Good Agriculture Fosters Good Art, And Vice-Versa


I’ve written before about my attempts to build a haystack that looks like one in a Claude Monet painting (see links at end of this post). This year I came close, as you can see by the two pictures. The distracting blue plastic at the base of my Monet will eventually be put over the haystack although I think the stack will shed water without a cover as well as Monet’s did. I’m not taking the chance of a sudden 6-inch Midwest downpour ruining it— something I don’t think Monet’s farmers had to put up with. They didn’t build their haystacks inside a ring of woven wire fence either, so I’m cheating a little.

Online, you can find haystacks still being erected all over the world. (Reader Ian Graham has sent me photos of his— he does a good Monet, too.) And as for paintings, good heavens! It appears that almost all artists, right up to the present, feel that they must paint a haystack or a haymaking scene just like so many of them feel compelled to paint nudes at some time in their careers. I typed “hay in art” into Google, and up popped hundreds of hay paintings. Not to be undone by the absence of stacks in modern agriculture, today’s artists are filling their canvases with hay bales including those big round ones wrapped in plastic.

I like to think there is more going on here than just an arty thing. The essence of farming comes down to feeding plants and animals so that they can feed us. Grazing pastures is the most sustainable way for animals to eat and plants to keep growing, as the Great Plains buffalo proved. But in northern climates, that means some of the surplus summer pasture needs to be cut for hay for over winter. This was the most practical way to insure a steady food supply back before farmers went crazy and decided to feed the world with corn and soybeans. People in Monet’s day saw much more than just the beauty of a haystack when they looked at one. They saw survival. As long as haystacks dotted the horizon every fall, society knew that it would survive until the next growing season. I wonder if even today, people look at those hay bales dotting a field and instinctively realize the same thing.

For those of you interested in making your own Monet haystacks, (it’s a very low cost way to make and store hay on a small scale) here’s what I’ve learned since I wrote about this subject last year. I quit mowing with the cutter bar (actually my cutter bar mower quit on me) and now cut hay with a rotary mower. The hay is mostly red clover or improved varieties of white clover like Alice. The rotary chops the hay up finer than I would like, or so I thought at first, but it dries faster, preserving the nutrient quality better. I can put it in the stack towards evening of the day after cutting and windrowing it. It dries faster also because I maintain only light stands of clover rather than heavy rank ones. The resulting high quality hay is, oddly enough, also easier to sculpt into a stack than long-stemmed cutter bar hay, especially hay with a lot of long, over-mature grass in it. Long grasses are too slippery to stack well. I actually would not have to use the woven wire base anymore. I can rank up this hay into a vertical wall, at least around the bottom of the stack. The trick is to always stack up the outside first and fill in behind it as you go up. Since medieval farmers did not have mechanical mowers, but harvested hay by the sickle or scythe handful and the rake-full, would that not be why they could form up such beautiful symmetrical stacks?

That suggests an even more awesome philosophical idea: what if hay that is more easily sculpted into a work of art indicates hay that is of higher quality in nutrients too? Could that be more than just an accident of happenstance? Perhaps in the most profound sense, art imitates nature and form forever follows function.
Images: Monet Haystacks Midday; Logsdon Haystack Midday
See also Gene’s…

Cheapskate Haystacks For Contrary Garden Farmers

An Offbeat Way To Make Good Hay


I’ve enjoyed reading this article about building a good haystack but what I’m left wondering is how then later one would feed out hay without destroying the integrity of the haystack. Any suggestions?

Carl Samson, yes that is my view too. I give lots of examples in the book. It is very interesting to me to examine the way some art elitists of the urban variety go out of their way to criticize Andrew Wyeth (and only last year did the New Yorker finally publish a Wendell Berry poem and only a few years ago finally run an article suggesting that Picasso was not really so great after all). I think this is blatantly prejudicial. History has a wonderful explanation in the Wyeth case. Andrew Wyeth’s grandfather was a hay and grain dealer!!!! This was not lost on the urbane art world and when N.C. Wyeth, Andrew’s father, deliberately and outrageously antagonized the impressionists et al it didn’t belp. Gene

Indeed Gene – While I haven’t read the book (yet!), at first blush, I fully agree with your thesis- and I know many others who would as well. I’d be interested to read the naysayers reviews or comments regarding the book. My sense is that you’re exactly right. Even within the current resurgence of interest in traditional painting approaches, there is on both coasts still an occasional whif of incredulity that anything of value can come from “flyover country”.

