Do unto others: Neighbors pitch in to put up hay |

Do unto others: Neighbors pitch in to put up hay

Dusti Berry, Freelance Contributor
Neighbors came together in a challenging hay year to put up the hay crop for a man fighting cancer. Photo by Dusti Berry.
Raising Hay

Machinery of every color, spanning decades of model years, was gathered in a hayfield near Phillip, South Dakota in the summer of 2019, to do for one neighbor what he couldn’t do for himself. 

The young man, with a young family, had been diagnosed with cancer and was facing a long road of physically- and financially-draining treatment. In the midst of one of the wettest, most trying years in recent history, “neighbors” from all over the county came together, putting aside their own work without a second thought, bringing their equipment and their work ethic, to take on the daunting task of putting up this young man’s entire hay crop – in just two days. 

“It’s just what we do – we don’t want glory, or even so much as a thank you – we just take care of each other. We all know he’d do the same for any one of us,” said one of the community members, who helped coordinate the haying crew. As everyone in agriculture knows, when a farmer or rancher experiences an obstacle, the work doesn’t wait. The hay still needs to be put up; the community saw that need, and they leapt at the opportunity to lend a hand. 

Early Wednesday morning, camera in hand, I followed a long string of tractors and haying equipment, of every brand and color, to a bottomland hayfield, where the men who’d headed up the haying operation checked the moisture of the hay. Finding it a bit too wet yet, we all drove back to a nearby neighbor’s place, where we visited over coffee on the front patio, and waited. Around 10 a.m., we headed back down to the field. The dew was dry and soon, that first pass was made. A group of other volunteers looked on from a nearby knoll, enjoying caramel rolls and conversation, waiting to offer assistance in any way needed. The day provided perfect conditions to cut, and a total of five machines worked in five different fields, getting all the hay in each laid down by evening, without much in the way of breakdowns or equipment trouble. As the last of the windrows were cut, the crew gathered at the edge of the final field, making plans to get the hay baled. They decided to let the hay dry down for two days, and the baling would commence on Saturday. 

Nearby, in Phillip, another hard-working group of volunteers prepared a hot meal for the crew to come back and enjoy at the fire department’s garage.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better day for it,” one of the crew said at the time, “I just hope we can get it all baled up before it rains again.” The past couple of months had dumped nearly the average yearly rainfall on the area, and with more rain in the forecast, each of the haying crew knew that these few dry days might be their only shot to get any hay put up. Yet they chose to be there instead, putting up hay for their neighbor, so he could focus his energy on recovery.

On Saturday morning I drove the same dirt trail down to the bottom hayfield, this time following an even longer string of equipment; rakes, balers, tractors with hay forks, a skid loader, a tanker from the local volunteer fire department, even service pickups from each of the implement dealerships in town. It was a sight that knocked the breath right out of me, in a good way. 

Today, the crew stayed together, opting to roll up each field all at once. Watching them at work was both mesmerizing and heartwarming –rakes pulled the rows together just ahead of the balers, and those bales barely made it off the belts before they were picked up and rowed neatly on the fields’ edges. Field one…two…three…once again the day remained perfect for making hay. A rain shower and a wicked thunderstorm rolled in mid-afternoon, yet by God’s good graces, it went directly south of where the crews were working.

In the fifth and final field, a semi rolled in to help transport the bales from the field center. As the sun slipped slowly down the western horizon, the last bales were unloaded and rowed at the field’s edge, and everyone gathered together for a moment, to visit and to line up their equipment, so I could get a photo of the entire crew. 

As I followed that same string of equipment out of the field, down a dusty trail toward home, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a lump in my throat and tears of humility and deep appreciation on my cheeks. I watched the scene laid out before me – an entire year’s worth of hay for this man and his family, a summer’s worth of work – wrapping up in its second day. Not much more than a couple of slight hiccups, no weather-imposed challenges, no stalls due to equipment. It was nothing short of incredible. I still struggle to find the words that adequately describe the experience. Each and every one of that crew left quietly as they came, heading back to their own daily responsibilities, wanting nothing for their tremendous act of kindness, other than for the young man and his family to be able to focus on their battle ahead, rather than the work that needed done. The resounding comment heard throughout those two days made the same point, “We don’t want any thanks, it’s just what we do.” 

“It’s amazing to live in a community so filled with compassionate people, you always know that when you’re down, they will be there to pick you back up and carry you through. It’s incredible to be on the receiving end of this kindness; it can be hard to ask for that kind of help, and here, you don’t ever need to ask,” said another community member who benefitted from a similar neighborly work party. “We truly couldn’t be more blessed.”

Editor’s note: The young man featured  in this story unfortunately lost his battle with cancer in the fall of 2019. His family cherished the love and support of their community as they went through that enormous loss as well.