These boys have never done this before,” she laughed. “At the end of the day they’ll regret it.”

But Owen insisted he was growing to like the country life on Whidbey Island. “I did my first cord of wood last week,” he boasted.

James LeClaire said they hired a 15-year-old boy to buck bales a few years ago but he only lasted three hours before asking if he could quit. But the tale had a happy ending. “His mom called and said he decided he wanted to go to college,” he said.

After hauling a load of bales into the barn, Mary watched as the trailer was unloaded. Both she and her husband were raised in Minnesota farm country. “These bales are light,” she said. “The old bales were 80 pounds, and you always baled on the hottest day of the year.”

Back out on the farm, fluffy rows of dry grass were still being turned into bales by a tractor and baler belonging to Martin Van Rensum who has been farming on the island for 67 years. Stopping for a minute, he said he keeps his rectangular baler despite the popularity of the round bales. “I don’t want to spend that kind of money,” he said. He rents out his time and equipment to others, and also raises his own hay. “I sell a lot of hay to horse people,” he said, before shifting the tractor back into gear.

The 106 acres the LeClaires farm actually belong to Russ Decker, but the LeClaires have been renting the land for about five years. They get enough hay off it to feed their herd of 75 Limousin cattle. The crop this year is 450 round bales and 1,600 rectangular bales. It’s regular pasture grass with a sprinkling of alfalfa.

“I’m in the Navy,” James LeClaire said. “This is a hobby -- a cruel, hard hobby.” He plans to retire in a year or so but he wants to keep farming. Decker’s farm is for sale but LeClaire won’t be buying it. “We can’t afford Whidbey Island land,” he said. Which is too bad, because he said the Decker property may be the largest piece of pasture land left on the island.

With only a few hours of daylight left, the crew figured they had eight more loads to pick up and haul into the barn.

“It’s gonna rain, I’m afraid,” said Owen, looking at the darkening clouds. But they got the job done. Early Friday morning the field was clear of bales, and a light rain had begun to fall.

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