Recent thunderstorms reminded me of a particular Friday in 1999 that I would have much rather forgotten for good…
In an effort to not let a good crisis “go to waste”, I am going to share with you one of the most horrible experiences of my life to date… At the time, June 1999, I was an up-and-coming authority on precision agriculture working with some of the top agronomists in Canada. I had recently presented at the Innovative Farmers Conference in London, Ont and I was riding high on the hog…
In fact, I believe that this is one of the life experiences to date that has helped shape my character as an entrepreneur today. This story is one where a healthy dose of humble pie is served up to a young, cocky, 23 year old hot-shot farmer. The story you are about to read is long but if you have 10 minutes to read it, not only will you be able to relate to this young farmer, who had just made a colossal fuck-up and a fool of himself, you will benefit from a real world lesson learned without having to experience anything close to it yourself. I hope you choose to read this…
June, 1999 – Bright, Ontario, Canada (Somewhere between Toronto and Detroit, the two nearest big cities.)
And so it was early June, 1999 and the corn and soybean seeding was finished and we were in the thick of hay season. I had recently taken over the reigns from my father and was officially the third generation Farmer.
We did a lot of custom hay work for other local farmers and ranchers. We had expensive, specialized equipment that these smaller scale farmers couldn’t justify owning themselves.
One of our specialties was making hey… Hay harvesting is a highly fickle, and risky business. The weather around this time of the year is increasingly unpredictable and volatile But hay work paid well and we had years of experience reinforcing our reputation as high quality hay-makers.
Unfortunately, the bad thing about growing hay in Ontario is that we often have a devil of a time trying to dry it out. To make matters worse, it would often feel dry, but wasn’t… Each year about this time, new horror stories would often come to light in weekly farm publications, in meetings, around the sale barns, and in the local farm supply stores. Whether it is heat damaged hay or hay barns that have burned down, these dismal tales are a dime a dozen.
Once cut, the hay needs to lay in the sun and dry to a very specific, very low-level of moisture before it can be baled. In mid-June it takes a minimum of two and a half to three full days of sun for the hay to dry out down below the 15% moisture level-where it is then considered safe to bale. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to accurately measure hay moisture. The “easy” ways aren’t very accurate, and the “accurate” ways aren’t very easy.
Isn’t that the way it always works out?
You see, to keep hay stable (i.e., minimal heating and mold growth), it should ideally be at 15% moisture or less. This, of course, is often difficult when curing conditions are poor or the weatherman changes the forecast again and again without regard for our work, and it is especially problematic during the spring and early summer parts of the year, because we are just as likely to have cool and overcast conditions as we are to have warm and sunny conditions.
With the humidity close to 90°F and even 100°F some days, a thunder storm could show up out of nowhere. Or, it could pass over in a couple hours with the sun back out blazing before you even missed it. Thus, it was paramount to get the timing right.
You literally had one shot to get it right and if you failed, the hay was virtually useless or if anything, maybe worth 50 cents to a local strawberry farmer, for example. This made it particularly challenging, yet all the more rewarding.
With moisture content higher than 15% the hay would mold, potentially causing emphysema, or worse… If this happened, not only would you have some high-strung horse owner down your throat (trust me, they were more fickle and high-strung than their thoroughbreds in some cases), but worse case scenario, if the hay was stacked too tightly and the moisture was above 18%, it could spontaneously combust. Yes, that’s right, no different than a handful of dirty shop rags with a little solvent soaked on them, if thrown into a sealed trash, they would combust into flames… innocent, sweet smelling, dark green hay bales will burst into flames under the right circumstances.
Unfortunately this happens all too often.
Back to quality hay. Horse farmers, especially, were willing to pay premium dollar for their hay, but you had better get the timing right- every time. And, we did manage to get it right, almost every time. We had enough expertise in hay making to make the cows come home.
The summer of 1999 was tough, weather-wise it was extremely frustrating.
On the one hand we needed the rain for the emerging corn and soybean crops. After-all this was our primary business. The wheat was forming kernels and the plants were wicking the moisture out of the soil at a ridiculous rate. In that sense the rain was a blessing. But, it sure as hell made for a stressful hay season.
It seemed we could barely get two to three days of consecutive sun before another storm would come out of nowhere. If the hay wasn’t harvested early enough in June, it would get to mature and lose its precious protein content. In addition, the summer droughts would be too hot and dry for the second cutting and not only would you have a subpar first crop, the second crop wouldn’t amount to anything and you would have a complete loss for the year.
