Below is the full interview between Mike Lessiter, editor of Farm Equipment, and Marion Calmer. Calmer tells the origin story of his experience in no-till innovations at Calmer Ag Research Center, Calmer Farms and Calmer Corn Heads — even though he thought he just wanted to be a farmer.
Marion Calmer: And I'm Marion Calmer. And I am the owner of Calmer Farms. I'm the owner of Calmer's Ag Research Center, an independent research center, and also Calmer Corn Heads.
Mike Lessiter: Interesting thing is, you've done some of this before when…
Marion Calmer: Oh yeah, with your dad — your dad and me were down and… So, you got some notes probably from some of the things that, way back.
Mike Lessiter: It's '11. Time flies.
Marion Calmer: God.
Mike Lessiter: Six years ago.
Marion Calmer: Yeah. We were just, we were just starting to... I was just starting to find out what it was like to have, you know, a positive checking account.
Mike Lessiter: So this is all this is. Yeah.
Marion Calmer: It’s amazing what a difference that has in your attitude when you wake up in the morning.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah.
Marion Calmer: In the mid-80s I started to do on-farm research, and which led me to the discovery of yield advantage and narrow-row corn in the mid-90s, which led me to building the world's first 15-inch corn head, which then led me to a residue buildup problem in the late '90s with the onset of Bt corn stalks and then that led me to designing and manufacturing the Bt Chopper stalk roll, and starting up the company that we now call Calmer Corn Heads.
To sum it up it, we find problems that occur during harvesting and we come up with solutions. And it's mainly based in the corn head area which relates us to the residue of the corn stock, and the ability to, to put a lot of yellow ears in the combine which then is a chain of events, which makes it easier for the operator to set the machine, and it makes it easier for the machine to get a nice clean sample which then is a chain of events that gives us a higher quality product that we can export and hopefully will gain us some repeat business down the line somewhere — that somebody will choose to buy our corn instead of somebody else's corn.
Mike Lessiter: So, you're a farmer. You're a researcher. You're an equipment manufacturer.
Marion Calmer: Yeah. I guess, you know, originally, I had spent some time with Gage corporation and with some of my first inventions and then with John Deere for a little while and ultimately I decided that, you know what, I just wanna do it myself. And so we started this thing in the back of our little machine shed and kind of playing around.
And so the 15-inch corn head was, was the first thing that we built, actually as a response to the agronomy work that we had done, and showed a nice yield advantage of about 5%, or 10 bushel. And the only problem was that there wasn't anything to harvest that with. And so, I built one in my shed, but at the time, I did not realize that it was patentable and then found out that I should probably visit with a patent attorney.
So, that's kind of what led us to that early innovation. And then in the, the 2002 era, 2003, when we actually started building things and selling them to farmers. I don't know that that was one of my dreams early on was to become a manufacturer of corn heads and corn head parts. But, I think we just tried to follow the path. And, I always tell everybody, it's almost as if our greater Lord and God had created this path, and it was just a matter of time before I realized that, and I needed to follow that to be able to help food production and also the preserving of our natural resources here in this country, and as well as worldwide.
Mike Lessiter: What was your plan when you were 16 years old?
Marion Calmer: Yeah. When I was, when I was 16, I just loved farming. And I always have and I always will. And that was my dream ever since my childhood. So, when I was a senior in high school, I borrowed $500 from grandma and $500 from the local bank, and said, “I'm gonna go out and buy 10 pigs.”
And started to grow, corn, soybeans and, and pigs. That first year, I realized there was a lot of things that I didn't know about growing corn and soybeans and pigs. So, my oldest brother was farming at the same time. And we were working together quite a bit and with dad, you know. And, he just turned to me one day. We were driving down the road, and he said, “You know, if the two of us are gonna farm for the rest of the time,” he said, “One of us ought to go to college and know what's going on.”
So, that was the moment in time, one of those “a-ha” moments. I said, “Yeah.” And so, I spent one year, between high school and college, and I think that was a great moment for me. Because I ended up going to college because I wanted to be there and I wanted to learn about agriculture. But I still just wanted to come home and grow corn, soybeans, and pigs for the rest of the time. Never dreamed any of this was in my future.
Mike Lessiter: So, growing up were you — up until that time — had you recognized that you were a tinker, that you were, you were going to be inventing stuff, or did that drop in? Was there a moment of clarity that that popped in for you?
Marion Calmer: You know, since I was a kid, you know, dad was, we always had older machinery. And, uh, I was just so thankful for the ancestors, that I had and I think that's part of it that's brought me to where I am today. My ancestors actually came over from Sweden and they were blacksmiths. And they settled in our local community which is mainly Swedish, predominantly Swedish. And, then they also started to farm at the, at the same time.
And so, my grandfather and his brother were the first ones to take a wooden corn sheller, stationary corn sheller, and they mounted it on a solid rubber-tiered Model T truck. And so, my grandfather and his brother would go around the community and they would shell ear corn out of the cribs. And so, they were — as we've been told — were some of the first ones to invent the mobile corn shelling unit that you saw Deere & Company made the trucks…
And, from that, then of course they passed that onto to dad, that innovation. And so, growing up with dad, you know, I would come home from school and be frustrated because everybody else was planting corn and we were still working on old machinery. And, I turned to dad one day at the kitchen table and I said, “You know, why don't we go out and, and buy some newer machinery, and then we won't have to be working on all the old machinery. And when I come home from school, we could be planting corn instead of fixing machinery.”
Dad turned to me, you know, kind of smiling and he said, “Well, why would we wanna buy any new machinery?” He said, “Let's just figure out what's wrong with what we have. And, then let's fix it and make it better, and then we'll have what we need.” And, that kind of stuck with me. And I kind of learned that train of thought and that thinking of, “What's the problem?” And then, “what's the solution?”
And, so, I think that was instilled in me as I grew up. So, and then being a gearhead, you know, I liked working with machinery and cars and stuff like that, and trucks, and tractors, and so on and so forth. So, I had always kind of been building some of my own farm machinery, or modifying my own farm machinery. And dad enjoyed that kind of stuff as well, but it wasn't until when I was in my mid-30s… that finding out that I was actually an inventor of something was all new to me.
Mike Lessiter: Tell me about that, that time in your 30s and what you would define as your first invention.
Marion Calmer: The agronomy research thing was what kicked in in the middle '80s. And, I remember I bought my first farm, struggling to start my own farming operation from scratch, and financially it was, it was a real challenge during the '80s, and I guess I feel fortunate that I survived the '80s, to go on. So I bought my first farm one year before land prices bottomed down in '84.
And, after the farm sale is over, I realize that well, now I've gotta pay for it. And I thought to myself, I need to know the most profitable ways of growing corn and soybeans, so that I can make payments. And I don't wanna lose my farm. And, so that's what was the motivation behind the on-farm research. And, that was a good thing, got to meet a lot of interesting people. And, so then as I progressed through that, then some of the farm media started picking up on the fact that I owned an independent Ag research facility and nobody was funding me any money. And I get to this day to take my first dollar. I do it all myself, and then I just share that information.
