Kelly Smith and his wife, Christi, operate a 10-year-old commercial hay and cattle business, Dream Lake Farm, based in Capon Bridge.
In addition to managing about 200 head of cattle, they typically ship 5 to 6 tractor-trailer loads of round and large square hay bales a week to a mushroom producer in Pennsylvania. In some years, the farm has delivered over 20,000 bales and 6,000 tons of hay.
The particular story of Dream Lake Farm is a continuing tale of deep faith, hard work and extraordinary resilience. The story told below is based on interviews with Kelly in the fall of 2020.
But first, a note on the farm’s name: “The farm was built off of a name,” Smith says, standing outside his barn and looking toward a small hill. “We had a brush pile in that hollow and my dad always said, ‘I wish there could be a pond there.’”
“Luckily,” Smith continues, “This worked out where I had some machinery and I worked with another contractor. When we got done building, it was a 2-acre lake. And we called it ‘Dream Lake’ because of my dad’s dream. He got to see the lake but he never got to see the business. I still have his tractor ’round back.”
Before the beginning
“Before it all started,” Smith recalls, “I used to pick a penny up from the ground and, on that penny, it says ‘In God we trust.’ Some people ask, ‘Why are you picking that penny up? It’s not worth anything.’ But I say, ‘It’s a promise: In God we do trust.’ And my feeling is that if you appreciate that penny, and give God thanks for that penny, then He will trust you with more.”
As a child, Smith helped his grandfather, Ray Whitacre, with farming chores and decided early that he wanted to farm full time. But, as a young man, he says, “I never had any idea how I’d ever achieve that goal because really I didn’t have anything as far as money or land. I only had, at that time, 2 acres of ground.”
Graduated from Hampshire High in 1992, Smith started working for Shingleton’s Timber and Trucking company on the logging side of the business. He moved up to a supervisory position, but his back began giving him serious problems.
“I probably would have stayed there for a long time,” says Smith, “but I had to find a different line of work because of my back.”
So, in 2007, he began work on an associate degree in computer science at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in Martinsburg. He finished in 2011 and a year later also completed requirements for a degree in cyber security.
“I never ever used the degrees,” he says, but the experience taught him something important. “It taught me it doesn’t matter what the subject was, but if I just applied myself, I could figure it out. So, I applied myself and graduated with high honors.”
Although he completed his degrees in 2012, it was a difficult year. His father passed away, his back became so painful that he had major back surgery, and, because of that, he had to change careers.
“Looking back,” Smith says, “I realize that God redirected my life, using my back pain to leave Shingleton’s and ultimately start Dream Lake Farm.”
After his back surgery in the late fall of 2012, Smith realized he was in a tight spot: income wasn’t covering expenses. He didn’t have a job and his wife was working as a part-time teacher at an elementary school.
The only thing he had to sell is hay that he made for his 2 cows. So, he put about 50 round bales up for sale, listing them in many different places.
At first, no takers.
Then, he got lucky. Or, there’s another way to look at it: His prayers were answered.
He received a phone call from a buyer who was working for a mushroom company in Pennsylvania, 250 miles away, who wanted to buy all his hay.
Thinking the call might be a scam, Smith trucked over a few bales and discovered the opportunity was genuine. The company was willing to buy as much hay as he could provide, under contract, assuming he could deliver it consistently and reliably the whole year.
“So, I decided to take a chance, realizing the prayer I prayed, beforehand, and take a leap of faith.” Smith says. “I started selling my hay to this compost company by pickup and the opportunity has led to a demand for hay. I had a unique situation with this particular company to provide them hay on a year-round basis.”
To meet the demand, Smith expanded his access to hay fields. He kept an eye out for new opportunities to lease fields, and nearby landowners contacted him about working their land. Started with 60 acres 9 years ago, he now makes hay on about 1,200 acres.
Dealing with familiar and unexpected challenges
Finding consistent labor is a challenge familiar to most commercial hay farmers.
“Each year, we would train people and then they would find a full-time job and leave,” Smith says. “It wasn’t so hard to train them to run the machines, it was training them to look out for the stump hole, to avoid places where you could create damage.”
Smith continues, “Now, my wife and I do all of the mowing, raking and baling. And we contract with McDaniel Farms in Augusta to help get the hay out of the fields.”
Keeping hay fields is another familiar challenge.
“Land comes and goes. It seems like whenever you improve somebody’s property — not all the time — there’s somebody else there wanting or willing to give a bid. And that’s the bitter side of what I do. You’d like to sit back and think, ‘Well, you know I’ll be making hay here for the next 20, 30 years’ but it’s a business in all aspects. It truly is.”
Development also has created a production problem for Smith, as it has for many other hay farmers.
“A lot of farms have been broken down and developed,” he says. “Now the farms are restricted. The land is smaller. There’s only so much ground in this world. You gotta do what you can to protect what you have. So, to answer the question: ‘Would I take on more?’ Yes, because I never know what’s going to happen next year.”
Other challenges are less familiar. Because the mushroom company pays by weight (after accounting for moisture content), Smith has to know the tonnage of the hay he’s delivering.
That’s easy for the square bales he makes himself because his baler weighs them before they drop, recording the bales’ average and total weight for each field, allowing him to know which fields are more productive and which will need more fertilizer.
