Jim Kellner says he's happy “almost 99% of the time” that he made a mid-life career change.
“Farming, and more specifically, growing and selling hay, is what I've always wanted to do,” says the former electrician. “I love being outside and on the tractor, and if you can make money doing something you love, life's a lot easier.”
Since leaving his former career in 2001, Kellner has gradually accumulated land, machinery and hay-making and marketing know-how. “I just dove into the business head first,” says this Blakesburg, IA, grower.
That first year, he harvested only 31 acres of grass hay. This year he plans to take four cuttings from 455 acres of alfalfa and alfalfa-grass mixtures on owned and rented land.
Kellner is content to call his 120-acre southeastern Iowa farm home after living in several other places. He lived near Barnes City, IA, until he was 14, when he moved to Indiana to live with his dad. During summers, he returned to Iowa to work for a hay grower. “That's when I got my first taste of haying,” he says.
Following graduation, he was in the Marines for eight years and then returned to Iowa, built high-tensile fences and became an electrician — which took him back to Indiana and to North Carolina. In 2000, he and his wife, Lauri, a registered nurse, decided to move to Iowa.
“We wanted to be in a rural area and closer to family,” says Kellner, who has three children. “And just as soon as we moved here, I decided to grow hay. The well-drained, white oak soil on my farm is ideal for legume production.”
The couple looked at farms throughout Iowa, but decided on Kellner's old neighborhood because land prices were reasonable there. “We bought our farm for $110,000,” says Kellner. “Since then, it's doubled in value.”
The next big check he wrote was for $79,900 for a used tractor, round baler and mower-conditioner. Since then, he's spent another $120,000 on machinery, including another tractor, a second mower-conditioner, two rakes, a tedder, hay wagons and a small square baler.
“We take every penny the farm makes and put it right back into the business,” he says.
Kellner has had to scale a steep learning curve to become a hay grower. To educate himself, he's become a voracious reader. One of his favorite publications is the American Society of Agronomy's Alfalfa Management Guide. He also scours the Internet daily for information on making and marketing hay.
“I've learned about core sampling, forage testing, fertilization, interseeding, hay auctions, seeding rates, moisture testing, propionic acid — the list goes on.”
He has sold round bales to area beef producers, listed dairy-quality small bales on www.haybarn.com and worked with hay brokers in Iowa and Missouri. He's also sold several thousand small bales through a feed store in nearby Ottumwa. High-quality, 50-lb bales of alfalfa-grass fetch up to $4 each from area horse owners, he says.
“It seems like as soon as we put them in the barn, we're taking them out. Luck has been with us in this new venture, but it's all about marketing, too — talking to people and making connections.”