Tote that barge — lift that bale

Can God make something so large that he can’t move it himself?

I can’t begin to guess the origin of this old rhetorical chestnut. An older cousin, Vince, went away for his first year at college and came home on break awash with newfound knowledge that we aboriginals couldn’t comprehend. “So what did you learn in college?” Uncle Charley, a tire builder, asked the newly arrived intellectual.

“Can God make something so big that he can’t move it himself?”

Highly impressed, and on his fourth Seagrams’ “7 and 7,” Uncle Charley responded by calling to his wife; “Hey, Estelle, come listen to this — show her, kid.”

“Can God make something so large that he can’t move it himself?”

“Ohhh — isn’t that something special, now. So smart and well spoken.” Aunt Estelle hooted.

I don’t know the answer to that time-honored conundrum. One might speculate though, that the answer would be no if for no other reason than that God has better sense. However, this is not true of the human race and, in particular, certain area farmers.

I got one of those calls recently from a Clarke County, Va. part-time farmer. The hydraulics on his John Deere 2020 had been getting weaker but he supposed that he could get through the winter before a teardown was necessary. He got along all right until the tractor would no longer lift the huge round bales that he needed to move. I had recently done some work on his old Ford 2000 tractor and it was purring like a kitten. I suggested that he use the Ford and was told that the bales were so large that lifting one of them would set the Ford on its backside.

I don’t claim to be a farmer though members of one of Loudoun County’s oldest farm families refer to me as such. Were I to farm for my livelihood, I would likely be involved in fruit growing — my first love. Vinticulture is starting to look good, too. There can be an over supply of most agricultural products but you can never have too much wine — in a general sense, anyway. The impressive sounding letters sometimes found after my name FFPMT — stand for Frustrant Farmer Plying (His only) Marketable Trades. However, the local definition of farming tends to involve cows — and hay.

I’ve watched the progress of the round hay bale move from West to East. When we arrived in Wayne County, Iowa in 1977, most of the pickup trucks there sported a “stinger.” A stinger resembled the stinger of an insect in that it was a long, pointed steel bar that protruded from the tailgate area of the truck in order to spear a round bale of hay. The stinger then was stood upright hydraulically or winched into position thus loading the bale onto the truck.

The farmer then could haul the bale into the pasture, lower the stinger and drive away from the bale and all was right with the world. When not in use, the stinger was carried in the upright position in order not to impale truck radiators in traffic — though I’m sure that some isolated incidents must have occurred. At that time, I couldn’t recall any round bales being made in the East. Indeed, farmers were still making the switch to round bales in the Midwest. Many of the barns still held part of their last square bale harvest. If you are familiar with the greater implications, it’s easy to understand why farmers out there just couldn’t stop talking about this new haying arrangement.

Stingers never caught on in the East. I’m not sure why but one theory is that by the time the round bale system made its way here, the bales were already starting to become too large for the stingers to handle. Not satisfied to be liberated from the labor associated with the square bale, we thought we could improve on the idea by lessening the number of trips to the field. We went on to make the round bales larger and larger to the point that not all tractors were capable of lifting them.

Of course, full-time farming operations have multiple pieces of equipment capable of moving these monster bales. It’s the part timers that often paint themselves into a corner in this regard. And that’s what makes my phone ring.

This particular repair job, though, has its own unique psychology, the farmer craftily transferring responsibility to the mechanic when the real problem is that he made his doggone bales too big. These folks invariably have a smaller tractor, which could easily handle the bales if they weren’t the size of tugboats. It would seem, to me, anyway, that the additional trips to the pasture with smaller bales would be negligible in light of the problems that the bigger bales often cause the part-time farmer.

Typically, the fellow calls expecting me to bump everyone else in order to address this emergency. Indeed, it is an emergency — cows gotta eat — fair enough. This time of year, that’s not such a big deal. However, this caller’s problem sounds like it has its origins in the low-pressure supply pump in the transmission which means that I’ll have to go digging deep into the Deere’s innards.

With its front-end loader, this John Deere is also the snow removal machine for the half-mile long driveway. I’m reluctant to tear it down lest a snowstorm sweep in making me responsible for both access to the place and the cow’s dietary requirements.

All of my work is done onsite and this is not a good job to be doing onsite during this time of year. Been there done that, backpacking tools into the site through snowdrifts and loving every minute of it when I was much younger. I bumped the job to my worthy colleagues, the Good brothers in Siler, Va. (540-888-3181). They’ll haul the machine to their shop where they can burn a little midnight oil if necessary.

If there’s four feet of snow on the driveway when they deliver the tractor, they can simply dig their way in. (It bears mentioning that the oldest of the Good brothers is about half my age — so I’m not so much plugging their business as I’m investing in a retirement plan.)

I made my annual visit to the Rio Mall last Sunday afternoon, riding along with daughter Leah and the Old Hippie. Passing through the Del Ray/North River area, I had the opportunity to study lots of round hay bales. It looks like these farmers have found a balance regarding bale volume and weight. I saw few, if any, bales that couldn’t be moved with a Ford 2000 tractor though backing up hills and steering with the brakes are options that I wouldn’t care to waive. Anyway, folks down that way are to be commended for showing wisdom by not making “something so large that they themselves can’t move.”

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