KITTITAS, Wash. — At about 3 p.m. the Charltons’ yellow Labrador retriever, Rocky, began howling.
Moments before, their son, Jonathon, 13, had come into the house and said the birds had stopped singing.
It was Saturday, June 29. A lot of timothy hay had just been cut in the Kittitas Valley, all around the Ellensburg area, in what looked like the start of good weather after several days of rain.
“I took Rocky into the mud room and couldn’t figure out why he was so traumatized,” Teddy Charlton said. “I went on Facebook and someone said they couldn’t believe the rain 15 miles southwest of us.”
Her husband, Mark, came in. He had just told a swather operator to stop cutting hay. Clouds had grown big and dark. It was hot. The wind blew.
Then the rain came in buckets, bringing hail with it. A neighbor, Linda Clerf, recorded 1.31 inches of rain in 30 minutes. The wind blew the roof off a barn in the valley and knocked apart hay bales.
Mark closed a window shade and told Teddy not to watch. She was crying in the knowledge the storm could spell severe crop loss.
Hay is big business in the West, which produces one-fifth of the nation’s hay crop. Last year’s crop was valued at nearly $4 billion in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. A single storm can damage a cutting of hay, costing growers up to $100 a ton in a few minutes.
This was one of those storms.
The Charltons’ other son, Michael, 21, ran into the house. A falling tree limb had struck him in the face and broke off one of his front teeth. Two large limbs pierced the roof and trees blew down at the north end of the house.
Lightning struck a neighbor’s house, setting it on fire. Mark was among the volunteer firefighters who responded.
Later, the Charltons found window screens from their house hundreds of feet away in their horse pasture, blown there by the wind.
Rain damage to hay was extensive throughout the valley. A neighbor, Rob Weber, said 75 percent of the first-cutting hay was damaged. Mark Anderson, 48, president and CEO of Anderson Hay and Grain, an Ellensburg exporter, said it was the worst damage he’s seen in the valley in his lifetime. The overall crop damaged was “a huge percentage,” Anderson said, but the extent varied widely from one field to another.
“It becomes our job at being really good at marketing and finding homes for hay and finding the most money we can for growers, given market conditions,” he said.
A silver lining for cattle ranchers was that a lot more feeder hay was available at low prices, Weber commented wryly.
Ten days later, on July 9, the Charltons had recuperated from the storm. They and their crew had harvested and stacked all the timothy hay that was browned and damaged. They had about five days remaining in one of their latest first-cuttings ever. The hay was now greener but also overmature.
Family pulls together
For the Charltons, as for many hay growers, the operation centers around the family. Each member plays a key role, along with the hired hands.
The day started with Mark checking fields. The Charltons’ daughter, Amber, 18, and crew member Matt Shields moved tractors and fluffers — also called tedders — from one field to another. Michael and hired hand Garth McCaleb ran harobeds picking up bales from the day before. Mark operated the squeeze, a large forklift, stacking 56, three-tie, 100- to 120-pound bales at a time in a shed.
“All the weather’s been a game changer, and what’s normally premium this year might not be,” Mark explained. “There can be over $100 (per ton) swings on price, and that’s the concern.”
The Charltons usually produce about 4,000 tons of first-cutting timothy and 1,500 to 2,000 tons of second-cutting on 1,000 acres, including 300 acres 35 miles to the east near George.
Much of the area’s timothy hay is exported to Japan. Exporters and Japanese customers had been sampling quality at numerous ranches for days. It’s a matter of how much they will take and at what price, Mark said.
“I’m not in any hurry (to sell) until I get all my crop in and evaluate it as a whole,” he said.
Amber and crew mate Faith Mehal spent the morning and into early afternoon fluffing the top field — the highest elevation visible from the house.
Amber piloted an open 1963 Oliver tractor. No windshield. No cab. Bouncing along at 6 to 7 mph in what peaked as a 90-degree day, Amber said the breeze at that speed kept her cool enough. She said she liked the old Oliver for its maneuverability.
