Some of Scott Jackson's clients get a fringe benefit other hay dealers can't offer: helicopter rides.
Jackson buys hay throughout southern Idaho and northern Utah, and sells it mostly to dairies in Idaho's Magic Valley. It's all quality-tested, but dairy producers often want to see the hay before buying, especially large lots that won't be delivered until later. His helicopter makes that more feasible.
“These guys have giant dairies and they're busy,” says Jackson, of Jerome, ID. “They might not go in the pickup with you for four hours, but they might jump in the helicopter and make the trip in half the time.”
Sometimes the dairy's nutritionist or feed buyer climbs on board instead of the owner. Either way, the flights are good for business, says Jackson.
“It's something that gives the guys a perk in their day,” he says.
The helicopter reduces the time he spends traveling for Scott Jackson Trucking, a mega dealership that buys and sells nearly 450,000 big square bales of hay and straw per year and delivers them with a fleet of about 50 trucks. The company also is a partner in a rail yard that receives and delivers trainloads of distillers grains and other commodities, plus it plans and builds new dairies and has a metal fabrication shop.
Occasionally, Jackson uses the helicopter for other enterprises, but most flights are for the hay business. He used to personally pull samples from every stack for testing, but now has salesmen who handle that. When he visits a hayfield, it's usually to meet with a salesman to make a final evaluation or to show hay to a client.
His experienced sales staff and helicopter give him a leg up on other dealers, he says.
“It's a competition. We pride ourselves in getting our dairy guys hay that will make their cows milk better than the hay other dealers are able to get them. On the farmer side, we pay the market price or more than that if it's better hay. And we find a market for all of his hay. If it needs to go to a dairy or feedlot, or if it needs to be exported, we make sure that happens.”
Jackson learned to fly airplanes while attending the Air Force Academy after high school. Later, as his hay business grew, he was driving over 100,000 miles a year evaluating haystacks and pulling samples for testing. So he bought a small plane to shorten his workdays.
He flew the Cessna 182 exclusively for about 10 years, often landing it in hayfields. During that time, he took additional training to become a licensed helicopter pilot and bought a small model. The hay dealer upgraded to a bigger, more-expensive Bell JetRanger III about a decade ago.
“It took years and years to work up to that,” Jackson says.
A number of years ago, he transitioned to mostly helicopter flying. With an airplane, “You always have the chance of the nose wheel hitting a hole that an animal has dug,” says Jackson. “The helicopter ended up being a much safer way to get in and out of hayfields and go to all the places I was going.”
The airplane is still used for long-er trips.
“It's faster flying, but you have to find a place to land,” he says.
Jackson paid $375,000 for the JetRanger and says it's worth about the same amount today. But he doubts that any other hay dealer would want to buy one.
“It certainly has some advantages, but the purchase cost would be hard to justify in just a hay business. You'd have to be doing something like we're doing, where you've got a zillion places to get to and you're buying hay from all over in large amounts.”
The time and cost of getting and maintaining a helicopter pilot license is another deterrent. He took 50 hours of training after he left the Air Force Academy, and still takes two or three days of recurrent training almost every year.
“It's a pretty arduous process,” says Jackson.
The helicopter “is absolutely justifiable in the business world,” he says. “I try to make decisions, the helicopter being one of them, on how we can best service clients and farmers to make sure we treat them fairly and get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
But it's much more than a business asset. He loves to fly and enjoys giving people, especially kids, their first helicopter rides. Several times a year, Jackson gives rides to people who have given money to a worthy cause in exchange for the rides. He usually takes them through the scenic Snake River Canyon and over a large dairy or two.
Two years ago, he gave individual rides to about 20 inner city kids who were staying at an Idaho ranch.
He donates his time for those flights and for occasional search-and-rescue operations.
“I get personal satisfaction out of introducing youth and doing the search-and-rescue or charity things,” he says. “The hay business has allowed us to have the helicopter that benefits other people.”