Ask what it takes to successfully market hay and Philip Bowles will give a straightforward answer: Don’t make things too complicated.

“As farmers, we like to think that we’re unique,” says Bowles, a Los Banos, CA, alfalfa grower. “But selling hay is really no different than selling shoes or sailboats. It boils down to a few basic concepts: Explain, listen, be fair and remember that the customer is always right.”

Between 20,000 and 25,000 tons of alfalfa hay are put up annually at Bowles Farming Co. About two-thirds of it is packaged in 135-lb small square bales, the rest in large square bales. He sells 85% of his production to dairies within 100 miles of his farm. Dealers market the remaining 15% to the horse market.

Making sure customers know he values their business is at the heart of Bowles’ hay-marketing strategy. Extending an open invitation for them to regularly visit the farm is one way to get that across.

“We want them to look at the stacks and at the hay growing in our fields. We work hard at keeping the farm looking really nice.” Besides picking up debris or trash, Bowles makes sure weeds are managed on field edges.

“Nobody wants to go to a grocery store where half of the light panels are burned out. The principle is the same in the hay business,” he says.

The grower encourages customers to talk to his baling or shop crew, the office worker who sends out bills and the farm’s next generation. “Business is about people relationships. We want our customers to feel like they know, and can feel comfortable with, everybody involved in our business.”

Once a year, he holds an informal barbecue lunch at the farm that 40-50 customers attend.

“It’s not a Roman banquet, just a lunch that we put together ourselves. But it makes the customers feel valued. We shake everybody’s hands and invite them to ask questions or bring up any issues they might have. In short, we treat them like we want to be treated.

“We’ve all walked out of a retail store thinking that we’ll never go back again because the clerk ignored us or couldn’t answer a question about an item. We don’t want our customers feeling that way, ever.”

At Christmas, Bowles sends customers small gifts – dried fruit and nuts or contributions in their names to a non-profit group like Heifer International.

“If we were to send them a $100 ballpoint pen, some would likely think that we’re charging too much for our hay. It’s just another way to remind them that we appreciate having them as customers. We do the same thing with our landlords.”

Bowles also visits customers’ dairies on a regular basis. His primary goal: to learn more about what individual producers want in a hay product. “They know their animals and their animals’ habits, and they have very specific ideas about what they want for hay,” he says. “We figure that, if we can make the kind of hay they’re looking for, we won’t have to spend much time haggling over price.”

On another level, Bowles uses these visits to assess customers’ business practices. He looks to see if animals are healthy; the facilities modern, clean and orderly; and the work force motivated and happy.

“That will tell you more about a dairy’s business practices than any credit report. If the facilities are dirty or the people who work there seem unusually surly or contentious, I figure it’s probably not a place I want to do business with, because they aren’t likely to be around for the long term.”

Bowles, who is president of the California Alfalfa & Forage Association, also guarantees his hay. If a dairy reports that a load isn’t feeding properly or doesn’t test or milk as well as it should, Bowles offers to work with it and its nutritionist to see what might be going on. “If we can’t come up with a solution that makes them happy, we’ll offer a discount or take the load back. A few dairies might take advantage of you once or twice, but they’re the kind who would never pay you anyway.”

When setting prices, Bowles’ goal is to be fair.

“If dairies don’t make money, we don’t make money,” he says. “When they’re facing tough times, the last thing we want to do is try to wring the last nickel out of them. Hopefully, when the tables turn and we’re facing hard times, some of them will remember how we worked with them. Bargain for a fair price, but don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”