In my view, any contemporary painting worth its linen and pigment has at its source a love of nature and man’s relationship to it, and by extension, the land. But there still exists a significant dichotomy. On the one hand there are a growing number of very skilled artists who go to nature for its infinite storehouse of pattern and texture as a well source of inspiration. On the other, there are those who are so enamored with the interior world of the intellect that they are perfectly content to engage in a “sophisticated” game of artspeak as a substitute for simple beauty, truth and poetry. (Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word). These fellows have been losing ground of late to what can be considered nothing less than a new renaissance of painting. Many urban esthetes, tenaciously entrenched in the art establishment, will have nothing of it!

Carl, I am pleased to hear of yet another “neo-agrarian” artist. Interestingly, my thesis in my book on agrarian art is that farming is root and source of all art in some ways. I was met by almost hostility on the part of some people in the art world because of my opinion in this regard. Maybe I am still a bit thin-skinned from suffering from the urban prejudice againste rural culture that was part of my growing up years, but I detect some of that still alive and well in the urban art world. Have you experienced any disdain? I’d love to know. Gene

Gene, I just yesterday discovered you in relation to a search on Wendel Berry, and am amazed and delighted by your blog. I am a painter, (I’ve actually painted in Giverny several times) and a mutual admirer of haystacks (and/or wheatstacks!). I painted a lovely set of them in Tuscany as well. In the last several years, I have concluded the direction in which my work will ultimately go could most accurately be referred to as “neo-agraraian,” – only to discover the term has been around for many years. I’m very excited to learn of your book having to do with art and Nature. I will get this asap! Meanwhile, in the short time I’ve had to read your blog, I can see that your thoughts and philosophy regarding Nature and the vanishing agrarian landscape will be a satisfying source of inspiration for me. Thank you!

Gene, I’m delighted to make your virtual acquaintance after so much (invisible) mutual appreciation. I had to disable the email link from my website. Too many weeds of spam (especially the noxious viagra ads) among the good hay comments. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for your “Mother” book. As to the K Kuerner cover, I was referring to the subject not the title of the painting. Those pretty curves of drying hay are windrows, aren’t they? If I’m ever in Upper Sandusky, I’ll be sure and visit your spread. Best, Alan

Alan, I have visited your website many times and must tell you how much you have influenced me. But because of the newness of the Internet (for me, anyway) it never occurred to me that I could communicate with you and tell you how much I love what you are doing. I consulted your website when I was writing Mother of All Arts, which you may not be familiar with, and it helped me immensely. Yes, I’ve learned slowly that the reason so many of those earlier haystacks were so symmetrical is that they were really made of sheaves of grain, easier to stack. Thank you so so much for responding. The painting on the cover of my book The Contrary Farmer is actually Karl Kuerner’s “First Cutting.” His “Wind Rows” I use in an upcoming article in Farming magazine. “Wind Rows” is really a good painting in my opinion, and I am going to use it on this website one of these weeks if I haven’t already. (I am so busy I can hardly keep up with myself.) Again thank you so much. Gene

Dear Gene,
What prompted me to create a web-site to the theme of hay in art and what led me to contruct a database of over 6,000 images on the subject was the common misconception that Monet’s “haystack” series were paintings of, well, HAYstacks. They were actually based on WHEATstacks. So your brave attempt to imitate the morphology of stacked grain sheaves using the medium of loose hay is fascinating. If you go to my online essay “Missed stacks and mistakes” you’ll see that Monet did paint a few haystacks and very formless they are too. BTW, I own and love your book and the Karl Kuerner windrows that grace its cover. Best wishes, Alan Ritch

Hay stacked up for winter, firewood dry and ricked up, a full pantry of canning all give me the same feeling. The closest word for it would be security. Not the locked gate kind of security. The warm fuzzy, cozy-in next to a loved one kind of security. They all deserve my reverence and I usually get many photos of them as I attempt to document our quiet life. Those pastoral scenes are lost in large to most. The imagery of “the continuation of life” has gained a new meaning. It makes me sad trying to think of a modern icon for the haystack.

Russ: Did you learn to stack bales correctly the hard way, like I did, by upsetting a load of bales not properly stacked on a wagon? My claim to fame was that I could toss a bale four bales high. Then I met a real smart aleck who could toss one six high. Gene

“The trick is to always stack up the outside first and fill in behind it as you go up.”

