Eastern farmers scramble to stitch organic infrastructure
for hay supply

Local and regional networks stretched by spot demand brought on by weather extremes; goal is still on-farm balance of forage and livestock.

By Rocky Womack

Photo courtesy of Twin Oaks Dairy LLC

Balancing hay sales, soil needs

Organic farmers build healthy soils by maintaining proper nutrient and trace mineral balance, says Gary Lantz, Mount Jackson, Virginia.

“The plants need a balanced soil that is alive with biological activity,” Lantz says. “This provides replenishment of soil fertility.”

Klaas Martens, a certified organic grain producer in Penn Yan, N.Y., says while hay is good for the soil, it also can remove very large amounts of minerals. “Land can be mined out by growing hay for many years if that hay leaves the farm without bringing in equivalent amounts of minerals in the form of fertilizers like compost, manure, or rock dust to replace what the hay takes out,” he says.

Finding that right soil balance is something Martens has been trying to master. “We have been considering how to deal with this problem for the past few yeas as organic hay has gotten scarce and expensive,” he says. “Keeping the hay part of the rotation short can help reduce the fertility depletion while retaining most of the positive benefits of growing hay. Plowing down a good legume sod provides nitrogen and reduces weed pressure in heavy feeding crops like corn. Organic farmers can economically justify plowing down seedings sooner than conventional farmers because of the high value of the legume plow down to the following corn crop.”

Martens also has considered mowing down the first cutting in the season and leaving it for fertilizer. “The second cut is more valuable and comes at a time when it is easier to get hay dry,” he says. “While this will lower total yield, it will increase the average value of the hay and greatly reduce the percentage of hay spoiled or reduced in value because of rain. In years when the first cutting is greatly delayed by early summer rains, yields may actually be better if the hay was mowed down in mid-May. Quality and price would definitely be much better in such years.”

Buyer-seller hay connections

Producers can advertise their certified organic hay at several buyer-seller connections geared to farmer use. These are a few sites available:

The New Farm Classifieds

Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance

Hay Clearing House newsletter
Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services



Maryland Hay & Straw Directory
Maryland Cooperative Extension

Created by the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance
To subscribe, e-mail:

For organic dairy farmers only
To subscribe, email:

Pennsylvania Certified Organic

Hay Alert
North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services

Hay Net
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency

Hay Exchange
Includes drought maps, showing dry to severe drought conditions in PA, VA, WV, NC last week.

Hay Barn

For more information

Gary Lantz
Cannon Hill Farm
224 Cannon Hill Road
Mt. Jackson, VA 22842
Phone: 540-325-7718
Cell: 540-325-7718
Fax: 540-477-3817

Kathie and Rick Arnold
Twin Oaks Dairy LLC
3175 State Route 13
Truxton, NY 13158

Forrest Stricker
Berks County, PA
Phone: 610-678-7629

Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens
Lakeview Organic Grain
Box 361
119 Hamilton Place
Penn Yan, NY 14527
Phone/Fax: 315-531-1038

J.P. Welch
Market News Manager
Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
1100 Bank St.
Richmond, VA 23219
Phone: (804) 786-3947
Fax: (804) 371-7787

Stanley Fultz
Acting County Extension Director, Dairy Science Extension Agent
Maryland Cooperative Extension Service
Frederick County office
330 Montevue Lane
Frederick, MD 21702
Phone: 301-631-3578
Fax: 301-694-1588

Jule Taylor
General Manager of Milk Supply Operations
Horizon Organic
6311 Horizon Lane
Longmont, CO 80503
Phone: 303-516-4391
Fax: 303-516-4591

Peter Miller
Northeast Regional Dairy Pool Coordinator
CROPP Cooperative
Organic Valley Family of Farms
Phone: 888-444-6455, 407
Fax: 608-625-3051


April 13, 2006: “Help thy neighbor.” This statement means as much in the organic community as the commercial slogan, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner,” does for U.S. cattle producers.

The latter slogan helps cattlemen sell more of their product to U.S. consumers. The first statement explains how organic producers, especially, learn from those around them (by example or by mistake) to raise hay, feed and animals the healthy way as they work through certification and production questions. During a hay deficit, these organic farmers are finding that helping each other means detailed communication that is clear, thorough and timely.

Despite the organic goal to build self-sufficient farming enterprises that use crop rotations, cover crops and sod crops to create on-farm forage and grain enough for the livestock, drought is causing deficits up and down the East Coast. With the expanding organic dairy sector, eastern farmers and their support personnel have to figure out how to create new organic marketing infrastructure to meet spot demand when the weather acts out. Some old tools are getting a new workout in inter-regional and national organic hay trading, while farmer-to-farmer networks still work best in some localities.

