Business: No big payday farming hay — but some do it anyway

06/29/2012 11:00 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Aquebogue farmer Donald McKay cutting a field of hay recently on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. The hay is sprayed with citric acid to prevent mold from growing.

The North Fork boasts 3,000 acres of grapes and more than 2,000 acres of potatoes, but one crop that’s been cultivated for hundreds of years doesn’t come even close, totalling perhaps a few hundred acres.

But for some farmers, there’s a dependable, if small, living in making hay. And they’ve been out in the fields the last couple weeks harvesting.

“There’s not a whole lot of hay grown out here,” said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. Most farmers use it as a form of supplemental income, he said.

“Our weather tends to be too wet, humid and foggy for hay, which needs very dry conditions,” Mr. Gergela added.

More important, Mr. Gergela said, East End land is just too expensive to use for growing hay.

“Our land values are so high that you don’t get a lot of return per acre,” he said. “If you’re a horse farmer, you’ll have land for grazing purposes. But as a rule, there’s just not enough return.”

Dale Moyer, agricultural program director at Cornell Cooperative Extension, said wet hay also poses a fire risk. Farming experts say when the crop is stored wet, microbial action can generate temperatures well above 150 degrees. The hay, and perhaps the barn, can catch fire.
“The trick to growing hay out here it to find that week when you have good drying conditions and, ideally, no rain,” Mr. Moyer said.

He also worked making hay as a youth in his native Pennsylvania.

“It’s a great summer job, especially if you wanted to get in shape for football,” he said.

Aquebogue farmer Donald McKay grows 20 acres of hay, a mixture of orchard and Timothy grasses. His weapons against mold include a mower conditioner that cuts the grass and then presses the moisture out using rubber wheels, a tether that spreads the grass out so it dries faster and an applicator that sprays citric acid onto the hay. That allows him to bale the hay at up to 30 percent moisture while keeping the grass green.

“The greener the grass, the more nutrients in the hay and the healthier and more powerful your animals will be,” Mr. McKay said.
Mr. Moyer said feeding animals is the chief reason hay is grown on the North Fork. That practice probably began with early settlers.
“When you have animals, you grow something to feed them and hay is one of those items,” he said. “I’m sure it’s one of the oldest commodities because you use it to feed to your cattle and everybody had a couple cows and workhorses that had to be fed hundreds of years ago.”

It’s unlikely to become a major staple of East End farming, Mr. Moyer added. He agrees with Mr. Gergela that land values are too high.

“It’s a niche market for a few of the growers,” he said. “It’s never going to explode into a major crop.”

Some farmers, Mr. Moyer said, use hay as a rotation crop.

“If you have land and can rotate it you’re not going to become rich, but you can pay your bills.”

That’s certainly the case for Mr. McKay, who grows everything from peppers to pumpkins and string beans and squash on his 230-acre farm.

“When I started messing around with having horses about 10 years ago, I had to drive eight hours to Watertown, N.Y., in order to get hay to feed them,” Mr. McKay said. “Growing hay is very costly to get into doing,” he added, “The machinery alone will take a $100,000 investment, but it eventually saves money and time.”

Mr. McKay said he uses about 4,000 bales of hay a year for his steer, draft horses, sheep and cows. Whatever he grows beyond that, he’ll sell.

“It depends on the weather, but you can usually get three cuttings per year from a field,” he said. “If it’s rainy or you irrigate, you can usually cut every three weeks.”

Bill Ruland of Mattituck has been growing hay his whole life.

“Back when I was young it was all handwork,” Mr. Ruland said. “Once it was made in the field and raked into heaps it was pitchforked up unto a truck or wagon.”

Then came the business of getting it up to the top of a barn.

“It built character, at least that’s what my grandfather said,” noted Mr. Ruland, a Southold Town councilman.

He said to make good hay, “you want it to be 80, 85 degrees and 50 percent humidity or less,” otherwise the hay is in danger of growing mold.

“Making hay while the sun shines is a true story,” he said.

Mr. Ruland, who also grows wheat, said he doesn’t plan to stop cultivating hay on fields that have been in his family since 1716. But it’s unclear how long the land will be covered in green, if not amber, waves of grain.

“I’m 63 and I can see the end,” he said. “I couldn’t 10 years ago, but I can now. My son helps me out when he can, but he’s got a good job at Stony Brook and he’s not coming back to the farm. Change will come.”

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