That’s the same “trick” my father taught me about stacking bales in a mow along with alternating direction of layers and “tieing in” the front edge. During the summer of my 14th birthday, a classmate and I stacked over 20000 bales in 5 barns. I still revel in the memory of my father’s approval of the straight brick wall look of those mows of hay and straw. One hay buyer the nest winter said they were the best looking mows he had ever seen. We took the “art” of the hay mow very seriously. I am not quite the purist that I used to be, but I still take pleasure from a straight-edged mow.

Wow! You’re an artist, too! That’s a beautiful haystack … those lucky sheep. You do have fun out there, don’t you!?

Yes, Brad. Gene

By “rotary mower” do you mean something like a brush hog–one pulled behind a tractor?


Yes, the stack does look sort of four sided, but it is actually round, formed by two cattle panels as we call them (not woven wire— why I said woven wire is beyond me—I used to use woven wire), each 16 feet long but overlapping each other to form the circle. The overlap is not done neatly (I am almost incapable of “neat”) which gives the impression of four sided. It is actually about 24 feet circumference. Yes it will look like an ice cream cone in winter.


May I recommend a little more efficient use of your resources in the construction of your hay stack. It looks like each side is 4 feet and it’s 4 foot tall. You have to bend stiff fence in order to make it square. And the bin itself only holds 64 cubic feet of hay.

Instead of a heavy fence, may suggest hog fence which might be a little cheaper and instead of making a square, just use the same 16 feet to make a circular bin. Clip it so the ends can fold over to hold it together. The hay will push it outward to maintain the circle. Instead of only 64 cu feet, it will hold 81 cu feet with the same amount of fence and it will be easier and cheaper to make.

Can’t wait to see a picture with snow on it. It will look like an ice cream cone.

Will you take up the scythe when the rotary mower goes out? I would assume that you own one, and have the technique perfected…

Since we have a rotary mower and access to a flail chopper, but not a cutter bar, that’s good news. And no need for a baler, which we don’t have and don’t want to spend the money on, anyway. Plus the fact that our place has small areas conducive to hay separated by BIG outcroppings of volcanic rock deposits (Mount Lassen being only about 25 miles away and having been prone to eruptions as recently as 1917). Hay-making at our place–we haven’t started yet because we’re still renovating pastures that have been neglected for over fifty years–will need to be done piece meal and with care to avoid breaking equipment. Hopefully by next year we will have small haystacks such as the ones in the picture. In the meantime, we are cleaning the old ditches–we just discovered, in the process of clearing brush, a quarter acre pond we didn’t even know existed–and irrigating fields that haven’t had summer water for half a century. Those ditches are another great example of form following function. Get them right and your fields will be uniformly green with minimal water waste; get them wrong and you have a muddy mess alternating with desert. Maybe all art depicting agriculture is simply (simply!!!) a representation of the beauty we create each day in an effort to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves? And isn’t the person who kneads and bakes the loaf of bread, using all five senses in the process, just as much an artist as the person who can capture the finished loaf in paint or on film? I’m a better baker than a painter, but to me each is high art.


The haystacks are beautiful. I like your thought that the form of the haystacks might be related to the nutrient value of the haystacks.

Inventions seem to arise at the same time all over the world from different people.

This summer, I made what I call “Smokestacks” or “Goats” They are simply compost piles 3 feet tall and 3 feet around. The goat term comes from the idea they will “eat” anything. I just put plant matter in them. Like you, I use a rotary lawnmower. My focus is on areas covered with an eclectic mix of weeds. I just find a good spot along a road somewhere and cut. There is a particular type of weed I found works very well, but if I posted it, my supply might disappear as cutting it once tends to make other growth take over.

(I also put out my “Cutting for Tips” Burma Shave style signs and make a little extra money that way.)

Unlike you, my goal is not to feed animals, but it’s to feed plants. One day, I decided to put about 8 inches of dirt on top. When I did that, the internal temperature dropped right down from about 170 degrees to generally parallel the high and low temperature for the day, but at different times. A moisture meter doesn’t register any moisture inside at all even after a heavy rain. This happened within the first week or two even though I had a lot of green matter.

You can see pictures of them here:

The plants are a rich green as if there is a lot of nitrogen. The soil has no taste at all. (Yes, I’ve gotten into soil tasting which may explain part of my fecal phobia.) The texture on my tongue has changed from one of bigger particles to one of a very fine sand, but the particles are irregular in shape. The particles break down easier in my mouth. It smells very slightly alkaline. It seems like little microbes are moving around and changing the texture of the soil. Ants are also happy to crawl around, but don’t live there.

Unfortunately, the design of our haystacks with the fencing means they won’t be a fun place to conceive the next generation, but maybe that is coming. (All puns intended.)

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