Mike Lessiter: That's important. This is not bought research. That's —
Marion Calmer: You're exactly right. That, and I think that's what makes me popular around the country is the fact that everybody knows, “Well, this is the truth. You know, Marion hasn't had a chance to be biased by anything.” So, the farm media started to pick up. And I started appearing on the cover of magazines about the on-farm research that I was doing. And, so then that led to phone calls that said, “Hey, we would like you to come speak to our group of farmers at our fertilizer dealership, or the Innovative Farmers of Huron County, or at the National No-Till Conference, or for Monsanto, or DuPont, or whoever.”
And Yetter was a big part of this whole trip. So, from that to the DuPont No-Till Neighbors, I was one of the four in the state of Illinois practicing no-till. Then tthey asked me to host a field day, and we had a great turnout. And then from there, the Yetter people asked me to talk and then from there the Monsanto people, and then the No-Till people, and, so it's just a chain of events once that opened up.
But, the moment that I still remember was that as I was on the speaking circuit, I was, during the winter month, had flown up into the Thumb of Michigan and the Innovative Farmers of Huron County actually asked me to speak. And so, I'm up there and I'm clicking through, and I said, “Well, I've been working with a neighbor,” and I said, “You know, here's his planner, and here's my planner and we're comparing 30-inch rows to 36-inch rows.”
And I presented the data, and I said, “You know, about a five or six bushel advantage if you go from 36's down to 30,” because that's what, at that point in time, everybody was still looking at. And, so, one of the farmers raised his hand and he said, “Well, have you ever researched growing corn in rows that are narrower than 30 inches?” And that was the moment I said, “You know, I have not.” And he said, “Well, up here,” he said, “You know, we've got sugar beets and 22-inch rows, and we'd be interested in knowing.” And so, as I'm going home on the plane, I'm sitting there in my notebook — I said, this is something I wanna look at.
And, I had built this planter to plant 6-inch rows of soybeans with a 6-inch seed space, and it was the older Cyclo planters that had the drum on there. So, as I'm in the plane, I'm sitting there thinking, “You know, if I took a roll of duct tape and put the corn drums on this planter instead of the bean drums, I could do research for this individual and I could, with that roll of duct tape, I could plant 12-inch row corn, 18-inch rows, 24-inch rows, 30's and 36's, same planter, same field, same variety, same hybrid, same population, and all that.
And so, I got it all figured out in my head, and I got home. And in that spring, we went out right behind the machine shed and laid out all these plots. And they'd come up out of the ground, and I'm like, “Boy, this is really cool.” And then it dawned on me. How are you gonna harvest it, you dummy?
Then I was kind of forced, you know, I've gotta start giving some thought.
Mike Lessiter: And then not a lot of time to —
Marion Calmer: Well, not a lot of time. And, you know, during the summer, we're still giving field tours and everybody's asking, “How are you gonna harvest it?” And, so, we were lucky enough that, like, the 12-inch rows, we used the 30-inch head and we pulled two rows together. So, we would pick these plots, two rows at a time 'cause you couldn't take a full swap. You just knocked down too much. So, we picked two rows. And then we get the 12-inch stuff done. And then we pulled in, and then we'd pick one 18-inch row. You know, we'd peel it off and we'd go down and we'd pick one row on the way back.
Then we'd get through the next plot, and then we'd go to the wider ones. And so, we did that. We had a couple replications. And it, it took a couple of days to harvest all these plots, you know, one or two rows at a time, and then weigh it all off. And then when I compiled the data, I could see there was a strong yield advantage to go onto the narrow-row rows. And I said, “The only missing piece to the puzzle is the corn head.”
And so, then I start to struggle. Well, am I gonna go 12-inch rows, or 18-inch rows, or whatever? And, you know, the splitter planters from Jon Kinzenbaw were of course around planting soybeans, no tilling, doing a great job. And, I'm also growing seed corn for our local Pioneer plant that's right there along the interstate in Woodall. So, I'm thinking about the future at a 7,000 John Deere planter. And, I'm thinking all over, no-till, the latest no-till gadgets, you know. And I'm thinking, “Well, I still need to grow seed corn for Pioneer, 'cause that's, that's making good money. Hard work but good money.”
And I said, “if I had a 15-inch planter, I could grow 15-inch soybeans, no-till soybeans. I could grow 30-inch seed corn, and then I could also, on the other acres, I would grow 15-inch commercial corn.” So, I thought, that's the planter. That's the system. And I have the ability to go to any row spacing. And then, I said, “We, we've got to come up with a corn head.” And so, we started thinking about it. And everybody said, “Well, you'll never, you'll never be able to build a corn head.” So, I remembered back to being in the neighbor's cornfield doing some custom work with an older head, you know. I was at the end of the field and I had one pass to go, and I broke a gathering chain.
And, so I had to stop. All the ears had piled up. And so, I cleaned it all out, and took the old gathering chain, threw it in the cab, and I'm like, I'm gonna finish. I'm not gonna stop and go back and get a new chain, put it... So, I go another 15 feet and then I could just watch all the ears piling up in the row unit. And I'd stop and I'd clean them all out. And then I went real slow and then I would kind of watch how those ears would come up in there, and then they would fall over into that voided area that was left because the chain that had fallen off.
And, I said, gosh, I said, “I just had, like, a two before, or something, to lay down in that void area.” I said, “Those ears would stay up there and I'd be able to get to the end of the field.” And I kind of looked over on the fence and I didn't see anything. So, I just kept cleaning it out and finally I got to the end of the field. And then I think I finally turned the combine around and just picked three rows at a time until I got done.
But that had been, like, five years before. And then I got to thinking about the narrow-row corn, the 15-inch corn and started measuring the gear boxes. And the first one we measured was, like, 15 1/8 inches wide. And I looked at it and I said, “I think we can take a hand grinder and narrow it up to 15 inches.” But I said, “What am I gonna do here with...” And, and there was not enough room for two chains. And, so then this concept hit me of what I'd remembered across the, the road at the neighbor's field. And, so then we started playing around, and I think some of the first ones were just, you know, a piece of steel or a piece of wood. Because with a piece of wood, it was easy for us to take the saw and manipulate the design. And so we kind of played around with that. So, the first maiden voyage was an old junky four-row head that we'd pulled out of the fence row, put it in the shed with my little combine, and I hired men to help me. And so, we took all the row units off, and hand grinder and slid them together.
And then we had to get rid of that gathering chain shaft. And so we tried to just cut it off with a cut-off wheel. Oh, it's hard and steel, you know, and you can hardly cut it off. And, but we finally managed to get it, cut it off and grind it down. And, a little bit later, the hired men and I were looking at each other and said, “You know, we could have just opened up the gear box and just took the shaft out.” It would have been a lot simpler.
So then, in December of 1994, then we took the video camera, the old VHS and, and crawled near combine, and I had left corn stand for the deer. I said, “Well, now is a perfect time to go out and and try it out.” We did the maiden voyage. It was like 13 degrees out. I had the camera and we went the length of the field.
And so, we had, we had done the research on the different row spacings, seen the data and so then we went right to working on the corn head in my heated shop. And, so then we made a couple more design changes and, you know, we, of course we had to build… you know, you couldn't buy any new parts. We had to build everything with a torch and a hand grinder and a welder. So, we kind of had a design that we thought would work and, and then a friend of mine told me that what I had done was patentable.
He said, “You need to shut your mouth and get to a patent attorney.” And so, my first patent attorney, again, this is... All of these things almost were like somebody had laid them out ahead of me and all I had to do was execute. He was retired from Deere & Company. And he had his own private practice as a patent attorney. They called him the Wizard. He was in charge of Deere & Company's intellectual property department.
