By Eric Johnson*
Joel Tepsa grows hay for his beef cattle on a small 100-acre farm five miles south of Houghton. Here Tepsa operates the vintage Massey Ferguson tractor that he uses to handle hay bales. In the background are the unique Belted Galloway cattle that Tepsa raises. This rare breed is from southwest Scotland and well-suited to the long Upper Peninsula winters. (Photo © David Clanaugh for Keweenaw Now)
HOUGHTON -- July and August can mean only one thing to many area farmers: haying. Racing against time and weather, coaxing old equipment and battling competition, these farmers know the importance of getting a good crop. In addition, Lake Superior’s proximity to local hay fields can mean heavier dews as July changes to August, delaying farmers' abilities to harvest and store their crop.
"This isn’t for the weak of heart," said Bill Baccus, who runs a hay and dairy farm outside of Lake Linden in the Traprock Valley. "The whole world is chasing behind you with gnashing teeth."
Baccus, whose sprawling farm covers 600 acres, has mixed feelings about this year’s crop.
"Last year was dry, so the groundwater was depleted," Baccus said. "We didn’t have that much snow, so we didn’t get the melt to replenish it, and then May was super dry. What we’re finding is that the grasses have really suffered, so the volume of hay is down; but the quality is up because we’ve had rain since then."
Joel Tepsa shares the same conflicted view of this year’s crop. About five miles south of Houghton, Tepsa runs a relatively small 100-acre farm, where he raises and sells grass-fed cattle to local consumers.
"It’s a better hay crop this year because we’ve had more rain," Tepsa said. "On the other hand, it’s kind of pushed my starting time back. It’s always a blessing and a curse. I can see why people don’t farm, because there’s so many frustrations."
In addition to the weather, farmers must also deal with equipment failure. If it's a larger operation like the Baccus Farm, the amount of equipment can pose a problem as something always seems to demand maintenance or repair. Smaller operators like Tepsa have less equipment, but it's older and constantly needing attention. And the smaller operators typically work off the farm; Tepsa, for example, works at Michigan Tech and is also part of a local band.
"There’s always the challenge of keeping a colossal amount of equipment operating," Baccus explained. "I have just about two of everything."
Tepsa added he's had friends who used to do haying, but they don't do it anymore because it's so difficult to maintain the equipment.
"Things are breaking down all the time," Tepsa said.
Though conditions can be harsh and problems constant, both farmers have their reasons for diligently returning to their fields each summer.
"I do the hay for the beef cattle," Tepsa said. "At one point, I had 27 cattle, but that was a little bit too much to handle. That settled down to selling three calves a year, or three steers a year."
For Baccus, producing quality forage at a reasonable cost is the key to running a profitable operation. What goes in the cow in terms of food has a primary impact in terms of the quality and quantity of its milk.
"Well, we’re ultimately always trying to get the most milk out of these cows, so we’re trying to grow the best feed for them," Baccus said. "We’ve had many dry years, so my hay seedlings have really taken it on the chin. This year, though, it’s been really good. Even though we haven’t had a lot of rain, it’s been timely, so the quality of the crops is up."
Farmers have one good thing going for them that many people in America would not consider: the state of the economy. Many families that cannot afford to eat out at restaurants are finding themselves eating at home.
"I’d say the economy has been a positive factor," said Baccus. "People aren’t eating in restaurants as much. Because of the fact that people are eating at home, fluid milk is being consumed more, and fluid milk is where the greatest return is."
Because a large part of Baccus’ farm is a dairy operation, he is able to sell milk along with hay to bolster his sales. It is a somewhat different situation for Tepsa.
"Since I don’t make that much hay, it [the economy] doesn’t really affect me that badly," said Tepsa.
Many factors influence the outcome of the summer haying season, but most of the time there is not much a farmer can do.
"That’s probably the biggest challenge -- just to relax," Tepsa said. "Haying kind of puts a crimp on social life and the family -- you’d like to get it over with quickly. But it’s a good rule to learn not to sweat over the things that you can’t do anything about."
Baccus has a similar philosophy: "The oldest, most legal form of gambling is farming," Baccus said. "Sometimes, you just have to lay your hay out there and hope for the best."
*Editor's Note: Guest reporter Eric Johnson is a student in David Clanaugh's summer journalism class at Michigan Tech University.