Gayland Jones was skeptical of the hay-bale toss idea the minute he heard of it.
“It's hard to imagine people paying money to throw bales around,” says Jones, a horse-hay grower from Grand Meadow, MN. “I thought this would be like watching corn grow.”
But he had heard that bale toss competitions could help raise funds for his local forage council - and couldn't resist trying. At some of the six events he has since organized, fairgoers and threshing bee fans have waited in 96° heat or in long lines to try and beat their neighbors' throws.
“We had a good turnout and they had a good time, hollering and cheering like at a little-league game,” says Jones.
Hay-bale tosses are gaining popularity as hay growers not only raise funds but also promote their product in a fun way. Bill Voedisch and his wife, Laurie Carlson, Marine on St. Croix, MN, helped organize a hay-bale toss for 14 years for the local forage council. “It was a way of getting exposure at the county fair,” says Voedisch. “They are really a lot of fun.”
At Jones' events, participants pay $2 to get the best toss of three recorded. There are a lot of chances to win ribbons; eight people can place in each of 12 categories. Company-sponsored prizes, such as caps or fly swatters, are usually given to all contestants. But winners get bigger prizes like racetrack or grandstand tickets or company jackets.
Jones and a team of volunteers ask local businesses to contribute promotional items after securing a spot at a local fair or threshing bee event. When the time comes, his volunteers rope off several 20 x 50' lanes for people to throw bales in. At the Mower County Fair, Jones had four lanes set up - three for people to throw in and one for practice pitches.
Forage council members man the events and, at times, the local FFA chapter is invited to help.
“We cover volunteer workers' entrance fees so they can throw bales, too,” Jones says.
Six to eight volunteers are needed to sign up contestants, write down scores, measure throws and carry bales back. Each event takes about two hours and Jones figures he gets up to 80 contestants.
He makes and donates the bales for his events. “Balers have an adjustment for length of bale and can be set short. I made 40 balesfor most events,” he says.
The trick is to make bales light - 10-12 lbs for adults and half that size for kids. But strings should be kept tight, he says.
Yet “it's kind of funny when bales blow up,” says Betsy Gilkerson, ag extension educator for Hennepin County in the Twin Cities. She organized her first hay-bale toss this past year at her county fair.
“I wanted to make it a friendly, inviting time for people to spend time with extension - and have a farming aspect with the hay,” she says.
Jones' events were highly competitive and many contestants stayed for the entire time, watching from bleachers when they were available.
“The first one we did, the longest toss was from this young woman from Preston. After she tossed, all the men wanted to have retosses so they could try to beat her. None did,” Jones says.
At another event, a farmer and his grown sons thought they had the father-son division sown up. Then a young dad and his 14-year-old threw their bales even farther.
Gilkerson's event was also competitive.
“The men would see one guy toss and say, ‘I can do better than that.’ They critiqued everybody's throwing techniques.”
But her bale toss, being in a more urban setting, was faster-paced than Jones'. Contestants didn't always want to wait around for everyone to throw. So she awarded prizes to those who threw to specified distances rather than to who threw the farthest.
Jones promoted his events through press releases to local newspapers and county fair advertisements. Afterward, he provided the press with stories listing winners.
Whether it's the effectiveness of his public relations campaign or the fact that it's just plain fun, Jones' hay-bale toss events are gaining repeat “customers.” One Chicago family with Minnesota relatives has shown up a couple years in a row to toss bales, he says.
“It was like a big reunion. Everybody was throwing against their cousins.
“We even have hay-bale toss groupies who follow the events. One lady and her two daughters competed in three events we had last year,” he adds.
For more information, email Jones at email@example.com or Gilkerson at Elizabeth.Gilkerson@co.hennepin.mn.us. Voedisch offers detailed instructions if emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.