I sat down, visited with him and told him what I'd done. And he says, “That, that is patentable.” And I said, “Well, how do you know?” And he said, “Well, I've been in the industry at Deere and Case, and if anybody had done this,” he said, “I would know about it.” And he said, “We'll do a patent search, but,” he said, “I'm pretty sure you're gonna get a patent.”
And he started the patent application. As I was leaving his office, I turned to him and I said, “So, why is it you're retired from Deere? I would assume you'd be at home watching the logs burn in a fireplace.” And, Vince, he turned to me and he says, “You know something.” He said, “I just like the fun of it and the innovators that I meet.” He had worked with Eugene Keeton. He's a good buddy of his, Howard Martin, and Gregg Sauder. And so, he had a pretty good track record of —
Mike Lessiter: Those were all guys we're doing, interviewing for this series.
Marion Calmer: Oh, yeah. Great group of guys. I have been honored to have their wisdom, their knowledge and, and stuff. So, I said, “Well, good answer. You write my patent up for me.” He says, “I'll do that.” I was going through the door, he says, “Hey, c ome back here.” I said, “What?” He said, “I've met your kind before.” And I said, “Really?” And he goes, “Yep. I'm pretty confident that once you learn the train of thought for innovation, and once you learn the system of filing patents and what it takes, I'm pretty confident that you're just going to continue to come out with inventions and patentable concepts into the future. And it'll be in the corn harvesting department.”
Mike Lessiter: So, he's kind of telling you, your farm days alone are over —
Marion Calmer: Yeah. He, he could kind of see the writing on the wall. I turned to him and I said, “Vince,” I said, “You're wrong. This is a one and done deal. I just stumbled onto this idea, we're gonna run with it wherever it takes us.” But I said this. And today I think we have like 20 different inventions over this 20-year stretch. I think I was in my late 30s and now I'm 61. So, had a few years to work on coming up with new ideas.
Mike Lessiter: So, was that experience that led you to working with the major line OEMs at that point? Was that next?
Marion Calmer: Yep. The very next call, as soon as we had filed the patent, I had contacts at both Deere and Case. I showed them what we had done. We had some field days for them. And they were both interested, and sitting down and having some conversations. But at that point in time, we decided to visit with the Case people, and I, born and raised with red machinery.
So, we visited with them. And we started there. Things were okay, but, you know, the innovation and where I was at was quite always ahead of what they were looking at. The marketing people, like, they thought I've got the next great toy. Narrow-row corn is gonna be the next step in agriculture. And marketing people were really excited about it.
But on the corn head side, we couldn't pull it all together quick enough. Then I moved on and worked with the John Deere people. You know, I'd learned a lot and I think both Deere and Case learned quite a bit. The younger engineers learned quite a bit from me while I was there. And, a little bit about the manufacturing, a little bit about the economics, a little bit about the business plan, and I turned to all the guys. I said, “Business plan? What's that?”
He goes, “Well, that's a plan that shows we're gonna make some money when we build this.” So, I had heard some of that, and, and knew, you know, how to be able to come up with the markup, you know, and learn about cost to manufacture, and you know, hardening and there's a lot, there was a lot of education. It went both ways.
So then, in the early 2000 era then I'm gonna need to go at it alone, if we're gonna make this thing fly, I gotta do it myself. And I had met Jon Kinzenbaw and visited with him at, at one of your No-Till conferences, and we'd given him an award for an innovator as well.
I called one day and talked to his secretary. And I said, “Well, I'm Marion Calmer. I invented the 15-inch corn head. I'd like to talk to Jon, 'cause he invented the 15-inch bean planter.” And she was, "He's pretty busy. Let me check.” Pretty soon, Jon comes on the phone. “Hey, Marion, how's it going?” I said, “Great. I’m from Illinois.” He said, “I know who you are, I read all about you in the magazine.” He was all excited and gave me some of his wisdom, you know, during his learning curve of going from, you know, re-horse powering up John Deere tractors to building planter frames and to where the company is today.
He just turned to me at the meeting set in Des Moines. I was there. Frank was at the table of this. And, Jon just turned to me. He said, “Marion, I'm here to tell you, if you want this thing done and done right, you'll do it yourself.” Grandpa used to say the same thing, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” And, so we started our own company. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to become a short line manufacturer of corn heads and corn head parts, let alone build the world's largest corn heads, the one with the narrowest row spacings, and, and invent the world's first chopping stalk row.
They just happened. I always tell everybody that necessity is the best mother of invention. And, if you find a problem, you know, our job is to come up with solutions. That's where we're at today, and I think we're gonna continue that on, and looking forward to the challenges as we move into the future.
Mike Lessiter: So, we’ll go back to that — 'cause you worked with both of those manufacturers. You were basically, you know, made deals that you were gonna come along and they were gonna carry this out to the market. Tell us what that was like, you know, that you’re dealing with battleships.
Marion Calmer: It was kind of interesting. You know, some of the people that I met at Case said, “You know what, we wanna become the industry leader. And, we need innovation. We need new things. And we want you in our camp and we want you to help us.” At the same time, you'd run into the few people that said, “you know,” and it's at both companies. I think it's with any major company.
You'd run into a few individuals that said, “You know, I've been here for 35 years. I know everything there is to know. And, it's not gonna work.” And I turned to them and I said, “You know what, with that attitude, you're exactly right.” And I think Henry Ford stated it best, “Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right.”
So, we kind of struggled, you know, and I'd wake up in certain mornings and just anxiety and I'm just like, “Gosh, that program's just not going the way it's supposed to.” And, then other days I'd wake up and say, “Oh, gosh, I'm gonna be a multimillionaire and everything's wonderful.” And then the next day it's like, I'm going broke. So, the emotional, financial rollercoaster thing was phenomenal in those early years, just from one day to the next. Or somebody'd say, “Oh, somebody's already done that.” Or you know, “It'll never work.” You know, just a lot of people that don't want you to be successful because it's new. And they're scared of new things, whether it's no-till or whether it's some different method of growing corn.
Mike Lessiter: So, was it the, the frustration of dealing with bureaucracy and hordes of engineers who didn't, you know... Like you said, finding a reason not to do it. Was that what lead you to say, “I'm ready to just make this thing happen by myself”?
Marion Calmer: Yeah. You know, the patents only last for so long and, and back then, they lasted for 17 years from date of application, my first one. I knew that the sand was going through the hourglass on my invention. You know, it was a passion that I believed that I was developing both mechanically and agronomically at the same time, something that would be useful for agriculture. And mainly the narrow-row corn or the solid seeded corn, and I kept telling everybody, “Corns are grass. It's just time we as farmers treat it like a grass and solid seed it.”
And, so we were just moving too slow, and I spent two, three years with the John Deere people. And, it was kind of different. There the corn head people were more excited. They thought that we really had something great, but we were still struggling a little bit with trash intake on that particular corn head that they had at that time. But the marketing people were on the other side of it, “Well, we're promoting 20-inch rows and so on and so forth.” So, it was kind of, kind of different. Case marketing people loved me. Corn head people were kind of lukewarm. And you’ve got to have both groups at a 10 on the interest level in order to make it fly. And so, then at Deere it was the other way around. The corn head people, they were a 10. The marketing people were kind of lukewarm on the idea. And I kind of thought about what Jon had told me, and his experiences and I said, “Boy,” I said... We're now into the early 2000 era. And I said, “If I'm gonna get this thing launched, I'm gonna have to do it — "
Mike Lessiter: How many years in the patent protection were you at at that point?
