By EMRY DINMAN, For the Basin Business Journal
Though Matt Stredwick was crowned the 2018 Hay King at this year’s Grant County Fair, he admits that the most important part of crafting the perfect bale of hay is entirely out of his hands.
“It all depends on the weather,” Matt said. “Hard work plays a big role in it, but a lot of it just comes down to weather.”
While he can’t control the weather, Matt works with what he’s presented. It takes patience and a good eye for the right conditions to find just the right time to harvest.
If Matt goes out and bales the hay when it’s dry, the foliage can shatter, making it appear unappealing, so he has to wait for the dew to come in to soften the fibers. On the flipside, if the dew is coming down too heavy, moisture can build up inside bales, which can cause numerous problems for the final product, including spontaneous combustion and rot.
Conditions have to come together just right in order to bundle a perfect bale of hay, and for Matt, this was the year to produce a prize-winning bale.
“We had a lot of wind, so it dried the hay really fast, and we didn’t get bleached by the sun,” Matt said. “It was just above average conditions, and patience paid off.”
The same could likely be said for the Stredwick farm. Farming was always a part of Matt’s life, with both father and grandfatherhaving been involved in farming, and Matt worked summers on a hay farm while he was in High School. Matt took a quick detour into electrical work out of college, but he quickly found himself drawn back into the world of agriculture after some ground became available for rent.
[caption id="attachment_2254" align="alignleft" width="300"] Charles Featherstone - Matt Stredwick, standing on the right with his wife Amanda, was named the Washington State Hay King at the 2018 Grant County Fair in August.[/caption]
Even after putting money into a piece of land, Matt started by dividing his time between his day job as an electrician and the farmland he had begun to build up, figuring he could shop out enough of the farm work that he’d be able to do both.
“That didn’t last long,” Matt recalls now, laughing at the thought. “There was too much to get done.”
The Stredwicks’ success is, in many ways, also a result of optimal conditions. Matt entered the market during a low-period for the industry, which was quickly followed by an upswing. As he would learn managing a hay farm, timing was everything.
Now, 12 years on, the Stredwicks make use 4,000 acres of land, and farming is a full-time job for both of the Stredwicks. For Matt, earning the title of Hay King is a confirmation of the family’s hard work and dedication these past years.
“There’s no substitute for hard work, and it’s cool to get recognized for the hard work I’ve put into the farm,” Matt said. “I also have a lot of really good workers, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
The event is organized by the Mid-Columbia Basin Hay Growers Association, with a new Hay King being crowned every year at the Grant County Fair. Kirk Jungers, Grant County Hay King superintendent, said that no matter who walks away with the crown each year, the region wins.
“We get to show people the quality of product we can grow in the area, and it showcases our amazing growers,” Jungers said. “Most people don’t realize that Grant County is the fifth-largest irrigated county in the United States, and alfalfa is a pretty big deal for our county, money-wise.”
Growers across the state compete for the title of Hay King, with judges scoring bales on smell and appearance. The perfect bundle looks vibrant and fresh, much like any good produce aa shopper might pick out at a market, Jungers said. The bale has to be free of weeds, hay bloom and foreign materials, and it should smell pleasant.
[caption id="attachment_2255" align="alignright" width="211"] Charles Featherstone - A bail of Stredwick alfalfa hay at the Grant County Fair.[/caption]
Seventy percent of the competition’s score is based on these aesthetic judgments, Jungers said, but it also scores hay on its nutritional analysis — whether it’s good food or junk food for the cattle that are going to eat it.
There’s a lot to be done on the farm besides waiting for the opportune time to cut hay. Matt’s wife, Amanda, manages the front office and payroll side of the business. The Stredwicks are also plenty busy with their four young children, Addyson, 14, Payton, 11, Mayson, 8, and Jaxteyn, 4.
Though they’re too young to be deeply involved with the business, Matt hopes to be able to get Addyson working on the farm this next year. He doesn’t expect all of his children to fall in love with farming like he did, but he hopes one of them will eventually take on the mantle of the Stredwick farm.
“It’s a little soon to know for sure, but I think I’ll have at least one of them who will have interest in taking over,” Matt said.