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Tales of a Hay Hauler: ‘Excellence is never an accident’

Brad Nelson for Progressive Forage Published on 12 July 2019

“First, it’s gotta be dark outside,” is the punchline of the joke that starts, “How do you pick a good watermelon?” It refers to the practice of stealing watermelons after dark.

One of the locals here at the Royal City, Washington, area told me a fellow on the west end of the Royal Slope used to plant a small field of watermelons near the road just so the kids could have the thrill of stealing watermelons.

East of Royal City, watermelon is the preferred cash crop for another fellow. In addition to loading semis with the juicy melons for distribution to the four corners of civilization, he has a melon stand and sells his favorite crop to the locals. I got acquainted with him because alfalfa hay is part of his crop rotation that keeps his soil in the proper shape to grow the melons.

I asked his recommended way to pick a good melon. He said he’s watched people thump on the melon, feel it, turn it over, shake it and smell it. “But by the end of the day, somebody’s bought every melon in the bin.” I told him that in the years he’s been retailing, I’d never gotten a melon that was immature or too ripe.

“So how do you train your helpers to know how to pick the melons that are ready and leave the others?”

His harvest technique is to have the pickers on foot, lifting the melons they think are ready and placing them on the boom ahead of them, which has a moving belt that takes the melons to the field loading truck, where others carefully place them into bins. Since the melons don’t ripen all at the same time, the pickers make a number of passes over each field.

“The easiest way I’ve found is to just give every crew a couple of machetes and have them cut a few melons open to see how ripe the inside is. Generally, when the skin of the melon starts to lose its shine and change to a dull color, it’s about right.” He said after slicing six or 10 melons, most of the crews were only picking melons that were “right” for ripeness.

He has his own greenhouses where he starts the plants. In the fields he lays strips of clear plastic, which acts as a greenhouse, warming the soil, and when things are “right” he’ll transplant the greenhouse plants to the fields.

It’s taken years to get figured out which variety of plant, which fertilizer, which crop rotation and how to manage the greenhouse and the plastic in his fields so his watermelon plants get a jump start and produce premium melons early each summer.

Silage excellence

A young dairyman who had just won a contest for the best corn silage was asked about how he did it. Hoping to hear about a secret fertilizer blend or hybrid corn seed, the questioner was amazed when he answered, “The best thing you can put in that corn field to ensure a good crop is the heel of your boot.” By explanation, he went on, “Get your butt out of your pickup and walk the field. Make sure the dirt feels right under your feet.”

Driving excellence

“I’ve never been able to sleep in a vehicle with anyone else behind the wheel,” began a hay hauler, telling a story. “But after we unloaded, I realized I was so tired I wasn’t safe driving. The young fellow I hired to ride along and help unload had his CDL, so I asked if he’d drive, still knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep but at least we’d be safe. In 5 miles, the passenger seat was hurting my back, so I crawled back into the bunk.

“Surprising myself, I dozed off, and when I woke up we were pulling off the highway three hours later close to home. That kid has got to be the smoothest driver in the world for me to have slept that far in a moving truck.”

The boy had learned to drive in a truck the previous three owners had thrown away as totally worn out. He’d learned that when you shift gears, you need to feather in the throttle and let all the worn gears and U-joints move softly to take all the slack out of the drivetrain before pouring the coals to the engine. Behind the wheel of a truck new enough for the driveline to still be tight, he could drive with a full glass of water on the dash and never spill a drop.

Excellence anywhere

Say you go out to eat; it’s a special event, so you’re at a high-dollar eatery. You order, for example, a rib steak medium rare. You expect that cut of meat, cooked as ordered, to be tender. For that to happen, the correct grade of beef must have been purchased by the eatery, and the guy cooking your steak has to know what he’s doing and care about you getting what you expected for the arm-and-a-leg the meal is costing you.


And when your meal is served, and it’s excellent in every way, be assured it happened that way “on purpose.” Just like the service or product you provide to others from your farm or ranch, it’s quality “on purpose.”  end mark