Marion Calmer: We were already five years in. So, I knew that we, we had spent some time there and the sand was running through the hourglass.
Mike Lessiter: It sounds like, to a degree, you were a reluctant manufacturer because if you had these other ones worked out, you wouldn't be sitting in the chair today as CEO at Calmer Corn Heads.
Marion Calmer: No. It was kind of… I had to instead of I wanted to. That was different. You know, in farming it was — I wanted to. But starting my own manufacturing company was, I just had to, and I can remember those first years, you know. We sold five or seven thousand dollars worth of parts. And I'm just like, “Wow, this is, this is pretty exciting.”
Mike Lessiter: What did your dad tell you, when you went home and, and said, “I've had enough of the two majors. I'm putting the stake in the ground and I'm gonna do this myself.”
Marion Calmer: Yeah. It was kind of interesting. Of course, grandpa had passed on, but when I was a younger and coming home from school, I'd jump in the car with grandpa and we'd go out to the field. They had to be out there picking their corn or combining beans or whatever. And, I can remember one weekend, my three older brothers were there with me and dad, so it was all three generations…
I remember grandpa saying, “You know, it's taken a long time to build the Calmer reputation.” And he kind of looked at us four boys, and then dad looked at us, and he said, “Yep, it's taken us a lifetime to build a reputation for the Calmer name.” And he said, “It's only gonna take you a heartbeat to destroy it.” And then he looks at me and he doesn't look at the other three boys. Oh, it could take a heartbeat to destroy it, you know. And I was just getting, you know, into the high school years, and you know, doing a little racing, street racing, you know, and stuff like that... It was kind of funny that mom and dad still laughed about it. But, you know what? They were as excited as anybody was. And they would come over when we built that first corn head. Mom and dad were there every day.
And they would sit there and watch us. There was about three of us that were fabricating the parts. And then, all of a sudden we'd come across and say, “You know what, we need 100 bolts this size.” And mom and dad would say, ”You know, we've got something to do.” And so, we'd hand them the bolt and they'd take off, go down to Galesburg and have lunch at Hardee’s or something, and pick up 100 bolts and come back to the shop. And so, they were our gophers. I can remember mom and dad, we put plastic paddles on the gathering chains in the early corn heads and so, I said, “Here's your job.”
So, they were over in the corner of the shop, you know, and the corn was starting to dry down. And so, mom and dad are over there and they're part of the game too. And they were very proud. I was proud to have them as part of my team. And my other brother was there as well and it was a joint effort, and everybody believed that it would work, but we still, when we built that first 11-row that first summer, we did not know for sure that it would run.
We had a pretty good idea that it would, but we still, there was still that margin of possibility that I had just grown 200 acres of 15-inch corn. And the neighbors had come over and they had a little box, and they gave the little box to me, and they said, “You need to open this for harvest.” And I said, “Why is that?” “Oh, you're gonna need it come harvest time.” I'm like, okay — I open it up and it was one of those hand husking pegs.
The neighbors were kind of banking on the fact that the corn head wasn't gonna run. And after that first 40 acres disappeared, they were pretty excited about it and they were kind of rooting for, cheering me. And today the neighbors are still... They joke, you know, but all the neighbors are excited about our success and our ability to make it, you know, that, we didn't know if, you know, we were gonna get to this point. We dreamed about it. We just didn't know.
I can remember that the day of the maiden voyage, and we pulled out and it was on the end rows, we purposely planted some early corn so we would have a chance to test the corn head prior to the season kicking in. That row, we took a whole bunch of pictures of it, you know, and then we pulled into the field and we were able to go 80 rows without stopping. And, you know, that's almost unheard of when you build prototypes. The ability to pull in the field and I felt pretty fortunate that everything that we had done, there was only one or two little minor things. We were jumping some gathering chains and we had to put in some anti back-feeding plates, and other than that, we had pretty much anticipated what we were expecting to see when we got to the field. I can remember I got to the end of that 80 rows and we stopped. And mom and dad, the employees were there, and I just started bawling. The passion that it takes to build something that people say can't be built, and then watch it run, oh. It's just unbelievable.
Mike Lessiter: Great day.
Marion Calmer: It was a great day. I've got a picture of it, and I hugged the employee, and my parents and my brother, “Couldn't have gotten here without you,” you know. One of those kind of deals. It was a pretty exciting day.
Mike Lessiter: So, from there, how long did it take ‘til the first, you know, first order and first shipment?
Marion Calmer: I think from the day to the maiden voyage, up until the first person called in and bought a kit to retro-fit a corn head to 15-inch rows was about six years. Then we had to make the molds for the poli, and you know, those kind of things.
The corn head of course, you know, there is no poli for 15-inch rows. And, so I'd done some measuring, and some old sewer pipe, you know, that we had dug up. And I got to measure, and I said, “You know, that's about the right width.” And so, we, we used the white PVC pipe, and we cut it in half and that was our first hoods that we used out there.
And so this farmer had to explain to him how to go to the local plumbing store and buy some sewer pipe to build his divider snouts, and so those things were kind of fun. So, the first year, I think we sold an upgrade kit, and then we advertised, and then the farm magazines of course were running some stories about it. And, that first year we built three, 16-row, 15-inch corn heads. And, luckily enough, I mean, one of them was green, one was red, and one was yellow. They all had the same parts but we had one for every combine and we took a picture out there that first year. That was pretty exciting, just to see them.
But, we were still struggling big time financially because of the money that we were pouring into molds, and, you know, having somebody manufacture some of these parts, and the labor, taking old beer boxes and cleaning them up, putting new parts in them, putting them on the corn head and machining them down. And, so that first couple of years we had a lot of man hours.
I remember going in the house, and we started like 6 a.m. and then I'd go in at 12and eat something, then lay down on the couch, take about a 30-minute nap, wake up, work through the afternoon. Everybody else had punched out and gone home. I'd go in the house, get something to eat, lay down, take a nap, and I'd wake up, come back up to the shed and be there till 10 p.m. trying to get things to, to come together.
Mike Lessiter: I've been out to your place a couple of times in the old dealership that you took over. What year would that have been that you moved out there?
Marion Calmer: That was 2005. We had done everything prior to that moment in the old farm shop. And it was kind of challenging because it, you know, the heated shop was, with concrete, was only 50x50. And, of course then you'd have all your tools, that are in there. We didn't even own a fork truck. We had the old loader tractor.
We would use that to stand the corn heads up when we worked on them, and then lay them back down. Then, we had the combin’ 'cause we didn't have room to put it in the shed. It just sat outside all summer and we'd come in, pick the heads up, and back out, and move them around, and we'd take them out and we'd run them, you know, do a 30-minute run-in to make sure we didn't have any oil leaks and those kind of things.
It was kind of a one-off build kind of a deal in the old shop. We weren't zoned for manufacturing. And, the building just wasn't, and so, I said, “We’ve got to find some place else.” And, actually was an old machinery dealership. I used to go up there and buy parts when I was in high school. And it had become available. We were so excited. We went up there, you know, and the thing is like 60x220.
