Young harvester aims for ag policy career

When the fields that Jeff Weber custom harvests were dormant this winter, he was cutting his swath through the halls of Congress and hitting the books at Texas A&M University.

Weber just completed an internship in Washington with U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall (D-TX). But this spring he was ready to put finals behind him at College Station and resume his custom haying business near Pilot Point, TX.

Weber is an experienced custom harvester, even though he's only 21. He borrowed money for his first baler and tractor as a high school freshman. He knew early on that custom harvesting was a venture that could help him excel in agribusiness and cut a path toward a career in ag policymaking.

"My custom hay business has grown steadily," says Weber, set to graduate in December with a degree in ag development. "I now have over 60 customers who grow anywhere from 10 to 700 acres of hay."

Weber runs two round balers, two small square balers, two mower-conditioners and a 16-wheel rake. Most customers raise Coastal bermudagrass, sudangrass, small grains or legumes. When wheat prices are low, wheat hay is also high on the list.

The company's five employees include his father, Don, who helped manage the business when his son was in Washington.

"Dad has been a real help," says Weber. "He runs the cutting along with other duties. And his experience and knowledge of farming are of great value to me."

Weber has learned that going the extra mile produces satisfied customers who rehire him every year.

"I take soil samples and consult with farmers in advance. That way we can help them do a better job of producing high-quality hay," he says. "Our goal is (for one of our customers) to win the county hay show every year."

His company harvests about 150 acres per day. It handles about 20,000 round bales and 150,000 small square bales a year. He currently charges $12-14/bale for round bales and 75-85 cents/bale for small squares. Those prices include cutting, raking, baling and stacking.

"I believe we are about $3-8/bale lower in price (for round bales) than a lot of competitors," he says.

Weber's efforts to establish, maintain, and grow his custom business while in high school (where he was valedictorian) and college led to his being named one of four National FFA 1999 American Star in Agribusiness finalists. He plans to expand his business by adding a large square baler to his equipment line. At the same time, he'll pursue a graduate degree in ag economics or ag education, with an emphasis on ag policy. A law degree and possible future in Washington are also in his forecast.

His work in helping formulate ag and other policy as a Washington intern, as well the overall Capitol Hill experience, put him well on his way. But now it's back to haying.

"We think of ourselves as the Wal-Mart of the hay industry in our area," he quips. "We plan to keep our prices low. And as long as hay production remains high, I'll stay in the industry."