It was my last assignment as an editorial intern. I found myself in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains; specifically, the historical town of Chambersburg, Pa. Located only a few minutes from the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg, Chambersburg is the home of Kim Summers, otherwise known as the “Hay Lady in Pennsylvania.”
With a diverse client base ranging from pleasure horses to alpaca breeders to the occasional zoo, Summers offers a variety of premium hays, including several cuttings of orchardgrass and smooth bromegrass, timothy, grass mixes, alfalfa, and alfalfa-grass mixes at various concentrations. Hay is available in standard small square bales and large square bales. In a typical year, she will market around 400,000 small bales and up to a couple hundred thousand tons of large bales.
A co-op of hay growers
“I’m not a broker in the sense that I’m going to call somebody in Timbuktu, find out they have 3,000 bales, and tell them to ship it somewhere,” Summers explained. She takes a hands-on approach to her business to ensure the best product for her clients. “For me, I want to see the hay and get to touch it, smell it, and test it to get as much information on that hay as I can,” she elaborated.
Operationally, Summers has a group, or what she affectionately calls a co-op, of farmers who grow hay specifically for her. She feels this allows her to help farmers both big and small. “Whether there’s a farmer who only makes a couple thousand bales a year or a larger farmer who may make 6,000 bales a year, they both have to try to sell their hay for a decent price,” she commented. “It’s not always easy.”
With the collective group, she is able to look at the markets and monitor production costs to help the farmers get a fair price. She attributes her understanding of how hard it is for farm families to survive to her farming roots. Prior to getting into the hay business, Summers used to operate a dairy farm with her late husband.
To ensure a quality product, every field of harvested hay and each cutting is tested for nutrient content. The soil in all the fields that she manages is tested annually. Bales are also probed for moisture content. “We’ve had bales that look perfect from the outside and come from a good field, but you open them up and it’s moldy; it is so disheartening,” Summers commented. All the information gathered is logged to keep a record of what is available to meet clients’ needs.
Started out of necessity
“It all started really simple,” Summers recalled as we wound our way through the Appalachian Mountains to help with a load of hay in McConnellsburg. “My daughter and I had some horses, and we were really struggling to find a source of hay that was consistently good quality,” she said.
Also at that time, Summers was struggling to find a job. “That was another thing that fueled us to start; if I couldn’t find a job, then darn it, I was going to make one.”
The businesswoman explained that her sister in North Carolina was also challenged to find hay at that time due to a drought. “We had a pickup and a trailer, and basically my daughter and I started looking around and talking to neighbors to find good hay,” she reminisced. “Finally, we talked to the bank and got the money to purchase a little Dodge pickup and 20-foot trailer to get our little business started.”
When asked how much the business has grown since first starting years ago, the response was a simple, “Oh my goodness.”
“That first year, sales were maybe $3,000; we are now close to a million,” Summers said. “I basically scraped and scrimped and did anything I possibly could,” Summers reflected. She recalled that some weeks she made nothing, and others resulted in a couple hundred dollars after expenses.
The little Dodge pickup was eventually replaced by a heavier duty truck. There was also the need for more help. Summers hired another close friend, her now husband, Mark, who also had a heavy-duty truck and trailer to help out. Her ever-expanding client base eventually gave way to the need to outsource their loading and hauling needs.
More freight than trucks
When asked what their biggest challenge in the hay supply business was, Summers quickly responded, “Logistics; hands down, logistics.” More often than not, there is more freight than trucks, and rising prices combined with trying to coordinate loads only adds to the challenge. Summers contracts with several trucking companies to transport her hay anywhere from New York to Florida and Texas.
While the number of loads varies week to week and depends on the time of year, an average week consists of two to eight loads of hay. The middle of October through Christmas is the busiest time of year in terms of hauling loads.
To try and minimize the chaos that comes with filling multiple orders, Summers has her clients on a preorder schedule with a general idea of what they’ll need. Sometimes a truckload will be split between two customers if they’re in reasonable proximity to each other.
Hay is loaded onto the tractor-trailers by day laborers. Typically, two loading crews rotate through the day to ensure that hay is loaded on time without overexerting everyone. They can load as many as four tractor-trailers in a day.
As we escaped the already warm morning into the cool sanctuary of the business office, Summers offered some insight into how she advertises her Hay Lady in Pennsylvania business. “At first, we got hay inquiries simply by word of mouth,” she noted. “Marketing is my specialty, so we eventually branded the name ‘The Hay Lady in Pennsylvania,’ and now it’s everywhere,” she exclaimed with a chuckle.