And one end of it has offices, and the other, and a little warehouse area, and then it's got a little shop area. And gosh, it has air plumbed in the wall, you know, and it had heat and overhead doors that had electric hoist and then it had bathrooms in it, you know. And I was just like, “Wow, this is pretty nice. We don't have to go outside anymore. We actually have indoor plumbing,” you know.
That was an exciting moment when we took everything, combines, all the corn heads, all the tools, and we loaded them up and we, moved seven miles to where our current location is at today. So, that was pretty memorable.
Mike Lessiter: That made your commitment, that — you know, “We're going off the farm. There's no turning back.”
Marion Calmer: Yeah. This is serious stuff. Again, in order to purchase that place, first we, you know, we just didn't have any money. We were just nickel and diming it to stay together. The local banker said that... Well, they, they had these rural economic development loans. And he said they're low interest. We needed to borrow $100,000. And so, I went up there and I sat down with the lady. And, she said, “Well, you need a financial statement,” you know. And then, “What are you gonna build?” And, when, you know, repayment, how many years, and then she said, “Well, we'll need a business plan, so that we can take a look at that, and then we'll either approve or not approve your loan.”
“But, uh, what's this business plan thing?” I said, "I never had that when I was growing corn and beans and pigs.” She said, ”Well, that's where you're gonna tell us what your cost of manufacture is, what you're gonna sell it for, and what's your overhead, and how much money you're gonna make.” I'm like, “Oh, that sounds like a good idea,” you know.
I went home and I said, you know, I just sat there for hours. The paper was blank and I didn't know what to put on it. And I just started piecing it together and they approved the loan. It was slow, but that was where we started.
Mike Lessiter:, To tell a farmer or anyone who's listening to this what the operation looks like today in the physical facility —
Marion Calmer: Yeah.
Mike Lessiter: You had told me a story a few years ago about when things were real tough, and coming back from the Farm Progress show, and not certain there was gonna be another end of that. Can you take us there?
Marion Calmer: Yeah. '05. We had been down at the new facility for two years. The Farm Progress show was… And it rained, and it was a mud fest.
Mike Lessiter: I remember that one.
Marion Calmer: Oh, Lordy. And so, we loaded up everything and we came back from the Farm Progress show. And it was the last. At that time we were just doing a few events. And, came home and I harvested, and we finished building everything. And, we'd cashed everybody's check. And, we still owed a quarter of a million dollars in bills of stuff that we had ordered, and purchased. Now, some of it was in inventory, but you can't use inventory to pay bills.
That was probably the lowest point, and I harvested and of course, you know, corn prices hadn't taken off yet. So, the farm economy wasn't that great. And, uh, so, we went through fall, and then we got to be 60, and then we were 90 days out on some of the bills, and just trying to hopefully wait until somebody ordered something before the next growing season. And we had old seminar, and I could remember prior to the seminar, I was sitting at my desk and I just stared at the wall. You just become numb when you get to that point.
And I was like, “This is not how the story is supposed to end.” And mom and dad had already passed away. And, you know, we used all of the farms for leverage to get capital to build. So I put on a little seminar and as I walked out, one of the farmers walked up to me and he says, “Marion,” he says, “I saw you at the Farm Progress show. I've been following your narrow-row corn thing. I think you're onto something.”
And he said, “I wanna go to 15-inch corn next year.” I said, “That's awesome.” And he says, “I'm gonna need two corn heads.” I said, "That's really great.” And he said, “And I'm actually in the position,” he said, “I need a tax reduction before December 31st. So, I'm gonna write you a check for $100,000. I'll be back next summer and I'll pay you the balance and pick up the two heads.”
And I watched him write the check, and I'm just like, “Oh God, please don't let him stop,” you know. And he wrote out the check and he got his coat, and he went out the door, and I went in to my gal that does accounts payable and accounts receivable, and I said, “Look what I got.”
And she's like, “Yeah.” She grabbed her coat and so he was pulling out of the parking lot, and she was right behind him and he turned right to go back to Iowa, and she turned left to go to the bank.
That was the point, that was the closest that we ever came to not making it. Then we just slowly, you know, people started ordering stuff, and then the farm economy started to pick up. And, so then we started to feel a little better about it, you know, a little more cushion. And then of course we came across this problem of the residue build-up and not, you know, soil not decomposing the residue like it's supposed to, and so we'd start coming out with the BT chopper. And, it was very quickly accepted and then the sales took off immediately with that.
I can remember every year, as soon as harvest was over, and we'd cashed everybody's check that had bought stuff from us. And we were able to pay the bills and then, you know, didn't have any left. We got them all paid, you know.
Then I can remember the next year we only had a few bucks left over, you know, and so, then I gave some bonuses to the employees, to share that success, and then the corn market really took off. And, and then every year there'll just be a little more money left in the checking account when we got to the end of the season. So, you know, to start with $500 from grandma and $500 at the bank, and kind of struggle until I was 50 years old, and then to almost go broke, and then to watch it, and then the rocket shot to just go straight up, it's — I still pinch myself and believe, is it really true? Did it really happen to me? Am I really one of these guys that got to live the dream?
You gotta believe in the dream, but then to get to live it, you know, and then share it with the employees that I have, and my customers, and the farmer, and the feedback that we get. That's worth more than any amount of money to see them here at your conference, and they walk up to me and say, “Gosh, we bought your stuff a year ago. Best money we ever spent. And we've been having a problem forever. And we put your stuff on our corn head and now we don't have a big pile of trash in, in front of the auger, that we can't harvest on dry days, and we're getting better performance out of the head.”
“We're getting less butt shelling, and our residue is decomposing, and our no-till equipment works better. We used to struggle trying to get the cover crops to grow. And now we out your stalk rolls on, you know, and they say we just pull in with the drill and it's just a walk in the park.” And to hear that, and to see young farm families that were struggling and then we offer just a few pointers, and then they come back and say, “Guys, that helped,” and help them get kind of a business train of thought that says, you know, “We want you to make you money when you buy this stuff. I just don't wanna sell it to you and maybe the only one that gets a reward.
I said, "We wanna see you become successful. And I wanna see you get to enjoy your farming career, and your family, and your children." That's it, it's a whole cycle. It goes all the way around and I guess I was taught that you have far more out of life by giving than you ever will by taking.
The on-farm research that people have come up to me, and said, “Yeah, you know, that information is priceless.” And, you know, I said, “Well, you know, I've just enjoyed doing it and sharing it with other people, and don't expect any reward out of it, just something we wanna help that next generation.” And in agriculture we're such a small portion of the planet. But we're responsible to feed the planet. And, simultaneously, protect the environment. You know, not only protecting the soil, but making sure that we have clean drinking water. And, you know, that's a big one. I worked on the hypoxia problem back in the middle '90s. We have those two challenges. And then, number three is to be able to handle the economic challenges of high-priced grain and now low-priced grain with high input cost.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. So, we go back to that, that era you were talking about, coming back from Amang, Iowa, and before that order came in. Would that have been the darkest that you had to endure?
Marion Calmer: That was the pure bottom right there. 'Cause, the thing that was... It was, number one, the financial worries was one of them. But, it was just, you felt, I felt frozen in time because it consumed 90% of my mental capacity during the day because that was the biggest fear. And, then you just start to shut down and so your ability to make good decisions, and just a big chain of events that rolls in their own direction.
