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Scratching a niche

I got a message several years ago from someone looking for some timothy hay. Calls about hay are not completely out of the realm of possibility for me. Messages on my answering machine from people who leave me their 800 number are a tad more rare. I did a reverse phone number lookup and discovered this 800 number was connected to a company. A little Web surfing revealed that this company had a most interesting and unique niche.

Welcome to the wonderful world of tortoises! That’s right. If you have a tortoise, you need to feed that beast. Surprise, surprise, you can’t just go to Sam’s Club and get a pallet of Tortoise Chow. Your tortoise might eat it, but would he be happy? And isn’t the whole point of having a pet with you as the master feel like you’ve made it happy?

When I called Mr. 800 Number, he said he was looking for some timothy hay, preferably in square bales. I told him I had big squares, which he was not entirely familiar with. The main thing was that I didn’t have twine-wrapped round bales that had been sitting outside for five years. He had apparently been finding a lot of timothy hay in that condition. By the time you got to the center of the bale for the good stuff, you’d chewed your way through a lot of garbage. He had no use for junk hay. He wanted the candy at the center of that Tootsie Pop.

He had an unusual use for the hay. Tortoises. He would be feeding it to tortoises. Lest you be confused, we’re talking tortoises here, not turtles. Huge difference. You can drive down any road near water and you’ll probably see a painted turtle or a snapping turtle crossing the road. For a high-quality desert tortoise, though, you really need to go to Mexico. You will also expect to pay at least a thousand bucks or two for a small tortoise that will eventually be the size of a dinner plate. If you’re caught trying to sneak one away at the beach, you can plan on spending some quality time in a Mexican prison, perhaps several years.

So I priced my hay toward the high side and started doing business with someone who became known to us as Turtle Boy. He and his girlfriend/business partner came to pick up the first bale in their little Mazda truck. (On a later visit to his headquarters, I discovered he had a big van with an enormous orange lizard of some kind painted on the entire side of the van, along with the company information. Not exactly a picture of motor vehicle discretion like the Mazda.) A big square bale weighs about 800 pounds. A Mazda truck on its way to Waterloo from Cresco would prefer something in a 200-pound load range. Unloading this first bale when they got home with it also turned out to be a project.

When it was time for another bale a while later, he asked if it could be delivered. Again, not wanting the margins to slip away, I priced the package deal accordingly. It was accepted.

My trip to the plant was highly educational. This guy was about my age, but he was a thinker of epic proportions. He was taking the hay and repackaging it into teeny, tiny little bales for tortoise owners. We’re talking 16-ounce bales here, not 50 to 70 pounds like most small square bales at the hay auction. Here’s the part that killed me. Those bales were then being retailed to customers for $5.99 each! I’ll do the math for you. At the highest price this past winter, excellent dairy-quality hay like mine would have brought $240 per ton, or roughly 12 CENTS for 16 ounces. This guy was getting SIX BUCKS! So although I was maybe getting a shade more than what I could from a farmer, I was still leaving Turtle Boy some margin for margin.

Then we got to talking, chatty cuss that I am. His biggest problem was in the manufacturing process to transform my giant square bales into neat little packages. If he made them look like an actual bale of hay, his customers (primarily in New York, Florida and California) would feel like they were getting hay from an actual farm, not some city slicker geek in a warehouse. Just stuffing it into a plastic bag seemed so generic, so Sam’s Club. He wanted a boutique look to it. He’d made some progress, but his bales still didn’t look good enough. They looked like blobs. No one pays bust-out-retail for blobs. He wanted a bale that looked like the ones he pitched when he was growing up and worked at neighbors’ farms.

Note to self: Take brain gears. Engage. Stand back.

The Chairman is and always has been a huge economic development guy. He has been active in the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which helps people wanting to start a new business. This project was right up his alley. Plus, he has made a couple bales of hay in his time. He and I tossed around a bunch of ideas for the micro-baler. The thinkers at a local machine shop were involved, but their ideas had it pretty well automated. They also had it priced around ten grand or more. We finally came up with a relatively crude version. One of my cousins who runs a welding shop helped us put it together for about $500.

The biggest downside was that the bales had to be hand-tied. We couldn’t use wire to tie them, because Turtle Boy said his customers had no way to cut the wires. They could cut twine with a scissors, and everybody in Manhattan has a scissors. Apparently few have a fencing pliers. We couldn’t use sisal twine, either, because there is some kind of product on it that tortoises don’t like. Plastic twine was the duct tape of choice, as it were.

