STRAW BALES FOR UNDERHILL HOUSE AND WHERE THEY CAME FROM

It was July 4.  The crew was taking a well-earned holiday, but Doug and I were out at the land pouring carefully measured out yogurt containers of water onto the parched garden plants from the six 5-gallon buckets we filled from our garden hose in town.   Our little pond is almost dry, and we are leaving its last water for the frogs.

The temperature was topping out at 102 – one of a series of days that all climbed into the hundreds.  It hasn’t rained in weeks.

It was good to water the garden, but what we really wanted to do was visit our straw bales.

The straw bales for Underhill House are scheduled to be delivered next week, and I really wanted to see where they came from and meet the farmer who grew the wheat and baled its straw.  It’s not that easy to find the small bales that make such wonderful building blocks these days.  Once, every barn was full of the14” x 18” x 36” bales, all stacked by hand.  Today farmers bale straw in a large format and move them about with fork lifts.  But Bryan found bales he liked nearby outside Edgerton.   When we finished parsing out the precious  water, I tried calling Tom Sayre’s phone to see if there was a time we could come and meet him.

Tom Sayre answered his cell phone and said he was combining a fresh crop of wheat at that very moment, but would meet us at his house in half an hour.

Tom Sayre’s family home.

As soon as we stopped the car, Tom called to us from his shady screened in  porch.  He was grabbing a bite of lunch and invited us to pull up a chair in his kitchen.  We chatted while he downed a peanut butter cup shake, fast-food burger and a bowl of green beans from his garden.  His kitchen walls were covered with paintings of tractors and aerial photos of some of his 54 farms.

His farms are all in a 15-mile radius, and he has scooped them up as they go on the market.   “My wife and I have been married 53 years, and I’ve tried to buy a farm every year,” he said.  “My two boys and six of my grandsons farm with me.”

“My grandfather had this farm. He was smart and went to the university and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, which is quite a thing.  Hiram Walker from Windsor Ontario, made whiskey.  Like a lot of those industrial leaders, he grew up on a farm, and when he got rich he wanted to build a model farm.  Walker asked the university if they had a guy who could manage his farm, and my grandfather got the job.  He milked 500 cows in 1900.”

That taught Tom to think big.  He says the machines are so big these days,  it takes a lot of land to cover overhead.   “I don’t know if in another 20 years there will be anyone left doing family farming.”

Only big bales that are handled by machine get baled in this heat.

“That Tuls from Nebraska is going to be milking 5,000 cows over Janesville way.  His 18-year-old son is going to run it.  They brought 1,500 cows from Nebraska and bought the rest around here.  Big dairies don’t like little bales.  And in this hot weather it kills the boys to bale the little ones because they have to be done by hand.  The big one’s get done by machine.”

Though he was baling big bales the day we visited, Tom still finds it makes sense to bale up some small bales each year.  Our bales will be the first he has sold for use in building.  He has our bales stored in two wagons in one of his many barns.  “I’ll bring it with one of my grandsons,” he said. “I like doing business with the Dodgville implement dealer just up the road from you, so I’ll come over and kill two birds with one stone when I deliver them.”

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society,  wheat was the earliest and most important cash crop in Wisconsin because it required a small initial capital investment and was fairly easy to grow. From 1840 to 1880, one-sixth of the wheat grown in the United States came from Wisconsin.

Wisconsin became the dairy state instead of the wheat state because Badger farmers soon found themselves facing competition from wheat farmers in Iowa and Minnesota. Then disaster struck Wisconsin wheat farmers when a disease called wheat rust and tiny insects known as chinch bugs destroyed crops.   Of course today we have pesticides and herbicides to handle these kind of challenges.

Wisconsin winter wheat production for 2011 was 21.8 million bushels, up 48 percent from 14.7 million bushels in 2010.

And Tom produced a lot of that wheat.  He gave us a tour of some of his operations which include tobacco (used for chewing tobacco), peas (which were just harvested – the canning company harvests peas round the clock.  “You have 36 hours in hot weather from when the peas are still too hard to harvest until when they are too soft – from bullets to mush.”)

In this dry weather his best crops are soy beans and wheat, which can both take the punishing conditions a little better than corn.  Much of his corn did not get enough water to tassel, and will not make ears now even if the rain comes soon.

His soy beans all go to China.  “It’s a world economy,” he said.

The wheat is planted in the fall,  he told us.  “As soon as we get the soy beans out of the ground – you go right in the next day.  The nitrogen from the beans is enough to grow the wheat.  We only have to add 32 more pounds per acre that way.”

Tom in his combine.

Last week some of Tom’s wheat was loaded onto box cars.  He recently filled a 106-car train that took 12 hours to load.  Each box car holds four semi-trucks full.  It is Soft Red Winter Wheat and is mostly used to make pizza dough.

The wheat kernels destined for pizza dough fill the combine hopper.

During the hour we spent with Tom, he fielded endless calls on his cell phone, coordinating with his sons and others who work his land, arranging sales and gossiping with neighbors.  After meeting his sons and seeing our straw bales, we drove him back to his combine.

Though Tom was combining this year’s crop of wheat, and because of the drought, the bales will be dry enough to build with, our bales are from last year.   Several months ago when the deal was made, no one expected the wheat to be ready so soon.   This hot, dry summer has accelerated the season for wheat, and also cut down on yields.

Doug and I climb aboard the combine for a test drive.

We watched Tom make several circuits of one of his many wheat fields, and then he paused and invited us to climb up and join him in the cab.  You get quite a view from inside a modern combine, the machine that cuts crops like wheat and corn and separates the grain from the stalks.

Tom at the wheel, monitoring computer read-outs and fielding cell phone calls.

It’s air conditioned and the radio blares loud enough to mute the roar of machinery.  A modern combine is a high tech tool that gives its operator a constant read out of how much wheat it is harvesting, second by second.  Tom could read the yield as accurately as the computer, telling us that we were passing over good or poor soil as we moved through the field.  He seems to know every foot of his land.  On one spot, nothing was growing.  “We had a little atrazine  spill here a few years back,” he said.

You’ve got to be careful with atazine.

The giant combine turns on a dime.  Tom made his way back and forth, filling the hopper with wheat and leaving the straw on the ground to be baled later.  As hot as it is this week, I’m sure Tom and his sons will be baling the oversized rectangular bales that they prefer over the round kind.  It’s just too hot to bale and stack the old fashioned little bales.

Doug stands with Tom beside one of the two wagons that hold our future straw bale walls. They are ready to go!

It was pretty cool to see those wagons stacked with the straw bales that will build our walls.  The next time you are enjoying a pizza, think of Underhill House, built out of a pizza waste product.

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2 replies

  1. Hi,

    We run a small family farm and CSA just outside of Mount Horeb. We are interested in straw bale construction for a new structure on our property. We would be interested in learning more about the process and if you had any difficulties with building permits.

    • Hi Marc,
      We had no difficulties with getting straw bale approved by our building inspector – who may be the same as yours.
      He has had other straw bale projects in his domain, I believe, and is getting comfortable with them.
      We would be happy to show you how our straw bale turned out and talk to you about our experience.
      Let me know if you want to get together some time.

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