SHANNON DININNY Associated Press Writer YAKIMA, Wash. (AP)
Agriculture experts around the country are warning hay farmers and buyers to watch for scams amid a feed shortage and resulting high prices. In Washington, hay prices have passed $200 per ton in some areas, and winter is still we e k s away. The s ta t e Department of Agriculture has already fielded 42 complaints about hay quality or nonpayment, with the value of disputed hay sales topping more than $190,000 this year. "Any time we see something like this we get concerned," said Kirk Robinson, manager o f t h e d e p a r t m e n t ' s C ommi s s i o n Me r c h a n t s Program. "It fluctuates from year to year, but we're just seeing more this year." U. S. hay prices are the highest since record keeping began in 1949, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, opening the door for scammers to try to make a quick buck. Les Wentworth is a thirdgenerator farmer who, with his brother, grows hay, wheat, beans and corn on 500 acres near Ephrata, about 100 miles west of Spokane in central Washington. Wentworth recalled losing $50,000 that a dairy farmer paid him in the 1980s for a load of premium alfalfa hay. A truck driver they both knew offered to haul the hay to the dairy farm west of Washington's Cascade Range, then sold it to someone else and pocketed the money. Hay prices were booming at the time. But Wentworth, after returning the dairy farmer's payment, got only 21 cents on the dollar to recoup his loss from the state program that bonds hay dealers. And while the trucker agreed to pay $1,000 a month in a settlement, he never paid it all. Wentworth figures he is still out $15,000 today, plus interest. His lesson for other hay growers: When prices are good, beware unscrupulous dealers. "I do not know a farmer that hasn't been burned," he said. Farmers who have contracts or agreements with large buyers, such as dairy farmers, often deal with them directly. Otherwise, they tend to sell their hay to dealers, who in turn sell the feed to smaller buyers who might have a smaller herd, or a horse or two in the backyard. Average monthly prices in the United States topped $130 per ton for the past six consecutive months, with a high of $138 per ton in May. The previous high was $117 per ton in April and May of 1997. Commodities experts say more farmers are planting corn and wheat to capitalize on high prices, leading to a shortage of other feed crops, including hay. That, in turn, is leading to more scams. Aden Brook Farms, a distributor of hay, straw and wood shavings in Pine Bush, N.Y., has received three bogus certified checks in recent months. The first, for $38,000, bounced 40 days after it arrived, CEO Nick Fitzpatrick said. "Luckily, we had not shipped anything yet. We immediately flagged it as a suspicious transaction," he said, adding, "I was surprised because they didn't even try to negot iate the price." Becoming even more widespread, Fitzpatrick said, are people selling loads of hay that do not exist. "Especially in the Southeast, because there's a lot of drought areas in desperate need of hay, there's been people targeted," he said. "They just pay for hay that never shows." Mos t s tates, including Washington, require hay and feed dealers to be bonded and licensed. In Washington, the hay industry also has tossed around the idea of taxing growers to create an indemnity fund solely to protect farmers who get scammed, Wentworth said. He has been hit twice by hay scammers, despite requiring cash up front. Wentworth vows never to be a victim again by dealing only with people he knows and trusts. "It's just something that goes with being a hay grower, I guess," he said. "It shouldn't theft is theft."