Rusty Kenner didn’t spend much time playing baseball and video games as a kid. He was busy running his family’s well-drilling and custom hay harvesting businesses.

Kenner, now 19, and his older brother Casey inherited the businesses when their grandmother and grandfather died in the early 2000s.

“We were always around my grandparents’ businesses, so we knew a lot about them,” says Kenner, who lives near Elk City, OK. “Our closest neighbors continued to hire us to do all or part of their custom swathing, raking, baling and hauling. Those few good customers spread positive word-of-mouth about our services, allowing us to build up a nice, manageable clientele.”

In 2010, the Kenners made nearly 4,000 round bales on half shares within a 12-mile radius of their farm. “Our biggest customer has 40,000 acres,” says Kenner. “We’ve been working for him since I was 12 years old.”

The brothers also harvested 400 acres of grass hay on their own farm last summer. Some of that forage is now being fed to their beef herd of 300 cows, 80 heifers and six bulls. The balance is sold to local farmers, along with the bales they make on shares.

Since inheriting the businesses, the brothers have also drilled more than 150 wells and repaired dozens of others using refurbished equipment. “The well-drilling business is more profitable than the custom business on an hourly basis, but there’s probably more dollars per year doing custom work,” he says.

The National FFA Organization recognized Kenner’s achievements by naming him the 2010 American Star in Agribusiness, one of the group’s highest honors. Another young custom forage harvester, Gabe Flick of Middleton, ID, was one of four finalists for the award.

Flick got a young start in the business, too, when he bought an old self-propelled swater at age 14. He found the machine in the weeds at a neighboring dairy and offered to exchange his labor for it. Earning just $7/hour, he worked nearly three years to pay it off.

“It was a lemon,” laughs Flick, now a senior majoring in agronomy at Iowa State University. “I spent $14,000 on parts to fix up a machine that was worth less than half that, but now I can fix just about anything on a swather.”

He also bought a used rake and baler. As his business grew, he updated those pieces of equipment and added a self-propelled stack wagon.

Flick started custom baling when his family couldn’t find anyone reliable to harvest their 35 acres of alfalfa.

“One time, when we finally got a guy to come and cut, he went too fast, stripped the leaves and made a mess,” he recalls. “I remember looking at the bill my dad got from him and saying, ‘Gee, dad, I could do a better job for that amount of money.’

“Some people told me I couldn’t make any money at this, but I was determined to prove them wrong,” he adds.

His business has shown double-digit growth every year. Last summer he put up more than 18,000 small square bales for several customers in about a 30-mile radius of his home.

“My niche is servicing landowners with fewer acres,” he says. “Many of my customers aren’t farmers. They’re professionals in other fields who want good hay put up for their horses or other animals with very few hassles.”
Flick puts a priority on top-notch customer service. “My phone is on 24 hours a day, and when I say I’m going to be at a customer’s farm at a specific time, I’ll try my hardest to keep my promise.”