ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
The technology that created the Internet and the changing economy have opened new marketing opportunities for the alfalfa hay grown by Brad Wiens of Hillsboro and his family-providing they maintain high quality hay, and keep operating margins trim.
Wiens said the family has been successful by seizing opportunities in the businesses they were already in-farming and trucking.
He and his father, Eldon, have been in the trucking business for many years. Brad’s wife, Jane, and his mother, LaVonne, help operate the businesses.
Two of Wiens’ children, Brooklyn, 5, and Sheldon, 11, showed up with him Sunday night at Ag Service Inc. southeast of Hillsboro to weigh the latest load of hay bound for out-of-state delivery.
The scale at Ag Service is long enough for semi-trucks.
The children have ridden along on some of those trips, too. Brooklyn has been on a delivery to Wisconsin and Sheldon to Indiana.
A third child, Natalie, 14, stays involved in the business in other ways.
The hay is put in big square bales that average 1,500 to 2,000 pounds-23 to 30 of them fit on an average semi-truck flat trailer at about 23 tons per load, Wiens said.
Although the Wienses, operating as Wiens Farms and Pleasant Hill Trucking, didn’t haul hay such long distances until 1994, they already have developed faithful clientele among the Amish in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Wiens said when a family member shows up on a hay haul to the Amish, local hospitality can include a horse-drawn buggy ride and a meal.
Wiens recognizes the irony of Amish farmers needing Kansas hay. He said the Amish land is “really good,” capable of growing large quantities of quality hay. But the Amish themselves add tongue-in-cheek that “it’s even better at growing houses.”
The Amish are being crowded by urban and suburban development.
“The Amish farms are really nice, clean and neat. They farm more like most people did probably 80 years ago,” Wiens said.
“They demand the best quality hay, top notch all around. They might try to deal with you a little, but mostly they want just the best hay. They’re fussy buyers.”
Wiens said he has buyers for lower-quality hay in some years, but usually those are beef producers who need a limited quantity to get by.
Wiens said his family began to sell larger quantities of hay off the farm around 1990, but it was mostly to buyers who hauled it themselves.
Then the Internet came in to use, buyers and sellers from all over the country became connected by posting their product or needs on the Web.
At about the same time, prices for truck diesel fuel began to climb, putting more and more independent haulers of commercial goods out of business.
The Wiens family found it could make a profit sending trucks over the road only by having its own product to ship out-and somebody near the other end for a product for them “to backhaul,” or bring back close to home.
For instance, one of their trucks leaving with hay returned recently with a load of house siding for Halstead.
Besides finding customers for hay, the Wienses spend time looking for postings for backhauls that match their needs. They’ve hauled everything from jet engines and lumber to other building supplies.
With fuel prices now at about $2.29 a gallon, Wiens said margins on the business continue to tighten; a semi-truck makes only about six miles to the gallon.
Added expenses include thousands of dollars paid for a truck in taxes and permits, plus the difficulty of finding dependable drivers.
Three-fourths of what the Wienses haul is on their own trucks, and one-fourth by other owner-operators.
Brad said although he and Eldon both could drive, they find it a better use of their time to keep their three trucks going with hired drivers in about 10 states.
Meanwhile, the Wienses focus on producing hay and marketing.
Although the son and father operate together as Wiens Farms, they each own their own land and cooperate on labor and machinery.
“I own the baling equipment, and Dad owns the swathing equipment,” Brad said.
For maximum protein, quality and yield-assuming rain is sufficient-they try to get five cuttings a year from their alfalfa.
In a typical good year, they will have harvested 6,000 acres of hay, he said.
Most of the time the newly cut alfalfa that drys during the daytime must be checked at night.
“It seems like it’s usually around 3 a.m., when everybody else is asleep and they have no idea you’re out there,” Brad said.
By then, enough moisture from the cooler air has come back into the hay to “bind” the hay together, which keeps the higher-protein leaves from dropping. When that happens, the baling can begin.
The process is all highly weather-sensitive-both temperature and moisture-so the family must monitor it to assure best quality.
Without that, Brad said, their marketing efforts would be for nothing. They run a tube into the bale to check moisture content and relative feed value (RFV), which is a check for things such as protein content.
Often, Wiens said, the first thing a customer will ask, whether he’s Amish or not, is: “What’s the RFV?” That question comes even before price because RFV shows what the hay is worth.
Wiens said the RFV rating helps assure the truckload of hay is sent with the price set and an expectation of a cash payment on the other end.
Like all businesses, Wiens said, he finds himself with a certain number of bad checks or late payments at the other end.
“But there has got to be some trust,” he said.
They have learned to value good customers with the best alfalfa.