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From sunup to sundown

Darren Olsen Published on 11 November 2009

When it comes to making hay in the high mountain valleys of Wyoming, few people do it better than Ervin Gara.

Recent winner of the World Forage Bowl commercial hay division and past winner as first-time entrant in the competition, Gara is no stranger to producing hay that stands out from the rest.

While his hay might stand out to many, the beginning of his farming days was no less notable.

“Back when I was 8 years old I rode my bike down to my neighbor’s place and asked him for a job,” Gara recalls. “He took a chance on me, and I have been working on a farm ever since. When I was in high school, I would get up early and milk cows before classes, go to school, come back to milk and then return again for baseball practice."

“Later, I went to college in Virginia and graduated there,” he continues. “Right out of school I got a job in the area with Pioneer Hybrids.

While I was back East, my parents got ahold of me and said they were buying a farm up in Wyoming and would be willing to help me get started out there.

I made the decision to move to the West, and shortly we had started things in Wyoming. My farm began with 160 acres in 1994, and we are now up to just about 3,000 acres, all hay ground.”

With the optimism of an 8-year-old, Gara now greets each year with the idea that few things will get in his way of crafting a product and a lifestyle he is looking for.

“I love growing hay,” Gara explains. “I am my own boss. I love the smell when it is cut, the nice green look when the bales are put together. I must be strange, I guess, because I just get shivers when I seen the tests come back, and I know I am sitting on several loads of dairy-quality bales.

“I think one of the best reasons for growing hay where we are is the fact we can usually put up dairy-quality hay with every cutting, provided we have the right weather,” he says. “2009 was an exceptionally wet year, so some of our crops fell below our expectations, but that is the exception in our area, not the rule.”

Gara’s high ideals for his operation continue with his employees. Together they are responsible for turning 3,000 acres of high mountain valleys into feed that has been sent from California to Georgia.

As he puts it, “It takes some of the best people to create the best crops.”

“Right now I have eight full-time employees and two or three semi-retired part-time gentlemen who like to come and help out for two or three hours and then head home to work on their own projects,”

Ervin says. “The crew that I have is just awesome. They are right there baling with me at night and then are back and ready to run at six in the morning. I know that I am asking a lot of those guys, but they are always ready to step up to bat and make things work out. I couldn’t ask for better people to be working with.

“We work like crazy from March to October and then take a well-deserved break,” he continues. “My wife is from Los Angeles, and we usually spend two to three weeks there each winter.

It gives me the opportunity to relax and mentally set myself for the next year. When I get back, my employees who have been looking after things take their own turns away from the farm. It is something we all enjoy and know the harder we work in the spring and summer, the better our time will be when we take a seasonal break.”

With all his optimism, Gara will also point out it also takes working with a good clientele to complete the cycle. Without them and getting the products in their hands, a lot of work would be for nothing.

“The best way to meet the needs of my buyers is to make sure we get the hay put up the right way every time,” Gara says. “Our goal is to hit an RFV of 180 or above with every bale we produce.

We try to cut around 30 days between crops. If conditions are right, it might be 28 days, but the cooler day temperatures we experience during the summer has us putting a few more days in between so we can get maximum yield without impacting overall quality.

“Most of my clientele is in Colorado,” he adds. “I used to ship hay a lot further east, as far as Georgia, New York and Ohio, but the cost of shipping hay has gone up so dramatically over the last few years that the price of hay from our area has just gotten too expensive for them.

Last year with high-quality hay as high as $150 to $175 a ton at the stack and fuel prices through the roof, there would have been no feasible way to get hay to them and still make it worth their while.”

Even with all the optimism surrounding his operation, Gara will also point out there are some times that create challenges to work around.

“I am concerned with the situation facing the dairy industry right now,” Gara says. “When they don’t have any money, I don’t have any money, and that has been a concern headed into the winter this year.

I do know that things are improving some, but it is always scary when your primary buyers for your hay are facing the ongoing problems they have been under for the past several months.

“Also, if there were one thing I would do again with the business it would be to always get a contract before you commit to something,” he continues.

“I have had situations come up where something sounded good and both parties agreed to what needed to happen, but it ended up that the situation turned bad and there was nothing I could do about it.

I would like to think that we could still make business happen on a handshake, and with most people it can, but there are those few occasions I would like to go back and do them again and make sure my interests were protected a little more.”

In spite of the challenges, the outlook Gara has about life continues to lead his operation forward.

“I would like to continue to add on acres over the next few years until we hit about 4,000 total production acres,” Gara says. “I think this is a manageable amount without having to change too many of the things we are doing right now.

I wouldn’t want to do too much more, or I might have to change some of the things I really enjoy about my part in the hay industry.

“A lot of guys don’t want to see their kids go into the farming business, but I would like to see my kids have the chance to make it work if they can,” he continues.

“I think it is a great opportunity for anyone who wants to make it work. If you can manage your farm and manage it as a business, things will work out. I have learned you have to make the most of your good years so when years like this past one come around you have the ability to get through and be ready for another opportunity tomorrow. If my kids want to try and make a go of farming, I want to try and be able to hand off a situation where things are paid for and they have the best chance of success they can have from the start.”

With his continued optimism, the sun continues to shine from morning to night in Wyoming on Ervin Gara and on his operation for years to come.  FG

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