Brothers see straw moving from waste to being a profit

AFP Correspondent

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (Nov. 25, 2014) — Charles R. “Chuck” King Jr. and his brother Joseph S. “Joe” King created the straw segment of their farm business in 1999 when they began selling square bales of wheat straw in 1999, selling between 2,000 and 2,600.
Now the brothers are selling between 10,000 and 15,000 bales annually.
In the 1970s, straw was considered trash, King said. Now it is in high demand, with wholesale prices running more than $4 for a square bale.
He said most of their straw customers are contractors who are required by law to cover any land they disturb within a set time to avoid erosion.
The trend for fall decorating also creates some demand for straw.
Chuck said the straw business has grown out of his partnership with Dr. Dan Brann, a retired Virginia Tech small grains specialist.
The Brann-King Pumpkin Farm near Riner, Va., supplies pumpkins to 20 area Wal-Mart stores in Southwest Virginia. Brann grows the wheat in a rotation with pumpkins and corn.
Brann and King said the wheat isn’t profitable in the mountains just as grain at the current prices.
By supplying the King brothers the straw, it becomes a win-win project for both businesses, they added.
They also partner with Bob Phillips, who grows the corn in the pumpkin, wheat, corn rotation, King said.
The Kings buy fodder from his operation to sell it as fall decoration along with the square bales.
“The straw business is good for us,” Phillips said. “We have accumulated ‘nice toys’ from it,” to keep farming.”
Brann does the combining with the Kings’ combine while they follow with the baler and wagons, loading the straw. Chuck said the quicker the wheat straw is baled the better its quality.
Chuck said he is glad to have Brann running the combine as the veteran grain specialist is extremely careful with the machine and doesn’t hesitate to shut it down if he hears the slightest variation in the sound of the machine.
The wagons haul the bales to waiting box trailers where the wheat is stored until it goes to the customer.
The second year they sold straw, the Kings had four box trailers.
They now have 30 including one parked at a local Southern States Cooperative and another mainly dedicated to a farmer who buys straw as bedding for her dairy calves.
Labor is hard to keep during the harvest of the straw in July, Chuck said, with the wagons having to be unloaded into the trailers by hand, hot dusty work.
He acknowledged that he is a demanding employer, expecting his workers to do the job quickly and correctly and is looking for a better way to get the bales into the trailers but has not yet found it.
Chuck said they’ve carved out a niche for themselves as many of the few small grain growers in Southwest Virginia chop the straw and leave it on the field to boost organic matter.
Most of the state’s small grain is grown in the Southeastern part.