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It all started with nothing

FG Editor Lynn Olsen Published on 30 September 2013
Rick Perigo

Rick Perigo came from humble beginnings, and though he has built a successful business with the help of his wife, Kim, and their three daughters, he still shows humility and gratitude for both his success and those that have helped him grow.

Getting started
Rick and his three brothers grew up in a modest home on 40 acres of ground about a mile from where he lives now.

Their father passed away when Rick was only 15 years old, and his mom sold the farm and moved the boys to town.

However, there was a farm right around the corner from their home. The boys used to work for them on the melon crew, and they also moved pipe for a local herb farmer. Rick also worked in the shop and, after a period of time, he and his older brother went to school in the diesel tech program.

Shortly after, Rick met his wife, Kim, and they got married and started their family.

Their neighbors, Gene and Marilyn Badders, grew alfalfa as a rotation crop. The person who had stacked their hay was moving on. So, in 1986, Marilyn loaned the Perigos the money to purchase their first pieces of equipment so they could take over stacking the hay for the farm.

Rick had always wanted to farm, but it was tough to get started. He figured they could do custom work and use that as a way to get the necessary equipment. He started renting ground they could farm in the late 1990s to supply hay for the growing dairy population in the area, but at least half of their business still comes from custom harvesting.

“If somebody tells you a young guy can’t start farming from nothing, they’re lying to you – because you can do it. We did it,” says Rick.

Special stack retrievers forage
A growing business

The Perigos and their staff mostly cut, rake and bale hay for local dairies.

The company started packaging small bales in the ’80s and then, as the dairy population increased, they transitioned to big bales in the ’90s.

They still do some small bales, but the larger size are about 75 percent of their business.

They also bale some dryland oat hay from late April to May, all small bales for the horse market.

Rick and his family bought a spray rig in the 1990s to help diversify their business, and that helps them have work when they are not busy baling hay, especially early in the season.

Something else that has also helped diversify their business is the addition of special stack retrievers. This is an attachment that goes on a truck that will pick up what a harrowbed sets down.

Because it’s a relatively short distance to their dairy customers, they are able to deliver a lot of hay this way, and it is much more efficient than a squeeze and a truck.

The Perigos were one of the first in the area to have and use a stack retriever, and it has been a big asset to their operation. They are able to stack big bales six high – 17 feet tall – using two three-axle Peterbilt trucks that can haul about 7½ tons per load.

Although there was a steep learning curve in the beginning to get it going, they now stack a lot of hay with this method.

In 2006, Rick and Kim were having some success renting ground, but they wanted to expand. They wanted to own additional ground, but in California other crops were more valuable on the land, and it just made it too expensive to purchase ground. They heard about a 700-acre Nevada ranch from the son of one of their customers.

They made the purchase, and Rick left Kim in California to run the operation there, took their youngest daughter, Jess, and stayed in an old mobile home at the Nevada property.

Jess finished her junior and senior years of high school in Nevada, and Rick and Kim had a long-distance relationship for a couple of years while they got the place in Nevada up and running. It took a lot of sacrifice, and Rick’s mom helped them a lot, but the family feels it was worth the effort.

Even now, Rick still makes about 20 trips to the Nevada operation (about 500 miles round-trip) a year – about a week each time, except during baling when he will stay two to three weeks, two to three times per year.

Overall, the company has grown to 20 employees in California, where they bale 5,000 acres for customers and from their own land and just stack about another 6,000 acres on top of that. They also have three employees in Nevada.

Farming practices
The Perigos watch the market to help determine their crop rotation and also keep close contact with the dairymen they work with. Although in Nevada they are pretty much locked into alfalfa, in California this year they tried some grain corn and double-cropping corn behind oat hay.

They let technology help as much as they can, including soil sampling, fertilization and weed control, “taking it as far as money will let [them].” They also rely heavily on their seed salesman for advice to help them choose the best varieties for their situations.

They have started using Roundup Ready alfalfa in some areas that were really prone to grass infestations. This technology has really been a huge shot in the arm for growers, particularly in California, as there are many fields heavily infested with morning glory, nutsedge and pigweed.

There has not been any resistance from the dairies in receiving the Roundup Ready hay, as they really like having fewer weeds and a higher-quality feed.

The family recognizes the importance of proper nutrient management and are willing to do what they need to do to keep the crops growing and healthy. They soil sample once per year in the fall, and their nutrient manager helps them come up with recommendations for proper fertilization.

