Dave the Farm Boy

Hay! Are you gonna eat that?

Hats worn backward: It's my fault

A gentleman farmer always uses the right fork

You've got (outgoing) mail

I do, I do....have to get home and milk the cows

"Won't Get Rich Sittin' Here" (a song by Dave)

I grew up on a dairy farm (plus pigs, lots of crops), and now live in the city. I've written some primers on rural life, for city slickers in need of education. If you think they sound familiar, you may have read them before. But no, I didn't steal them. They were published under a pen name which I will decline to reveal here.

Hay! Are you gonna eat that?
Grasp this -- it's straw!

by David W. Downing, copyright 2001

Looks like it's time for another lesson on farm terminology. On the front page of Wednesday's Pioneer Press [August 22, 2001], a list of things to do at the State Fair suggests visiting the cattle barn, where "cows lie on fresh hay...."

No, no, no. Cows don't lie on hay (nor do bulls, heifers, or steers, for that matter). Hay is food, not bedding. Hay is dried alfalfa, clover, timothy, or some other grass or legume. It is green in color. Yet all too often -- in children's books, for instance -- I see depictions of livestock munching on something yellow.

That yellow stuff is straw. It is the dried, hollow stalks of oats, wheat, or some other small grain. Because straw is composed largely of hollow, air-filled tubes -- where did you think drinking "straw" came from? -- straw serves as a cushion, which is why it is the traditional livestock bedding of the ages (as well as a traditional mattress stuffing). Straw also absorbs liquid messes, the benefit of which should be obvious.

Straw is not food. While (very hungry) animals may be willing to eat it, it has very little nutritional value. Hay could be used as bedding, but it wouldn't work as well as straw. More importantly, hay is too valuable to waste as bedding.

Now, I haven't been out to the fair yet, so I don't know. But it is possible that some of the animals there aren't lying on either straw or hay. That's because in recent years some farmers have begun using alternative beddings such as sawdust, wood shavings, or shredded newspaper. They've made the switch to reduce expenses, or because they like the qualities of the new bedding.

Now go enjoy the fair.

Hats worn backward: It's my fault

by David W. Downing, copyright 2003

Hats worn backward. Among those under a certain age, that seems to be the standard, dare I say "right" way to wear them. I myself have previously written on the subject. For instance, I once reported on a backward-hatted softball player who had to use his glove to shade his eyes, and I told of spotting a backward tennis visor, which doesn't even work to hide a bald spot. (And I've since spotted an upside-down, backward tennis visor, just for good measure.) But while I've been making fun of those who wear their hats backward, I must 'fess up that the whole backward-hat phenomena may have started with me.

Back when I was a young Farm Boy, I spent many summer days baling hay. My job was to haul wagons back and forth between the field and the barn. When I'd bring in a full load, I'd park it in just the right spot next to the barn and then help my dad unload it. To get the bales up into the barn (We always called the upper portion, where hay is stored, the "hay barn"; others use the term "hay mow" or "hayloft." It's all the same thing.) we employed a rope-and-pulley system that was fast becoming obsolete. A "bale fork" was placed over eight bales, and the fork's eight curved tines were stepped down into the bales. Then a rope was pulled, which started an electric motor, which turned a drum at the far end of the barn, which wound up the rope attached to the bale fork.

At first, the fork travelled straight up, with eight bales dangling spider-like beneath it. When it reached a metal rail at the peak inside the barn, it snapped into place and made a 90-degree course change, disappearing through the large haybarn door into the dark depths of the barn. With years of practice, my dad knew just the right time to release the power rope and yank the trip rope, which released the bales in the desired section of the barn.