SW Virginia: Loyal customers, strong demand

When Gary Lantz, a certified organic beef, pork and alfalfa hay producer, analyzes his projected hay crop production, he notifies his dairy, dairy goat and beef customers in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina.

“These customers have been very loyal. We always give first consideration to these loyal customers before selling our quality products to anyone else,” says Lantz who manages Cannon Hill Farm in Mt. Jackson, Virginia. Assisting him in this family farming operation is his wife, Martha, and son, Billy.

Lantz did not place a classified ad in a newspaper or on a hay website, and he did not stand along I-81 holding a big “Hay For Sale” sign. He relied on the old-fashioned method. “They found me,” he says. “It seems like word-of-mouth is the best method of advertisement.”

Photo courtesy of Twin Oaks Dairy LLC

As the need arises, the Lantz family may benefit from more sales, should they decide to increase their organic hay production. None of their neighbors raise certified organic hay. “In our area, there is a demand for organic hay. You have a lot of dairy farmers who are changing from conventional to organic farming practices, and I anticipate an increase in the need for hay that is certified organic. There is an abundance of hay available in the conventional farming market; however, the certified organic hay market is in short supply.”

As certified organic producers for three years, they feed 90 percent of their hay to their own livestock and sell the rest. Cannon Hill Farm offers regular alfalfa and alfalfa blends in square bales as well as round bales. Loading services are provided on the farm; however, customers are responsible for providing transportation.

Virginia overall: hay list by mail, email

To assist farmers in marketing their certified organic hay, Lantz says they can place an ad on the Hay Clearing House newsletter, a buyer-seller connection offered by the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (VDACS). This quarterly newsletter, created in 1985, is distributed to 900 mail subscribers, 100 e-mail and fax subscribers, and online at www.vdacs.virginia.gov/marketnews/publications.html, says J.P. Welch, market news manager. Certified organic hay producers and conventional farmers can place their ad in the newsletter at no cost. (See resource list.)

Central Maryland: Word of mouth works

In Frederick County, Md., certified organic producers also find communication by word-of-mouth works best for them when selling or needing hay. The county is just east of Hagerstown close to Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“We only have a few certified growers and a few certified livestock producers in the area, and they know each other so communication has not been an issue,” says Stanley Fultz, acting county Extension director and dairy science Extension agent in the Frederick County Office of Maryland Cooperative Extension. “Networking through meetings, Web sites, Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Hay directory, etc. are all possibilities.”

New York: Email, talk and classifieds

Photo by Robert Baker, courtesy of Cornell University Photography

Much like Maryland certified organic growers, organic New Yorkers communicate among themselves with an added dimension. “We communicate via listserves—Odairy and OMILK, and privately by e-mail and phone,” says Kathie Arnold, who farms with her husband, Rick; and his brother, Bob, on Twin Oaks Dairy LLC in Truxton, N.Y., which is between the New York cities of Syracuse and Ithaca. “These listserves have organic producers from all across the country on them, with the preponderance of members from the Northeast.”

Certified organic producers can also visit the Web site of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) at www.organicmilk.org and place a free classified on its Web site or in its quarterly newsletter NODPA News, says Arnold who is newsletter co-editor and the NOPDA policy committee chair.

SE Pennsylvania: Drought spurs imports

Forrest Stricker of Berks County in southeastern Pennsylvania knows first-hand what the costs are for buying organic feed and hauling organic hay long distances. This past year, Stricker estimates he spent $150,000 on feed -- $100,000 more than usual. He has paid hauling fees of $2,000 to $2,500 per tractor trailer load for hay from Virginia, Maryland, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Minnesota. In all during 2005 and now into 2006, he has trucked in at least 15 tractor trailer loads.

“It’s been one of the worse years I’ve ever had as far as farm-producing forage,” says Stricker whose operation was certified organic in August 1999.

It wasn’t always dry. In 2003 and 2004, his farm was able to produce enough forage to feed his dairy cows because he received at least average rainfall. Unfortunately, 2005 was a different story. From April to October, the only rainfall he received was what little a hurricane brought in July. In June, he started feeding stored winter feed. Before trucking hay to his farm, Stricker searched for high-value, quality feed hay locally, but he couldn’t find any because of the drought. Quickly, he started looking elsewhere. He found organic hay through classifieds in regional farm papers such as Lancaster Farming and on Web sites such as NODPA’s and Pennsylvania Certified Organic at www.paorganic.org.

