Call Dave Fink anytime in June and he'll probably answer from a hayfield set among rolling hills nestled just south of the Appalachian Mountains.
The days can be long ones for this Germansville, PA, commercial hay grower. He also raises corn, soybeans and wheat and harvests straw, all on 1,600 acres, and has a compressed hay business.
Yet he appreciates the special moments that weave their way into those days, like having a granddaughter ride with him across more-level fields. Or spying a deer on a nearby hill. Or enjoying the colorful view of the valley below while fixing a broken baler.
He speaks with equal enthusiasm about the hay industry, the family and farm he and his wife Sonia have built, his hay compression business — and the future. To sum up Fink's philosophy of life and work: There may be some clouds on the horizon, but it's the clouds that lead you to the silver linings.
Fink's optimism comes in part from the legacy that he now is in the process of passing on. He's the fourth generation to farm land settled in 1852 by his great-grandmother's uncle. He manages Heidel Hollow Farm with the full-time help of his son, Travis, two cousins and four other full-time employees, plus seasonal hay harvesting help from son Mike and other part-time workers.
“We do have quite a staff,” Fink proudly asserts. They're the reason he's able to volunteer time to industry organizations, the local township board, a start-up ethanol plant and other groups, he says.
Last year, he and his crew raised 800 acres of hay — mostly timothy, mixed hay and about 80 acres of straight alfalfa. They also bought and processed hay for their compressed bale business that ships across the U.S. and internationally.
And, as his father and grandfather did for him, Fink is listening to his sons' suggestions — with an open mind, he hopes. When Mike wanted to grow vegetables on the farm to sell locally, they worked out a suitable arrangement. Fink proudly shows visitors the pumpkin, sweet corn and cabbage plots sheltered behind his farmstead.
“Anybody in agriculture who is close-minded isn't proceeding; they're falling behind,” he says.
Marketing hay that's double-compressed to 35-lb bales for the horse market and 70-lb bales for export has been Fink's main focus the past 30 years. It still is, but last year he shifted 100 hay acres to corn “primarily because it's profitable.
“A lot of people are shifting to corn,” says the grower, who is on a corn-ethanol plant planning board. “Of course, when and if cellulosic ethanol develops, that could be an alternative for growers in one particular locality to set up a facility they wouldn't have far to ship to.”
In general, Fink says, growers have to be open to changing either their markets or products to meet consumer needs.
Fink, for example, helped his farm evolve from processing and direct-marketing eggs from 40,000 laying hens to becoming largely a crop farm. The crops, however, also change with the times.
“We used to have 100 acres of potatoes; now we have corn and vegetables in place of them.” The deciding factor: “It's the markets — what people are willing to pay.”
In Pennsylvania, Fink says, farmers are dealing with skyrocketing land values and urban sprawl. So he makes the most of the land he has.
That's partly why he's converting his mixed hay and alfalfa from a four-year to a three-year rotation — to make it adaptable to other crops and increase hay quality.
“Usually, after the third year, the quality of forages starts to erode. If we go for a three-year rotation as opposed to a four- to seven-year rotation, it will be of a higher quality. Most of my customers are willing to pay higher prices if the quality is there.”
If the quality isn't there, Fink has an industry at his backdoor that uses low-quality hay or straw for mulch. “We always have the mushroom industry. We're fortunate in that.” Pennsylvania, he says, leads the nation in commercial mushroom production.
Weather, of course, is Fink's biggest challenge. “If we get down to 50% humidity, we think we've got drying weather,” he says.
“You can't change it; you just have to work with it. People might look at me strange when I cut a hayfield right ahead of a shower or during a shower. I'll bet this past year, a quarter of my hay was cut before a potential storm. But that was the only way to get it to be good quality. We only have so much of a window of opportunity for actual baling. So every hour that we can increase before that, with sufficient drying weather in between, the better off we are.”
Fortunately, he has a plan B if it rains.
“When the weatherman changes his mind, we automatically switch over to make baleage. We're fortunate that there are still a fair amount of dairies within a 100-mile radius that use quite a bit of baleage.”
With 160 contoured fields to contend with, some owned and more rented, Fink and family rely on maps with numbered fields and a computer program to keep crops and inputs straight.
His timothy fields are usually harvested just once, although at times he's been able to get a small second cutting. Some years those fields average 3 tons/acre; other years they yield 2 tons/acre.
To meet the market demand for his compressed hay, Fink has to buy at least 3,000 tons of additional hay. That, too, is a challenge finding growers who produce a consistent quality in the right-size bale. The 3 × 3 × 8' bales work best with his processing equipment, which can turn out 15 × 9 × 22" 35-lb or 15 × 18 × 22" 70-lb double-compressed bales.
With 30 years of expertise under his belt, Fink is on his fifth compression machine. “If you saw my first compressor, you would laugh. Even my second one was a joke. This is my fifth and it's computer-controlled state-of-the-art,” he says proudly. “It's no longer a chore.”
Like other growers, Fink contends with transportation and fuel costs. “Even ocean freight has gone up tremendously,” he says. Because of the high cost of fuel, Fink no longer fires up the hay dryer that could force hot air through 70 big square bales at a time. Its fans, however, are used to take out moisture.
In 2007, Fink made other important changes. A 60,000-bu storage bin has been built for faster corn harvest. Hay customers can order online through a new Web site, www.heidelhollowfarm.com. And Fink, whose initial farming endeavor was a strawberry patch, helped his granddaughters plant their first.
Cornell Researchers Combat Brown Root Rot
Cornell University researchers are helping farmers recognize brown root rot in alfalfa and forage grasses, and are working to identify alfalfa varieties with resistance to it.
Fields with 11 alfalfa varieties at the Miner Institute, Chazy, NY, and at a Cornell research farm in Willsboro were inoculated in spring 2006 and 2007 with fungi that cause the disease. This spring, 125 plants of each variety will be collected and assessed for brown root rot. Six species of forage grasses planted at both farms also will be evaluated.
This month, a graduate student will survey forage production fields in six northern New York counties.
“April through early May is the best time to assess over-wintered alfalfa plants for the symptoms of brown root rot,” says Gary Berg-strom, Cornell plant pathologist. “Characteristic lesions can be seen on the roots and crowns of plants showing slow regrowth of shoots from the crown buds in spring.”
The lesions are usually light to dark brown with the severity increasing as plants age. Lesions that don't immediately kill the plant can vary in appearance, making it difficult to identify the disease without a lab analysis, Bergstrom adds.
Sometimes called the dormant disease, brown root rot attacks plants in winter when they're not growing. It's often mistaken for winter damage or other root rots, or sometimes shows no visual symptoms.
In northern New York, brown root rot was first identified in 2003, and it has since become widespread in that state, and in Vermont and New Hampshire. It has also been detected in Pennsylvania, Maine and several other northern states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.