I spent most of my childhood baling hay, moving hay and feeding hay to cattle. Apart from the simple calming pleasure derived from chewing on a stalk of timothy, it was pretty unpleasant. They were all square bales in those days, and they sold for about $2 each. I left home at 19, primarily to get away from haying, and really hadn’t thought much about the price of hay since. It’s no secret that I don’t have any sense of the cost of anything horse related – partially because Krista avoids telling me – and mostly because I avoid finding out to reduce my risk of stroke. But when I heard the other day that a friend of mine had bought a load of hay at $8 a bale, it got my attention.
Now, I know that there was a drought last summer – I grow grass for a living on golf courses, and know how much time we spent on irrigation – but until yesterday, it hadn’t occurred to me that we could have made more money if we’d saved all that labour, not cut the course, baled it up, and sold it this winter. A round bale is presently worth far more than a barrel of oil. So, now I’m looking for places that I might be able to grow hay next summer and make a few bucks. I’m pretty sure that I won’t be able to convince the owners of any golf courses to take up farming – especially since I’ve told them all for years that I actively set my personal life-course in the opposite direction. But there must be other places where I could be harvesting hay next summer. For $8 a bale, I’d even consider going back to Putnam!
During the dust bowl of the 1930s, cattle were starving to death in the Canadian west. A cry for help went out across the country for hay (at any price) to be shipped to Saskatchewan and Alberta. The answer came from the St. Andrews Bog outside of Winnipeg. Now, Manitoba takes its swamps seriously; there are a lot of them, and they’re massive. There’s a reason why small Winnipeg children are often carried off by mosquitoes the size of Rottweilers. The St. Andrews Bog has been mostly drained for farmland now, but is still nearly 9,000 acres in size – that’s a lot of mosquito larvae. During the dust bowl, it was nearly 120,000 acres – that’s 181 square miles, or about the size of the present day city of Winnipeg. So many people used to get lost in it, that according to my wife’s grandmother, they always kept a lantern burning in the steeple of the St. Andrews church to help the lost find their way out. They sent labourers out into the swamps with scythes, cut down the prairie grass, loaded it onto trains bound for cattle further west, and a tragedy was averted. So, now I’m looking at swamps.
The problem with most swamps though, is that they’re wet, which seems obvious, but not to those of us who’ve shown the poor judgement to get stuck in one with their father’s pickup. It means that the only way to harvest swamp grass is by hand. During the depression, they didn’t have too much trouble finding people willing to swing a scythe all day in ankle deep water, for a can of hobo beans; but I find in the present day, that the harvest is ripe and the labourers are few.
I’ve also been eyeballing the ditches of our roads. The average road allowance has 3.5 acres of unused land for every mile of road. That’s 17,000 acres on the Trans-Canada Highway alone. There are close to 3,500 acres in my township. In most of the world, people graze goats and sheep in those ditches, but we’re a little more jumpy about cars running into livestock, so we don’t do it. The problem again though, is mechanized harvest – it seems that road engineers are more concerned with drainage and driveways, than my ability to use a baler in the ditch. Hay would have to be a lot more expensive before I could afford to pay minimum wage for someone to go and get it by hand.
So, I guess my hay baron plans will have to be on hold for now. I got excited about the thought of all that fallow land, and $8 a bale hay, but it looks like the economics of the plan just don’t work. Now, as for building golf courses on road allowances and swamps…