Minnesota horse feed maker turns to forgotten crop as an ingredient and investment
Mary Hartman's Kasson, Minn.-based StableFeed firm is bringing back a forgotten perennial crop – sainfoin – to create healthy horse feed as well as a new niche in the U.S. agriculture market.
KASSON, Minn. — When researching for her healthy horse feed, Mary Hartman found a key ingredient and a new commodity in a mostly forgotten crop that hasn't been broadly grown in the U.S. since the 1890s.
“My introduction to sainfoin came from researching the equine microbiome. I read an article by a UK researcher who mentioned sainfoin as an outstanding forage for horses that they love to eat. I had never heard of it,” said Hartman. “It's a really ancient forage legume. It used to be grown specifically for horses and sheep. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it. They tried to get it to go here. It turned out that alfalfa was easier to grow in rich soils, so it was passed over.”
Sainfoin is a perennial crop with purple flowers that is harvested and baled like alfalfa. After discovering a handful of growers started raising sainfoin in Montana in the 1970s, Hartman tracked them down and started buying up sainfoin to use in her StableFeed products .
“The Montana producers are excited, because there wasn't a market for sainfoin. They just grew a few fields for themselves. Why would you grow a lot of something when there's no market?” she said. “Now, I've created a market for it.”
Thanks to Hartman, sainfoin is now being harvested in southeastern Minnesota for the first time in modern memory. Kory Weis, a Pine Island area farmer, planted a patch of sainfoin for Hartman and they are experimenting with the best ways to grow and harvest it.
Good for horses
“We are the only commercial providers of sainfoin into the market in North America. I'm going to move 190 tons of sainfoin into the market this year. Some of that may go to South Korea, where they have requested 40 tons,” she said.
Selling straight sainfoin pellets is a growing market for Hartman. However, it is also important for her growing business, because sainfoin is also the base ingredient in all five of her feed blends for horses with specific health issues.
After starting in 2017 making chia horse biscuits in Rochester basements and garages, Hartman’s healthy horse treats and feed company has grown and evolved into a popular name in the equine market.
StableFeed outgrew spaces in Rochester, so Hartman and her seven employees are now based in a 3,200-square-foot facility in Kasson.
“The rent is higher in Rochester than Kasson. This facility is perfect, and there is more space that I could grow into,” she said looking at the warehouse full of bags of her products awaiting shipment.
Each of the five horse feeds feature sainfoin pellets “garnished” with carrots, dandelions, spirulina, prickly pear, burdock, bee pollen and other ingredients that horses used to consume while foraging. StableFeed also still sells the original five types of chia biscuits that launched the company. Most of her business direct sales via her website.
While her high-end, specialty feeds are not cheap, Hartman points out that they are less expensive than calling a vet to treat a horse struggling with gut issues or other health problems.
When she developed the feeds, Hartman worked closely with Minnesota’s Agricultural Utilization Research Institute . AURI is a state-funded nonprofit that spurs economic development by helping entrepreneurs develop and launch new products.
Alan Doering, a senior scientist who manages AURI’s Coproducts Utilization Laboratory in Waseca, Minnesota, has worked with the development of a lot of animal feeds. However, Hartman brought several novel ingredients to the table, including sainfoin.
“I actually farm and we grow alfalfa. … I had no idea what sainfoin was. The interesting thing about sainfoin is that it is a legume. It's high in protein like alfalfa. Unlike alfalfa, it's non-bloating. So it is safe for horses,” said Doering.
Good for the land
He sees a lot of promise in sainfoin as a crop in Minnesota.
“I think the big opportunity for sainfoin in Minnesota would be planting it on marginal land. Whether it's river bottom or whether it's hilly land that is higher in sandy soils, this is an ideal crop to produce protein,” said Doering.
Alfalfa production is on the decline in Minnesota with low commodity prices and less dairies operating in the state. This could provide a useful alternative to alfalfa for some farmers, he added.
As a perennial, sainfoin can help farmers who are concerned about erosion.
“It is basically a living cover crop on your soil throughout the winter,” Doering said. “And yet, it's not a cover crop, because you're harvesting it. It's a living cover. It'll come up, year after year.”
Weis, the farmer who is growing sainfoin for Hartman in the Pine Island area, said it stands out from other local crops.
“When everything else is brown in the fall, after everything freezes before we get snow, this stuff was just as green as could be right up until the snow covered it up. And it starts earlier in the spring. It was greening up just as soon as the days started getting warm. We get some sunlight and it takes off growing,” said Weis.
He added that the purple flowers are also very popular with bees. During peak pollinating time, visitors can hear the buzzing before the sainfoin field comes into view, according to Weis.
A bright future
Looking ahead, Hartman expects to grow and sell more sainfoin. She is optimistic that more and more stables and individual owners will start using her feeds and biscuits after they see the difference the products make in a horse’s health and appearance.
She would like to build a new facility to turn sainfoin into pellets to ramp up production and closely control the quality of the pellets.
Of course, sainfoin will be a key part of the future growth of StableFeed.
“I really think this is a plant that's time has come. I think that this is a plant that could play a really big role in the ag sector, both in the short term and the long term,” said Hartman.