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Growers make comp-“hay”-tition fun

Kelsey Holter Published on 17 September 2010
made of hay

In a Montana town with about 200 residents, the last thing anyone would expect is one of the biggest tourism events for the state – but the annual “What the Hay” competition that has been held for more than 20 years draws just as many visitors as Yellowstone National Park does in a day.

Every fall, on the weekend after Labor Day, tourists from around the country make their way to the Hobson-Utica area to see their famous hay bale-decorating contest. This competitive event allows participants to decorate hay bales and place them along the road for everyone to see.

“I put a hay bale out on the highway 21 years ago, and it created such a nuisance that I was asked by the sheriff’s department to move it to a different place,” says Don Derks, a retired farmer from Hobson and creator of the contest. “My neighbor made a bale also, and we decided maybe we could make a competition out of it.”

Derks’ first bale design was a bull rider, and it attracted so much attention that tourists at the time would stop along the road to take pictures with it. Today, anyone and everyone is invited to participate in the contest, no matter where they are from.

rainbow of hay

“Last year we had a total of 54 participants, with about 30 adults and the rest being children,” says Suzeanne Aune, member of the Utica Rod & Gun Club who has helped organize the event for the past 10 years. “We have a children’s category that is 12 years and under and then everyone older than that competes in the adult category.”

The decorated hay bales are set up along a 21-mile route between the two towns in central Montana for travelers to see. The only rule to the contest is that you have to use either hay or straw, which leaves a wide, open range for, as Derks says, “letting your imagination run wild.”

Some recent bale designs include the “Its-Hay Bits-Hay” Spider, an FF-Hay Jacket, a Grizzly “Bale,” Chocolate Chip Cook-“Hay” Dough and a four-story Statue of Liberty. But Montana isn’t the only state having a hay-day with a contest of this sort.

The manager of the State Fair of West Virginia, Marlene Pierson-Jolliffe, decided to have a hay bale-decorating contest last year, after deciding that the fair needed a contest that would get the community involved.

liberty of hay

With this being only the second year of the competition for the fair, Pierson-Jolliffe decided to switch up the rules and add in another division to attract more attention from fairgoers and gain more contestants.

“Anyone who owns a farm can enter, decorate their hay bale and then submit a picture of it,” Pierson-Jolliffe says. “This year we are adding an on-premise contest, featuring three organizations which will decorate bales on the fairgrounds.”

The fairgoers will then vote on their favorite bale in a tent on the fairgrounds. The picture submissions from West Virginia residents can be e-mailed to a committee and three judges will determine the winners, who will then receive a monetary prize.

Pierson-Jolliffe also uses the off-premise hay bales in the contest as “mini billboards,” by requiring all entries to have the fair theme and dates somewhere on the design to be seen from the road by passing cars.

While contest-awareness in West Virginia is still increasing, the competition in Montana is fierce. “We put our bales on trailers and hide them in our sheds until contest day,” Derks says. “Then we are out at 2 a.m. on contest day setting up our displays.”

Derks also says that the key to the perfect sculpture is to work with green, moist hay because it is easier to mold and sculpt. He also says to look out for deals on spray paint year-round to save money on decorating supplies. “Instead of using three or four cans of spray paint, we have to use 10 or so because the hay soaks it up,” Derks says.

Although he gave up his secret technique for making the perfect sculpture, Derks wouldn’t reveal his idea for this year’s contest entry. He looks forward to stiff competition from friends and family again this year. “We are just a little town, and this event really brings in a boost for our economy,” Derks says. “It’s a good time of the year for central Montana, and we all compete, which makes for a great community event.”  FG

Author’s note: This year’s competition in Montana began September 12, 2010. Visit montanabaletrail.com to view videos and photos of entries and learn more about the history of the contest.

PHOTOS FROM THE 2009 COMPETITION (provided by MontanaBaleTrail.com)

En'Hay'gizer Bunny

En'Hay'gizer Bunny

Tasm-Hay-nian Devil

Tasm-Hay-nian Devil

Bet-Hay-Boop

Bet-Hay-Boop

Finding Hay-Mo

Finding Hay-Mo
Yosemit-Hay Sam

Yosemit-Hay Sam

R-Hay-n-Bow

R-Hay-n-Bow

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