On a recent road trip, I came across this scene just across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, but it could just as easily have been in Vermont. The surrounding area was all open farmland, but these two features across the road from each other grabbed my attention. They were only about 100 feet apart, but they were probably 200 years apart in origin – one from the early 1800s and the other from the early 2000s – and both part of the farming history of this place.
The barn looked to be a 30′ X 40′ English style barn that was commonly built in the first half of the nineteenth century to support the mixed agriculture of the time. These barns included an area to store hay for farm animals to eat in the winter. It had the right footprint, height, roof line, and placement near the road that is typical of this type of barn. In the era it was built, the hay would have been stored loose, since baling had not been invented yet. Although barns were sometimes moved as farmers modernized their farmsteads over the years of ownership, it is likely that this building has been in this exact spot for 200 years.
In contrast to the barn, the round bales on the right side of the road are the modern way to store hay. In our climate, dry hay is now tightly wrapped into a round package with a piece of specialized farm equipment: the round baler. Although round bales are designed to shed water more than the previous square bales or the even earlier haystacks, the round balers now also wrap each bale with plastic to keep them even drier through our wet winters. With these innovations, hay no longer needs a building to be kept dry, and can be stored right in the field. Without a need for haylofts, our modern barns just need to be one-story high for the cows.
This one scene can simply be enjoyed for its bucolic feel, but there is much more if you dig a little deeper. In fact, you can look at these as the bookends of the roughly 200 continuous years of agriculture in this area.