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Baled Out by Hay

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill was riding the baler in the field below, Jana was driving the loader, and Russ had wagon duty. So Pat O’Brien rolled a 110-pound bale into the shade and sat down to talk about harvesting hay.

Enough hay to feed Pierce College’s small herd of cattle. And the horses. And the sheep. And then some. Twenty-five hundred bales, worth about $25,000--money the school doesn’t have--for an agriculture program that has been withering for years.

“I think there’s a very good chance that if we hadn’t started the hay program . . . they’d have done away with the cattle,” O’Brien said, wiping the sweat from beneath his dusty Ducks Unlimited cap.

Which would have thrown a wrench into the retired aerospace manager’s big dreams of becoming a farmer.

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The hay program--which is less a program in the academic sense than it is a bunch of aggies trying to keep the college farm afloat--was launched by O’Brien in late 1996.

Despite a rebounding economy, the Los Angeles Community College District was once again struggling financially, with Pierce among the most troubled of its nine campuses.

Things had gotten so bad, the college administration decided, that the school could no longer afford to irrigate several pastures used to graze livestock--animals studied and cared for by the school’s small crop of future farmers, ranchers and veterinarians.

After 37 years with Hughes Aircraft, O’Brien wasn’t about to let the school’s self-imposed drought dry up his dream. He planned to study farming for a few years, then buy a little place away from the city, raise a few head of beef and watch the wheat grow.

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So the 60-year-old with an MBA from Cal State Dominguez Hills floated a proposal: plant the fields with hay and dry-farm them, relying on only the rain for irrigation, and on himself and Pierce farm employees Russ Schrotenboer, Bill Lander and Jana Sorensen for labor.

The agriculture department agreed to lay out $3,620 for oats, barley and vetch seed, some baling wire and other necessities. And when the hay came up in the spring of 1997, O’Brien and his cohorts borrowed a swather and a baler from Cal Poly Pomona and gathered up 89 tons of hay, worth $13,380.

“It was a good deal, so of course they let us do it again this year,” said O’Brien, who rises at the decidedly farmer-like hour of 4:30 a.m. to make the drive from his home in Redondo Beach in time for sunrise on the farm.

But last year was a pretty average year weather-wise, producing a nice, if average, crop of hay.

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This has been an El Nino year, and the rains, it seemed, would never end. Too much rain, as any hay grower knows, can be a big problem.

“A month ago, I was crying, ‘The sky is falling,’ ” O’Brien said.

In one field, no grain was coming up. Instead, a little plant called mallow was flourishing. Figuring the field was a loss, the group let the cows loose to graze on the tasty mallow leaves, then mowed the stalks. But the rain kept falling, and up came the grain after all.

Another field grew nothing but chickweed. Then the chickweed died. And again, the rains came and up shot the grain.

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So they had hay, almost miraculously half again as much as last year. But Cal Poly Pomona couldn’t loan its equipment. So O’Brien turned to his brother, John O’Brien, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

The Sheriff’s Department came through with two aging New Holland balers from the Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center, three hay trailers, a prized 12-foot Case disc used to till the field, a wagon and a manure spreader.

“We’re going to have more hay than we know what to do with this year,” O’Brien said, watching Russ sling yet another bale onto the wagon.

It probably isn’t the best hay ever harvested. Some soaked up a bit of rain after the cutting began in early June and lay curing in windrows--never a good thing. There are more weeds in the bales than Pat O’Brien would like.

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But all in all, O’Brien figures, this has been a fine lesson in the old-fashioned, things-go-wrong, equipment-breaks, it-rains-too-much, there’s-never-enough-money kind of farming.

“If the school was at its peak, I think I’d have gotten a Pollyanna view of farming,” he said, kicking at golden stalks of cut grain. “Instead, I’m getting a realistic view.”


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