Mike Grady and Hank Garnenez will custom harvest 2,000 more alfalfa acres this year than last. But they're not adding clients.

Both have only one customer — the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI), Farmington, NM — which is expanding its alfalfa hay production.

Alfalfa is one of several pivot-irrigated cash crops grown on the 68,000-acre NAPI farm, operated by the Navajo Nation tribe. The others include potatoes, corn, wheat and even pumpkins. But hay currently is high-priced in that drought-stricken region, thus the added emphasis on alfalfa.

“It looks like there'll be more money in hay for the next couple of years,” says Jennifer Rector, alfalfa crop manager.

Rector oversees the planting, harvesting and marketing of NAPI alfalfa, which this year will total 12,500 acres. During the harvest season, she works closely with Garnenez, who does all the windrowing, and Grady, who rakes, bales and stacks the hay.

Most of the hay is targeted for the dairy market, and much of it is sold under contracts signed before the crop is harvested.

“Everything is harvested prebloom,” Rector reports.

To achieve that objective, Garnenez has a fleet of 14 windrowers. Grady runs 18 self-propelled small square balers, five big square balers and 10 rakes. They take four cuttings starting in mid-May, covering 1,000 acres in a typical day's work.

Grady runs J & M Baling, Inc., with two sons and his brother Jonathan. The Gradys, who also have a Freeman haying equipment dealership, started their custom harvesting business in Oregon. They moved to New Mexico in 1984 when NAPI decided to hire a custom baler for what was then a 5,000-acre alfalfa enterprise.

“They had been doing it themselves, but were struggling,” Grady recalls.

Garnenez started Four Corners Custom Hay Harvesting with his wife and son four years later. A tribal member himself, he was employed by NAPI throughout his childhood, working on several crops, including hay. When the tribe switched to custom swathing shortly after he graduated from high school, he put in a bid and got the job.

Under tribal law, Grady and Garnenez are required to hire Navajos. And, like with many custom harvesters, finding employees capable of running big equipment is sometimes difficult.

“Getting qualified people to help me is my biggest challenge,” says Garnenez.

The two harvesters operate under multiyear custom harvesting contracts. But NAPI periodically puts its work up for bids. So far, Grady and Garnenez have always prevailed, probably because of their proximity to the NAPI farm (few other harvesters are close by), and because of their experience.

“They understand the processes that need to be done,” says Rector. “They understand our climate, and they have the equipment and manpower.”