The first bales turned out fairly well. They were also fairly labor-intense to make. That’s when Turtle Boy blew my mind again. If we could make such lovely looking bales in volume, we could get them into pet stores. I made a quick visit to Petco and told the kid at the counter I needed food for my tortoise. Did it with a straight face, too! He showed me some bulk stuff in a completely uncreative plastic bag. It was six bucks and it looked like floor sweepings compared to my hay.

One problem. To get in the door at Petco as a supplier, you need volume. They want an initial stocking order of 20,000 bales. Yes, twenty thousand! With the old hand-tie baler, we were staring carpel tunnel right in the face. Hard.

We blinked. Let’s sell a few hand-tied bales first before we drop ten or fifteen grand on the automated unit to make them by the semi-load.

So we made some bales. Then Turtle Boy had another question. Was there any way I could make some bales slightly larger than the 16-ouncers? He had a hot lead on the zoo market. Apparently, the Jack Hannah crowd wasn’t really into busting open a bunch of little dinky shrink-wrapped bales to feed their huge herds of tortoises. At a tortoise industry trade show in Florida (yeah, I bet you just had the same reaction I did), he said he talked to several breeder operations with hundreds of tortoises and they’re looking for large orders of tortoise-quality hay. Something in a 15- to 25-pound bale would be perfect for them.

On another trip to Turtle Boy Enterprises, we got to talking about the various products he manufactures for tortoises. One of the most popular was what I would call rubber food. It sort of looked and felt like Jell-O Jigglers. Amazingly, it was made of something like 85% timothy hay. Using a special process and special equipment, Turtle Boy ground up my hay, added a few other ingredients, and then cooked the stuff to the point of looking like Bill Cosby would be the pitchman for it. Bright colors worked the best for the Jell-O Jigglers. Tortoises love bright colors. In fact, Turtle Boy showed me the tortoise he got when he was a little kid. He said he could put the beast outside the front door in the spring when the dandelions were blooming and he’d go from plant to plant, eating the flowers off each one. The yellow color was that appealing to him. Plus, because of his inherent lightning speed, the tortoise could be set out by the front door in the morning and he wouldn’t make it to the street before Turtle Boy got home that night!

Another discussion focused on the possibilities of adding an extruder to the operation. It would enable Turtle Boy to make even more food products for his customers. Used ones ran anywhere from seventy-five grand to two-point-eight million! That prospect was more of a long-term planning sort of thing than a run-to-Target-for-some-equipment-and-supplies sort of thing. But an extruder would allow him to get to the kind of volume where he’d be using a big square bale EVERY DAY instead of a few every year. As you might suspect, I was a strong proponent of the extruder purchase. Strictly for Turtle Boy’s business opportunities, of course.

Things were looking up for Turtle Boy. He moved from his original location to a newer, considerably huger facility in nearby Cedar Falls a couple of years ago. Even so, the extruder never came to be, as far as I know. And the baling volume never really got to my expectation levels. In fact, Turtle Boy asked if I could bring the baler to his shop sometime, because he knew someone with two obese children. She felt a little work with a baler would be a good cardiovascular workout for them. I delivered the baler with the next bale and opted to forego the privilege of standing in a cloud of chaff in my hay shed, tying teeny tiny little bales in the freezing cold of January and then trying to get them to Waterloo without having them blow out of the truck.

Did you happen to notice that we had a little precipitation this past June here in Iowa? One of the places that got hit hard was the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area. In particular, the flood did no favors whatsoever to Turtle Boy Enterprises. I had delivered a bale to him in April. The check had not arrived yet in May, so I sent them an e-mail reminder. They’d get right on it. Then it rained. Another reminder was sent. They’d get right on it as soon as they were done with the pumps and the mops. The flooding had not been good to them.

Recently I received a letter from the Northern District of Iowa’s U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Turtle Boy has filed paperwork for Chapter 7. I am listed as a creditor. I summoned my lawyer for a confab. We have now mapped out a possible strategy. I made a call yesterday to confirm that my stated account receivable was at the proper level on the federal list. I also mentioned how my baler was neither purchased by, leased to, nor owned by said deadbeat. Turtle Boy’s attorney will do all he can to see that my hard asset is returned to me, free and clear. The account receivable? Well, he wasn’t so sure about the full and complete return of that to me.

In the storybook of life, I may want to delete Chapter 7. If I can’t, I hope I don’t spend a lot of tortoise-quality time in it.

Guy No. 2

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