A new client of ours had just recently purchased a farm nearby. A sizeable investment, he turned it into a equestrian board and breed operation. After beating out the competition, we were hired to cut, bale and stock his barns with the hay he had grown in his massive fields. (Horse farmers usually buy their hay so they are guaranteed the best quality. It’s simply too risky to incur the production costs of growing your own hay if there was even a slight chance the hay didn’t make a certain grade. But not this guy…)
Obviously the hay had to be of the utmost premium quality for the horses he was boarding. Some of them were valuable race horses being prepared for breeding and his clients were counting on only the highest quality hay being available for their thoroughbreds. Without question, he was under a lot of pressure to get his hay into the barn without it spoiling. It was a risky balancing act.
During hay season, we monitored the weather hour by hour, day by day. As you can imagine, when the forecast called for three to four consecutive days of sunshine it was “go” time. We would start cutting early in the morning taking advantage of every precious hour of sunlight. The challenge however, was that every customer and his brother also wanted us to be there to make their hay at the exact same time.
Normally, we insisted on getting the final “go-ahead” from the farmer, always deferring to his judgement as to when we should cut and when we should bale. This was for no reason other than to ensure that there was no confusing the roles and responsibilities.
With this particular client being new, and wanting to treat him with priority, I allowed him to defer the judgement to me. I knew we were up against a challenge but this is what we got paid to do. I used my best judgement and the hay was cut.
After all we had this new John Deere baler that was equipped with moisture sensors to monitor the moisture content of the hay as it was being compressed into bales. We were also using, for the first time, another special attachment that allowed us to spray a light mist of water mixed with a live enzyme to help keep the hay from molding in case there were parts of it still too moist.
The hay was cut and two days later I walked the field with my hand-held moisture tester to spot check the swaths of hay. It was a gorgeous crop. I couldn’t wait to get this hay into the barn. It was a Friday afternoon and we needed at least 6-7 hours to get the job done before dew point.
There was no time to waste.
The forecast was calling for rain on the weekend and I was anxious to make hay while the sun was shining, literally. Aside, I was looking forward to having the weekend off. The long hours were killing me and I was exhausted.
Ideally we could’ve had a few more hours of sun on the sections where the crop was heavier, but it was close. (Alfalfa has a thick waxy-type of stem that holds moisture longer… it could be challenging to get it right.) But, with rain was on it’s way and time dwindling to maybe only a few hours, it was go time. We moved in and by 9:30 or 10:00 PM the hay was baled, hauled to the barn (with our alien looking “Stackcruiser”) and neatly stacked up to the rafters.
All the farm hands and helpers were paid with pizza and pop, and on hot summer evenings like this we usually all ended up at our old farmhouse for a swim in the pool. Hay harvest was hard work. It was physical work. But it was also rewarding work. To see 100 tons of sweet smelling hay stacked in the barn, protected from the elements was very rewarding. It was this feeling after a hard days’ work that makes farming such a rewarding profession.
The new equipment had performed reliably. We cut at the optimal time and even though we’d only been given two full days of sun we got the hay into the barn before the rain hit. Yes, there was a slight moisture content concern but we had monitored the process carefully and were careful not to compress the bales too tightly so that the hay could breathe. Also as an insurance policy I had increased the amount of enzyme preservatives being applied by the baler. Even thought the client wouldn’t have to pay for it, I wanted to make sure this job came off without a hitch.
Every controllable variable was masterfully handled and I was proud of myself and my crew. The new client was beyond impressed and this would surely lead to more work and potentially a long term contract.
In addition, we were competing with several other farmers to rent a significant portion of land from this farmer. This would only better our case.
That night, sure enough a thunderstorm struck. It rained all night, and I woke up to the pitter-patter of rain on our roof the next morning. “Good work, dude.” I said to myself as I got out of bed. The following Sunday afternoon, not even 48 hours later, my world suddenly came crashing down around me.
We had invited guests over for Sunday dinner (Sunday Roast), a family tradition of ours and were enjoying coffee and deserts.
Suddenly, in the distance you could hear sirens. I can still see it as if it were yesterday- so vivid, so clear. A red fire truck, lights flashing and siren screaming, heading down the road in the direction of the horse farm.
I can still feel the chills go through my body to this day- my stomach was about to come out of my chest. Adrenaline course through my body and I bolted into action.
I just knew it had something to do with the hay we had stacked in the finicky horse farmer’s barn the previous Friday evening. Somehow, my mind went to the worst possible place and I assumed the worst.
