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Exporting hay: Playing in shades of green at Eckenberg Farms

Progressive Forage Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 31 August 2016
Eckenberg Farms near Mattawa Washington

Cultural missteps: The Got Milk? slogan is translated in Spanish as “Are you lactating?” The Chinese translation of KFC’s finger-lickin’ good slogan was translated initially as “Eat your fingers off.” It can be tricky working with other languages and cultures.

Christy Mastin, international marketing manager at Eckenberg Farms in Mattawa, Washington, knows these cultural nuances firsthand. As a hay export company, Eckenberg Farms sells approximately 100,000 metric tons (5,000 ocean containers) per year of hay cubes and double-compressed bales to customers in Japan, Korea, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and China. Across cultural miscues and misperceptions, Mastin says, “A big part of my job is managing expectations.”

Bob Eckenberg, Christy Mastin and Jim Eckenberg

To explain, Bob Eckenberg, president of Eckenberg Farms, says, “We play in shades of green; we joke about it, but we also cry about it.” While corn or wheat all looks the same, in the hay industry there is a scientific side that has standards – like supreme and premium – but also a visual side.

Eckenberg says, “We see color and texture. Cows don’t, but we do. So there’s a subjective perception – the texture, the feel, the smell, the look, what someone perceives as quality from chewing on a stem. It’s frustrating at times."

"When we start dealing with the Chinese, we start out dealing with the scientific side, and we’ll show them a stack and say, ‘That light green with some sun bleach matches your scientific request.’ But they won’t want it because it’s light green. Then you show them very bright green hay – think of army green or John Deere green; both are green but different shades – and they may or may not approve of the next stack. We have to convince them that the milk is in the hay.”

Mastin adds, “We have to figure out which shade of green they’re looking for. We don’t sell hay to cows; we sell hay to people. People play in shades of green; cows don’t.”

Hay cubes are processed at 155 to 185 degrees

China, as the newest export market opened for hay, is one such example. Their understanding of hay quality has come through universities stressing protein levels, relative feed values (RFV) and colors. Mastin says, “What they don’t understand are terms like ‘double-compressed’ or shipping-container loads or the need for buyers to have an import permit."

"So we’re educating them, not just about our end of the hay production or processing but also educating them on how their own system works and what they have to do to get hay shipped to them.”

Adding to the frustration are frequent staff changes in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. There is an educational curve to learning the commodities of each country, and the trust level between countries takes a long time to build. Customers have to know that the supplier’s documents are correct and honest, and that trust begins at the embassy level.

Eckenberg says, “China is all about communication and relationships, so when you plug someone in there for a year or two and then pull them out, we can’t gain trust and acceptance there … Our country isn’t building those relationships with them. At the embassy level, we need some stability in staffing.”

Eckenberg says communication problems exist on the foreign embassy side as well, where many customers don’t understand American agriculture. He says, “A lot of nations think we’re farming on 20 acres of ground because that’s the way they’re doing it. They don’t understand agriculture on our scale."

"So they have to work through the embassy relationships to begin to understand us, but that isn’t happening effectively. That’s where the embassies have to be connected; they have to educate their counterparts, and it isn’t happening. We have good people in the embassy, but Washington D.C. has to support them.”

Eckenbergs produce much of the alfalfa used in cubes but still have some in bales

In order to increase communication and education with their customers, Eckenberg and his staff visit customers twice a year in a pre-growing season visit and a post-harvest visit. In addition, customers usually visit the Washington farm during harvest. Additionally, they often meet at ag shows in the U.S. and other countries. It takes money, time and talent to acquire and keep customers, but Eckenberg says, “We’re not a short-term company. We’re after long relationships with customers.”

Eckenberg Farms produces hay on 5,000 acres (leased and owned) and uses rotation crops of potatoes, timothy or sweet corn. Brothers Jim and Bob and their wives, Janet and Andrea, are partners in the operation, as second-generation operators. They employ 90 full-time workers, plus the harvest crew. They operate four bale compressors (three of which were built by Eckenbergs) and six cubing machines.

Their facilities can house 9,000 metric tons (MT) of hay cubes, 3,000 MT of specialty cubes and 10,000 MT of raw materials. They also slice farm-level big bales (4X4) and double-compress them into 480-kilogram sleeve bales, 120-kilogram long bales, 60-kilogram bales or 30-kilogram half-cut bales. They guarantee 18 percent protein minimum in all cubed products and have an on-site NIR lab certified by National Forage Testing Association.

But the enterprise began on 20 acres in the 1950s. Eckenberg’s parents, Ed and Kay Eckenberg, came to Washington during the Cold War, when several Ajax missiles were stored on bases around eastern Washington and Ed worked on the base. Following the Cold War, in about 1962, Ed bought one of the army houses and moved it to a 20-acre parcel in Badger Canyon. He wasn’t raised on a farm himself, but he had decided he wanted his kids to grow up in the country.

After purchasing the 20 acres, a neighbor sold him another 100 acres and Ed broke out some sagebrush to begin development. Ed and Kay farmed wheat, dry beans, peas and alfalfa.

They also tried the cow business for a few years. At the time, they also had three kids, one car, and Ed had a job with General Electric. There was one gravel road to the farm, with the nearest telephone 4 miles away. Communication with the neighbors consisted of turning on the lights to tell them they needed help.

