Some people think Jud Harward is too trusting, but he’s been running a self-service, self-pay hay business for several years with satisfactory results.

Customers, mostly horse owners, back their trucks and pickups into his open-front hay barns, load the bales themselves and leave cash, checks or credit-card information. At the peak of the horse population, he sold several thousand 75-lb bales per year that way.

“We feel comfortable that it’s worked okay,” says Harward, of Springville, UT. “We do have losses, there’s no question about that. But we try to keep them to a minimum ... and make sure people know that we’re trustworthy and we expect the same from them.”

He owns Harward Farms with sons Jake and Lenny. Located a few miles from Salt Lake City, the operation is best-known for its sweet corn, watermelons and other fresh fruits and vegetables sold from 25 roadside stands. Jake now runs that enterprise, Lenny has a custom spraying business, and Jud handles hay production and marketing.

Hay was initially grown only on excess acres and delivered in truckloads to horse stables. At the time, horse hay was a specialty market, and that enterprise fit the family’s business model.

“We’ve tried to stay out of mainstream agriculture,” says Harward. “We’ve always said that, in our food chain we’ve only got one link. The more we’ve got under our control, the better off we are.”

As that enterprise grew and land devoted to it was expanded to 1,600 acres, he decided to sell hay in smaller amounts to people willing to come to the farm to get it. Started 11 years ago, Bales-R-Us, Hay-4-U caters to clients who buy up to 200 bales at a time.

He couldn’t justify the cost of hiring a person to handle those sales, figuring he would need at least $10,000 in monthly sales to make it pay. Besides, many horse owners like to buy hay during evening hours when an employee wouldn’t be there. So he went with self-service, self-pay.

To accommodate self-service customers, bales of alfalfa, orchardgrass and alfalfa-orchardgrass mixes are separated by type and quality and clearly labeled. Large signs tell the type of animals each hay fits and the price – in most cases, $7-9/bale.

Clients put their payments into envelopes, fill in their names, price per bale, number of bales and total amounts paid, then drop the envelopes into a slot on a safe. Credit-card customers write the required information on cards, and Harward charges it to their accounts when he opens the safe the following morning.

He’s usually on hand to help load bales and collect payments during the day, but buyers are on their own after hours. They have to drive by his house to get to the hay barns, so he usually knows when someone is there. He says 99% of them are honest, but the rest sometimes take a few more bales than they pay for.

He almost always comes up short when he checks the remaining inventory against revenue, and usually doesn’t know who took the missing bales. He says he charges higher prices to compensate for those losses. “The good guys pay for the bad guys.

“A certain percentage of my loss is bad checks,” he adds. “I do have a collection agency. But if they haven’t got the money, no matter how hard you go after them you still aren’t going to get anything. So I’m probably going to set up a policy where it’s either cash or credit, no checks.”

Early on, Harward promoted his self-service hay business by advertising in local newspapers and exhibiting at horse shows. After he had built a customer base, he began mailing annual flyers with information about hay availability, prices, etc. He usually includes something about the importance of feeding horses the right type of hay – a message he frequently delivers by telephone.

“When someone calls and asks what kind of hay I’ve got, I’ll immediately come back and say, ‘What kind of horse have you got, and then we can match the hay to your horse.’ ”

All of his hay is certified weed-free, and he provides weed-free certificates for buyers who will be taking horses into national parks. Also available are vouchers offering $50 off for hay purchases of 250 bales or more.

Low-quality hay, broken bales and chaff remaining after bales are removed are fed to horses. He offers a low-cost boarding service, pasturing about 20 horses and offering them a “smorgasbord” of various hays free choice.

“So I’m selling the scraps, too.”

His horse-hay sales reached 250,000 bales per year four years ago, with on-farm sales accounting for about a quarter of that total. But business began to soften in 2008 when the recession deepened, and today is down by about two-thirds. Harward doubts that it will recover anytime soon.

“The sales aren’t there because the horses aren’t there,” he says.

Now he’s packaging most of his hay in big square bales for the dairy and export markets, where demand and prices are high. Even if the small-bale market recovers, there’s more money in big bales at today’s prices, he says.

“The horse-hay market hasn’t kept up with the big-bale market. You need to get $40/ton more for the small bales compared to big bales just to cover the added cost of labor. Today that $40 isn’t there.”