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Innovations born in farm shops

Curt Arens Orthman machinery
FARM TOOLS: Orthman Manufacturing Inc., like so many great farm manufacturing companies of today, started out in Henry Orthman’s farm shop — with an idea that could make life easier on his own farm.
Some of the greatest innovations in agriculture have come from someone’s farm shop.

Henry Orthman was a busy guy. He raised corn, alfalfa and sugarbeets, fattened cattle and had farrow-to-finish hogs.

Very early in his farming days, Orthman started modifying farming equipment and building a few pieces on his own to help with the sugarbeet operation, so these pieces would work with the 3-point hitch on his Ford and Ferguson tractors.

During the winter months, neighbors and other beet producers would ask Orthman to build equipment for them, too. Over time, farming and feeding livestock became a smaller part of what Orthman was doing. He moved his equipment shop into a 50-foot-by-38-foot wooden hay shed, and in 1967, he incorporated Orthman Manufacturing Inc.

Orthman was a farmer first, but that led him into business to build equipment that would make farming easier and more efficient. Today, Orthman Manufacturing is just another example of the ingenuity of a great Nebraska company — that all started out in Orthman’s farm shop.

Gary Vermeer was a farmer, too. In 1943, he invented a wagon hoist to make life a little easier on his Iowa farm. Like in Orthman’s case, Vermeer’s neighbors liked the idea, and asked if he would build hoists for them.

In 1948, Vermeer opened Vermeer Manufacturing Co. After hearing other friends and neighbors complain about finding enough help to put up hay, Vermeer decided to try to come up with a baling system that was a one-person job. That pursuit of a better way led to the invention of the big round baler that changed the haying industry forever.

These farmer-inventors, along with so many others — including Frank Zybach, the father of the center pivot — saw a need and tried to come up with a new way of doing things that would make life easier for farmers, and help them be more efficient.

Today’s innovators

Fast forward to today. That same innovation that came from farm shops a few decades ago continues. Farmers still tinker with their equipment. They still build their own modifications and innovations. Just as likely as the farm shop is for those innovations, many engineering and technological wonders invented by modern farmers might come from a computer or smartphone screen.

I recently listened in on the OnRamp Agriculture Conference presented, in part, by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. One of the farmer panels included Nebraska producers who came up with an idea, and then shared that idea with the right people with the right background who took the idea to concept, to field testing and will eventually take it to market.

Other farmers on the panel developed their own tech and apps. All of these farmers not only are creative problem-solvers, but they also enjoy the process of innovation and field testing. They want to be involved in the early stages of innovation, and they like communicating with inventors and innovators about ways to tweak their inventions and make them better.

Over the years, producers and their farm shops have been the innovators in the industry. That makes sense, because they know what is needed to reach the goals of sustainability and profitability on the farm.

It is good to know that innovators such as Orthman, Vermeer and Zybach are still out there, still working and inventing, and still field-testing their concepts to make the farming life a better life.

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