One day, the irrigation ditch above the house washed out, taking about a quarter mile of road with it. Frustrated, Kay and the kids were stranded with no way to call for help. About three hours later, the ditch master came by trying to find his water. He found the break and rounded up the neighbors to help.

When Ed came home from work, he discovered the damage and had to walk the last quarter-mile to the house. When he arrived, his wife gave him an ultimatum. He had three choices: He had a wife, the farm and the GE job that paid pretty well. He could keep two of the three. Ed said, “You’re absolutely right. I’ll quit the GE job tomorrow, and I’ll come farm full time and will be here with you and the kids.” Kay was somewhat dismayed – it wasn’t necessarily the answer she was looking for.

Export hay is packaged in a variety of ways and sizes

In the early ’60s, Eckenberg’s neighbor had a John Deere mobile cuber that ran in the field – spraying water on the windrow, chopping it and making cubes. At the time, there were maybe 300 such machines in western Washington alone. (Today there may be only eight mobile cubers in the whole U.S.) Tired of having the neighbor “save the hay crop,” Eckenberg sold his Freeman baler and harrowbed and bought his first mobile cuber, which ran at the amazing speed of 2 miles per hour.

That was their transition into the export cube industry. Initially, Eckenbergs supplied product for U&I Sugar, which had an agreement with the Honda corporation in Japan as the result of a trade balancing effort.

In 1976, Ed sold his original farm and nearly doubled his acreage with the purchase of the farm in Mattawa, Washington, where the last tract in the Columbia Basin Irrigation District was being developed. Circle-pivot irrigation technology was just coming into play, which solved the issue of growing crops in the sandy basin soil.

In the meantime, the Japanese hay market blossomed, serviced in part with timothy bales for the racehorse industry. The ’80s and ’90s turned out to be the heyday for the cubed hay export market; 980,000 MT of cubed product shipped nationwide in 1998. Since then, the cubed hay market has declined about 12 percent per year, being steadily replaced by the compressed bale market. In the ’90s, Eckenbergs converted from a seasonal operation to a year-round operation, working with the 4X4 big bales.

This, however, required putting on their manufacturing hats again, as the equipment of the day wasn’t built to handle large bales. Eckenberg says, “We have a barn, designated as Barn 5, and we literally took it from the ground to full production to the ground five times as we were developing technology to work for the market changes.”

The compressed bale market gained a solid foothold when Oregon passed a law restricting stubble burning. The Willamette Valley produces great quantities of grass seed, and suddenly there was nowhere to go with the straw that made very light bales. At that point, some manufacturing pioneers started building double-compress machines to handle the straw – except there was no domestic market for it, so these were shipped to Japan as a feed fiber source.

The compressed bales were easier for the Japanese end users to handle. Even today, exporters can get cubes shipped to Japanese ports cheaper in bulk than baled hay, but by the time it gets to the end user, the cubes are more expensive due to handling fees, on-dock storage (which is the most expensive ground in any country) and then transporting it to the dairies.

After buying the first compressor, which repackaged 3x4x8 and 4x4x8 bales into smaller bales, they purchased one more machine, then never bought another. Eckenberg says, “My brothers and I would be working on a piece of equipment, muttering that we couldn’t go home and watch our three TV channels or call our girlfriends, and my dad would say, ‘Well, don’t you think we can build something better than this?’ And of course us three boys, with nothing better to do, who liked working on machinery and fabrication, would say, ‘Sure, Dad, let’s build something.’”

And that spawned three additional hay compressors with unique production capacity and the development of an air dryer that wouldn’t crush the cubes.

During the cubing process, minimum pressure on the cubed material is 5,000 to 7,000 PSI. As they come out of the production head, they stand at 155 to 185ºF degrees – too hot to put in a stack. Instead of spreading the cubes out on the storage floor to air dry overnight, the air dryer takes the cubes from the production head and has them dried and cool enough to pile in about 45 minutes, which was crucial as the market grew and faster production was required.

Today, Eckenberg Farms exports 98 percent of their product mainly through the ports at Tacoma and Seattle, although after the recent port “slowdown” they now work with seven shipping lines instead of two. Regarding the port slowdown, Eckenberg says, “We went through the crucible. In some ways it opened our eyes.”

Their foreign customers still had cows to feed and bought product elsewhere when it wasn’t obtainable from the U.S. Customer confidence in the U.S. suppliers’ abilities to supply product plummeted, and Eckenberg says, “We’ll be working on that for the next 10 years. We literally had to explain for hours, days and months to customers to help them understand what happened.”

Eckenberg says, “We like what we do, and we – my whole staff – takes a lot of pride in what we do. There’s over 50 years of pride out here, and we’re good at what we do.”  end mark

More photos can be seen in this slideshow.

PHOTO 1: Eckenberg Farms originated in the last developed Columbia Basin Irrigation District near Mattawa, Washington. 

PHOTO 2: Bob Eckenberg, Christy Mastin and Jim Eckenberg work with customers from around the globe.

PHOTO 3: Hay cubes are processed at 155 to 185 degrees and stored in bulk to await bagging and shipping.

PHOTO 4: Eckenbergs produce much of the alfalfa used in cubes but also contract with local growers to provide needed quantities.

PHOTO 5: Export hay is packaged in a variety of ways and sizes, including 480-kilogram sleeve bales, 120-kilogram long bales, 60-kilogram bales or 30-kilogram half-cut bales.

Lynn Jaynes
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