I tell people nowadays. I said, “For me personally, I don't think that I'll be defined by my successes, but for me personally, I'm defined by my ability to overcome the obstacles that it took to get where I am today.” It builds character. And the obstacles, ‘cause you just don’t see them on the radar. All you're looking at is that big pie in the sky that says, you know, sales and numbers and being able to do something. And, you don't realize all the little obstacles that come along. And, luckily we've been able to overcome those.
Mike Lessiter: It's interesting that in this series, almost to a man, almost to every conversation, there are some really dark times and there's some legal problems with some, and just some that they didn't think there was gonna be any way out, and you wish you don't have to go through those times, but you don't end up in the chair you're sitting in today — unless you do.
Marion Calmer: Yeah, you know I read the little book about Mr. John Deere, the blacksmith shop and his days of financially not being able to pay his bills, and some of those kind of things. And, you know, Howard Martin, I'd talked to him. And, I knew that he went through those eras. And, I don't think there's one of us that didn't. And, in conversations with Greg Sauder, you know, him and his wife, they're raising pigs and in their early days. And, there isn't one of us that, you know, didn't go through that. But it makes you stronger. It makes you appreciate it, and makes you respect it.
It's just not a given as you wake up every day. A philosophy that we live on is that we treat people the way we'd like to be treated. And I think that's what comes across. It's a thing called tone of the top. And so, I teach that to the people at work around me, and I treat them that way. And, then it allows my people over the phone to treat farmers that way when they call customer service, you know, and say, “Yep. Uh, stalk roll broke, we stripped a bolt out, or something.” “I've been there, done that. We're just gonna send you another stalk roll." “Oh, wow. You know, I never had anybody do that before, you know.”
Or we offer that 100% money-back guarantee. “Oh, gosh, never heard anybody doing that."” Or, they, they come across and say, “Well, I got your installation manual and Marion's cell phone number's right on the installation manual.” They said, “Well, we've never seen this.” That's kind of unusual. And I said, "Well, if you're having issues, I wanna be right there, whether it's a normal, or whether it's 8 p.m., they just got out of the combine, or whether it's on a Saturday or Sunday. I said, “We know what it's like. Harvest is 24/7 when the crops are ready to go. And we wanna be there to help them through that harvest.”
Mike Lessiter: So, we talked a little about the worst day. What was the best day you've had in the business? What comes to mind?
Marion Calmer: Oh, boy, that’s a pretty interesting question. Well, I would tell you one of the best days of my life was when my daughter was born. You know, it changes your attitude toward everything. And, watching her develop and, take an interest in agriculture and riding with dad in the combine, and sitting, you know... I remember, I have a red combine and it's got a little valley there in front of the floor mat and in front of the steering wheel. Between the windshield and the steering wheel there's a little area. And when she was little, she'd come ride in the combine. She'd sit down there and it'd be her little finger prints on the windshield.
And she'd just sit through all day watching the corn head run, and then I remember her sitting in my lap and she said, “I wanna drive. Me drive.” Uh, okay, and so, we pulled in with the 15-inch corn head and this was one of the early years. She's just sitting there in my lap. And of course, it's pretty tough even for a grown adult to guide it down the road. But that was a highlight, having her drive the combine, my invention, a corn head. And, so anyway, I kind of reached down underneath and I had a hold at the bottom of the steering wheel. And that, so I was kind of guiding it. And she was up there like this, thinking she's in control. And she's driving, and she looks down and she saw that I had a hold to the bottom of the steering wheel. She slapped my hand. She goes, “Me drive. Me drive.”
When she got into high school, and I told her, “Well, if you're interested in Ag, I wanna rent you 40 acres of beans and you'll get the feel of what it's like to grow crop.” And I said, “But you have to be there when we plant it. You have to drive the tractor and you have to run all the computers, auto steer.” And it was amazing to watch her get in the cab. She'd run the tractor before, but to see her take control, that was a great moment.
Watching her and then, you know, so we do the 50/50 thing with her. When it came time to buy a car, you know, I said, “You know, if you've made a few hundred bucks, we'll buy, you know, I'll match it and if you get 500 bucks, we'll buy a $1,000 car.”
Those are exciting moments to have her go along with when we pick out vehicles and, and those kind of things. So, anyway, that first year we were looking for a car for her. And, things were going pretty good with it, the company. And I said, “Well, you're gonna have to decide when you wanna sell the beans.” And, “Oh, okay.”
So, anyway, she kind of went off to school. She's a cheerleader. She's in bands, you know, and extracurricular, really busy, and came springtime. And I said, “Well, we're getting ready to plant the next crop.” I said, “You know, you, kind of need to pay the input cost, and things like that.” And she goes, “Oh. Well, I probably ought to sell the beans.” And I said, “Well, you probably should, to generate some cash.”Sure enough, she nails it, $14, $20 a bushel, first crop. And she still smiles about it today. And, she was not able to do that every year, but that first year, to watch her come along in the Ag industry and come to the conferences. I brought her a number of times to the conferences, taken her to the trade shows, you know, and have her ride in the tractor and combine, make her be involved.
If there's one thing now at my age is that, now that we're established, and I look to the future and where is the company gonna go from here, and all of the valuable employees that I have, and the vendors. You know, we treat them just like family as well, because without them building good stalk rolls, I got nothing, and, the customers, the sales people, and all that. And we realize that at my company, that changing of the guard is going to take place. I am happy. I am excited and cautiously optimistic. My daughter definitely has a true interest. And I'm trying to teach her to think and as best stated by Jean Pierre Rousseau, the CEO of FIAT and Case for several years. He said, “A CEO, it's not my job to run computers. It's my job to hire people to run computers.”
So, I'm trying to teach that to my daughter. And I try to live that every day as I'm not there to do all the work anymore. My job is to hire the right people, train them, motivate them, and give them constructive criticism, and commend them on the things that they do well, and they, they are what we're all about. And trying to teach her that the people, being successful, it's all about being able to manage people and having the right people in the right place. So, she's in Ag business management at the University of Illinois, looks to work at a major company for maybe five years or so, and then come back and work her into the operation. So, I'm anxious to start turning over that responsibility to the next group that will continue to run our company as we move on.
I don't know that I'm out to conquer the world. We've had that opportunity of building a bunch. So, I guess my statement would be, we're more focused on quality than we are quantity, probably. That's kind of where we're at. We're still a small player, but we're a specialty market. It's where we're at.
Mike Lessiter: One of the things I wanted to ask you about, you entered a segment where you were blazing the trail. You weren’t coming in with a product that could be bolted onto something. Tell me about that — by itself is pretty risky. You were making a name with a paradigm shift, right?
Marion Calmer: We were trying to change people's thinking. And, people would come up and say, you know, “I've hit a wall. I've gone as far as I can with yield. And, I need to... What's the next step? What's the next key that unlocks the next 10, 20 bushel an acre?” And, so, you know, I spent a lot of time on the phone with Ag editors, and felt privileged that you folks would allow me to talk at this conference and discuss those subjects.
