Go to a regional or national forage meeting and you'll likely see Ron Tombaugh. He's a great believer in networking to learn and share his knowledge as a commercial hay grower.

Yet he'd rather be working the farm.

“I love working with the soil and with nature. I learned you don't beat nature; you deal with it and make it work for you. Particularly this year, when we're in a dry situation and things aren't growing well,” said Tombaugh as he raked oat hay on a beautiful — though dry — day last June.

From Streator, IL, just north of Bloomington, Tombaugh was doing his best to produce quality hay with little rain last summer.

“I baled at night for quite a bit of first-cutting alfalfa. I let it get dry enough during the day and then went back at 8 or 9 at night, after the dew came in, and baled it up. I'm seriously considering doing that with this oat hayfield that we're raking right now. It's plenty dry.”

Tombaugh raises nearly 400 acres of hay as well as 135 acres of corn and another 170 of soybeans. With a few part-time workers, Dart Hay Service manages to produce, sell and truck hay within Illinois and to Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee and Kentucky. When he doesn't have enough hay available for customers, he buys and hauls from local growers and growers farther west.

That day in June he was behind schedule. He'd spent the previous week as co-chair of the American Forage and Grassland Council annual conference in Bloomington. He spoke at a marketing conference earlier that spring and attended other meetings in between.

Although he'd finished raking oat hay for the day, he still had some alfalfa that was more than ready to cut. Yet he took time to tell about himself and his business.

A tall, broad-shouldered man with a good sense of humor, Tombaugh remembers being only five when he first drove tractor on his dad's farm.

The reason he waited so long, he quips, is that “I was busy helping with the milking and shoveling manure.”

Having been raised a hard worker, Tombaugh applies that same ethic, not only to farming, but to educating others and promoting the forage industry.

“I've been to every AFGC conference since 1984. I'm also on the board for the National Hay Association (NHA), which is a marketing group. But AFGC is an educational group and I guess that's where it all starts. It offers interaction between producers and industry and research and educators,” he says.

Tombaugh was AFGC president in 2002; he'll be NHA president in '08.

Being a part of such organizations allows him to travel and learn about others' ways of farming, he says. And it has helped him build a network of contacts in the forage industry.

“If I pick up and read an article from any forage publication from around the country, chances are I know the person who wrote the article. Or I met him or her at a meeting.”

He usually picks up some hay business at events, too.

“It seems like after a conference, I usually get a few more calls. We're making connections in both buying and selling hay.”

Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and Kentucky dairies get a lot of his 3 × 3 × 8' bales. He also provides an alfalfa-orchardgrass mix to Kentucky horse owners. “I'm pretty proud of some of the mixed hay we can put up. It's as good as any I've seen — definitely horse-quality,” Tombaugh says.

He used to haul most of his own hay so he could clear up any problems on the spot. But now he feels he's more valuable producing it and hires a driver.

“More than often, though, I'm the one loading the truck. If there's a bale I don't like, I can sort it out.”

He takes hay to auctions, even into Wisconsin.

“It's relatively close, about 150 miles. I usually take hay to auction to stimulate more markets. And if it doesn't bring what I want it to, I can protect it. I try to have a backup plan in place if it doesn't bring what I want,” he adds.

Because of fuel costs, trucking has been a challenge and he wonders if it would be more profitable to hire a commercial carrier. Yet he's been creative in what and where he hauls.

“The price of fuel is making it imperative to backhaul. We haul landscape mulch, straw, palletized potting soil, seed corn, cottonseed, corncobs … the list goes on,” he says. “After we get done hauling straw around Labor Day, we'll start hauling corncobs. I look for that to make a better year for us because I think I can work it out to where we're hauling hay to Wisconsin and bringing corncobs back.”

The corncobs come from Wisconsin seed corn facilities. “A good friend of mine was working for a buyer and he put me in touch with the fellow who does his trucking for him. We've been doing it for six years.”

Cobs go to a processor near Decatur, in central Illinois. “They make, I'm told, 32 products out of corncobs, all the way from cosmetics and absorbents to abrasives.

“We've been on some of the same dairy farms hauling three or four products with the same vehicle, from hay and straw to feed ingredients. You really never know what's in the box until you open the door.”

The past few years have brought a number of changes to Tombaugh's personal life, starting with his marriage to Sandy.

Sandy Tombaugh is a CPA and buyer for an industrial supplier in Chicago. She and her son, Tyler, live there during the week and come down to the farm for weekends.

“We're trying to figure out a way to live together all the time, but she has her job and her seniority,” Tombaugh says.

Occasionally, when Sandy travels, Tombaugh is full-time parent to Tyler, who's going on seven.

“Two years ago, Sandy had to go to Florida and I had Tyler. We were baling hay when she called me at 9:30 that night. ‘I got you on your cell,’ she said, ‘what are you doing?' I said, ‘I'm baling hay.’ She said, ‘Well, Tyler should be sleeping.’

“‘He is,’ I said. ‘We got a blanket and a pillow and he's curled right here on the cab floor.’”

Tyler hasn't, however, been driving any tractors yet, Tombaugh says. “Tractors have changed a lot over the last 45 years.”

Crafty Sideline Business

Sandy Tombaugh bought a mini baler on eBay that pumps out about 30 bales an hour.

It gives her husband, Ron, and his crew something to do during haying season — when it's raining and no repairs are needed.

The bales are 5 × 7 × 12" and sold online at www.farmgoods.com or at the farm's site, www.darthay.com. Sandy started the American Farm Goods Web site to promote and market products produced on family farms or small home-type businesses.

She feels that many small farms struggle for income, and that many develop alternative sources of income by producing craft items, services or produce that can be sold directly to the customer.

The Tombaugh bales have been sold to companies for promotion purposes, but are usually used in crafts. For instance, Sandy presented a seminar on decorating mini bales at last June's American Forage and Grassland Council spouse program.

The hitch, however, is that the bales need to be hand-tied. But Sandy found a supplier of wire that has a loop at one end, so tying doesn't take long.