At 72 years old, you'd think Phil Mayer would be done scouring the countryside, looking for good-quality alfalfa.
Yet the lack of a risk-free product near his Clarksville, AR, business, plus an ingrained work ethic, are keeping this hay man traveling. He puts nearly 6,000 miles a year on his pickup just locating top-notch alfalfa for horse owners and well over 100,000 miles trucking it.
“I've been working all my life and I don't know how to stop. I enjoy meeting people and I enjoy having an excellent load of hay in the truck,” says Mayer, who's been in the hay business for over 33 years. He now sells an average of 36,000 small square bales/year.
Lately, however, Mayer has had to put more miles on his trucks to find the product he's known for. Blister beetle problems have increased in Arkansas and beyond for the last eight or nine years, he says.
“I used to travel only 700 miles round-trip and had all the hay I ever wanted. The last trip scouting for hay was almost 3,000 miles.”
Mayer admits that his method of finding good hay may not be the smartest or most economical. “I could buy over the phone, but I never was able to buy anything I couldn't see. I want to talk to farmers face to face; I like to see their reactions when I'm talking to them.”
So Mayer drives dusty roads, searching out conscientious growers with good-looking, good-quality alfalfa who are willing to deal with him.
Finding farmers who will hold their hay until he needs it is getting harder, too. So he travels on to others happy to see him drive up.
One farmer has been selling to him for 17 years, Mayer says. He generally hauls hay out of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Color-ado, with his closest grower a 1,000-mile round-trip from Mayer's business, called The Alfalfa Shed.
At The Alfalfa Shed, horse owners arrive most Saturdays looking to buy his greenest, prettiest alfalfa.
“I've got a good rapport with my customers,” Mayer says. “Nobody can say that I ever gave them bad bales of hay and didn't compensate them.”
In fact, he can't remember when a customer asked him to take back bad hay. That's because he loads bales himself and sees every bale that he buys.
“Once in a while one will get by me,” he admits. But he doesn't pass it onto his customers; he just feeds it to his own horses.
Like all good businessmen, Mayer knows what his customers want. “Looks are the big thing in the horse business,” he says. “I bring in quality, but it isn't really necessary if the looks are there.”
So why work so hard?
“I don't have to do what I'm doing. But I do enjoy making people happy with a good load of hay. It's kind of gratifying to have someone come back and say, ‘That was excellent, excellent hay.’”
For more on blister beetles, see the story on page 24.