COLUMN: Hay! What? Hay bales (that’s the joke)

This is my Sunday column for the Dec. 9, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. I previewed this column earlier in the week, complete with the 1998 Cherry High School class picture, in which my class posed in a hay field with hay bales. Also, I am wearing white pants.

Hay! What? Hay bales! (This is a joke)

By Aaron J. Brown

Regular readers might know that I grew up in the Cherry area. I say “area” because I never actually lived in Cherry Township proper, but rather in the surrounding metroplex, which includes McDavitt (known locally as Zim, where I lived), Clinton, Lavell and Iron Junction.

With the exception of Iron Junction, which is a tiny old railroad town with a couple streets and a post office, the rest of these places are square townships populated sparsely by a large population of mostly Finnish immigrants. You can trace the foundation of these townships back to the time Finns were blacklisted from working at the mines on the nearby Mesabi Iron Range because of their union organizing and highly literate rabble-rousing. Most set out to buy cheap land in the country and farm the rocky fields.

As a result of these historic conditions, the Cherry area has a number of farms: fewer, of course, than in the old days, but still you’ll find a dairy farm and some livestock up there. Farming in northern Minnesota is a special challenge because some of the soil is often really, really bad and the growing season is much shorter than it should be for a farm intended to grow crops people would actually want to eat, much less buy. At least two generations of Finnish-Americans persisted, however, mostly out of spite, often by spending their idle winters in the woods logging and milling lumber. Some still do. One thing that grows particularly well around here is hay.

The whole region around the towns of the Iron Range is a hotbed of hay. From my childhood near Cherry, to my current life north of Nashwauk, I’ve always lived very near hayfields. That’s why I was so interested to hear this report on National Public Radio last week that in parts of the United States, drought has driven up the price of hay so high that hay bales are being stolen right out of farmer’s fields at night. A sheriff in Oklahoma tells the story of placing a GPS tracking device in a farmer’s hay bale to successfully locate and arrest hay rustlers.

Stories like this have me contemplating a plot from the show “Seinfeld” regarding returnable bottles. Where is the price break that would make it profitable to run empty bottles to Michigan for the more generous refunds available there? In “Seinfeld,” as postman Newman warns, they find this question to be a viper’s den. But what about hay bales? Could a farmer in northern Minnesota run hay bales (trading at between $75 to $150) to the southern Great Plains with any hope of making a profit? Something to think about as the world turns hot.

Meantime, here are some assorted memories of hay bales:

Cherry was for many years considered a powerhouse in 9-man football, the competitive division for the smallest public schools. Even with only nine guys playing on an 80-yard field, we often played “ironman” with guys playing both sides of the ball for the whole game. I remember our quarterback was also a linebacker. Crazy.

An old tractor rests in a hayfield down the road from me.

Anyway, the team has had lackluster success in recent years, prompting the joke that Cherry football hasn’t been the same since they switched to round bales. (Explanation: Older square bales were usually loaded by hand, requiring lots of muscle work by strapping young men. The new round bales are lifted by tractors, which are typically driven by angry old men whose children have abandoned them).

This is an old joke, not exclusive to Cherry, and a generalization. I’m sure many hay farmers have happy families.

When I was a small child my mother used to tell me that the hay bales in the fields were actually alive and, even though you didn’t notice them moving, every day they’d get a little bit closer to the road. When they got to the ditch they would jump out at cars, she told me. This belief thrilled and horrified me. Later I would wonder how mom came up with this, but nevertheless began telling my children the same thing as soon as they could speak.

We have a family joke that whenever we pass a hayfield, pile of hay, or truck filled with hay, whoever sees it will say “hay,” in as subtle a way as possible. The point is to get someone else to say, “Yeah, what?” Then you say “hay bales.” That’s the joke. It took the kids a while to figure out this one. They just kept yelling “HAY BALES!” anytime they saw one, but lately they’ve been executing. I’m very proud of them.

I really hope the hay bales don’t get them.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show. The next show will be broadcast live Saturday, Dec. 15 at the Edge Center for the Performing Arts in Bigfork. Find out more at

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