When it comes to marketing product, hay growers have traditionally been a pretty independent lot. But six hay growers from throughout Manitoba find that pooling resources to address various marketing concerns is worthwhile and then some.

They formed Manitoba Forage Marketers (MFM). The group started four years ago as an offshoot of the Manitoba Forage Council, which is made up of dairy, beef, sheep and goat producers as well as others in the forage industry.

“The forage marketers was set up to address issues that are important to people who sell hay and straw commercially, domestically and for export,” explains Chris Kletke, an MFM member who grows alfalfa on 700 acres near Brunkild, MB. He markets 3 x 3 x 8’ bales, primarily to dairies throughout Canada and in the U.S. Midwest.

The structure of the group is fairly straightforward. Members sign a code-of-business-ethics agreement.

“The code basically says that members should represent their product honestly and fairly at all times,” explains MFM member Darren Chapman, who grows alfalfa and alfalfa-grass hay on 1,000 acres near Virden. He puts up medium square and small square bales and markets to dairies and horse owners in Canada and the U.S.

Membership dues are based on acreage. The base fee is $500 for up to 500 acres of production. After that, members pay 50¢/acre for acreage devoted to production sold within Canada and $1/acre on acreage devoted to production going for export.

The funds are used to help members promote their hay at events like World Dairy Expo in Madison, WI, and maintain the MFM Web site – Manitobaforage.ca.

“Having a presence on the Internet has almost become a necessity for any business,” says Chapman. “But not everyone has the computer skills or the time to develop a good site and keep it going. By working together, we were able to come up with a very nice, professional site.”

It features profiles of each member’s operation and a frequently updated inventory of what members have for sale. In a password-protected, members-only section, the group can share confidential information about price trends, transportation, negligent accounts, weather and other business-related matters.

The price-discovery information is especially valuable, Kletke says. “By talking to other members, you get a better idea of what the going price is for a particular kind of hay. The more information that’s available to you, the more informed decisions you’ll make. You’re less likely to lose out on a high price and less likely to lose a sale because you’ve priced your product out of the going range.”

Keeping in touch with other members about inventories is equally beneficial, says Chapman. “It keeps you in the loop. If a customer asks you about a certain kind of hay and you don’t have it, you can direct them to one of the other guys in the group who does.”

The group also gets together four or five times a year, either in person or via conference calls. Potential export markets have been a frequent topic of discussion.

“In the past, the U.S. has been the bread-and-butter market for Canadian hay exports,” explains Kletke. “But now China, other countries in Asia and countries in the Middle East are coming on board as buyers. We want to keep our hand on the pulse of that and see what might develop.”

A major goal for the group: attracting new members. “It’s like any other association – your strength is in your numbers,” says Kletke. “The more producers and members you have, the more visible you are. And in marketing, visibility is everything.”