I jumped in my 1985 Jeep and tore down the road to the horse farm. In a cloud of dust, I pulled into the horse farmer’s yard only to see a very upset man wringing his hands and pacing. He was talking to the local volunteer, first year fire chief. He had his head down with one hand behind his back, the other on his walkie-talkie barking orders to his crew… They were both working their way towards the barn doors which were wide open.
There were more fire trucks pulling into the yard by the minute. Everywhere, firemen were running about rolling out hoses and I immediately noticed they were setting up a pumping station- a huge, yellow, inflatable reservoir. (Not a good sign.) Not a good sign, at all. It looked like a giant’s kids’ swimming pool. The kind that you blow up in your back yard but 1000 times bigger.
This was surreal.
This was a nightmare.
And, as I was soon to find out, I was to blame for it all.
I ran into the barn with my infrared temperature meter and handheld moisture tester to see what was going on. Burrowing down 7-10 layers of hay bails to the the core of hay bales we found that yes it was hot, one-hundred degrees hot, and this was definitely borderline for concern.
However, from my experience, as long as we opened up the center of hay stack to prevent the core from getting too hot we would be fine. In addition, I trusted the enzyme we used which would prevent a further rise in temperature. Basically, this hay just needed to be monitored and watched closely for a few days. There was no immediate risk in my opinion.
I was relieved, nightmare averted. But, not so quick…
The chief chief and the farmer crawled up to the mow were I was sweating profusely. It seemed the more confident I was that the hay was going to be fine, the more paranoid and scared they became. OMG, this bail is practically on fire, yelled the farmer. I plunged my tester into the bale- it barely registered 100 degrees. I tried to explain to the inexperienced fire chief and even lesser experienced farmer that even though is felt hotter than hell and sweat was pouring down our faces, everything would be fine.
The farmer was panicked…
Trying to convince a farmer that his barn isn’t going to burn down, while up in the 100 degree hay mow, with a fire chief freaking out isn’t exactly a format suited for hay making education. Needless to say, I lost that one…
Putting his hand on my shoulder, the chief said, “Sorry Jay, I just can’t risk this. If something happens my ass is on the line. My men are here now and we’re not leaving while this hay remains in the barn.” He immediately directed his men to begin throwing the bales out of the barn. They knocked out panels of the barn wall and started heaving this precious hay onto the farm yard.
I stood there and couldn’t help myself. I burst into tears- the most embarrassing thing that could have possibly happened…
He demanded we get rid of the hay from his barn. So, we covered the piles of hay in the barnyard with gigantic tarps to protect them from the imminent rain until we were able to move them to our own barn.
In the end everything worked out even better than I could have imagined. Only 10-20% of the hay was slightly damaged from mold. But not enough that our own cattle could tell the difference. The rest remained perfectly fine which we sold over the winter months to other local farmers for a premium. PLUS our liability insurance paid us for the entire value of the crop. In the end we actually came out way ahead…
The lesson in all of this?
To be a successful farmer you have to control the variables that you can control and make hay while the sun shines. Do your best and live with the consequences.
In this particular situation however, the mistake I had made was letting my ego run the show. In the end, even though I had done everything in my power and everything ended up working out all right- I was trying to impress the client with my expertise and most modern equipment. Even though he would have made the exact same decisions I made, this was all my responsibility since I had failed to let him make the final call… I had let my inexperience and ego come into play and thus ended up holding the bag.
Had I not been quite so cocky and in control… had I had a little more respect for nature, and the elements- I would have never let my ego make the call on this job.
I would have sat there in the air conditioned tractor cab and waited for HIM to give me the green light, cool as a cucumber. This all would have been his problem, not mine.
There were a myriad of lessons learned in that farmer’s yard that Sunday afternoon…
LESSON LEARNED: The only enemy to true success is ego.
Stay humble my friends, stay humble,
P.S. This article is based on one of the most difficult wake up calls of my life… This WAKE UP! Podcast here: Make Hay While the Sun Shines (This is the first time I have openly shared this experience since it happened over 10 years ago when I was a farmer in Southern Ontario, Canada.)
Listen to the podcast below!
P.S. I would love your perspective on this story… What’s your take-away? How can this be applied to YOUR life? What did you get from it? Is it fair that a seemingly minor mistake like this should have cost us $100k+? Did I do the right thing? What could I have done differently? I would love to hear your thoughts!