I gotta tell you that, you know, yesterday I talked about narrow-row corn in one of my little classrooms. And I looked at the size of the audience, and I'm like, “Man, this is unbelievable.” I mean, the room was almost full. And I can remember, you know, 15 years ago, and Frank allowing me to talk. And I had a classroom session, I think there was 10 or 15 people that came to listen to me talk about narrow-row corn. And so, we're getting there. And, people are starting to understand, you know, the logistics of corn and beans with the biology and that narrow-row, the solid seeded concept is, is actually the future, to protect the soil, the water, and at the same time, give us another little niche on profitability, you know, that we... The costs are still the same. We're just gonna grow higher yields.
Mike Lessiter: You know, we're in an industry where there's just great technical mechanical minds on the farm adjusting things all the time to their operation. I imagine there is a lot of farmers out there who see the success of you and the others that we mentioned here and that kind of dream of that possibility. And the question for you is, you know, being able to make the step from the inventive mind to the manufacturing and distribution side, what are the things that you, maybe didn't realize when you were on the precipice, that you now know and can pass on?
Marion Calmer: Well, in the early days, we were just anxious to tell the story. And, one of those moments, the one that comes to mind is, we were at Louisville, about 10 to 12 years ago. It would have been in '05, '06, '07 era. And, we're setting up our booth. And, of course I still have the farmer mentality and the guy that's helping me is a farmer, you know.
And, so we're setting there, setting it up, getting all ready just to tell the story. And so, the previous five years that we had been at the National Farm Machinery show, we were off in a corner and people'd come by and they'd look at our posters and we'd tell them the story, and they'd walk on.
So, we're setting up down here in Louisville, National Farm Machinery show, and over the loud speaker a lady announced this to, “Today we have a workshop for the exhibitors in room 102. And today's topic is Turning Leads into Sales.” And I stopped what I was doing, and I looked up at the other farmer that was there, and I said, “You know now, that's a hell of a concept.”
And we both started laughing, and we still laugh about it today. I said, “I just never thought about, you know, trying to ask them to buy something. We just tell the story, hand them a brochure, and they move on.” And, we kind of laughed about it. So, we got out some scratch paper, and so somebody'd come by and they were pretty interested and say, “Hey, you know, we'd like to sell this to you.” And if I could jot your name down, when we get the inventory built up, we'd like to call you back and see if you'd be interested.” They said, “Oh, that, that's great.”
So then we'd have a few leads. So that summer, we had some people we could call. It wasn't just the ads in the back of a farm magazines. We actually had some personal contacts. We started calling those numbers and said, “Yep, I wanna get your stuff, and we'll send you a check,” and we'd box it up and ship it out. I was telling the banker about that. He sat there and he looked at me and he said, “You know, if they'd wanna make a deposit o rgive you a credit card number of something like that, we'd even borrow you money so you could build the inventory ahead of time, and not have to wait…”
Anyway, that was another moment, you know, where we were able to generate a little bit of cash, operating. 'Cause that's one of the things, you know, for the, the guys that try to do it themselves. You, you just don't have the extra operating capital 'cause you've got it all tied up in production Ag. You know, unless you come from a farm that's, you know, a lot of generations and a lot of the percentage of land ownership is very high. They have a lot of extra working capital. I wasn't in that position. And, uh, so we had to kind of, kind of make a little bit, and then we'd build some inventory and sell it, and then we'd make a little in. So, it was slow increments. The advertising side of things was kind of interesting 'cause people said, “Well, it's not real polished language that you use in your ads.” And I said, “Well, it's one farmer talking to another one.”
And then people would come up and say, “I read your ad. I went right down through it and yep, got that problem, got that problem. I know what you're talking about. And here's the solution, and I'm in.” I tell everybody. I think sometimes the crudeness proved that we were real farmers helping other farmers. So, we liked to claim the fame that we're farmer invented, farmer tested, and farmer proven.
So, those are some of the things that, I think if you've got a really good idea, it's pretty easy to communicate that to another farmer, and that farmers like to visit with other farmers, when it comes time to buy a piece of machinery, or make a change.
Mike Lessiter: If you look out and, you know, talk about short line equipment manufacturing in general, we, is, is it getting too difficult to have the next round of Calmer's do what you did? Is it-
Marion Calmer: Interesting point. As we look at into the future, will it be harder or easier for new startup companies, innovators, out of that think tank to sprout up? And it's like a new hybrid of corn, or something, will the next generation?
I honestly think it's getting a little easier, because with technology, we're actually creating issues that we never used to have, and there's always room for solutions. And the best innovation always starts right at the farm level. The big companies are so concentrated on, you know, producing, manufacturing, and getting it out to the customer that they maybe don't have the time to spend at the farm level. Some of the chat rooms, a lot of the guys talk about what they hear, and, you know, and so somebody posts a question. And you know, “Does anybody have a problem with this?” And it's pretty easy to find it, identify the problem that we're seeing in agriculture. So, once you identify the problem, then we need somebody to step up and come up with a solution. And so, I think that the door, because the companies are further away from the actual farm level than they used to be, and the dealers, there's less dealers, you know, and there's less of that. Even though communication is easier today than it used to be with so much innovation, with all of the electronics, and all of the gadgetry that we sometimes overlook the basics.
It's like playing football. You know, if you don't get the fundamentals right, of blocking and developing the whole, the running back is never gonna become a star. And, I think we're seeing that now in agriculture, that a lot of the fundamentals just get overlooked. And, you come back with some of the simplest... You know, the people, they look at my stalk roll and they say, “Oh, that's so simple. Why didn't I think of that?” You know? And sometimes we get so high tech that we just overlook the obvious.
Mike Lessiter: Who would you consider top couple mentors, personally, what was it that they passed onto you?
Marion Calmer: Well, obviously, Jon Kinzenbaw. When I visited with him, he was very encouraging. You know, and he said, “You can do it.” He felt confident. You know, and to, and then from there, you know, I got to meet Eugene Keeton, and spend time at his home and out to supper with him, and out at the farm, and of course his neighbors, Howard Martin. I get to look at those two guys and they told me about how the concept came into their mind and I tell people some of that. You know, I wake up at 2 a.m. and I could grab a piece of scratch paper and I draw a diagram and I go back to sleep, and those kinds of things. And, and so, just seeing and listening to those guys go through the struggles, whether it'd be lawsuits and patent infringement, which thank God I haven't had to go through any of those.
But, watching those guys go through it and be successful. I said, “Well, if they can do it, I can do it.” And Greg Sauder and I in the early days, I can remember meeting him and, he was in the corner of the Farm Progress show, had a little tent. His wife and his kids were in there. And they had tables and they just had the plastic Keeton seed firmers around the outside, and got to meet him and I can remember the first day I was at the Farm Progress show, we had a little tent.
And we were in the back side of the Farm Progress show, and watching Greg, you know, take off and do it. And, I think just knowing that other farmers had done it, and they had been successful, and they had good reputations, I said, you know, if they can do it, I can do it as well. Those guys were very encouraging. Ray Rawson was another one that was very encouraging. And I'm sure there's others that I'm probably forgetting to mention. But I've had the privilege of knowing a lot of the farmer inventor guys that have gone from playing around in the back of the machine shed, to being a household name in production agriculture.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. There's someone watching you and listening to this right now who's finding that encouragement inspiration in the future. This is kind of a maybe more a personal question, but, so I'm three years old when dad gets No-Till Farmer. So we have No-Till Farmer all over the house, and everything, so I've seen... You and my dad must have met fairly early in his publishing career on this. So, knew of you before I came around later, tell me about first time you and Frank got together in your early days.
