We have reached that point in the hay-marketing year where buyers are chasing an increasingly small supply. They are being forced to pay historically high prices to feed their critters. If you have ruminants who like to eat hay, they don’t suddenly go on a diet when your feed supply runs out a month before new stuff is available from the field.

Last week rolled around with demand still not quenched. The problem was that I didn’t have any full semi loads to send to the auction. My regular trucker — Billy — has a trailer that holds 23 round bales. He charges me about $150 to haul them 18 miles from my place to the auction. All I had left were 16 bales, though. Billy doesn’t adjust his trucking rate for me or the buyer just because he’s not carrying a full load. I had another option. I decided to haul the bales to the auction myself and have them unloaded onto the ground in the sale yard. Whoever bought them could then arrange trucking on their own.

For the first load of round bales, I was going to try a new route. It would take me from Ridgeway to Conover, and then back west toward Spillville before climbing a notoriously steep hill to come into Fort Atkinson from the northeast. Road conditions were free of ice and snow, so the slope didn’t scare me. This would be simple.

I climbed the summit with my load of bales with no problem. Then I turned onto the next blacktop to take me to Highway 24. For some reason, I looked in my passenger-side mirror. My shadow looked a bit odd. Where there should be four curves to the shadow of my round bales on each side in my mirrors, there were only three on that side. I pulled to the side of the road to investigate. My straps were still quite secure. So were the four bales they were holding in place. However, one of the remaining four bales was missing. It was in the third position on the passenger side, right between two bales that were strapped in securely. If I’d had a full load, I would have had three more bales on top to anchor everything. If I had sent Billy with a small load, this would be his problem!

Did I mention that I always strap down my load? Yeah, well, I did this time, but it sure didn't look like it was effective. There was no place to turn around a load of bales, so I had to bite the bullet and drive into Fort Atkinson with a partial load. You can get by doing that if you start filling your load from the front and only get part way to the back. You don’t look efficient, but that’s the way it goes. If you leave a big gaping hole in the MIDDLE of your load, however, you are obviously a moron who drives like a maniac.

I pulled onto the scale at the co-op in Fort to weigh my load. The big gap in my bales lined up perfectly with the giant picture window at the scale. That meant the entire office staff could see my obvious problem. They did not let it go unmentioned, even though I’m not a regular customer there. No, I happened to pick the day when their nutritionist who handles the needs of a couple of hay customers of mine happened to be at the counter. It’s so good to know everyone.

“Looks like you’re not selling ALL your hay, huh, Jeff?”

Oh, a dual jab at both my marketing AND my driving! Gotta hand it to him on that one.

We got the paperwork handled for the scale ticket and I made my way to the auction yard. I was really looking for only one thing. Well, maybe two. I wanted yard manager Big Jim to be in the launch position to unload me in a hurry. You get that back bale off and all of a sudden your mistake disappears. My second wish would be that Billy would NOT be in the yard. I wanted him way the heck out in the country on some long-distance delivery.

I pulled around the corner of the warehouse and didn’t see Big Jim. However, Billy was right in front of me, putting the straps on his load.

Let’s just say he noticed the spatial relation of my load. As always, he addressed me as The Expert. He was enjoying it all a bit too much, I felt, but I was laughing right along with him. Billy’s favorite part was the fact that I didn’t know where my rogue bale was at the moment. Oh, I had a hunch, but not an actual location within a hundred yards. He and I decided that, given the current value of hay, my bale was more than likely at the bottom of a ditch somewhere, almost certainly irretrievable without a team of mules, a block and tackle, and maybe a crane. If it had landed on the road, somebody had probably stolen it by now. Billy figured it was worth almost exactly what it would have cost me to have him haul my load.

I headed back to the co-op to weigh empty and then made my way north and east again. As I turned onto the blacktop above the giant hill, I kept hoping this would end well for me. My bale would be resting comfortably along the side of the road, all by its lonesome. No crushed car would be underneath it and no trail of chaff would lead me from the roadway to its grave at the bottom of a very, very steep ditch where it would lie in a loose heap, its plastic mesh wrap in tatters and its resale value all but zero.

As I made my way down the hill, I saw my bale resting comfortably on the shoulder of the road. It was not even in the middle of traffic, and it was in perfect condition!!!