Summers also used newspapers, flyers, and postcards to spread the word in the early days. She still uses postal mail today for advertising and also puts out several newsletters throughout the year to keep her clients updated.
An online presence
A website eventually came along and direct marketing through email, which eventually progressed into her now strong presence on social media. “My kids actually got me started on Facebook,” Summers explained. The Hay Lady Facebook page actually got so many likes that it got cutoff. “Facebook had our small business limit set on our page for 5,000 likes,” she said. “So instead, we started a Facebook Group, which has no limits.”
Summers can’t give herself all the credit for a popular online presence. “We actually have a woman who manages all of our social media for us,” Summers explained. Having someone else manage the Hay Lady Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts frees up valuable time that can be dedicated to clients and her growers. Summers still tries to personally respond to any messages that come through and checks the pages daily.
She also gives her assistant, who happens to be a close friend of hers, credit for the hay business’ success. Marcie has been with her since her third or fourth year of operation. She handles all the books, invoicing, and paperwork for the trucking. “She’s just awesome,” Summers gushed. Even though a lot of work is put into the Hay Lady in Pennsylvania’s online marketing, most of their business still comes by word of mouth.
Summers comes from an era where you sat down on the front porch and talked business, so she still believes in good, old-fashioned thank you cards. “I’m keeping the post office in business,” she said with a quick laugh.
Built on relationships and rapport
As we sat down for lunch at a little diner just off the Appalachian Trail, Summers and her husband reflected on the foundation of their business. “It took us a long time to get where we are,” Summers said. They focus on building a relationship and rapport with everyone, from their growers to their clientele. “It doesn’t matter who the customer is; whether they have two backyard ponies for their kids or an elite show horse team; it doesn’t matter,” she stated. “Everybody is equally important to us.”
For Summers, the most important, and favorite, part of running her business is the relationships. “We have some people that have been with us 10 to 14 years, and it’s really, really fun,” she said. She enjoys getting to know the client and their family and letting them get to know her and her family as well. In the early years, she used to ride in her big truck to some of her clients that were farther away so she could meet her customers.
Summers firmly believes in treating people the way you want to be treated. She once had an equine client who ran into some foxtail problems with hay that they purchased during a particularly wet growing year. While Summers and her team of growers try and keep a watch out for it, some things slip through the cracks, and the foxtail was found after opening the bale. Knowing that the hay wasn’t the quality her client needed, Summers drove down and exchanged loads. “If I was in that situation, I know what I would have wanted and did just that,” she said.
Summers also noted that she has a growing number of farmers contacting her to sell hay. “Not everyone makes the cut; I’m picky,” she explained. While she notes and understands that things happen and that not every bale is perfect, her growers still have to be able to produce a quality hay product since that is what her business’ reputation is built on.
After dining on a hiker’s feast of burgers and fries, Summers and her husband treated me to a tour of the Pennsylvania countryside. They primarily run the family-oriented business from their acreage just outside of Chambersburg but have an expanding area of growers that covers several south central Pennsylvania counties and spreads into northern Maryland. As we zigzagged our way down highways and gravel roads, Summers would point out fields where some of their hay was grown and the barns that housed it.
Down one particular gravel road, Mark pointed out some debris left along a fence line that was just up a hill. “The water used to be all the way up to there,” he stated. “It’s been a really wet year; there’s been so much hay lost this year because of rain.” When I visited back in August, they had 12 inches of rain over the span of five to six days with more rain expected in the coming days.
The rain brings the challenge of weed control to the forefront. The abundance of rain has led to more pressure from foxtail and clover. Even with spraying herbicides in the fall, delayed cutting due to wet conditions makes it difficult to find weed-free hay. “It’s going to be tough on a lot of our equine customers,” Summers noted.
As we meandered our way up through the mountains on our way to a “must see” location, Summers and her husband discussed their current growing pains. They are constantly getting requests from growers and potential clients. While they would like to see the business grow, the challenge is to not grow too fast.
“If you do, you can’t handle everything that is thrown at you and your reputation and service starts to suffer,” explained Summers. They are currently weighing their options with their independent employees and looking into partnering with a grower who owns some trucks. “It’s a good problem to have,” commented Mark.
As for the future, Summers is uncertain. She doesn’t really see her kids taking over the family business, and she is okay with that. “I never started this business to be their dream,” she stated. Summers is satisfied to keep running the business as long as she can and continue a controlled growth.
Learn more: hayladyinpennsylvania.com
This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of Grower on pages 16 to 18.
Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.