Three Keys to the Successful Launch of a New Employee that I Learned Baling Hay

Mr. Lemmel was my first manager. I was a suburban kid working as a farm hand for the summer. On my first day, he needed me to help bale hay. He drove a tractor over to his gas pump to fill up the tank for the day. Then he told me to sit in the driver’s seat and oriented me to the controls. Standing behind me on the tractor’s hitch, he explained there was no gas pedal on a tractor. Instead, there was a throttle lever on the steering column which you moved with your hand. The stick gear shift on the “floor” had six forward gears and two reverse gears. Pointing at the pedals under my feet, he said, “The clutch is on your left and the brakes are on your right.” Even though I was only sixteen, I had been driving a stick shift jeep with a trailer for three years around my family’s weekend place. I figured I could handle this.hay baling

I said , “I think I’ve got it.” I pushed in the clutch with my left foot, shifted into what I thought was the 2nd forward gear and released the clutch. The tractor lurched backward into the gas pump. My brain was thinking take your foot off the gas and stomp on the brake, but the brake was where the gas pedal should have been. With the tractor’s rear wheel spinning against the gas tank, Mr. Lemmel calmly repeated, “the clutch is on your left and the brakes are on your right.”  I stomped on the brakes.  Step #1 – Calmly give clear directions and if necessary give them again. Screaming, even if you feel it would be warranted, doesn’t actually help. 

So we hitched up the baler and hay wagon to the tractor and headed out to the field where the hay had already been cut and left in rows. I drove the tractor with growing confidence. Mr. Lemmel stacked the hay bales on the wagon as they came off the baler’s chute. By lunch we had a full wagon that we brought back to the barn. After lunch, Mr. Lemmel told me he had some other things to do and he would let me finish the hay baling. I went out to find that his 10 year-old daughter was sitting in the tractor seat. She expertly backed the tractor and the baler up for me to hitch up an empty hay wagon. She had to stand up to put enough weight on the clutch to shift gears. We spent the afternoon baling hay.

She drove and I stacked the bales on the wagon using the pattern I had seen Mr. Lemmel use.  At the end of the day, my muscles ached. I was proud of what I had accomplished, appreciated the value of teamwork, and humbled that a 10 year-old could do an essential part of the job as well as I could. Step #2 – Show people how you do the job yourself then give them as much autonomy as you can as soon as you can. Team them with competent people with complementary skills to give them the opportunity to be a successful member of the team.

The next morning  was overcast and damp, but I had the tractor and wagon ready to go. Mr. Lemmel came out to say we would wait until the sun came out to bale hay and instead unload the wagons from yesterday. He said, “you may be wondering why.”  I said I was. He said, “there is an old saying ‘make hay while the sun shines.’ Most people think that just means that you should take advantage of an opportunity that might not last, but there’s another equally important reason. You want the hay to be dry when you bale it. If you put wet hay bales in your barn, the dampness encourages microbial growth which creates heat and leads to spontaneous combustion and you burn down your barn.”

He then took me into the barn and had me put my arm deep into the narrow space between the stacked bales. “See how hot it is in there. Probably about 100 degrees, if it was wet it would begin to rot and shoot up to 150 or 160 degrees and we would have to drag it all out of there in a hurry or risk burning down the barn.”  Step #3 – Explain your priorities. Why are we doing what we are doing? Take every opportunity to share what you know that might help smart people get smarter.

Mr. Lemmel was a wise manager. I can still picture him, “out standing in his field.”


4 responses to “Three Keys to the Successful Launch of a New Employee that I Learned Baling Hay”

  1. Brilliant!!

    And very apt, as the sun is shining here in Scotland (rare) and has been for several days (very rare) so the farmers have indeed been out making hay while the sun shines–as it does here until well past nine. Making hay when it’s not wet doesn’t have quite the same ring, but it is vital here too.

    And the tractor training reminds me of the time when I got Wishy Washy stuck in the mud at the Tucker house and when I asked Mr. Troxel for help, he just gave me a tractor. I well remember how long it took me to find the brakes!

  2. Loved your “Three Keys to the Successful Launch of a New Employee that I Learned Baling Hay.” I sent the link to my daughter, Tiffany Gibson, as I thought she would find it useful.


    • Glad you liked it and thanks for forwarding it on. As you can no doubt see better than many people, when it comes to learning from the farm, I am my father’s son.