“Making Hay” (Vintage Books, 1986. ISBN 0-394-75599-5) was Verlyn Klinkenborg’s breakthrough career-making book. It’s just a slender paperback but packed with first-hand descriptions, history, botany, jokes and colorful language. This is “New Journalism,” so that much of it includes the author, who grew up in a farm family, but not on the farm. The only thing missing is the smell of drying alfalfa.
My garage smells of dry alfalfa right now. It blows into my yard and takes hold in flower borders or just at the corners. To the exasperation of my neighbors, I let it grow all the way up into a two-foot-tall bush, then cut it, dry it and knock off the leaves to keep for tea. So far as I know, no one has made a study of the virtues of alfalfa tea, but I’m sure they are there.
When I was little, I was partly raised on “pablum,” which is a baby formula developed by several Canadian pediatricians. I craved the stuff and was very resentful when I was told I was too old to eat it anymore. One of the secret ingredients was alfalfa. Alfalfa has the property of promoting growth and well-being in some creatures while disagreeing with others. No one knows why. Cows love it.
Alfalfa was the miracle crop that saved many farms and ranches because it is drought resistant, likes the alkaline soil of the midwest and high prairie, and can withstand hard winters. Roots can go into the ground as deep as thirty feet, which is why it’s much more practical to “harvest” my alfalfa than to try to dig it out. In a good year it’s possible to get three cuttings.
Alfalfa originated in Iran when it was Persia -- actually before it was any country at all. It’s related to soybeans, peanuts, clover and kudzu -- all that vigorous stuff. Legumes: the very first plants documented as “vegeculture” -- that was in Thailand about 9,000 B.C.
The first reference to alfalfa in writing is a Hittite clay tablet from 1300 B.C. or so. From Persia (the Iranian plateau) the crop traveled to the Greeks, the Romans, up into Europe throughout the Roman Empire -- and then collapsed, disappeared for a millenium. Finally in the Late Renaissance it returned, now called “lucerne.” (The word “alfalfa” comes from the Moorish (Islamic) Spanish “alfacfacah” which means “the best kind of fodder.”) We use that name because both Washington and Jefferson tried raising the stuff, couldn’t do it because they had the wrong kind of soil and just didn’t know enough about the plant anyway, and so assumed that “lucerne” was a bust. Then “alfalfa” caught on in South America and came back up the continent through Mexico to California and Texas. So “alfalfa” has come to the rescue of American farmers just like other immigrants from the south and it originated in Iran with the rest of civilization. Something to think about, given the daily newspapers.
The main trick about legumes of all kinds is that they live in symbiosis with bacteria -- without the bacteria they cannot thrive because this is their source of nitrogen. Verlyn’s description of what happens on a molecular level is, as he says, “semi-erotic,” a ceremony of penetration down in the dark seed bed. Many farmers plant alfalfa for the first time with a “nurse crop” which is often oats, so that they are shaded. The oats get their tops cut off before they can replant themselves or interfere with the alfalfa. When the alfalfa is getting “old,” it is ripped out and often replanted to something like corn, which thrives because of the nitrogen left in the ground. However, corn erodes the soil -- alfalfa does not.
What makes the book so rich and so worthy of rereading is the descriptions of the various “cultures” of people who raise and feed alfalfa, some of them in the midwest where the name of the game is machinery, which they often invent or adapt themselves. Is there a more romantic name for a machine than “windrower?” They eat and square dance with huge gusto.
But alfalfa is not the whole story. Bob Scriver learned from Mr. Jim Stone, a major horse rancher on this reservation, that wild hay is the best hay for horses. In the Montana Big Hole the hay is grass, the technology is a “beaver-slide stacker,” which builds haystacks, and there is plenty of grazing rather than baling. When I was circuit-riding I often saw “beaver-slides” -- a tall contraption of poles for hoisting hay up and dropping it off the top -- between Helena and Missoula in the long elk meadows of the valleys. (The elk appreciate those stacks.)
This week I made my monthly eighty-mile provision run through Shelby and Cut Bank, smelling hay all the way because the roadside sickle bar operators were cutting the rogue alfalfa and volunteer grasses full of sweet clover, another legume. Out in the fields the huge round bales were sitting at random to dry out. Later they’ll be stacked in rows. If they don’t get thoroughly dry, they’ll burst into flames!
There is a wonderful website to visit, whether you live where you can smell hay or not. www.hayinart.com. The site is quite serious and philosophical with wonderful reproductions of art from European classics to modern. it’s worth repeat visits, especially on cold, drizzly winter days.
If you don’t have a computer on hand, read Verlyn Klinkenborg. He often writes short editorials for the NY Times, rather like those of the beloved E. B. White. NOW Verlyn has his farm, within commuting distance of Manhattan. I suspect he has a windrower.