Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nature's First Green Is Gold

I have been really busy over the past few weeks working on an order of custom jumps, including a beautiful but time consuming faux brick wall. Therefore, I have not had much time to write. However, in honor of the arrival of spring and the new green grass, I wanted to take this opportunity to share an article I wrote several years ago about how hay is produced, featuring a local farming family, the Ritchies of Inglewood Farm.


“Nature’s first green is gold” – Robert Frost

When spring comes at last after another cold, bleak winter, and the fields of Virginia start turning green, this poem always comes to my mind. For to horse owners and the farmers that supply them, the green grass truly is gold – beautiful, leafy, gold-green hay.

To walk a mile in Bill Ritchie’s shoes, you’d better be fit, hard working, patient, part mechanic, part weatherman and love working outdoors. You also must handle stress well, multitask and be good at dealing with people. A farmer’s life is not an easy one, but Bill Ritchie, of Inglewood Farm in Bealeton, VA, wouldn’t trade it for anything else. “I love the fact that I just walk out of my house and I’m at work. No commuting,” he explains. “I also like that I do something different nearly every day.” 


Farming is a Ritchie family tradition. Bill’s grandfather, Wilbur Ritchie, originally purchased Inglewood farm approximately 70 years ago. He had four sons, including Bill’s father, Calvin, who was the only one to stay on and farm the land. In addition to the farming, Calvin started a grain business, Fauquier Grain Company, which was later sold and became Fauquier Feed. While Calvin was busy with the grain business, which included bagged and bulk feed for a variety of livestock and fertilizer, Bill grew up farming and gradually took over that aspect of the operation.

The Ritchie family turned its full attention to farming once the grain company was sold and expanded the business by leasing land. They currently farm approximately 2000 acres, of which the family owns roughly 500. In addition to producing hay, Inglewood Farm grows and harvests soybeans, corn, wheat and barley. The wheat and barley both help produce another golden “byproduct” – straw. Inglewood is also known locally for having the best sweet corn in the area. I can personally attest to that; if you see the “sweet corn” sign out on Route 17, a few miles south of Bealeton, it is worth the trip up the long gravel drive to pick some up.

The average person might think that producing hay is easy… it is, after all, just dried up grass, right? The process is actually surprisingly complex and takes about three days to complete. First, the grass is, indeed, cut and allowed to lie on the ground for a day. The next day it is tedded, or fluffed, to allow for better and more thorough drying. On the third day, the moisture level is checked with a tester – Inglewood does not bale any hay which tests over 15% moisture – and then raked into rows. Once raked into these windrows, it can be baled immediately.

Of course, this is assuming that the weather is good for three consecutive days. Cutting is planned with this in
Tractor pulling a round baler
mind, which is where accurately predicting the future, or at least the weather, comes in handy. Despite all efforts, sometimes the cut hay does get rained on, in which case it is baled and sold as mulch hay. The farmer must work long hours during nice spells, trying to get as much work done as possible while the weather cooperates. Thus the expression "gotta make hay while the sun shines."

The soil must also be properly prepared and maintained for optimum production. Generally speaking, the soil only needs to be tilled every three or four years. Seeding is also done at this time, though overseeding may occasionally be of benefit in between tilling cycles. Fertilizer is applied in early spring, with additional nitrogen applications between cuttings throughout the season.

Depending on a number of factors including type of hay grown and the weather, a farmer can expect up to three or four cuttings from a hay field over the course of a growing season. The first cutting, which is usually harvested in early May, is a bit coarser than subsequent cuttings, but it also yields the most hay per acre. Bill estimates that he can harvest roughly 100 bales per acre from the first cutting, whereas that number drops dramatically to 20 or even just 10 bales per acre for later cuttings.

Raking hay into rows
Orchardgrass, timothy and alfalfa are the most commonly produced hays in our area. Inglewood focuses on orchardgrass hay but also grows a little timothy. They offer both the traditional square bales and the much larger round bales. All hay is stored inside immediately after baling. Inglewood is fortunate to have acquired a hay stacking machine in recent years, eliminating the arduous chore of stacking the square bales manually, as many farms still must.

Bill cautions that hay production is the least profitable of his farming endeavors. He further recommends that anyone interested in hay production consider the difficulty of making a reasonable profit. The machinery is expensive, both in initial cost and maintenance and repairs. You must also consider fuel, fertilizer and seed costs as well as labor costs, unless you have free help at your disposal. He emphasizes that “you really have to have a decent amount of acreage as well – preferably several hundred. You just can’t make a profit on less acreage.”

In addition to the cost, there’s the sheer hard work. You must endure long days in the blazing hot sun and being assaulted by insects and dust. .Inglewood is fortunate to have tractors with climate-controlled cabs, but many farmers do not… I have seen many homemade “shades,” including umbrellas tied to the tractor; as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Rows of hay ready for baling
Our hay producers have certainly earned our respect and thanks. It is a very difficult job, stressful, tedious and unpredictable at times. So many things can go awry, particularly in regard to the weather… a drought or particularly wet season can ruin a crop. Yet our horses depend on the fruits of their labors, quite literally. It is important that we help support our local farmers and, on a larger scale, that we care about and help conserve the open land and the environment itself on which they (and we) depend. Otherwise, the last line of Frost’s poem may come to fruition on a permanent rather than cyclical basis: “Nothing gold can stay.”

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