Call Freeburg Hay Co. once and you'll hear the cheerful voice of a woman who knows her hay. Call a second time and she'll probably identify you before you have a chance to say your name.
Those are a couple of personal touches courtesy of Amy Freeburg, who runs the well-known Gayville, SD, business with her husband, Gary, and two sons.
“I'm pretty good with voice recognition and I remember names,” says Freeburg. “Even when folks call who haven't bought from us for five years or so, I still remember their names and where they're from most of the time. People like that personal touch.”
She has kept things running efficiently at the family's farm office for more than 30 years while Gary handles the outside work.
“I'm laid back and patient, whereas Gary is quite blunt,” she says. “We have very, very different personalities, but we're a good balance and I think that's what makes our company work as well as it does.”
Freeburg met her future husband the day before she started college.
“I was the South Dakota Pork Princess and Gary was my driver for the parade commemorating Gayville's centennial celebration,” she recalls. “He had just returned from Vietnam and had a whole different perspective on life than most people I came in contact with.”
After a short courtship and engagement, they married in 1973 and Amy was forced to quickly learn the hay business.
“Gary and I were married on May 19 and I think everybody he did business with cut hay on May 16,” she jokes. “The Monday morning after the wedding was a real wake-up call for me when the phone started ringing. That was a crazy week and it hasn't slowed down since.”
In those days, the couple bought small bales from local growers and sold them to dairy producers within a 150-mile radius of Gayville. They owned a truck and trailer and made up to three trips a day delivering hay.
“When we got married, farmers didn't have cell phones, so they called at night. I just took down their names and numbers and when Gary came home at 10:30 or so, he had more than a dozen calls to return.
“This went on for several weeks and he finally said, ‘Amy, you're going to have to learn what type of hay I have.’ I knew very little about hay, but at that time, the farmers only wanted to know the protein percentage, if it had been rained on and the price.”
During her 20s, Freeburg learned hay terminology, answered customer inquiries, took orders and kept the books for the business. She also earned a degree in history and political science, and had three children, sons Jory and John and daughter Erica.
“I was fortunate to be able to stay home and raise our children, but I still got to interact with adults over the telephone. The kids were taught from an early age that when Mom was on the phone, they needed to be quiet. You can't have a child crying or pulling at your pant leg when you're trying to talk business,” she says.
While the Freeburg family was growing, so was their hay business. They continued to buy and sell hay, and started growing their own.
“Our kids grew up amongst a rapidly growing business and I think that has been an advantage for them,” she says. “They saw the good times and bad times and were privy to everything that was going on. Most kids don't get to go to work with their parents.”
During the 1980s — a period of growth and tough times for their business, says Freeburg — she ran the self-propelled baler. “It's something I had to do, but I never felt like I was very good at it. I was thankful when Jory was old enough to take my place.”
These days the family harvests 2,800 acres of alfalfa and alfalfa-grass mixtures for customers in dozens of states. They put up about 15,000 tons/year in big square bales and buy and sell about the same amount.
Jory and John joined the family business after graduating from college.
“There's a huge amount of satisfaction in seeing your children happy and settled in whatever they choose to do,” says Freeburg. “And when they're part of what you've created, that's even better.”
She keeps detailed records of customer lists, payments, deliveries and lab reports. Some are computerized and others are hand-written.
“As the younger generation steps in, I suspect they'll become more automated,” she says.
For now, though, she'll continue to answer the phone cheerfully. But do customers still want to talk to Gary when they call?
“Not anymore,” she chuckles. “Now if he answers the phone, they'll ask for me.”