They don’t have a lot of specific pests but do try to spray early in the year to get ahead of any potential problems and to avoid harming the many beneficial insects that live in the area.

Everyone on their crew is trained to help keep an eye out for pest problems, so they can “keep it between the ditches” and prevent small problems from becoming big ones. Kim even carries a sweep net in her pickup so she can periodically check a field, if needed.

Equipment stripped down
Equipment maintenance
In order to succeed and grow their business, Rick and Kim recognize that they need to utilize the tools they have available to them.

One way they have done this is with a rigorous schedule of equipment maintenance. They run things a little different than many operations and have a shop to do all their own repairs.

“We probably take it a step or two further than most people do,” says Rick. “We started this way because we couldn’t afford to do it any other way, but it has worked out well for our business.”

The hay business is tough for many reasons, but one of the most difficult is that it’s seasonal.

Rick said, “When we get good employees, we want to keep them. If we leased modern equipment, men would have to go on unemployment in the wintertime, and that would lead to a high labor turnover.”

So all of the staff works on the equipment as a way to keep people employed year-round. If you run the equipment during the hay season, you do the maintenance in the wintertime. They literally strip down each piece of equipment and run it through the shop to get it ready for a new operating year.

Because the machines have a lot of hours put on them, servicing them to this level during the off-season will allow the crews to run them much past their typical life until they are “pretty much ready for the scrap yard,” according to Rick.

The farm has had virtually zero employee turnover since 1998. One of their most important employees and their current foreman, Tony Dominguez, who is now 36 years old, has been there since he was 19.

They employ one set of three brothers on the stacking crew, another set of three brothers on the baling crew and some cousins. The last couple of years, they have even started hiring some second-generation employees.

Making it work
The life of a custom harvester and hay grower isn’t necessarily easy. Although they have 10 main customers, the Perigos have 51 clients on their list, and they all have work that needs to be done.

The first and last months’ cuttings are always the hardest because everyone wants to have work done at the same time, but then it tends to spread out because of water availability.

In California, the crew can plant hay from November to early February, then start cutting mid-March until November. They can generally get eight cuttings (one or two greenchop and six to seven bale cuttings), if the weather cooperates.

In Nevada, they get three to four cuttings from June to September.

Rick says the key to making it all work is scheduling. “You can’t play favorites. What’s right is right. We won’t let guys jump ahead, and we really try to stay on schedule.”

Rick also states, “The key to solving logistics problems is what we do in the shop all winter long.” By going thorough the equipment maintenance in the off-season, they run less risk of having downtime.

They also have five service trucks with a few small parts. In addition, they have added more parts (alternators, water pumps, air compressors) to their inventory in the shop because they have had some trouble getting things they need.

“Because of the way the system works now, with the Internet and UPS delivery, things have changed. In the ’80s and ’90s, you could run to the dealer and get what you needed. Now, it’s most likely shipped from somewhere. Sometimes it only takes a day, but it could take up to a week. And that can really get you into a mess,” states Rick.

Another key to success is to have some spare equipment. For instance, they have four swathers but only run two or three.

It has taken them a long time to get there, but the old machines still get run through the shop in the winter, and the crew makes sure everything is working. That way, if someone has to jump in a machine or they need extra help, it’s available to use.

Giving thanks
The Perigos are proud of their success, and it makes them happy to see a group of good guys out there with a place to work.

Rick states, “Kim and I started with nothing; we didn’t inherit anything. It was hard, but it’s worked out for us. We’re not special, but we just stayed after it and didn’t quit.”

But he is also quick to point out that “this operation has gotten to be the way it is because of hundreds of people that help us all the time. It’s not because of us – it’s because of everyone that has helped us.”

When asked what advice he could give, Rick stated, “I could say ‘go work for your local power company,’ or you can do this. It’s pretty tough sometimes, but it’s very rewarding.

“I like what I do, and I like guys that do what I do.”  FG

TOP and BOTTOM: A rigorous schedule of equipment maintenance has allowed the Perigos to keep people employed year-round. They literally strip down each piece of equipment to get it ready for a new operating year.

MIDDLE: Special stack retrievers that can haul about 7½ tons per load have been a big asset to the business, enabling the team to haul hay much more efficiently to neighboring dairy farms. Photos courtesy of Kim and Rick Perigo.