Farming out the work
For some landowners, hiring someone to prepare a field or harvest a crop makes financial sense
by JAYSON JACOBY / Baker City Herald
A person can do an awful lot of farming, it turns out, without owning a single acre of land.
You will need a tractor, though.
And other implements besides.
And, of course, a customer who does have some arable acreage.
It’s called custom farming (and haying) and it’s been an important part of the agriculture industry in Northeastern Oregon for decades.
The basic idea is that certain landowners, for any of a variety of reasons, don’t grow and harvest crops on their land but instead hire someone to do the work.
Some of it, anyway.
It’s sort of like employing a gardener, except in this case the landowner pays a contractor not to tend petunias but to put up hay or raise a crop of wheat or corn or, in some cases, just to plow a field so it’s ready for seed.
“It’s nice to have people who can come in and help when needed,” said Chris Heffernan, who lives near North Powder and has done custom farming and haying since he moved here in 1992. “We’ve been doing it for 21 years now. If you have the expertise and the equipment you don’t need the land — you’ve got something valuable you can offer to the agriculture community.”
One of Heffernan’s former customers, Fred Phillips, a rancher in Baker County’s Keating Valley, agrees.
Phillips said that hiring someone to cut hay not only eliminates the need to buy expensive equipment, it makes a farmer’s or rancher’s already hectic summer season slightly less so.
“Summer’s a pretty busy time anyway with cows and irrigating, so it’s a big pressure off my mind to have somebody doing the haying,” Phillips said. “A lot of times the baling is done at night, and when you’re just getting ready to go to bed and you look out and see they’re just getting started (with baling), it’s kind of nice to know you don’t have to be out there.”
Phillips said it can sometimes be a challenge to find a reliable haying crew, although he said local producers are fortunate in having such contractors as Heffernan and Phillips’ current custom-hayer, Jason Williams.
A more common difficulty, Phillips said, and one that has been around as long as custom haying has been, is scheduling.
Because some contractors have many customers, inevitably one landowner has to wait, even if his hay is ready to cut or bale.
“I think sometimes they spread themselves a little thin,” Phillips said of the custom hay crews.
The ideal situation, he said, is when a contractor has one customer who has enough acreage to keep the contractor busy pretty much constantly, obviating the need to hire on with several outfits in the same growing season and leave some of them waiting.
Heffernan said many people who get into custom farming and haying have as their ultimate goal buying their own farm or ranch.
Although the business requires a considerable investment — combines and other farm machinery can cost more than $100,000 per machine — that’s relatively cheap compared with the cost of an established farm or ranch.
Heffernan said some custom farmers save their profits until they can afford a downpayment for a place of their own.
He has some experience of that himself.
Heffernan and his wife, Donna, bought a timber and grazing parcel near Wolf Creek Reservoir when they moved here.
But they yearned to own farmland, too, and in 2007 the couple bought 2,000 acres near Clover Creek. They’ve since drilled wells and installed center-pivot irrigation to enable them to grow alfalfa.
The Heffernans also wanted to own land they could pass on to their sons, Justin, 28, and Sheldon, 25.
The brothers both graduated from the University of Idaho, and both have worked as custom farmers and hayers.
“As soon as we could reach the pedals of a tractor,” Justin said with a chuckle. “It didn’t take long for us to figure out we really enjoyed the lifestyle. It’s a lot of hours, but there’s also a lot of benefits.”
Justin said he was intrigued in part by the variety of the work.
Besides haying — which itself involves the multiple steps of cutting, raking and baling — custom farmers plow and disc fields, apply fertilizer and prepare seed beds.
Although the Heffernan family continues to do custom work as well as tending their own 2,000 acres, both Justin and his dad think the market for custom farming and haying is shrinking, as more landowners who used to hire contractors now are doing some, or all, of the work with their own equipment.
Chris attributes this trend in part to the relatively prosperous period the agriculture industry has enjoyed the past few years — Baker, Union and Wallowa counties all posted record-high gross sales, including crops and livestock, in 2011.
Then, too, the Heffernans aren’t alone in using income from their custom business to buy land of their own.
The more typical scenario today, Justin said, seems to be an operator who produces crops on his own land, then does a limited amount of custom work to help pay for equipment and other materials.
He said he understands the allure of going it alone.
A bale of hay made on your own land might be worth $175 to $190, Justin said.
Make that same bale for someone else, as a contractor, and you might get just $35.
“You’ve got to make a lot of custom bales to make up the difference,” Justin said.
He said the opportunities for custom farming are somewhat greater in the Grande Ronde Valley than in Baker County because the former has more acreage in cultivation.
But the competition can be fierce, too.
“There’s still a handful of guys who only do custom work,” Justin said. “But they’re really fighting for the acres.”
Jim Aldrich, who lives near Haines, has been in the custom farming and haying business for about 30 years.
He started working for Grant Young in the early 1980s, then started his own company in 1989.
Aldrich agrees with the Heffernans that the demand for custom farming has dwindled in recent years as more farmers and ranchers have bought the equipment they need to work their ground.
Aldrich attributes this trend in part to consolidation.
“Bigger farms and ranches are the way of the future it seems like to me,” he said. “Not nearly as many of these big ranches need help. Nowadays most have their own equipment.”
Aldrich said he got into custom farming and haying not to raise money to buy his own place, but rather to pay for the equipment he needs to work the 200 acres he already owned in Baker Valley.
He also leases land elsewhere to raise crops on.
The past few years have been pretty good ones for most people in the ag business, with rising prices keeping pace with, and in many cases surpassing, rising costs for fuel, fertilizer and other necessities, Aldrich said.
“We’ve been doing very well on our land,” he said. “I feel we’re probably making more money than we used to.”
If, as Aldrich expects, the opportunities for custom farming continue to shrink, he figures more people in his business will strive to acquire their own ground and enjoy the higher rate of return of raising crops on their own land.
But he doesn’t expect custom farming, and in particular putting up hay crops, will ever disappear.
“I think there will always be a niche there for somebody,” Aldrich said.
Even well-equipped farms and ranches can run into trouble due to weather, or an equipment breakdown.
“There’s always somebody who’s going to need help someplace,” Aldrich said.