Valley Bounty: Hay is king at Vollinger Farm in Florence

  • Filling up the hay wagon at Vollinger Farm in Florence. Submitted photo

  • Part of the herd of beef cattle at Vollinger Farm in Florence. Submitted photo

  • A tractor and hay at Vollinger Farm. Submitted photo

  • Bailing windrows of hay at Vollinger Farm in Florence. Submitted photo

Published: 8/20/2021 4:33:34 PM

Hay is an important source of income for many farms in the Valley, but tricky to rely on in an age of climate and market volatility, even if you know how. At least that’s the story from Bob Vollinger of Vollinger Farm in Florence.

“I’m the third generation here,” says Vollinger, “and I took over the farm from my father about 20 years ago.”

He manages around 240 acres of hayfield, woods, pasture, and field crops, all while working another full-time job at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton.

Even with lots of help, “It’s very hectic,” Vollinger shares. “If it wasn’t for a good group of friends and my girlfriend pitching in, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it.” On occasion he hires help, but has no steady employees given the inconsistent nature of work on the farm.

Since transitioning away from dairying in the late 1980s, hay products have been Vollinger Farm’s focus. “We have a variety of types,” Vollinger explains. “We sell a lot of smaller dry bales to horse farms. I also sell straw bales, which are good for mulching over gardens or lawns because they spread easier and there’s less seeds that could germinate.”

“We also make bigger round dry bales and silage bales,” he continues.

Both are for animal feed. The latter are wrapped in plastic soon after cutting to hold in moisture, often resembling large marshmallows. The trapped damp grass then breaks down and ferments to create silage, which offers different nutrients than dry hay.

For his father and later him, haying was an obvious choice, Vollinger explains. “When we got rid of the cows, we already had the equipment for haying, so we got into doing that. For a while the market was pretty good.”

“Then five or six years ago there was an abundance,” he recalls. Hay got cheaper, and profits shrunk. Then in the last handful of years in New England, that trend reversed again, and prices have risen, Vollinger says.

For most products, low supply means high demand and high price, and vice versa. But for farm and food products especially, another variable looms large. One which people have no control over: weather.

As climate change makes weather patterns more extreme and less predictable, the supply, demand, and price of affected farm products is bound to follow suit, to the chagrin of many farmers. Haying, being extremely weather-controlled, is a prime example.

In a good year in the Valley, farmers aim for three cuttings of hay. Once hay is cut, drying is sped up by “tedding” (where cut grass is flipped and respread) before it’s raked into windrows and finally baled. Usually this is done by a tractor with specialized attachments.

The best haying years have a balance of adequate rain to regenerate grasses, and long periods of warm sunny days for cutting and drying. But the past few years have not cooperated, says Vollinger.

“Last year, it was cool in the spring, so the first cut didn’t grow well, then it got so dry a lot of the fields were burning up, so people didn’t get much of a second cut.”

This year, historic rain and pervasive damp cloudiness pose separate challenges. “A lot of farms still aren’t done with their first cutting,” shares Vollinger. “You’d like to be done with that by the Fourth of July.”

“And a lot of people don’t see it,” he continues, “but even without rain, if it’s not sunny, and your shoes are getting wet from the dew at one in the afternoon, it’s really hard to dry hay.” Moisture wicking up from the rain-soaked soil below compounds the issue.

When farmers can’t hay efficiently because of conditions, there are real financial consequences. “Last week my second cut got rained on while drying,” says Vollinger. “That knocks the nutrition value down, and I had to spend more tractor time tedding and raking again, so you’re losing money and time.”

Diversifying

Haying has always been a dance with the weather, but as the weather’s moves become harder to judge, Vollinger has responded by diversifying, as have many local farms. He’s added beef cows, and continues selling hay, straw, and seasonal crops and decorations for fall and Christmas at his self-serve farm stand on North Farm Road in Florence.

“Hay used to be around 80% of our farm income,” he says. “Now it’s closer to 60%. I started raising cows maybe seven years ago, building the herd up. As beef sales increase, hay sales will drop because I need hay to feed the cows over the winter. So the farm income will probably even out, but where it comes from will shift.”

Now he has 20 cows. “I sell a few each year to Poplar Hill farm in Whately, and they finish them. They have a bigger market for them, and for me it’s more secure income every year.”

But, says Vollinger, “this winter we’ll sell our first beef ourselves. We’ll have steaks and hamburger at the farm stand when we sell Christmas trees.” They usually sell 50-60 locally grown trees each holiday season. Small bales of hay and straw mulch are available year-round, and starting now, fall crops begin to appear.

“I just put the hardy garden mums out,” he says, “and soon we’ll have pumpkins, gourds, corn stalks, and butternut and acorn squash from our farm and others in the area.” To learn more about their farm stand and others in the area selling what’s locally grown, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

Whether it’s not putting all your eggs in one basket, or not cutting all your hay on one day, local farms have always survived by adapting and diversifying. Now, that’s even more important.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).


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