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Doing what you know, knowing what you love

Darren Olsen Published on 16 September 2009

For Richard Martin, raising hay is about as easy as falling off a tractor seat
For many producers, it takes a lifetime to figure out what niche they will fill in the vast world of forage production.

It takes seasons to learn the product they are growing and the clients they will be selling to. But for one University of Wisconsin student, those lessons have already been learned.

Richard Martin of Muscoda, Wisconsin has been growing hay longer than most people his age have been going to school. Some of his earliest memories of being a farmer start on the seat of a tractor.

“I have been working on our farm since I was old enough to ride on the tractor. My dad made me a seat belt when I was little so I could ride on the tractor all day long, all summer long.

The only time I wasn’t riding on the tractor, I was fishing with my grandpa. Ever since, I have just been taking on more responsibility and doing the things that my dad does, like doing field work and making many of the management decisions.”

Although Richard is now attending the University of Wisconsin, it is his experience and lifestyle that has given him an almost sixth sense for farming and the art it can be for the best growers.

“My favorite part of working on the farm is the freedom of being outside. Being in the open air outside and being able to work with nature is something that many people have no idea about. I would never be able to have a job that requires a majority of the time being in an office. I like to know what’s going on around me.

“I also like the challenge of farming. It makes a person think in so many different ways. It challenges not only your mind but your body also.”

Like most producers, Richard is also quick to point out there are challenges to everything in life, no matter how much you have learned – and forage production isn’t the easiest job out there.

“I learned early on you need to be willing to do way more work than you want to do if you want to be farming next year, like hauling in hay until the next morning or doing a late-night fix on the tractor. You learn a real good work ethic fast or you have a lot of things that still need to be done at the end of the day.”

Along with producing hay, Richard has discovered it also takes a sense for business to make the most of the hard work forage production requires. Again, it was his dad that started him in the right direction in gaining the business sense he has developed.

“My dad is the one that started making hay many years ago. We make hay in large rounds and small squares, and we have found that our small squares bring from between about 30 up to 70 dollars a ton more than the same hay in rounds, depending on the day and year.

Doing a little extra work more than pays for itself. In the past couple years the price of corn has made land and hay harder to find so we try to make the best of what we have.

“We have found that a good mixed hay is in demand all the time. It allows us to sell to dairy producers looking for hay for calves, people with horses and people with goats and sheep, too. The mixed hay is also easier to get dry.

“I also like growing hay because you have more control over your product and the price you get for it. Corn and soybean prices are influenced by speculators and people that have probably never walked in a corn field. You also have to run thousands of acres of them to make a living. I just don’t see a real good future for me in that.”

It is with that philosophy that Richard has developed his way of working with the small bale niche market in his area. In order to do that, he has turned to a distribution source that, for him, has taken a lot of the guesswork out of marketing and collecting.

“I really like to sell hay through the local auctions because they do the financing for me. I can always count on a check in the mail, and that is really nice. I also like them because they have created a market for hay in our area so I don’t have to transport it hundreds of miles to buyers.

“I like going through the auctions because they give me a real good sense of the value of my hay so I know what to charge when selling privately. It makes it fair for me and the buyer.

“The best type of buyers are the ones that pay. Recently, everybody still wants hay but with the way milk prices and the whole economy has been it is hard to get money from people when selling it privately. I can’t really afford to get burned even once, so I stick with the people that have been buying from us for years and take the rest to the local auctions.

“I have also found that if you have been making hay for a couple of years and are making a quality product, the buyers will find you. When you sell hay to a person and they are satisfied with it they will tell their neighbors and friends, and word-of-mouth is free advertising.”

For Richard, the future looks a lot like the past several years of his life. His goals are very much tied to the knowledge and work ethic that have brought him to this point.

“Our operation isn’t very big or very fancy, but we do a pretty good job of making hay. I would just be happy doing what I am doing and making small improvements each year to produce a better product and to become more efficient. I have learned a lot from growing up on a farm that I would not have otherwise – work ethic, knowledge about things that only farmers have and skills that many other people don’t have."  FG

Darren Olsen
Progressive Forage Grower Editor