While the milk buyer pay increases (see below) helped Stricker and other organic farmers, he has learned some valuable lessons in 2005 and early 2006 about what the organic industry lacks. He believes that a specialized organic hay and feed guide for suppliers and buyers would benefit all producers.

This May, his farm will start producing forage again, and so far, so good. One thing is for sure, he doesn’t want to see another costly year like 2005. “I hope we’re done buying for awhile,” Stricker says.

Milk buyers try to ease hay cost squeeze

The extra cost to operate has been enormous, but Stricker and other organic producers in Pennsylvania received help from the organic milk companies operating in their area. Realizing the additional expense on their growers, some increased their base milk prices by as much as $6 per hundredweight.

For the past two years, Horizon Organic has adjusted its base price to farmers. In 2005, the organic milk company increased pay prices to its Northeast (Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine) farmers by 12 percent over 2004 pay prices, says Jule Taylor, general manager of milk supply operations. In 2006, the company again voluntarily upped its pay prices by an additional 14 percent over the 2005 pay prices. In the Midwest and West, the company adjusted prices as well by $4 to $5 per hundredweight, less of an increase because of their feed-cost advantages.

Horizon Organic has felt the pain of its producers. “Increased cost of production on the farms is a primary contributor for the pay-price increases,” Taylor says. “Feed and energy are the primary increases impacting organic dairy farms in our system today. Since we own and operate a dairy farm in Maryland, we are able to see directly the challenges that our farmer partners are facing.

“Horizon Organic initiated the voluntary increase to ensure our farmer partners’ sustainability,” she continues. “We are building a network and supply base for today and into the future. It is imperative that we work together to ensure the future success of our farmer partners, and therefore our own milk supply.”

Organic Valley, the brand established by the cooperative of family farms known as Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP), has also increased its prices. “CROPP cooperative raised the pay price from $22.15 per hundredweight in 2005 prices to a base price in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to $25.75 per hundredweight plus payments for extra components and quality payments on top of that,” says Peter Miller, the cooperative’s Northeast regional dairy pool coordinator.

To keep stable payment prices throughout the year, the cooperative set the 2006 price program at the end of 2005. “We raised prices to get money to the farmers through our sales to help with the cost of living and [because of] competition from the other companies,” Miller says.

He adds that Organic Valley raised the pay price to address real costs and maintain a working relationship between cooperative members and the CROPP management team.

Organic farms try to grow their own

New York’s Arnold says weather, especially drought and sometimes excess rain, affects the certified organic hay demand on the U.S. East Coast. Nonetheless, demand typically does not outweigh supply in many years. “I don’t believe there has been a strong, sure market for organic hay in the East most years because most organic dairy producers -- with the exception of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania -- plan to grow most all of their own forage,” she says. “It’s only in years of weather-related problems that many have to look to buy a hay crop.

Photo courtesy of Twin Oaks Dairy LLC

“Part of the organic model is to be sustainable and that would usually mean not planning to be trucking bulky materials long distance on a routine basis. Also, if a dairy farm [producer] imports too many feedstuffs without enough land for manure spreading, he may end up with a nutrient imbalance,” Arnold says. “I think nutritional quality would be number one when looking for milking-cow forage, but it would have to be in a form the farm is set up to handle. Some farms only want big bales. The longer the distance of transport, then the more important it is that the moisture be low to save on hauling costs.”

Talk now for hay later

Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens produce certified organic grains 1,400-acres near Penn Yan, New York, where they operate an organic feed mill, Lakeview Organic Grain. Mary-Howell says their frequent feed contacts confirm many farmers in the Northeast have experienced a real supply crisis for hay this winter. Drought cut production, and now demand is fueling purchases with sometimes hefty costs for long-distance transportation.

To avoid another hay deficit this coming year, she advises organic dairy farmers to contact organic grain and hay producers now to discuss supply rather than waiting until next winter.

“Organic dairy farmers, who know they aren’t likely to produce enough hay or other forage for their 2006 needs, would do well to start communicating with nearby grain and hay farmers now so their specific quality, product and packaging needs are considered as hay season begins, rather than waiting until next winter and having to scramble to find something that will work,” Martens says.

“Most hay farmers will make an effort to put up what you need if they know in advance. If more organic grain/hay farmers and others with unused land available were confident of a reliable organic hay market in the northeast, no doubt more organic hay would be produced here.”

Rocky Womack is a veteran business and agricultural writer from Danville, Va.