While I've called this bale handling system obsolete, you may be interested to know that it had been updated several times over the decades. Before the days of the baler, it was used with a different sort of fork that grabbed clumps of loose hay for transport into the barn. And it was first powered by a horse on the other end of the rope at the far end of the barn, and then by a tractor, before the electric winch system was installed. But with the horse or tractor, another human was needed to do the chore. In fact, we had a second barn that did not have the electric winch system. When we filled that one, I drove the little old Ford 8N tractor in reverse to raise the bales, while watching and listening for my dad's "stop" whistle. Either way, when dad and I had unloaded our wagon, he went into the barn to stack the bales, and I drove back out to the field.

Meanwhile, out in the field, my grandpa and my older brother were busy loading up another wagon. At first my brother drove the tractor, pulling the baler with a wagon behind, while grandpa stood on the wagon and grabbed the bales as they came out of the old John Deere 14T baler. The bales were stacked on the wagon for easy unloading, which usually meant a load of 64 bales, or eight forks. But if the field was particularly far from home, or if the yield was unusually high, grandpa might decide to squeeze another row down the middle, which made for 80 bales, or eight forks of 10 bales each. (In that case, the two in the middle didn't have any tines holding them in place; they were squeezed between the other eight as the bales rose into the barn. They could and sometimes did come loose, so I made sure to keep my distance after I set the fork.)

As the years went by, my brother started trading off with grandpa, stacking every-other load, and eventually taking over that job full time. (This two-man system was fast being supplanted by newer balers that mechanically ejected their bales into a large, cage-like wagon, but it still beat the original system -- dropping the bales on the ground and coming around to pick them up later.)

Now, as for the hat. Sometimes the crew in the field would need me to bring them something. It might be some more shear pins or a tool, but most often, they needed me to bring out another bale of twine on my next trip. Well, even at an early age, my mind tended to wander, and I was likely to forget their request by the time I got back to the barn. So my dad came up with a system.

He told me that if I was supposed to remember something, I should put my hat on backwards. Then, when he saw me back at the barn, he would immediately notice that I looked like a fool, and he could ask me what I was supposed to get. It worked! This simple system served us well for years.

But alas, this system wouldn't work anymore, what with a backward hat almost the standard. Still, the next time you see some teenage boy with his hat on backward, just for fun you might ask him, "Need twine?"

A Gentleman Farmer Always Uses the Right Fork

by David W. Downing, copyright 2004

A news story about getting the historical record right shouldn't introduce new errors into that same historical record.

My June 18, 2004 St. Paul Pioneer Press daily newspaper had a story about the flap over a retouched historic photo which appears on the city of Eagan's new "History on Deck" playing cards. The photo depicts a group of men, who apparently are taking a break from shoveling snow. Several of the men have scoop shovels, but one man is holding a fork. That man is the reason for the flap -- and the news story -- because the word "Excelsior" has been removed from his shirt. But that's not what concerns me.

What concerns me is that the Pioneer Press reporter refers to the fork as a "pitchfork." It is not. Just as not all bovines are "cows," not all implements with tines are "pitchforks."

A traditional pitchfork has three lightweight, widely-spaced tines, with the two outside tines forming sort of a "U" shape. The pitchfork is used for tossing lightweight materials around. The fork in the old photo is a potato fork. It is used to sift potatoes out of the dirt. The potato fork is sort of basket-shaped, with heavy-duty tines spaced to catch the potatoes but let dirt fall through.

The potato fork looks very similar to the silage fork, but the silage fork tines are lighter weight, there are more of them, and they are closer together. This design makes it possible to plunge the silage fork into a pile of silage, but doesn't let the silage slip between the tines.

City slickers might also mistake a hay fork for a pitchfork. But a hay fork has four or five tines in a more rectangular design, rather than a "U" shape. There is also a manure fork, which probably has five tines, and is designed for cleaning wet, heavy manure and straw from gutters or pens.

While today's farmer may use either a pitchfork or hay fork to give his cows hay or straw, you won't be surprised at this point to learn that there is also a straw fork. The straw fork looks like an oversized pitchfork or hay fork, with lots of space between the tines. It doesn't seem to be very practical these days, when straw comes compressed in bales that fall apart in slabs. It's real usefulness would have been evident in the old days, when straw was handled in loose, fluffy piles.

