'GMO-free' hay sales are misleading

Don't trust anyone selling 'GMO-free' grass hay, a local farmer says. Drought may be giving people...
Sams Valley farmer Charlie Boyer warns consumers not to pay more for “non-GMO” hay. “There is no such thing being sold as genetically modified grass hay,” he says.Bob Pennell

EAGLE POINT — Charlie Boyer admits he got a little steamed upon learning "GMO-free" grass hay was being marketed locally on Craigslist.

"There is no such thing being sold as genetically modified grass hay in Jackson County, in Oregon or anywhere in the United States," said Boyer, a longtime hay farmer who tends 50 acres off Linn Road.

Hay buyer's checklist

If a seller advertises the hay is organic, ask to see the certificate required by law. The primary certifying bodies are Oregon Tilth and Oregon Department of Agriculture.

  • If nutritional components are important to you, ask about forage testing, in which growers have sent clips to a lab to evaluate and break down nutrients. There is a cost associated with testing, which will increase the hay price. Most of the time, this isn't an issue unless you are feeding a high-performance animal.
  • Check out how the hay has been stored. Bales may bleach and the outside coloration is irrelevant, but the inside should be green. A seller should be willing to break a bale and show its insides; if not, you should walk away.
  • You don't want weeds in your bales, and the grass should have lots of leaf. It's even more important with alfalfa, where stems are necessary, but less nutritional.
  • Bales should smell good. If there is a musty or moldy smell, the hay is probably musty and moldy.

— Source: Local hay growers

In the wake of county voters passing a ban May 20 on genetically modified organisms, it was predictable farmers would identify their produce as GMO-free.

But Boyer and other hay farmers say some people are exploiting the ban to charge more for a crop that has no connection to the debate. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved GMO versions of alfalfa, there aren't any in the grass hay realm.

There are eight USDA-approved GMO commercial crops allowable in the country: Corn, soy, cotton, papaya (which was exempted from a ban in Hawaii), squash, sugar beets, canola and alfalfa, which was approved, removed, then regained approval.

Yet multiple entries have appeared on Craigslist promoting "GMO free hay," "Non-GMO Hay" and "Quality hay, no spray, no gmo."

Boyer said that late last month, he spotted one seller who was asking $25 per bale, the equivalent of $830 per ton. Hay qualities vary, whether they are grass or alfalfa, organic or traditional, but the general range at present is between $200 to $250 per ton.

"Anyone who sells grass hay in the U.S. is selling non-GMO hay," Boyer said. "You don't need to pay a premium for it."

When contact numbers for four of the Craigslist "non-GMO" entries were dialed Monday, one person hung up when asked about the advertisement and two phone messages went unreturned.

Another factor in hay prices — and potential for exploitation, some farmers say — is the drought in California and water worries in the region.

But the idea of jacking up prices for quick gain is counterintuitive to Robert Niedermeyer, an alfalfa farmer who lives in the Thompson Creek area.

"This year is pretty dramatic," Niedermeyer said. "If you are growing dry-ground alfalfa, you'll get one and a half cuttings.

"If you simply go by California being out of water and Klamath being cut short, then we're going to see a hay shortage," he said. "Some people will profiteer. A lot of the people we work with have a limited or set income and are not able to make the (upward) adjustment.

"You could make a huge profit off the base price, but there's the possibility we'll have two wet seasons and a lot of people will have a lot of hay and the people will remember who took advantage of them when that happens."

Transporting hay into California is rigidly regulated, preventing most hay growers from shipping their harvests south.

"If anyone thinks they are going to get rich because of the shortage of hay and the crisis in California, they better do their homework," Boyer said. "I just can't put hay on the back of a truck and ship it to California. If we don't have inspected fields, I can't ship to California, because there are insect species (associated with crops), and get it through the inspection site."

Heath Wakefield, a horse trainer and breeder who works across the state line as well as in Southern Oregon, advertises a mix of grass and non-GMO alfalfa.

"Demand never goes away," Wakefield said. "There's a really large overseas demand and that really drives market."

Wakefield has seen lower quality hay sold for as little as $120 per ton. It's typical, he said, for middle grades to run $240 to $250 per ton, while second cuts in the Klamath Basin and Northern California are fetching $300 or more per ton.

Like everything else transported, fuel costs add to the final costs.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

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