About 90 percent of the timothy hay grown in Kittitas County is shipped overseas, with importers mostly from Japan selecting bales largely based on color.

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On a recent summer morning, a sales manager from Japan and his assistant were driven to a 1,100-acre hay farm about three miles southeast of town.

They had flown into Seattle a few days earlier. At this particular farm, the sales manager, Kenny Miura, of Yoshi International out of Tokyo, went inside a massive barn stacked 20 feet high with bales of timothy hay.

Timothy is the hay that is predominantly grown here in the Kittitas Valley.

Miura pulled some of the hay out of a bale and quickly gave it a grade — in this case, what amounts to about a “C.”

“It has a little bit of bluegrass in it,” he said.

To the surprise of many who don’t live here, 90 percent of the timothy grown in the valley will never be eaten by an American horse or cow.

The closest locals will get to it is when a hay truck goes by, or motorists see stacks covered with vinyl tarps in fields alongside Interstate 90.

Nearly all of the timothy from here is shipped by sea to Japan and, in lesser amounts, to countries such as South Korea and China, and also the United Arab Emirates.

It means $35 million to $38 million is paid to the farmers, and an additional $80 million or so pumped into the economy as the farmers then spend money on everything from equipment to labor, according to the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce.

At a time when some wonder what the United States can export other than movies and video games, the exporting of timothy hay is an amazing success story.

Timothy hay is named, naturally, after a guy named Timothy Hanson, who promoted it in the early 1700s.

The publication Agricultural History tells how, because of a lack of good forage, livestock on the average farm in colonial America “were generally thin, weak, and susceptible to disease.” That is when various kinds of grass seeds from Europe were tried, including one that would become known as timothy grass.

It was native to Scandinavia, and, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture reference book, became popular because it “is one of the most cold-tolerant cool-season grasses.”

Horse and dairy-cow owners in this state do buy some of the timothy, but for the most part, they’re priced out. Farmers can get $180 to $320 a ton from export sales, broker Rollie Bernth said.

Selling timothy hay for export is profitable, but it does have its own idiosyncrasies. Buyers generally focus on how green the timothy is, not its nutritional value.

The grading criteria for timothy used by a buyer such as Miura is formidable, and, to an observer, perplexing.

There are Super Premium Horse, Premium Horse and No. 1 Horse grades. There are Super Premium Dairy, Premium Dairy, No. 1A Dairy, No. 1B Dairy, No. 1.5 Dairy and No. 2 Dairy.

The differences in grading are because of the presence of bluegrass in the hay, or the length of the seed head, or the thickness of the stems.

“It’s almost purely aesthetic,” says John Kugler, a retired educator with Washington State University’s Grant/Adams County extension, who has researched timothy hay. “It’s the visual aspect, just like people want to buy potatoes that don’t have scabs on them.”

But the grade is what affects the price. That is why timothy growers fear rain, which bleaches out the green.

Kugler says a little rain, and a little bit of bleaching, don’t reduce the nutritional value of the timothy.

“A horse doesn’t care, and neither does a cow,” says Bernth, president of Ward Rugh, about green timothy. His company is one of half a dozen brokers in Ellensburg that export timothy.

But as they say here, it’s not the horse writing the check, but the owner.

Ellensburg hay

The international market for timothy hay out of Ellensburg began in 1971 with a bit of serendipity. It was an unexpected phone call to Ron Anderson, who, along with his dad, Clarence, founded Anderson Hay & Grain in Ellensburg. The company is a big player in the hay market.

Ron Anderson, now 80, had been flying around the country in the 1960s in his Cessna 180 to promote timothy hay.

He found markets at racetracks and Thoroughbred horse farms in Canada, California, the Midwest and numerous East Coast cities. A particular selling point, of course, was how green the Ellensburg hay was.

Anderson says that in 1971, he was contacted by Japanese investors who had been going to buy racehorses in Kentucky and saw the Ellensburg hay.

A company history that Anderson Hay published in 2010 for its 50th anniversary recounts, “Our hay always had the most beautiful color … The Japanese were immediately captivated by the green color of the timothy and were particularly amazed by the length of time that the Washington state hay kept that attractive verdant hue.”

And so in 1971, Anderson Hay shipped 200 tons of hay to Japan.

In 2009, it was 183,000 tons of timothy hay that were produced here and headed mostly overseas, says the county.

Now, every summer, the Japanese buyers descend on this town.

They poke the bales and the brokers pay close attention.

As John Kugler quoted an exporter in a research paper Kugler presented in 2004 at the National Alfalfa Symposium, “High quality timothy is whatever the customer says it is!”

Winds make difference

Bernth has been driving Miura, one of his clients, around to farms.

Says Bernth, “It’s the only cash crop here that you can make a living at.”

Miura is 45, a city guy, and had earned his college degree in international law. He then went to work for Yoshi, a large trading company.

He was assigned to the feed division and has worked in that section for the past 22 years. He comes to Ellensburg several times a year.

It is the Ellensburg winds that make the valley so desirable for growing timothy. “As much as we bitch and cuss the winds in this valley, it dries out the hay,” says Jeff Brunson.

On this day, Miura was visiting the farm that Brunson runs with his wife, Jackie.

A hay farmer is always betting against the weather.

With Brunson’s $2.5 million investment in farming equipment, a few days of no rain matter a lot. Brunson says he needs five days of good weather to dry, bale and store the hay.

If there is a drenching rain, the green color is washed out of the timothy. It turns straw-colored, and that top rating of “Super Premium Horse” is forever out of reach. The hay descends into feed for dairy cows.

“If it rains for a couple hours,” Brunson said, “you’re done.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com