Now, returning to the gentleman with the potato fork, I have a question of my own. The tone of the Pioneer Press news story seems to indicate that the man is holding the potato fork as a joke, because it isn't an appropriate tool for snow removal. But is it a joke? I think it might work great for digging into a drifted bank of light, cold snow; the type that breaks apart into giant, Styrofoam-like chunks. I do know this: a potato fork is great for digging into a pile of wood chip mulch.

So that's my primer on fork usage, based on my own experience. It wouldn't surprise me though if others report that in their areas, or families, they use different terms. I'd be glad to hear from you. (dave@downingworld.com)


And now for something completely different.....a rebuttal from a dissatisfied reader, whose complaint I am prodded to publish because he actually has a supply of said forks, and isn't afraid to use them. (Plus, he's my brother Dan.):

Dear Sir,

I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms.

In my decades in the production agriculture industries, I have come to call what you call the "pitchfork" a hay fork.  Yes, that's right, a three tined hay fork.  A fork with four tines works poorly for distributing hay.  The four thicker tines are much harder to insert into a partial bale of alfalfa and the hay wishes to remain stuck on the tines when the effort is given to "pitch" it, as it were.

And I refer to both four and five tine forks as manure forks.  Simply choose the correct number of tines to match the particular manure qualities of the day.  Packed straw calf pens:  four tines.  Horse leavin's:  five tines.

And don't get me started on shovels and spades.


Raymond Luxury Yatch,  Mrs.

At least he didn't mention the dirty knife.

You've got (outgoing) mail

by David W. Downing, copyright 2002

Rhymes with Orange cartoonist Hilary B. Price may not be much of a speller, but doggonit, at least she knows how a rural-style mailbox functions. In what I thought was a very good Sunday [March 17, 2002] cartoon, she has a couple putting their tax return in their mailbox at the end of the driveway, and then feeling concerned about raising the red flag.

You see, despite what AOL would have us believe, a raised flag on a mailbox does not mean, "You've got mail."

For those who don't know, the flag on the mailbox is there to be raised by the box's owner, when an outgoing piece of mail has been put into the box for pick-up by the mail carrier. That's to signal the mail carrier so that he or she doesn't drive by without picking up the outgoing mail.

What's that you say? The mail carrier has to stop anyway to drop off the daily allotment of pre-approved credit card offers? Well, it was not always so.

You see, just as there was once a time with no e-mail spam, and a time before telemarketers, there was also once a time when there was no such thing as junk mail. Not in our lifetimes, maybe, but I know there was such a time. There had to be.

So unlike now, when you can pretty much count on receiving some sort of mail every day, there was once a time when the mailman might go right by and you'd get nothing. That's why you needed to raise the flag to tell him he had to stop.

Even now, when you're likely to have some mail delivered every day, you need that flag to alert the mail carrier to be on the lookout, so he or she doesn't shove your mail into the box without noticing the outgoing envelope already in there.

So no, we didn't expect the mailman to raise the flag to show us the mail had come. I think Harold had enough to concentrate on, driving that old Plymouth from the passenger side, without worrying about putting flags up. (I wonder which he found more challenging: Delivering mail while driving from the wrong side of the car, or his other driving job -- delivering kids on bus #5?)

But if you do want an indicator that the mail has arrived, I'd bet you can get such a device to add to your mailbox. Or invent your own. I remember seeing ads years ago, in farm magazines, for a spring-mounted flag that would go up when the mailbox door was opened. (Sort of like an ice fishing tip-up, or a safety flag on a bicycle or really cautious jogger.)

Well, I'm glad I could straighten that out. At least until someone else contacts me to say, "But our mailman always put the flag up....."

