I’ve been covering the farm equipment market since the mid-1980s, and a favorite activity has been talking with some of the pioneers of this industry. For many, the equipment you’re buying has the name of someone on the side — whether it’s John Deere or Claas, there’s a person’s name attached to that history.
In many cases, those originators have passed on but have left their legacies for the industry. However, a few original innovators are still in the business, including Jon Kinzenbaw, whose Kinze has been bringing some interesting innovations to market for more than 50 years — “56, actually,” says Kinzenbaw, as I climb into his combine during a beautiful day for harvesting soybeans near his Iowa home.
Kinzenbaw continues to be involved in farming — not because he has to, but because it’s his passion, and he has a voice in the business.
These days, ag innovation is almost a buzzword, but for legacy short-liners like Kinzenbaw, innovation started with the smell of a welder and the sound of metal being drilled, shaped or polished.
“I couldn’t farm; that wasn’t possible,” Kinzenbaw recalls.
That drove him to open a shop to do farm repairs and welding. To get that shop, he had to get a loan for equipment, and then he had to get into a building.
“I was $5,000 in debt the day I opened the doors,” he quips.
Those early years involved helping customers, fixing machines and seeing opportunities to solve problems. And from there, his ideas and innovations came forth.
The reason for my visit with Kinzenbaw was to check out the new Kinze 1121 grain cart. The machine, back in the line, replaces the venerable 1050 cart that was very popular for the company.
Reminiscing about the business
Looking back on a historic career in this business — including a successful patent lawsuit against John Deere, and the invention of the first high-flotation dual-auger grain cart and the first folding planter — Kinzenbaw doesn’t express bravado, but modesty in saying he just did what he had to do to solve a problem. If that meant innovating, that meant innovating.
But his focus has often been on the idea that he was in control. Not always easy. There were times when finances were tight, but he muscled through. On a factory tour a few years ago, I saw the processes deployed at Kinze.
My one surprise was that the company makes its own hydraulic cylinders. Those are precision parts, and most manufacturers have farmed that work out to vendors that specialize. For Kinze, it was par for the course. Kinzenbaw needed hydraulic cylinders, so he made them.
To be successful in any industry, you must be flexible, and no doubt the pandemic has worked to make all manufacturers more flexible. Kinzenbaw is chairman at Kinze, with daughter Susie Veatch running the day-to-day operations, but he’s there regularly, too. “We’re doing what we can to have the machines farmers want for next season,” he says.
Kinzenbaw has seen plenty in this industry over the years but notes that the supply issues impacting agriculture are a first for him, and that includes the halcyon days of hot equipment sales in the late 1970s, when getting equipment wasn’t easy. “It’s just something we’ve never seen before,” he says.
Besides talking about the industry, Kinzenbaw enjoys partaking in good conversation and telling stories about those early days. And stick around long enough, and pretty soon, he’ll have to tell you a joke or two to create a good time for all.