A recent $300,000 grant from USDA is bringing Maine hay grower Peter Bragdon one step closer to developing a new market for rained-on hay.

Bragdon’s idea: to take rained-on hay unusable as horse or livestock feed and turn it into logs to be burned in woodstoves, fireplaces or at campfires. Hay & Forage Grower’s May 2012 edition reported on it in the story, A Burning Market For Rained-On Hay.

The grower puts up timothy and mixed-grass hay on 300 owned and rented acres near Vassalboro. His primary markets are horse stables and feed stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In a typical year, he figures, rainy and cloudy weather makes about 25% of his production unsuitable for the horse market. He can sell some as mulch to construction companies, but at a price that’s usually break-even or below.

He started thinking about using hay to make fuel logs when he saw hay wrapped up on the baler drive shaft. “It was on there so tight, and I thought, ‘Why won’t it burn?’ ”

To test out his idea, Bragdon started making prototypes of logs using a home-built press similar to a wood splitter. He found one 35-lb bale of hay makes about seven logs measuring 4 x 12”.

With federal and state grant money, Bragdon conducted feasibility studies showing the Btu output of his hay logs compares favorably to that of compressed-wood logs currently on the market. He did additional studies on using chemical agents to keep logs from burning too hot and to compare the smoke output of his logs to those made from other material.

The latest $300,000 grant, from USDA’s Value-Added Producer grant program, will enable the grower to buy a new press and the packaging equipment he needs to ramp up production.

“Right now, it takes us an hour to make one log,” he says. “Once we have the new press in place, we figure we’ll be able to make 30 logs in the same amount of time.”

The new equipment will be housed in a 120 x 60’ building on his farm currently used for hay storage. The plant should employ seven people year-round and be in full production by November.

“We thought we’d be at that point last November,” he says. “But the funding was slow in coming. That’s the big thing with a project like this. Everything takes longer than you anticipate it might. If you plan to do something in a year’s time, you’d better give yourself two.”

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He’s currently working with a firm to design packaging for the logs and envisions selling two versions – a six-pack of logs and individual logs.

In marketing, Bragdon initially considered working directly with woodstove companies and local grocery stores that sell compressed wood logs, then working up to major retail stores. In the last year, though, he’s decided to turn those duties over to one or two distributorships. “They have the marketing expertise. It makes more sense than trying to do it ourselves.”

While he’s getting close to setting a price for his product, Bragdon is reluctant to release an actual figure. “All we want to say at this point is that we’ll be competitive with other products, like Duraflame logs.”

At startup, he’ll use unmarketable hay from his own farm to make the logs. As sales grow, he expects to buy hay from local farms. “It’s unbelievable how many round bales around here go to waste every year,” he says. “There should be plenty of material available to do what we want to do.”

To contact Bragdon, call 207-623-1476 or email p.bragdon@myfairpoint.net.

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