Marion Calmer: Well, it was a phone call. I was on the Monsanto program, that first year so I wasn't able to come to, to your conference. And, and you know what, your, your dad's success story of starting back in the '70s and seeing the vision that no-till farming should be the future, and wanting to spread that story from one farmer's trials and successes and then publicize that so other people could read it and learn, then to go on and start the conference, you know, and it's still today — I tell everybody. I say it's the Super Bowl of Ag conferences.
And to watch your dad put that together and the thinking process that goes in that, and being able to attract top speakers from throughout the world to come to this and talk. And so, I remember we had started the research farm, but I hadn't invented anything yet and hadn't built anything. And, I was dreaming about people coming for tours, you know, and throwing $25 or $50 to come for a tour and see all the research. I thought that we would be able to make a little money that way. So, I had called him and visited with him a little bit about, you know, “Here's some of the research I've done.” And, so anyway, he was talking to one of my employees, and I kept hearing him say, “Well, Marion's busy and he doesn't have time to talk.” And then a little bit later, he's like, “Oh, Marion's busy." I said, “Oh, give me the phone.”.
And I picked up the phone. I said, “This is Marion.” And he says, “This is Frank Lessiter,” and he said, “Would you like to come and speak at my conference?” And I said, “Well, I'd be honored.” And he said, “Well, it'd be next January be in St. Louis. And it'd be at the Adams Mark. Your topic,” and I visited with him and he said, “We need something to occupy their time while they're registering in the morning. And then the conference will actually open at 1 p.m. We want you to do the early bird session.” He said, “This is new. Nobody's ever done it before. You've got from 10 p.m. until 12 p.m. I want your topic to be no-till versus the weather.” We'd just come off the floods of 1993.
I was doing research on tillage and no-till, and row spacings. He'd seen my little booklets and he was pretty excited about it. I said, “You know what, that'd be great.” And so I had to start taking a bunch in that time 35-millimeter slides, and. I can remember at the Adams Mark and I'm walking around and I'd seen his picture, you know, in the magazine. I saw him in the hall. I walked up to him. I said, “Hi. I'm Marion Calmer.” And he goes, “God, you're, you're a lot younger that I thought you'd be.” I said, "Well, I was just in my mid 30s.” H said, “You're probably one of the younger speakers that we got on the program.”
I said, “Well, I wanna see the room.” And he goes, “Really?” And I say, “ I wanna see the stadium of the Super Bowl." And he goes, “Really?” And I said, “Yeah, this is a biggie for me. It'll be the biggest audience I've ever talked to. It's kind of, you've got to have your game face on, you gotta, it's a one and done. You got a one shot thing. You're either on target or you, you're not.” And uh, so we had 35-millimeter slides and the projector was in the back. And the room was dark. And, the, the lens jumped out. And the focus wasn't working, you know. And I'm up there in front of a 600, 800 people. And your dad just said, “Oh, struggle through” And he takes it off to the back of the room.
I'm up there trying to jibber jabber, and then they finally got it going again. But I did really well and your dad walked up as soon as I was done and he said, "”ou did a nice job." And he said, "In fact," he said, “We don't normally have people back, I'm gonna make an exception. We'd like you to come speak at next year's conference.”
And so, it's always been an honor to come here. But your dad and I, we have very similar kind of personalities. The jokester, comedian, and not only do we wanna educate but we wanna entertain.Every year we get a little better at jabbing each other back and forth. So it’s a great friendship; I think it’s gone both ways.
It's an honor to come back every year. And I still get nervous every year when I go up on stage and, whatever. Whatever I can do to help the farmers. You'll get far more out of life and you'll be a lot happier if you spend it giving than you ever will by taking. And that's one of the great things at this conference. Everybody's willing to share the information. And it's something unique about production agriculture, that you won't see in other industries.
We're willing to stand there with our even competitors, that might be a neighbor, and share our latest and greatest secrets on how to grow a better crop. It is through that exchange of information that makes the American farmer second to none. And our ability to move and increase production, it just comes from that learning of other farmers, or the, the farmer to farmer thing that you folks promote is the best platform that anybody could ever ask for to move the industry in the right direction.
Mike Lessiter: Just one, one other thing that just came to mind while we were talking about the friendships and the long history you've had with our staff, you know, Frank Darrell, our relationship, you know, the whole way around.
Marion Calmer: Yeah.
Mike Lessiter: Something that is unique is how you strike me as very loyal. Friendships, they mean a lot. They're permanent. And you know, I look at guys like the farmers that you bring along to work on your… Tell, tell us about that a little bit.
Marion Calmer: Yeah. The farmers that I've met along the way, that help us, either with suggestions on what we can do to make it better, or the guys that actually work the trade shows. There's one guy that I met here at the conference. His name is Allen Berry. Allen's from Navoo. And, again, Christian, great family man, generations of farming in his area, and he lives by the same beliefs that I do.
So I would see him at the conferences and he called and wanted me to come down talk to his farmers down there in the Navoo area, western Illinois. Got to know him a little bit better. Still would see him at the, at the conferences, and then we got to the point where we were gonna go to the Farm Progress show for the first time.
And I'm like, “I've gotta have people in my booth to answer questions. And I want it to be farmers.” And, I had one other neighbor that was willing to go with me and I picked up the phone and I called Allen, and I said, “You know, I don't have a lot of money to pay you, but I will cover your hotel and your meals. I'd be honored if you'd come to the Farm Progress show and help me talk about my products and stuff like that.”
Allen's been just a great one. So from there we'd just pick up more and more guys that call in on the phone. So, we welcome any of the farmers that enjoy that, being at a trade show, and talking about, farm machinery. We welcome people that call us on the phone and say, “Hey, I'd like to help you work trade shows.” 'Cause I am the same way when I'm walking at the Farm Progress show, Louisville, National Farm Machinery. If I can walk into a booth and there's a farmer standing there that's used it, and endorses it, you know, I'm pretty confident that I'm gonna be able to go home and have those same kinds of results. We have that in our front office. We have that on the manufacturing floor. And we're a rural community and we like farm people to help other farm people. It's been great. We met a lot of, a lot of people at this conference, that have helped move us down the line as we go. So, a special thanks to all of the No-Till Farmer people. You're a great bunch. And you're to be commended — I was just telling Darrel that I can see the changing of the guard, that those of us that were in this conference from the beginning, and Frank as well, and we learned things that we taught to the younger generation. And now, we're kind of starting to move on.
And, the younger generation is starting to talk about cover crops, and biology and all that, and, and all of the innovation with the electronics in the cab. And that's a whole new group that we think, and the new speakers that you're hearing, that'll be for the next 25 years, will be another group of individuals that'll help drive. And I always tell everybody. At this conference, I think it's where the newest innovation that you'll hear about it at this conference, and then three to four years later it just becomes common practice in the country.
I can honestly tell you that I never dreamed that I would be where I am today. It's an honor and a pleasure to work with the Ag industry, and it's also been an honor and a pleasure to be with the Lessiter people, and the No-Till Conference. And I can honestly tell you, I would not be where I am today if it wasn't for your support, and the opportunities that you've given me to stand up in front of a group of people, and talk about what we're doing. And that's allowed us to increase our confidence that, that the people that buy stuff from us, that we're real farmers and that we have something of value to those people. So, it's a great honor and, I'm honored that I got to be part of this interview.