In some respects, Scotty Thellman was just like many other students who graduated from high school in Lawrence, KS, last spring. He worked after school and on weekends to help fund his hobbies and build funds for college.
However, while other students were mowing yards and serving fast food, Thellman was building a hay business that churned out nearly 7,000 small square bales annually between his sophomore and senior years. The irony is that he didn't live on a farm or have any exposure to agriculture until about 10 years ago.
That's when his parents, Scott and Nancy, decided to move the family to a 114-acre farm just outside of Lawrence. To Thellman's father, the farm was a welcome divergence to his job as a plastic surgeon. However, the sharp contrast to city life was even more compelling for the son.
His interest in farming was first sparked by Leo Smith, a farmer who kept cattle on the family's land. “He was a great mentor to me,” Thellman recalls. “He showed me that farming is hard work, but well worth it if you love the land.”
With Smith's advice and help from the county Extension office, Thellman started to look at the 35 acres of grass hay on his parents' farm as a business opportunity.
“By my freshman year in high school, I knew I wanted to develop some kind of farm of my own, and since we already had brome on the place, hay seemed to be the most obvious choice,” he says.
He put up about 800 bales that first summer, using an old sickle mower, a parallel bar rake and a 45-year-old small square baler bought for $100.
Thellman soon realized, though, that he would need bigger and better equipment if he wanted to expand. So he put together a business plan and, with help from his parents, bought a new tractor and a used 12' mower-conditioner. A year later, he bought a new 10-wheel rake and a used bale wagon, followed by a used in-line square baler during his senior year.
Today, Thellman's Juniper Hill Hay and Pasture enterprise cuts, rakes, bales and occasionally stacks an average of 6,000-7,500 bales per year. Part comes from the family's two hayfields, while the rest is custom baled on contract or shares.
“During the 2009 season, I baled about 6,700 small square bales of grass hay, 1,200 straw bales and a couple hundred round bales,” he says, noting that he rents a round baler from a local dealership as needed for custom work.
“A large portion of that crop has already been sold to a horse farm in Colorado that picks up a semi load a month. I still market my hay over the Internet, too. But most of my business is through word of mouth.”
In the meantime, Thellman planted 14 acres of the family farm to wheat for use as a nurse crop, pending a new alfalfa stand this spring. Plus, he has acquired access to 50 acres of river-bottom farmland for alfalfa.
Finally, he enrolled in two classes at the local community college — one is a course on commercial production of farmers' market produce. Within a year, he plans to enroll in one of the nearby ag universities with a goal of majoring in ag economics with a minor in crop science.
“I may have to cut the hay season a little shorter, but I'd like to keep my hay business going as long as I can,” he says. “We'll see what happens.”