I recently came across a photograph at the Plymouth Historical Society that caught my eye. It depicted a man standing in front of an automobile in 1930. The vehicle was barely visible underneath the massive pile of hay on top of what was likely a hay wagon. A small three-pronged fork sat beside the pile and a open barn door was to the rear of the hay pile. If you look closely, a small building sits to the right front of the vehicle and resembles old smokehouses I have seen at other historical sites.
A picture truly is worth a thousand words. This one picture gives a glimpse into a time period and farming practices that are essentially lost to our 21st century world. Why is it lost? Very few farmers today, if any, would harvest their crop of hay the way this man did. Before the introduction of the baler in the 1940s, farmers went out to the field and forked their hay onto a wagon using a pitchfork or, if they could afford it, a hay loader. They would then bring the hay back to the barn for feed storage in the hayloft. If, or most likely when, they ran out of room in the hayloft, they would place the hay outdoors in haystacks.
Hay is harvested in the heat of summer and needs to be done quickly. Pull the hay off the field too soon, it might be too wet and would mold in the loft. Leave it too long and it could become too dry, lose nutrients, and run the risk of getting rained on which would also have a huge negative effect on the crop.
As you can imagine, the process was quite labor-intensive. The farmer would need to lift and throw the hay first onto the wagon and then later into the hayloft and this would be repeated until the job was complete. Hay is fairly light, but this repetitious action could definitely tire a man out. Therein lies the importance of using the correct tool. The three-pronged pitchfork was much lighter than the four-pronged pitchfork used for moving manure and the eight-pronged fork used for silage. Less weight meant less work for the farmer.
The advent of the baler essentially eliminated the need to harvest hay in this way and decreased the need for haystacks. The baler still required substantial labor, but allowed the farmer to condense the hay into much denser shapes. These could be packed in the barn much more tightly allowing much more hay to be stored in the barn. The innovation of the baler was just one of many new technologies that completely changed the landscape of farming and the life of the farmer.