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Those Big Haystacks You See Beside the Highway Are Worth A Surprising Amount

On a recent drive from Santa Rosa, California back to my home in Lafayette, we drove through the beautiful, rural parts of Solano County. Passing by fields, we saw stack after stack of giant hay bales dotting the landscape.

That prompted a question: Why do farmers go through the trouble to make these giant hay piles? How much could those giant roadside haystacks actually be worth?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

To get a clear answer, I asked a farmer. Especially with this year’s drought, it turns out there’s big money to be had in big piles of hay. How much? Read on.

Why Farmers Use Hay

What is hay, anyway? It’s a grass that is grown in fields and then later dried, cut, compressed together, and sold as bales.

Hay is used to feed animals that would otherwise graze on grass, when the pasture land to grave them isn’t immediately available.

For example, hay allows farmers to feed their livestock if they wouldn’t otherwise have the grazing land to accomplish this the old fashioned way. It also lets them feed their livestock during the Winter, or other periods where grazing land isn’t covered in edible grass.

The flexibility that hay provides makes it a valuable commodity for farmers who raise livestock. For that reason, there’s a big market for other farmers with ample land to grow it and sell it.

The Value of a Haystack

So how much are those haystacks beside the road actually worth?

I showed a farmer a photo of one of the haystacks I saw in Solano County. By his estimation, the stack consists of 48 “big square bales”

“Big” is an accurate term here. Each bale is apparently about 3 feet, by 3 feet, by 8 feet. That mean a single bale contains around 850 lbs of hay! A full pile could be over 40,000 pounds.

The farmer told me that the bales are stacked tightly in piles to keep the hay fresher. The number of bales in each stack corresponds to the size of tractor-trailer that will eventually arrive in the field to pick the bales up.

In a normal year, each bale would be worth about $45 (these are Missouri prices, as that’s where the farmer I connected with is located–they may be higher in the Bay Area).

With this year’s droughts, though, the farmer told me he could get $80 to $100 per bale.

That means a single stack of hay that you might see in a farmer’s field is worth as much as $4,800! 

It’s a good thing the stacks are so big and heavy–it’s not like someone is just going to walk off with one!

Other Costs

All that said, the farmer shared that each bale costs about $20 to $30 to cut, package and stack. So that’s not pure profit.

Of course, there’s also the cost of growing the grass, maintaining the field, etc. So farmers aren’t necessarily getting rich by growing hay.

Still, one of those big hay piles is worth a surprisingly large amount. Almost $5k for a big pile of grass isn’t half bad.

The next time you’re driving through a rural part of the Bay Area and see a big stack of hay, remember, you’re actually seeing grassy gold!

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Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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