When the owner of the only custom harvesting operation in Edwards County, KS, died a number of years ago, five local hay growers knew what they needed to do. They bought the company to keep from losing the service.

“We needed the hay operation in the area for both its services and those offered through its repair shop,” says David McClaren, president of Star Alfalfa, Lewis, KS.

McClaren was one of the five original buyers in 1986. Since then, two owners have left the business and three others have bought in, bringing the current number of owners to six. All are hay growers who live within 15 miles of Lewis.

All of McClaren's 260 acres of hay are custom harvested by Star Alfalfa. He and the other owners pay the going rate for services provided by their company. They also return about 90% of the company's profits to the business. “We try to take out just enough to pay the taxes,” he says.

Last year, Star Alfalfa put up 21,000 acres of hay. It custom harvests for up to 20 growers, including five of the six owners.

“We basically started off just harvesting the hay of the owners with one or two balers. We now have four balers,” says Lagayle Putter, CEO of the corporation.

“We could have put up more hay last year, but we chose to stay the same size and do a better job,” says McClaren. “We didn't want to over-extend ourselves. Quality is more important to us than quantity.”

Star Alfalfa also runs a diesel repair shop, is an irrigation equipment dealer and buys and sells hay.

“When we buy hay from a grower, either we've harvested it or we go out there to look at it,” says Putter. “So we know what we're selling, and the buyers get what we tell them they're getting.”

The company has 12 full-time employees, plus up to eight part-time people in summer.

A major benefit of being a Star Alfalfa customer is the shop.

“When one of our customers is harvesting corn and the combine breaks down, our mechanics drop everything to go fix it,” she adds.

Star Alfalfa owns four trucks that it uses to deliver hay to the local feed yard. All six owners, plus others, sell hay to the company.

“The owners can sell to whom-ever they want,” Putter notes. “But most of them offer it through us first.”

McClaren, who owns stocker cattle, says another benefit is that he can put cattle in the local feed yard and Star Alfalfa will ship hay to them. That way, he feeds his hay or hay that's the quality he wants.

Star Alfalfa has clipped along at a steady growth rate of about 5% a year, says McClaren. And he notes that he and the others originally bought the company to benefit themselves and their neighbors.

“I'd hate to be without it,” he says. “And I hope the people in the community appreciate it.”