Harlan Anderson isn't viewing his new use for rained-on hay with rose-colored glasses.

He knows that his product — an alfalfa mulch with fertilizer value — depends on rose growers' and garden enthusiasts' whims.

Yet he's optimistic that this natural mulch not only will fill gardeners' mulch and fertilizer needs, but may also offer hay growers another way to dispose of low-quality hay — for a profit.

“I hope, when we get done, that we'll get more money from our bad hay than we do for our good hay,” says the Cokato, MN, farmer.

Anderson, who grows 700 acres of alfalfa, has been working to find ways to add value to half of that crop — the half that gets rained on.

“In the hay business, if you can put up hay without rain, the stuff sells itself. The real secret is to figure out how to market the stuff that's not perfect,” he says.

Anderson harvests his marginal hay in big round bales, then runs it through a vertical mixer. From there it's cubed and run back through a hammermill or “crumblizer.” The result is a rose bed mulch that clings to the soil and really locks moisture in, Anderson says. The mulch also has N, P and K of 2.5-1-3.

“That doesn't seem like a lot,” says Richard Greenland, a North Dakota State University agronomist who used Anderson's mulch in a one-year study. “But alfalfa mulch spread about ½" deep (about 4 tons/acre) comes up to 200 lbs of N to the acre, which is quite a bit.”

Greenland studied the growth of tomatoes, comparing a mulch of straw plus urea with ½" of alfalfa mulch under straw. His goal was to see if the alfalfa mulch replaced the nitrogen that's taken up as straw breaks down.

Straw, he explains, is so low in N that microorganisms trying to break it down have to steal needed N from the soil. The alfalfa mulch “very effectively replaced the nitrogen,” Greenland says.

In fact, it can do a better job than urea of providing what plants need, he adds. “Urea is immediately available to the plant and sometimes that's bad, because if you get a lot of rain, it can wash down through the soil.

“The N in alfalfa is slowly available to the plant, and the rate of decomposition seems to be about right to provide the nitrogen the plant needs,” the agronomist adds.

“Organic fertilizer is a slow-release product first and foremost,” agrees Ken Vaupel, general manager of Ohio Blenders, Inc., a Toledo, OH, company that manufactures and sells an alfalfa fertilizer called Alfagreen Supreme. “Natural products like ours work down to the root systems.”

Ohio Blenders' alfalfa fertilizer, with a nutrient value of 2-1-2, is made from high-quality alfalfa that's specially processed to retain its rich look and aroma. Then it's bagged in convenient, resealable bags for shipment to flower and garden customers.

The company just signed an agreement to market the product through a major national retailer.

Getting his mulch/fertilizer product to the customer is Anderson's challenge. Right now he's working on packaging while getting air space on TV shows such as Rebecca's Garden and Good Morning America.

“We're comfortable with our process and the product. Really, our concern is marketing,” he says.

One marketing ploy Anderson can use is to emphasize that his mulch is “natural,” and compares favorably to products such as cocoa bean hulls and cyprus mulch.

“The mulch market is really big,” Anderson adds. And it's considered a non-traditional, “robust” market as compared to the traditional, economically depressed ag market his hay has been going to.

Not only will a mulch from low-quality hay help growers, but also the dairy industry, he says.

“Most farmers won't throw out the marginal hay; they just force-feed it. That causes lower production than they get in California and Colorado and Idaho. If we can put first-quality alfalfa into our dairy industry, I think this will enhance that industry.”

Meanwhile, Anderson's busy testing his next new use for alfalfa — called “hay extender.” The product is supposed to fill the hole for horse owners who have run out of hay and want more than a sweet feed.

With that product, as well as the mulch, he's developing market contacts.

“I have a heck of a lot better product than he does, but I need that guy who was able to market the pet rock,” Anderson concludes.