The person who coined the adage, "When one door closes, another one opens," could have had Steve and Mary Abel in mind.
The Abels, of Plum City, WI, had to abandon their plans to become dairy farmers when Steve developed carpal tunnel syndrome, a nerve condition affecting hands and wrists, a few years ago. But with help from state and local agencies, they've established an up-and-coming commercial hay business.
Steve had planned to buy the family farm from his dad, Glen. But, while working in a factory to make money for a down payment, he developed a severe case of the painful syndrome.
Despite three surgeries and physical therapy, Steve suffered permanent nerve damage and some loss of mobility in his hands. He was unable to return to the factory or do the work necessary to run a dairy farm. But the Abels were committed to farming. So they sought help from several sources, including extension personnel, the Wisconsin Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) and AgrAbility, a partnership between University of Wisconsin Extension and the Easter Seal Society.
With the aid of local ag extension agents, they ran profitability studies for various farming enterprises - cash cropping of soybeans, corn or hay, or installing a fully automated milking parlor to keep dairying.
"After looking at the options, we decided a commercial hay business would be the most feasible because of the number of acres and equipment we already own and the local demand for high-quality hay," says Steve.
With a DVR grant, the Abels bought a bale accumulator and bale fork. That equipment enables Steve to bale and stack 60- to 70-lb bales without leaving the tractor.
DVR and the Easter Seal Society also paid for modifications to tractor controls, which make them easier to use with minimal movement.
When he delivers hay, a relative or part-time employee accompanies him to unload. Customers sometimes also help.
After one year in the hay business, the couple are cautiously optimistic about their new enterprise.
"So far, we like the hay business, but it will take some time to get established," says Steve.
"You have to make your niche, whether it's large bales to the dairy industry or small bales to the horse market," Mary adds.
Last summer, they harvested three cuttings from 350 acres and four cuttings from 200 acres. Premium-quality hay is sold to horse owners and stables, the next-best hay is fed to Glen Abel's dairy herd or nearby herds, and rained-on hay goes to local beef interests.
The couple are aggressively marketing their hay to the horse industry via the Internet and by attending horse shows.
"Horse owners are very particular; they want to buy hay that's very leafy and green," says Steve. "We hope to be able to supply that kind of hay to them for many years to come."