As good as that sounds, there was one small problem. You don’t just grab a round bale by hand and toss it on the trailer. This wasn’t just down the road from the home place where I could call staff and have them show up to rescue me in short order. This was about 14 miles from home. I quickly did some Rain Man MapQuest work and tried to figure out whose cell phone number I had programmed into my phone that would come out and help me in the shortest time. As luck would have it, I had just delivered a small load of round bales to my A.I. guy west of Spillville the previous night. He hadn’t been around when I had arrived with his hay, so I drove his small John Deere loader tractor and unloaded the hay myself. I was practically a veteran with his machine.

A call was placed. He answered, and knowing my situation, he immediately agreed to let me use his tractor and loader to get myself out of this mess. Small problem. He was in Decorah and wouldn’t be home for awhile. If I drove my truck to his farm to get his tractor, I’d have to drive the tractor back to his place with the bale on it. Had an accomplice been available, he could have driven the tractor and I would have driven the truck back to the scene of the crime. Then I could have loaded the bale and immediately delivered it to Fort. No muss, no fuss, no big deal.

But no accomplice, no quick solutions. It looked like I’d be spending some quality time on the road behind the wheel of a tiny little green machine with a giant green load on the front.

A good Boy Scout is always prepared. I only made it to the rank of Weebalo. A good Weebalo usually has some options. This Weebalo had his iPod with him. I hopped on the cabless tractor when I got to the farm west of Spillville, fired it up, dialed up an episode of The Bob & Tom Show, and headed out on a Hay Dude 9-1-1 call.

Did I mention that it wasn't a huge Deere tractor? Did I mention it WAS a huge Deere round bale? Not to get all Allen Ludden on you here, but “Not a match; the board goes back.”

You can lift giant Deere round bales with a small Deere tractor. You can haul giant Deere round bales with a small Deere tractor. What you can’t do is lift them and haul them at the same time flawlessly. The little Deere had to sort of psych itself up to lift the bale. As soon as I made its tiny little brain switch to transport mode, its wimpy little arms slowly decided to give up on the carrying idea. The bale began to sag as I drove. It was only three or four miles back to my truck, but it took a couple of stops along the way to let The Little Engine That Barely Could regain its composure and go for Olympic gold in the clean-and-jerk. The more the bale sagged, the more the plastic mesh wrap on it began to, um, dissipate. With weather on my side at all times, the wind was pretty much blowing all the chaff right back into my mouth.

I reached a critical juncture. It was at the stop sign in Spillville. I could take a left and climb the fairly steep hill and get back to the farm relatively unnoticed. I could take a right and have virtually dead-level terrain for the whole trip . . . right through the middle of town . . . where they have a lovely gazebo you get to drive around before you go past the bar, the bank, the church, the school and the Kolache Lady's house, in ascending order of importance in my world.

Climbing hills with bales and a lack of power didn’t seem so appealing to me right then. I mean, really, how bad could a trip through downtown Spillville, over the noon hour, possibly be? There’s nothing I like more than a crowd when I’m having a hay episode.

As I switched to promenade mode and made my way around the gazebo, I saw the only thing that could make this day perfect for me. There was some kind of event being held at the either the Catholic school or the Catholic church. It was wall-to-wall cars for several blocks, many drivers of which were climbing out of their cars, thereby narrowing up the roadway considerably . . . as I drove by . . . laughing it up to Bob & Tom on my iPod . . . with my giant bale obstructing my view . . . compounded by the ever-increasing chaff cloud from not being able to stop and reinvigorate The Little Engine That Barely Could.

Fortunately, there was one eyewitness missing as I made my way through town. I fully expected The Kolache Lady to be perched on her front steps, wagging her finger at me as I went by. She'd probably make sure all my mixed dozens in the future ran heavy to prune and light on the apricot, just to teach me a lesson.

I got back to the pickup, got my bale loaded and parked my Fisher Price tractor for a much-needed rest. I pulled up to the T-intersection to head west and go home through the boonies. My phone rang right as I pulled up to the intersection. It was Seed Guy. Guy No. 1 had called him to get some more seed. If I could get there right away, he’d get me loaded and we could keep planting without missing a beat. Yeah, well, that sounded good, except for one thing. I had just driven through Spillville on a tractor everyone in town recognized but as a driver hopefully no one recognized. The only way to get to Seed Guy’s place was to drive right back through town . . . with my single, less-than-kosher bale prominently on display on my trailer.

No, really, I’m pretty sure I’da been totally anonymous if I didn’t have to go through town again. I mean, what are the odds someone would recognize me? If they had, that kind of information pretty much stays to itself at gatherings in small towns.

Billy called me as soon as I got into Seed Guy’s yard. I was amazed HE didn't tell ME exactly how everything had gone for me. He was probably checking to see if my version lined up with the version he'd already heard by then.

Guy No. 2