The New Homestead Farm | Life in the Kingdom

Trying to build a new homestead farm, the Hewitts found themselves in a race with nature, one with no clearly defined finish line.

By Ben Hewitt

Jun 01 2016


The author and his sons, Fin and Rye, take advantage of a rare dry spell last June to bale their hay.

Photo Credit : Penny Hewitt

It’s late May before the snow disappears from the shaded northern hollows at the sides of the road. I can’t remember such a late spring in my adult life; I can’t recall ever having felt such an intense longing for warmth and sun, for the sight of bare ground, for even those first glimpses of winter-dead grass emerging from the receding snow. It’s homely stuff, brown and bent, and the possibility of the plant matter returning to life seems as remote as the possibility of a grandparent aging in reverse, growing younger and more supple with each passing day.

The New Homestead Farm | Life in the Kingdom
The author and his sons, Fin and Rye, take advantage of a rare dry spell last June to bale their hay.
Photo Credit : Penny Hewitt

Owing to the late spring, it’s almost June before we can begin building in earnest. We make a considered decision to begin with the barn, holding tight to a filament of hope that perhaps we can have a roof over it before the first cutting of hay. That would allow us to transport our hay directly from the field to our new barn, forgoing an intermediate stop (and, more crucially, the associated unloading and stacking) in either our current barn or that of a generous neighbor. “Don’t get your hopes up,” I tell Penny, and I’m right to say this, since we usually take our first cutting of hay in mid-June. We’re capable enough builders (and we have even-more-capable help), but still: floor to roof in two weeks? Ain’t gonna happen.

But Penny almost always has her hopes up, and for a variety of reasons, this time she’s proven right. That’s because June 2015 turns out to be one of the rainiest in northern Vermont’s history, and although we can frame the barn throughout the incessant showers, there are precious few opportunities to make square bales. The larger dairy operations aren’t as reliant on extended dry spells for haymaking; whereas we look for a four-day window (three days will do in a pinch, particularly if there’s a drying breeze, and if there are five … well, that’s downright relaxing), they mow after morning chores and return to the field just before dusk to bale the still-green forage into round bales that will be wrapped in plastic and left to ferment.

So it is that we find ourselves in a strange race, one with no clearly defined finish line. We need the weather to remain just wet enough that haying isn’t an option, but not so wet that we can’t continue pushing forward on the barn. And then, once the final rafters are in place and the roof is sheathed, we need a break from the rain, but one of a very specific length. If the dry spell is forecast to last too long, we’ll be called to the hayfield; if it’s too short, we won’t be able to finish the roof. (Although many aspects of construction may be tackled in the rain, installing metal roofing on a 12/12 pitch—equivalent to a 45-degree slope—is definitely not one of them.)

Fantastically, we’re granted a two-day window of azure skies just as we finish the roof deck. Remember what I said about putting up dry hay? That’s right: Two days doesn’t cut it. But installing a tin roof on a 720-square-foot barn? Turns out that, had she been born to a family of roofers, two days is exactly what Goldilocks would have ordered for such a task: not too short, not too long, but just right. Building on our run of good luck, the skies clear again, and less than a week after we finish installing the metal, still giddy from the unique rush of working high off the ground in the no-fall zone, we’re stacking hay under tin, the very tin we’d screwed down only days before.

Over the preceding months, I hadn’t dared to grant myself the luxury of my own sense of accomplishment—if only because there was still far too much to accomplish, far too many variables to make accomplishing those tasks a given, far too many ways for things to go awry—but now, filling the barn with bale after bale of hay, the sugared smell of drying grasses mingling with the salty sourness of our own sweat, I allow myself a moment of satisfaction.

I know that what we’re doing is nothing new; it’s nothing special. Hundreds of thousands of New Englanders have done the same and more, and under far more challenging conditions: oxen and crosscut saws; horse-drawn wagons and roofs of shingles they shaped themselves; hay that had to be raked by hand and pitched loose into the barn. I’m grateful for all the luxuries we avail ourselves of each and every day: cans of gas for the sawmill or diesel for the tractor; circular saws that slice through framing lumber with little more effort than is required to press the trigger; even our humble metal roof. And oh, the miracle of a cold bottle of beer at the waning edge of daylight! I’ll pay less than two dollars at a local convenience store, pluck it from the frosted cooler, drink it faster than I should, consider another.

It’s almost too much to behold.

Just as I know that what we’re doing is nothing new, I also know that we have it relatively easy, and I don’t want to lose sight of this undeniable truth. Furthermore, I’m not the least bit convinced that I have the strength of character to shoulder the burdens of my ancestors.

I recall reading a book to my sons about the early settlers of this region, and how we were all thrown into stunned silence to learn that they burned 50 to 70 cords of firewood annually. Fifty to seventy cords. They burned it to cook, to process their food, to heat their uninsulated homes. They cut it by axe and handsaw, split it by maul, hauled it by the hooves of beasts they’d trained to do this work.

I think about all this on a late-June day in 2015, standing back to admire the barn we’ve built, the sliding doors open to show the neat stacks of hay. I can’t see it from where I’m standing, but just past the barn, there are five cords of firewood drying for the winter to come. Five, not 50, the trees felled with a chainsaw, rather than an axe. And still it felt like a fair shake of work.

It occurs to me that perhaps I don’t really deserve the self-satisfied sense of accomplishment I feel on this early-summer evening. But then the breeze kicks up, and I catch a whiff of the freshly baled hay, and I think, What the heck. In just a bit more than a month, we built a barn. Then we filled it with hay. Maybe it’s nothing special. But it still feels pretty darn good.