I do, I do...have to get home and milk the cows

by David W. Downing, copyright 2004`

(This originally appeared in print in 1997, in Bulletin Board, in the St. Paul Pioneer Press)

[Another writer's] story about about someone getting "all of his little chickens in a line," rather than ducks in a row, reminded me of another duck-related malapropism I overheard soon after moving to the big city. Being familiar with the expression "ducks on the pond" -- used to refer to runners on base in a softball game -- I was quite surprised to hear someone on an opposing team shouting "All right, dogs in the pound. Dogs in the pound, now."

Then again, maybe this was no malaprop at all, just another example of the cultural differences between life on the farm and life in the big city.

So, how about a City Mouse/Country Mouse category? What interesting, but subtle, differences have people observed when they've moved from the country to the city, or vice versa?

When the lovely Mrs. and I were wed, we scheduled the ceremony for 2 p.m., so the dairy farmers could attend the reception (in the church basement, of course), go home to milk, and come back to town in time for the dance (at the VFW, of course -- no swanky hotels where we hail from). When I tell City Mice that we scheduled our wedding around cow milking, they react like I'm making some sort of joke. But it's just common sense where we come from.

Speaking of church basements: We didn't serve hot dish at our reception, but did you know that although a Minnesota hot dish is a casserole, not all casseroles are hot dishes? A casserole is merely food prepared in a baking dish; it derives its name from the casserole dish in which it is baked and served. You could create a casserole made just from potatoes, for instance, but it won't be a true Minnesota hot dish until it includes something from each of the three major food groups: meat; rice/pasta (spaghetti, to Minnesotans)/potatoes; and cream-of soup. And you can take that to the bank.

Speaking of which: When I was growing up, my hometown bank closed at 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, but was open until 8 p.m. Friday - pay day, and the day people came into town in the evening for high-school football or basketball. Imagine my surprise when I found that my big-city bank closed earlier Friday than on any other day of the week!

I guess City Mice must be in a hurry to scamper out of town for the weekend.

"Won't Get Rich Sittin' Here" (a song by Dave)

by David W. Downing, copyright 2004`

When I was a boy growing up on the farm,
We'd gather at the table when Daddy came in from the barn.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, too,
One thing for sure when the meal was through,
As he pushed back from the table my Daddy would say:
We won't get rich sittin' here.

Oh we won't get rich, won't get rich sittin' here.
After every meal that's what I'd hear.
There's cows to milk and there's pigs to feed,
And we won't get rich sittin' here.

Don't know why Daddy said what he did,
Prob'ly heard it from his Dad when he was just a kid.
Well, I never thought it made much sense;
You can milk those cows, you can mend that fence;
You can sweat all day makin' hay,
But you won't get rich anyway.

Oh we won't get rich, won't get rich sittin' here.
After every meal that's what I'd hear.
There's cows to milk and there's pigs to feed,
And we won't get rich sittin' here.

Now I'm grown up, I got kids of my own.
And they hear the same thing after meals in our home.
But now I know what Daddy knew all along,
And to tell the whole world I wrote this song.
True riches aren't measured in silver or gold,
But by the friends you keep and the family you hold.

(chorus B)
Oh we're all gettin' rich, gettin' rich sittin' here,
Sharin' a meal with our loved ones gathered near.
We're together at the table as a family,
And we're all gettin' rich sittin' here.

Moms and Dads, brothers, sisters, too.
I wrote this song for all of you.
Life's too short, it goes too fast.
Only one kind of riches really lasts.
So give thanks for your food, for your family, too.
Give thanks for those you love, and those who love you.

(chorus C)
'Cause we're all gettin' rich, gettin' rich sittin' here,
Sharin' a meal with our loved ones gathered near.
We're together at the table as a family,
And we're all gettin' rich sittin' here.

(chorus D)
Yes we're all gettin' rich, gettin' rich sittin' here,
Sharin' a meal with our loved ones gathered near.
We're together at the table as a family,
And we're all gettin' rich sittin' here.

The family's all together ­ Praise the Lord!
That we're all gettin' rich sittin' here.

page and website contents copyright 2004 David W. Downing