RIVIERA BEACH – Wellington’s equestrian season is in full swing, and that means there’s huge demand for everything from hotel rooms to saddles and champagne, including a mundane necessity for horses—high quality hay.

More than 6,000 horses are competing this year in the Winter Equestrian Festival at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington. It attracts over 250,000 people from January through March.

Southeast Hay Distributors, based at the Port of Palm Beach in Riviera Beach, is helping to keep the horses well-fed and comfortable in their stalls in Wellington and throughout South Florida. It provides such top-quality hay varieties as Timothy and Alfalfa and such equine bedding materials as pine shavings and wheat straw.

Alexander Christensen, the company’s 32-year-old CEO and chairman, was born in St. Louis, but grew up in Wellington and now lives in West Palm Beach.

The company handles 7,000 tons of hay each year, as well as a variety of other products from animal feed to tractors that it ships by rail or truck within the U.S. and by ship to such international markets as the Dominican Republic and the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean and the United Arab Emirates.

In Wellington it works primarily with stables with 100 or more horses. Operations that size can consume as much as 120,000 pounds of product a week.

“A lot of them have facilities elsewhere such as Ocala, Colorado or Texas. We ship the same product to them in other locations,” Christensen said.

Christensen, and his father Duane Christensen, who died in 2018 at 89, founded the company in 2008. His Dad spent 34 years at Maritz, an advertising and marketing firm in St. Louis, where he held top management positions, but had no experience in agriculture or shipping.

“My father really had a creative mind when it came to ideas that are outside of the box. In my opinion, the hay and feed business as a whole is kind of like a cowboy, old-school type of business,” Christensen said.

It was through a friend’s request that Christensen fell into the business. He was a licensed construction contractor but was also overseeing the legendary polo-playing Wellington-based Orthwein family’s horse farm.

“I had taken some horses over to Holland for a friend of mine. I got a call from Stevie Orthwein. He said he needed hay,” Christensen recalled.Christensen found a supplier, and the Orthweins were his first customers.

Southeast Hay still delivers and sells hay and bedding directly to people who board horses in the 215 stalls at Port Mayaca Polo Club in Okeechobee. The club founded in 2007 is owned and operated by the Orthwein family.

“They provide consistent quality products and are very dependable,” Laura Linfoot Townsend, the club’s manager, said of Southeast Hay.

On a recent afternoon at the company’s 10,000-square-foot warehouse, Christensen pointed out the different types of hay stacked as high as 30 feet in neat, sweet-smelling bales. A forklift operator, one of seven employees, moved products in and out.

“Hay is basically baled grass,” Christensen said. “Hay comes from all over the place. The hay over there is from Ontario, Canada. This hay here is from Alberta, Canada. We have Washington state hay here.”

“In Palm Beach County our best seller is a Timothy-Alfalfa mix,” Christensen said.

Doing business in other countries such as the UAE, known for its prized purebred Arabian horses, proved to be a challenge.

“When you go somewhere like the UAE, there are a lot of residents there, but not a lot of locals starting their own business. You can move to Dubai, but you will never become a citizen,” Christensen said.

Christensen worked with the U.S. Export-Import Bank to obtain an insurance policy on the company’s foreign accounts receivables. The policy enables the company to provide credit to customers and protection for non-payment.

Christensen said it’s challenging to find a place to do business in Palm Beach County for a company storing and loading bales of hay and operating 79 semi-trailer trucks that run in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, and even Colorado. Southeast Hay moved

to the port a year ago after a facility it leased from the Florida East Coast Railway was purchased by Brightline.

“The port district is awesome. They have been really conducive to helping us operate our business,” Christensen said.

Manuel Almira, executive director, Port of Palm Beach, said, “Southeast Hay Distributors represents an excellent example of the port’s diversity in product lines. They distribute products to meet the demand of both local and international buyers. The primary reason they

chose to establish an office and warehouse at the Port of Palm Beach was to increase their exports of animal feed to the Caribbean.”

While Palm Beach County is known for producing sugar from sugar cane and growing major vegetable crops such as sweet corn, hay isn’t produced as a commercial crop here. It is grown in North Florida, Georgia and many other states.

“The folks we purchase from are small farmers who were at some point in the dairy industry and grew hay for their own cows,” Christensen said. “We are just as much in logistics as we are in acquiring and selling product.”

The company has warehouses in Lumber City, Ga., and the Sharaj-Dubai region. It ships some products out of the port in Savannah, Ga., and receives hay in Aiken, S.C.

Palm Beach Post