Will Hatcher and J.J. Granstrom have a lot in common. Both are partners with their dads in successful commercial hay operations. Both say that honesty in dealing with customers and having good marketing and promotion plans are musts. And each gave solid marketing advice to growers at the recent Midwest Hay Business Conference & Expo in Kansas City, MO.

Hatcher and his dad, Roger, sell between 1,000 and 1,500 tons of hay and straw per year to customers within 30-50 miles of their operation, called Allendale Farm, Cumberland, VA. Besides offering 4 × 4' round bales for sale, they can rebale large round and large square bales into 42-lb bales to load directly into customer vehicles.

Granstrom, Holstein, NE, produces big bales, some using a multibale baler that can make one single big bale or up to nine small ones. They are delivered to dairies or feedlots, some 1,200 or more miles away, on trucks he and his dad, John, own. They baled 15,000 tons of alfalfa and wheat straw last season.

Here are some of their marketing tips:

“Identify your market,” Granstrom told hay growers attending the conference. “We need to know, if we've got a certain kind of alfalfa or grass hay, where we're going to go with it. Get with some nutritionists, visit with customers and find out what they're after.”

Hatcher decided to market in more urban than rural areas because urbanites pay more. “We had to decide how far in the state we wanted to go. Also, how far were customers willing to come to us?”

Women buy a lot of his hay, usually for their horses. “These are their pets. They love them probably more than they love their husbands. And they probably feed them better.”

Make bales the size and shape customers want — and the right blends, said Hatcher.

“By keeping a plethora of forages, you can be the WalMart of hay sales,” he added. “When customers come on the farm, I can say, ‘Here are five blends you can feed your horse. Pick the one that the horse is more familiar with.’ ”

Because both operations offer a variety of bale sizes — the Hatchers' square, round and small bales and the Granstroms' big square and smaller bales — the opportunity is there to cater to several markets: horse and feedlot owners, large dairies and small dairies that feed by hand.

Promote your hay. Hatcher carries his cell phone everywhere and is prepared to answer it 24/7, he said. He keeps business cards handy and magnetic signs with the farm name and phone number on delivery trucks.

“Truck ads have been a huge success. I've had people speed up alongside me and jot down that number,” Hatcher said.

Direct mailing postcards to customers, telling what types of hay are available, also works. But include the year on the postcard and be “more vague but truthful” about prices. “We put hay prices on,” Hatcher said of the first few cards mailed out. “But how often do prices stay still?”

Hatcher bought an existing mailing list and pared it down before sending out postcards. Granstrom got a list of feedlots from the state cattleman's association and contacted every feedlot on it. “We got enough real good leads off of that. Those people talked with other people at cattlemen meetings and we got our foot in the door. When we've got a lot of hay to sell and the price is good, that's the time to be hunting for these feedlots,” he advised. “Don't wait until the last minute.”

Photo Christmas cards of his family, plus small gifts, are a hit not only with Granstrom's customers, but with their employees who had helped unload hay over the year.

A personal touch is important, Granstrom said. He and his dad write down as much information as they can glean from phone conversations with possible clients.

“We've got a sheet of paper that we fill out how many cattle they milk, if they're feeding with a pitchfork or feeding a TMR, how many kids they've got, what their wives' names are. When we call them back, we get the sheets out, look at them and ask questions,” he said.

“You learn what people expect from you. And how picky they will be with the hay — like who will put up with some weeds.” They also write down the best times to call customers.

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“Some guys are really upset if you call them too late at night.”

Radio ads are a success for Granstrom, but not Hatcher. Regular newspaper ads that circulate in the areas the men market in, also work.

Then there's word-of-mouth advertising. “It's the single-most positive and detrimental thing for any business,” said Hatcher. Both businessmen stressed the importance of being honest about what and how hay is produced and, as Granstrom put it, “giving in” in a dispute. Or, as Hatcher phrased it, “The customer is always right.”

“It's repeat customers who make you the money,” said Granstrom.

His dad, he says, goes the extra mile in drumming up new customers — literally. He takes two weeks each year to travel through an area where they have customers. One year he dropped off business cards at a Kentucky barber shop. “We got a new customer from that.”

Deliver. “They want it yesterday,” said Hatcher of his urban clients' delivery demands. Most come home at 5:30 p.m. and expect a load to be waiting. “That's inconvenient for us, but we cater to it.” Customers who pick up their hay watch closely as it's rebaled, loaded and tied to their vehicles.

The Granstroms' fleet of trucks help make sure the business delivers on time. But best-laid plans don't always go smoothly.

Have a Plan B, Granstrom said. “We sold a load of hay to people in Michigan. We got it to them and it wasn't anything they wanted. So what do you do? Well, we had another customer 100 miles away who could use that kind of hay. So we put it back on the truck and unloaded it there.”

Network with other producers, clients and the community, the growers said. “If you meet people at conferences like this, you get an idea of where people live and where the customer base is,” Granstrom said. Networking with other producers can also help you identify problem customers. Talking with clients about what they need also helps you provide for that need, he said.

And get involved in your community, Hatcher said. He meets other farmers at hay conferences and Farm Bureau meetings. Granstrom belongs to the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association. “You can meet a lot of people and get a lot of ideas of what to do or not do,” he said.

Collect payments — somehow. “That's a tough one,” Granstrom admitted. But it became easier when his operation started doing the hauling. “When they get to the place, our drivers pick up the check. If there is a problem, the customer or driver will call us and we'll make an adjustment. When we started delivering our own hay with our own trucks, our accounts receivable went down $70,000/month right away. Right now it's very low.”

AFGC Annual Meeting Set For June 24-26

The American Forage and Grass-land Council (AFGC) annual conference will be held June 24-26 at Penn Stater Conference Center and Hotel, State College, PA.

The first day of the program will be devoted to board meetings and the Grassland Evaluation Contest.

On June 25, the keynote speach will be: “Biofuels: Agriculture's Ticket to the Head of the Table?” by Tom Richard, Penn State University ag engineer. Neal Martin, director of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, Madison, WI, will lead off the second day with a talk entitled: “These Aren't Your Father's Forages.”

Also on June 26, Nathan Clark, Chicago Climate Exchange, will speak on carbon credits. Erin James, director of Pennsylvania Certified Organic, will talk about organic agriculture.

The event is co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania Forage and Grassland Council and the Northeastern Branch of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop and Soil Sciences. It will also feature scientific posters, contests, tours, exhibits and networking designed to advance the knowledge and use of forage as a prime feed resource.

Four professional tours will be held June 25. They include a forage crops tour at Penn State's Haller Farm; a tour of the mushroom industry and AccuWeather, Inc., offices; a grain crops tour highlighting research; and a tour of soils in the region.

Details and registration are available at www.afgc.org. Or, contact AFGC at 800-944-2342 for information or questions.