Competitively pricing your hay crop can be a major challenge, especially for small-acreage growers serving local specialty markets. Garry and Maria Johnston say taking a load of hay to a nearby auction several times a year helps.

“It’s a good way to find out what other hay in your area is selling for at any given point in time,” says Garry Johnston, of Johnston Farm and Composting in Linden, MI. “You don’t want to price yourself out of the market. But you don’t want to give it away, either.”

The Johnstons put up small square bales of alfalfa-timothy hay on 100 acres, marketing mainly to horse owners with one or two animals. They also sell to dairy-goat farms. In a typical year, most of their customers are within 25 miles of their farm.

The trips to auction also play a part in their advertising strategy. “People have seen our hay at the auction over the years, and the word has gotten out there that we put up some very nice hay,” Johnston says. “In this business, reputation can be worth its weight in gold. It’s about the only advertising we do anymore, other than a few ads we’ll place on Craigslist in years when prices are low.”

Extremely dry conditions early in the growing season crimped their 2012 yields significantly. Johnston figures first-crop production was off by at least a third. Second crop was “super slow coming back,” and two thirds of the yield was lost, he estimates.

“We got some rain in August, so we were able to get some third-cutting. It was beautiful hay. There just wasn’t a lot of it.”

A production shortfall throughout the region has created a unique marketing challenge for the couple. “We’ve been getting calls from a lot farther away than we normally do. People are telling us that their regular suppliers are sold out and they’re desperate. Some are asking to buy hundreds of bales.”

“We’ve put a 50-bale limit on the amount of hay we’ll sell at one time. We have to take care of our regular customers first. Some of them have been with us for a dozen years. They’ve been loyal to us, and we want to be loyal to them.”

Currently, their first-crop hay is selling for $7/bale; second-crop is bringing $8/bale. “That’s double what we were selling it for a year ago. And it’s as high as I’ve ever seen it.”

And the hay grower wouldn’t be surprised to see prices rise in the months ahead. “We’re already half way through our winter hay supply. With supplies this short, prices are bound to go up.”

To contact the Johnstons, call 517-546-6271 or email johnstonfarm@sbcglobal.net.