But Smith also buys hay from other farmers. He weighs the bales and pays the farmer accordingly. The problem is that some bales weigh much more than other bales, meaning that Smith ends up paying farmers different amounts for bales of the same size.
“Here’s an example,” says Smith, “And I’ll use rough numbers. Say you have a farmer down the road that you offer $15 a bale and their hay doesn’t have the best weight. And you get another farmer, and their bales weigh a lot more and you can give them $20 or $25 a bale.
“Those 2 farmers will talk and one will say like, ‘He’s a crook.’” Smith continues, “They don’t understand because, in this part of the country, hay is sold by the bale. If it was sold by the ton, it would be simple. That’s the way hay should be sold. It’s just a fairer way.”
Over the years, Smith has also faced theft and betrayal. In 2013, a builder hired to construct a new barn stole the funds that Smith had secured through a government program.
He had to find personal funds to complete the program within 2 years or face stiff fines. He got the barn built, but the scar is still sore.
“I’ve developed a lot of great relationships with landowners and farmers and we work together with confidence that our handshake agreements will be honored,” Smith says. “But I’ve learned that this kind of agreement doesn’t always mean that the other person shaking your hand is going to honor it. Dealing with betrayals on a personal level is hard.”
Investing in the future
Smith always looks ahead. “Yeah, I re-invest. I take the money we make off the hay and usually spend it back into cows, or get more hay ground, or buy more hay.”
One of his biggest investments came in early 2020, after a serious accident wrecked a used baler that he had just bought because his first, very old one was constantly breaking down.
“We took the baler to a new farm,” Smith recalls, “and because we’d never been on the property, we did some severe damage to it. We hit a fence post that was lying hidden on the ground and it got sucked up into the baler.”
Smith knew what new model he wanted to replace his old baler, but it meant taking on a lot of risk. “We decided to buy a new baler,” he said, “with the intent to invest in something long-term. When you go and sign your name to a big note, it’s a huge risk that you hope pays off. The stress level is high.
“But I feel like what I have built has come from a prayer,” he continues. “I feel like I have God’s faith and blessing on what I do. I feel like sometimes when something bad has happened to you, it might not, at the end, be a bad situation.”
Cattle: The other side of the farm
The Smiths’ herd of cattle has grown from 2 to more than 200 during the past 10 years. Their cattle business serves as a 2nd income and a hedge against the possibility of an unexpected drop in the demand for hay.
But, as cattle farmers know well, managing cows is often more demanding compared with making hay, and estimating future income from calves has become unpredictable.
“Unlike haying, you have to have fence; you have to have water; you have to have shelter,” Smith says. “And when your cow is having its calf, you normally do not know the market price for that calf. It’s a guess all the way to the sale.”
But his cows “all mean something to me” Smith says, “And how you take care of your cows matters. It just matters.
“A year ago,” he continues, “We bought a cow-calf pair at the stock sale for $300. The cow wasn’t much to look at, but she was a younger cow. and I’m like, well, it’s $300, but we could make money off the calf. Later that year, money got tight and I said, ‘I’m going to sell that cow and keep the calf.’”
“I took the cow to the stock sale and she didn’t get a bid. I asked the person at the stock sale what they were going to do with the cow. He said, ‘We’re just going to shoot her and throw her in the dump.’ So, I say to myself, ‘You’re not going to do that with my cow. She might not be a valuable cow to you but that cow has a beating heart and you’re not going to dispose of it that way.’”
“So, I brought the cow back. Now she is on the farm, looking good. She is one of my favorites. She just needed proper nutrition and some time. We call her Lucky.”
Building Dream Lake Farm has been very sweet and a little bitter for Smith.
“We farm ground where my great-great-grandparents farmed,” Smith recalls. “And it’s really just taking care of the ground for as long as God gives you on this earth, and doing the best you can with it. Being thankful for what you have, then more will come.”
Smith’s beliefs about life are clear.
“It’s not about making money — I mean, you’ve got to make money to survive — but it’s about living a life, and just telling the story about what God has done for me and what I’ve been able to overcome, starting with really nothing.”
Smith also realizes that success can disappear quickly.
“Hay farming really pulls back to relationships with other human beings. I built my business not by how much hay I can make but it’s really about the relationships I have, and my reputation. On the flip side, I know that I can mess it up by being unethical. I can mess it up as quick as it started.”
And sometimes Smith struggles with a sense of isolation.
“It’s a lonely path,” he says, “Because everybody wants what you have. Not everybody. I shouldn’t say everybody. But a lot of people want what you have and nobody wants to help. And that’s why I feel it’s lonely in a sense because you just don’t have the help, that support. With my dad passing away, I don’t have that support.”
Despite moments of doubt, Smith believes that “it’s about getting to do what you love to do. I love to make hay. I love the farm. At the end of the day, I do what I love to do. That makes it fun. I can see my dream coming true.”
Smith also appreciates the mysterious ways that things work out.
About that call long ago from the mushroom company, he says, “The strange thing about the opportunity was that the gentleman who called me, he was almost 250 miles away. So, I asked him one time how he got my number. He explained that he looked it up in the phone book. My number wasn’t in the phone book. To this day, it’s still a mystery, how it all got started.”