Baling Hay Sprouts Vegetable Business
“Growing the future of local agriculture, one plant at a time.”
That’s Scott Thellman’s mission statement for a business he started when he was just 15 years old.
Thellman, a senior in agricultural business, started a haying business with the purchase of a rusty hay rake and baler for $100.
“I saved some of the money I earned from working on a local sweet corn farm and put it into fixing up the equipment that was sitting across from our house abandoned in a field,” Thellman says.
After refurbishing the equipment, Thellman managed to harvest close to 1,000 small square bales on his parent’s land near Lawrence, Kansas. The bales sold quickly, and he realized he had found an underserved market.
“When I look back on my first few years I can’t believe I stayed with it. My old equipment was constantly breaking down. One time, I even had two flat tires on the baler at the same time,” Thellman laughs. “When I started, I wasn’t mechanically inclined, but now I can fix anything.”
After high school Thellman took a year off to concentrate on his business
while deciding where to attend college. He says Iowa State University stood out as one of the premier agricultural schools in the country with a strong entrepreneurship program.
As a freshman, he immediately saw the advantages and potential of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative. Thellman, who now serves on the initiative’s student advisory board says the program introduces students to successful agricultural entrepreneurs and strategic business and marketing ideas. It also allows students to fashion their own career path with guidance from entrepreneurial mentors.
“The program improved how I make business decisions that affect my overall profitability and success,” Thellman says.
Kevin Kimle, director of the Ag Entrepreneurship Initiative, says Thellman was a student in his class as a freshman. Kimle describes how Thellman had his laptop open one morning before class, sharing information with classmates about recent stock trades he had made.
“It’s so powerful for students to see other students who are practicing entrepreneurs,” Kimle says. “Scott is an example of the classic story of tinkering with something, finding it works and finding a market.”
Tom Sloan, one of Thellman’s custom- baling customers in Lawrence, says Thellman has gone from using equipment that constantly broke down to technology that monitors inputs and yields. The data was invaluable during last year’s drought.
“I’m getting maximum yields because he’s helping me manage my hay ground,” Sloan says.
Thellman’s Juniper Hill Farms, LLC produces a variety of crops, with recent expansions into certified organic vegetables and small grains. He says expanding into the vegetable market required a new set of skills and business strategies.
One strategic change he’s made in his operation is a shift from price-taking to price-making. He says if you have the right products for a specific market you can set your price instead of taking the prices set by the market.
“We provide square bales, certified organic vegetables and custom baling,” Thellman says. “These niche products are in high demand, which gives us the ability to negotiate our prices with customers. It really comes down to the relationship you have with your products, your customers and your community.”
A portion of his farm is now USDA Certified Organic. Thellman says the certification allowed him to market both organic and conventionally grown forages and vegetables. Long term the certification will reduce input costs, increase sustainability and grow demand for his products.
Barb Kerr, a customer who buys organic hay, agrees. It was the only USDA Certified Organic hay she could find.
“Scotty’s one of the most serious young farmers I know,” Kerr says. “The organic methods he uses provide better hay and it’s cheaper in the long run. He’s found a way to help his customers and it’s great.”
Thellman began using high tunnel structures in 2010 funded with National
Resources Conservation Service grants. The tunnel extends Thellman’s vegetable growing season.
His goal this year is to expand his market into more restaurants and grocery stores and increase production. At the same time he wants to make sure his products are affordable and available to all members of his community.
“In 2012, we donated over 400 pounds of fresh produce to local food banks,” Thellman says. “Good business means that you truly serve every member of your community, which is a good feeling.”
Online Extra: In his own words: Read Scott Thellman’s thoughts on becoming a farmer in a blog post online.