She explained the hay lays opposite directions every other row because of how the swather cuts it and that she fluffs going against the heads to leave even and clean windrows.
“If you go with it, it balls up on the fluffer,” she said.
The fluffers had to ensure adequate spacing between pairs of windrows for balers and harobeds.
At a break in the cool of the house patio, Amber said she’s excited to be heading to Washington State University in the fall, is thinking of law school and would like to be a lobbyist for a farm organization like the Farm Bureau. She’s currently beef ambassador for the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, which is giving her a scholarship and having her speak about the beef industry at elementary schools.
At mid-morning an army of eight pea combines and a bankout wagon, from Del Monte in Toppenish arrived and began harvesting 90 acres of green peas. It’s the first time the Charltons have grown the crop and, Mark said, probably the first pea crop in the valley in 30 or 40 years for lack of processors.
Time for optimism
Mark Charlton, 49, is a fifth-generation farmer whose ancestors — the Charltons and Schneblys — homesteaded where he farms, a few miles north of Kittitas. He graduated from WSU in 1986 in agriculture mechanization and has been farming 26 years.
In addition to the hay acreage, the Charltons have 500 acres at Kittitas of peas, oats and field corn and 600 acres of irrigated pasture and additional leased rangeland for a cow-calf operation of 600 mother cows, predominately Angus. They have nine horses used in herding cattle. They have four, year-round farm hands, including a herdsman and a mechanic.
“The stress of managing your risk through input expense is a lot more than it use to be,” Mark said. “Sometimes it seems crazy what we do.”
Like any farmer, he has a lot to juggle. Crops, cattle, marketing and finances. Changes in labor laws makes it hard enough to employ anyone under 18 that he no longer does it. Regulations, he said, are why larger operations are getting larger.
“The most pessimistic farmer is an optimist. He just doesn’t realize it, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing it,” he said.
Recent state legislative passage of the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan — developed by federal, state and local agencies — gives him hope, he said, for more stable water supply from the junior-water-right Kittitas Reclamation District.
“We’re always just a couple of droughts away from failure,” he said. “We got our first-cutting in the 2005 drought but our second was hurt.”
Teddy, short for Theodesia, 47, zipped along at 25 mph between windrows in her 2011 Jeep Wrangler to take lunch to Amber.
“I love my little Jeep,” she said, “it fits perfectly between the rows.”
Marked put a bow on its hood when he gave it to her on their 25th wedding anniversary on June 18.
Teddy spent her first 13 years on her parents’ cattle ranch in North Dakota. Then they moved to Kittitas for better weather and to be closer to doctors. Teddy had her own 9 acres, 28 heifers, was working and getting her degree in graphic design and painting at Central Washington University in Ellensburg when she met Mark.
“We had a whirlwind courtship. I didn’t know I was allergic to hay,” she said with a smile. She had a couple of episodes of anaphylactic shock before it was figured out. Jonathon is still treated for a hay allergy. Michael is less affected.
Teddy operated haying equipment in past years, but now fixes meals, runs errands and is Mark’s assistant.
Michael has been driving tractors since the sixth grade, is proficient in rodeo roping and branding and will be entering his senior year at WSU in agricultural technology and production management. He wants to ranch.
Jonathon is in his third year driving a baler and also has his eye on ranching.
In the shop, mechanic Kevin Tostenson, 31, was fixing a leaky fuel tank and broken timing chain on a 1968 Freeman baler. Except for a new swather and newer trucks, the fleet of equipment is mostly aged and keeps him busy.
“We started out with a tractor for each (haying) piece, but some of them found a spot in the shade,” he said.
Craig Saville, a new hire, arrived with his squeeze built from a 1996 garbage truck.
Fluffing took the morning and early afternoon. Mark checked the moisture content and deemed it acceptable to start baling about 3 p.m. Mark’s father, Paul, was part of the crew along with the rest of the family and hired hands running balers and harobeds until dark.
Back at the house, Teddy had a sirloin roast in salsa, a family favorite, waiting in a crockpot for when they were done.