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Farmer's Market

A business built on straw

A Plant City hay wholesaler, one of the largest in the state, sells to horse shows, circuses, even Busch Gardens.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003


PLANT CITY -- The straws in Bill Glisson's hands are amber and green, the colors of gold coins and dollar bills. But he'd be lucky to get a penny for the entire handful.

"Selling a bag of dog food's more profitable than selling a bale of hay," he says.

It's a good thing, then, that Glisson is surrounded with hay -- stacks of it, a warehouse full, with truckloads more on the way.

Glisson's business, the Hay Exchange, just west of Plant City, is one of the state's largest hay wholesalers, shipping and receiving tons of horse hay to feed stores across Florida.

The Hay Exchange does precisely what the name implies -- it acts as a middleman coordinating an exchange from one set of hands to another, getting hay from such far-flung locales as Idaho, New York, New Mexico and Alberta, Canada.

The business is the top provider of hay to some of the southeast's biggest horse shows; it stocks all Florida performances of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; and its hay feeds all the animals at several large theme parks, including Busch Gardens.

"We pretty much cover the entire state," said Glisson, 45. "We ship all the way back to Jacksonville, back to Ocala, down to Miami, down to Naples and Sarasota. It's pretty much statewide."

The United States produces nearly 150-million tons of hay each year on 63-million acres, making it among the top three crops produced in the country. Hay, or forage, is a $13-billion industry. Much of that hay is used by the farms that grow it, but some 3-million tons are exported to other countries, particularly those on the Pacific Rim. And this is only U.S. hay. Canada's vast hay fields produce millions more tons.

Though hay futures aren't traded on the commodities market, Glisson said it is becoming a vital part of the nation's agricultural economy.

"As our rural population continues to grow, and our trend of building subdivisions that are 'mini-ranches' -- that is, conducive to somebody buying a horse for their daughter in the back yard -- as long as that continues to grow, the demand for baled forage is going to continue to grow," he says.

Although only 500,000 tons of hay are grown in Florida, the National Hay Association is headquartered in St. Petersburg.

When it comes to supplying hay to small horse farms, Glisson's operation is one of the best in the state, said Don Kieffer, the group's executive director. "Bill has done a magnificent job of capturing the market for that type of hay," Kieffer said.

Small farms are not a market that Glisson particularly covets, nor needs. He refers to families who own one or two horses as "that yuppie market." They occasionally come in for a bushel or two.

In general, he expects the casual horse owner to shop at a local feed store -- and as a wholesaler, that's where he has set his sights since opening five years ago.

He prefers to sell by the ton, with the best hay from a good location selling for up to $400. His annual revenues are in the millions, he says.

Glisson grew up working in a Highlands County feed store and made a successful career out of marketing horses. He rose from a sales representative to director of marketing for a large equine business, traveling from his office in St. Louis to farms in New York, California and Pennsylvania every week.

But, after a few years, the traveling began to take its toll.

"I was logging 150,000 air miles a year," said Glisson, a husband and father of three.

Five years ago, he used his connections in the industry to help set up the Hay Exchange. He started with 10 tractor trailers; now he's up to 100.

"You've heard the old adage that the hay's always greener on the other side of the fence?" he says. "Well, it couldn't be more true in our business. Because of our climate in Florida, we cannot grow and bale the most desirable equine forages that are in demand. ... The further it comes, the better people like it."

So what's the difference between greener Western hay and golden Eastern hay?

Essentially, it's the climate, Glisson says. Take, for example, a bale of Timothy hay from Colorado and a bale from New York.

"In the eastern United States, 99 percent of the hay is baled in the day, after the dew has dried off the grass," Glisson explains. "In the western United States, 99 percent is baled at night, when the dew is on the plain. Because it's so dry that it's brittle, they have to wait for dew to fall on it for moisture to build back up in it so they can bale."

The moisture leaves the hay with a green tint, which can be more desirable to an owner buying for a horse. Glisson, who has one horse, Tater, says green hay and gold hay are both good, so long as they're properly balanced with a good diet of grain.

In late summer, Glisson will travel across the country to check out the farms where his hay is produced.

"I may ship a load of hay from Niagara Falls to Miami every week to the same customer and never see it," he says. "The only time I'd ever see it was when I went up there in July, and got on top of his haystacks in 15 different barns and did an inventory."

He is confident that he can continue spinning straw into gold.

"Diversification is in our plans, and growth is in our plans," he said. "There's a possibility that we could take this thing, this concept, and apply it in other parts of the country."

-- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlin@sptimes.com .

The Hay Exchange

4950 U.S. 92 W

Plant City, FL 33563

754-5405

www.thehayexchange.net

Hay runs anywhere from $250 to $400 for a ton and $5.25 and up for a single bale.

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