‘Got hay?’: Aroostook County family not horsing around when it comes to forage production

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EASTON — The logo on Richard James’ company shirt reads, “Got Hay?”

As the owner of Lucerne Farms, James not only has hay, he has timothy and alfalfa, and the combination has become a holy triumvirate of specialty equine forage for horse owners around the country.

“Hay and clean water are the cornerstones of a horse’s diet,” James said from his office on Lucerne Farms last week. “It is what the first wild horses ate and what horses evolved to eat.”

A grain-based equine diet, he said, interferes with the animal’s naturally evolved digestive system and can create a myriad of health issues.

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So Lucerne Farms has carved out a niche producing and selling specialty blends of northern Maine forage directly from its Easton facility in 40-pound shrink-wrapped bags.

“Our target customers are trainers of small groups of thoroughbreds, people who need supplement for traveling to events or the mom with her 17-year-old daughter who (has) two or three horses,” James said. “We are not looking to the stables with a 100 racehorses.”

To meet those markets, the farm has developed a variety of forage formulae for the entire life cycle of the horse — from birth to pregnancy and right up through its golden years.

“When we first started, people kind of scoffed at us like ‘who would buy hay in a bag? That’s like firewood in a bag,’” James said. “But now we have people telling us their horses are living 10 years longer than they had thought they would thanks to our product.”

In fact, James said one woman approached him several years ago to tell him about her pony that lived to be 52 eating Lucerne Farms’ forage.

“That would be the oldest pony I have heard about,” he said.

Born on the windswept fields of Aroostook County, Lucerne Farms got its start in the late 1980s when James’ father, George James, the late vice president at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, traveled with a Maine Department of Agriculture delegation to the United Kingdom.

“He visited a place where they were mixing alfalfa and hay to sell as horse feed,” James said. “He saw this chopped, dehydrated hay mix bagged and thought we could do that here in northern Maine.”

The elder James worked out a deal with that British company to produce a similar forage feed in Maine under the company’s name and pay royalties.

“When we started selling more and more, that company started wanting more money from us,” James said. “So in the early 2000s, we had our own little ‘Tea Party’ and formed Lucerne Farms.”

These days, Lucerne Farms products are not just for horses anymore.

James has added a line of garden mulch using the hay and alfalfa that does not make the quality cut for equine forage blends and, thanks to a boom in urban backyard chicken movement, the farm’s odor eliminating “ Koop Clean” poultry bedding is starting to outsell the horse feed.

“The Koop Clean really appeals to those people who are into a self-sustaining lifestyle,” James said. “They have the chickens for eggs or meat and can use that bedding in their gardens when they clean out the coops, [and] that kind of completes the whole cycle.”

James declined to comment in detail on total sales figures over the last year, but he did say his company sold 250,000 bags combined of horse and poultry products in more than 300 Tractor Supply stores and other outlets in the country.

James said the farm has seen expanded sales as the years go by and chalks that up to quality and customer service.

At the height of the growing and processing season, Lucerne Farms employs 25 people, which drops to 15 during the slower, winter months.

“We tell our employees, treat every bag we make like it’s the only one we are selling today,” he said.

Every bag of horse forage undergoes a laboratory analysis so the purchaser knows exactly what it contains and the ratios of proteins, fat and fiber.

When a new or returning customer calls Lucerne Farms, the first person they likely speak with is Lynne Kinney, who, according to James, has her “own Noah’s Ark of animals at her place.”

Often working around the resident office cat Spike — whose preferred sleeping area is directly in front of Kinney’s computer screen — she is able to answer pretty much any feeding question the caller has.

Hay, timothy and alfalfa arrive in 1,500-pound bales at the Easton plant directly from HSG Farms in Fort Fairfield, owned and operated by James’ mother, Susie James.

“It is total vertical integration,” he said. “Mom has more than 5,000-acres in production.”

Once at the plant, specialized machinery squeezes the moisture out of the bales, shreds them and, depending on the formula, adds molasses or soybean oil to make it extra tasty and nutritious for the horse.

At the final stage, a robotic arm weighs, examines and bags each bale.

HSG Farms supplies enough hay, timothy and alfalfa to keep the processing plant running all year, Richard James said.

“We hope to be putting our last previous year’s bales into the system in June,” he said. “That’s when we know the genius of management has worked.”

All the machinery at Lucerne has been in operation less than five years.

In 2010, a fire of unknown origin swept through the facility, burning it to the ground, James said.

“It burned for four days,” he said. “We had a 36,000-square-foot building and tons of hay that went up in flames.”

Thanks to some hard work and the fact they were insured, the company was up and running again in a few months.

“It’s exhausting, but we can’t back away from it,” Susie James said. “I think my husband would be so pleased.”

Richard James, who joined his father on the farm in 1989, agreed.

“I grew up watching him do this,” he said. “My earliest childhood memories are of hay.”

The two are constantly looking at ways to improve their products and have no plans to become complacent.

“We have to reinvent ourselves every day to stay relevant,” Susie James said.

These days, mother and son enjoy a comfortable working relationship, though each admit it is not always trouble free.

“It can be hard for a mom and her son to work together, but I think we really complement each other,” she said.

“Yes, that’s one way to put it,” Richard James said.

Farming in northern Maine, they both say it is always chancy given the uncertainty of the weather and market conditions, but neither has any thought of giving it up.

“I always say I never need to buy lottery tickets,” Susie James said. “I always felt what we are doing is enough of a gamble.”

Besides, when you “got hay,” what more do you need?

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